Boy’s diary from 1890s provides portrait of small-town life

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

A couple of weeks ago, Elysia DeLaurentis at the Wellington County Museum and Archives showed me a recent donation to the collection. It is a diary kept by a schoolboy in Elora during the 1890s.

The author was John R. Harris, who was born on Dec. 16, 1883. He began his diary in January 1895, a few weeks after his 11th birthday.

His father, John Harris, was a skilled machinist. Consequently, the family was a little better off than most, and smaller than the typical family. Young John R. had only one sibling, Frank, born in 1888.

The diary does not contain entries for every day, and there are some very long gaps in it. Nevertheless, it gives a picture of everyday small-town life in the 1890s, as seen through the eyes of a schoolboy. Much of it deals with his playmates and with his relatives. Both sets of grandparents lived in Elora. His maternal grandfather, Alex Smart, had been in the village since the 1850s.

These are some of the entries for the first year, with explanatory comments to put the material in its context.

Jan. 25: Lovely day. Frank has been home with a cold for some time. He went to Grandma Harris’s this forenoon. I started to school this afternoon. We had exams in writing and drawing.

Jan. 31: Big fire at Excelsior. We had a sleigh ride to Fergus supper and concert today. I sang.

[Excelsior refers to a flax mill operation jointly owned by banker James Archibald and furniture maker John Mundell, who used the flax fibre as packing material for shipping his furniture. The plant, located on the south side of the Grand River between the two bridges in Elora, was totally destroyed, with a loss of $4,000.]

Feb. 2: Frank is 7 years old today. Ha! Ha! Frank got a pencil sharpener and $5 for birthday presents.

Feb. 4: I was at school. So was Frank. I was twelfth in my class. Frank 17.

Feb. 8: I sang at Chalmers Church.

March 2: I was 1st in my class.

March 16: This is horse show day. Frank and I were at the show. Poor show.

[The Elora Horse Show was a major event in Elora, observed as a public holiday. The event survived into the 1930s.]

May 1: Had to give fees to try entrance today.

[Students had to pass provincial examinations to be admitted to high school, and a fee was charged to write them.]

May 4: Lovely day. Jim Ferguson, Raddie McCrae, Laurie Buchan, Frank and I went to Haig’s Creek. Sid and Fred Beam were going but were called back. Frank caught one fish and I caught eight or nine. We got peacock feathers at Haigs. We took dinner and supper with us. The Forresters and Mike Carter were there. So were Billy and Jim Aitcheson. We got home about four or half past. Got pineapple, lettuce and new hats tonight. Got a new suit a few weeks ago. So did Frank.

[Haig’s Creek today is better known as Swan Creek. A tributary of the Grand, it crosses Wellington Road 7 south of Elora, at the bottom of the first hill. The Haig house is the abandoned stone house, reputedly haunted, to the west of the highway.]

May 8: Got our reports for April. I am first. Frank is 18th, but he was away for most of the month.

May 10: Grand concert tonight. Kate Halley recited. Mrs. Dr. Robertson, Mrs. F. Sheppard, Miss Drainie and Mrs Ed Davis each gave solos. Then there was the Grand Cantata. Father and Aunty Mary each sang solos in it. The Cantata was The Wreck of the Hesperus. Longfellow. Music by Anderton. Miss McGregor was up for it and she got the music for them from people in Galt. They had an orchestra. The concert was fine. Got home at 10:45.

[This performance, at the Elora Armoury, now the LCBO outlet, was a highlight in Elora’s 19th century tradition of vocal music. The performers included the best amateurs in Elora. Mrs. Robertson was the future mother-in-law of Dr. Frederick Banting, the discoverer of insulin. The Cantata was a popular piece of the time, a musical adaptation of the Longfellow poem for chorus and orchestra by Thomas Anderton, a popular light composer of the period but virtually forgotten today. It is interesting how the scores used in the performances were passed around from group to group.]

May 24: Lovely day. Auntie Maggie, Wilbur, Arty and the baby were up. I got firecrackers. Father, Wilbur, Frank and I went fishing down behind the foundry. Caught 7 or 8 fish. Frank and I were at Beams after. Aunt Maggie left. We had a good time. We were over to see Uncle John Smart tonight. He came on the 8 train.

[The Smarts, were his mother’s family. Wilbur was a telegrapher for the railway.]

June 5: Got our reports. I am first. Frank is 7th.

June 9: Have been sick all week.

June 27: Started entrance exams. Had grammar, geography, composition and diction today.

June 28: Still at exams. Had arithmetic, drawing, history and reading today.

June 29: Had literature, writing and physiology.

July 1: Lovely day. Uncle John Smart, who has been home with a torn muscle in his arm, went away today. We had a picnic down the rocks.

[Dominion Day fell on a Monday in 1895. There was no special celebration in Elora that year, but many people spent the holidays in the gorge.]

July 2: Frank and I down at The Cove wading when the fire bell rang. We hurried to the foundry but it was just an underwriter testing the speed of the engine. We went back. The Robertsons were down at The Cove with Elysiah Burns, Nellie Herne and the two girls from Crawford. They are “fresh air children” from Toronto. Johnny Grills and Jennie Allan were there too. Fred and Mollie Jacob came down also. Robertsons invited Frank Jacobs and Frank and I to tea. Fred and I had fun with Nellie.

[This was a rather elite group of Elora people. The Robertsons had a reputation then as snobs. The Burns and Jacob children were offspring of lawyers. Fred Jacob became a drama critic in Toronto, and wrote a novel about his Elora childhood, Day Before Yesterday, in the 1920s. The testing of fire response time resulted from the Excelsior fire in January, when the firefighters had difficulty in mounting their attack on the blaze. The fire insurance companies threatened a massive hike in Elora insurance rates unless the village could prove the situation was rectified. The Fresh Air Children were beneficiaries of a Toronto charity that sent poor inner city children to small towns and farms for a couple of weeks each summer.]

July 3: Lovely day. Mother and Dr. Nairn were down at Keith’s (George) for tea. Frank and I were at Grandma Smarts for tea.

July 31: I have been at Teeswater. Went there right before the 12th. Stayed at Harriston at Forbes that night. I saw 1,200 pounds of meat roasting for the twelfth. On the twelfth we saw 25 or 30 lodges of Orangemen come off the train. I went after dinner to Teeswater. We played croquet, had a picnic, had great times. Came home the 28th. There was a mission band concert of our church the day I came home.

[The trip to Teeswater, apparently to stay with relatives or friends, required a change of trains at Harriston. The Grand Trunk train from Elora arrived in Harriston about 9:30pm, long after the Canadian Pacific train to Teeswater had departed requiring the stop-over in Harriston. The Orange celebration in Harriston attracted about 2,000 people that year.]

There is a large gap here in the diary, and it does not resume until Oct. 5, when John R., with his brother and mother, take a trip to Chicago. He seems to have briefly lost interest in it, and consequently he left no record of his experience of the first days of high school.

When he resumed writing, he used a fountain pen, rather than the straight pen he used earlier in the year.

With the new writing instrument, his penmanship improved considerably.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on July 25, 2003.

Thorning Revisited