Easter in 1900 used traditions of past, pointed way to future

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.

Recently I had a brief conversation with one of our local clergyman on the subject of Easter and its increasingly secular quality. The reverend gentleman made the excellent suggestion that this might be a topic for one of my columns.

I decided to see what I could dig up on Easter exactly 100 years ago, as I did a few months ago with Christmas.


With few exceptions, Good Friday, which fell on April 13 in 1900, was a day of sombre quietness, made all the more so by dull, cool weather.

With the doors locked on all stores, factories and bar rooms, streets were virtually deserted in the towns and villages of Wellington. Only the railways operated, maintaining regular passenger train schedules. Hundreds of people took advantage of the day off work to travel home or to visit friends and relatives, swelling passenger loads to several times their usual volumes, and prompting the railways to add extra coaches.

Indeed, it is possible that Easter travellers outnumbered those at Christmas in 1900. The Fergus News Record published a column and a half of social notices, listing oldtime residents who had come home, or “Fergusites” who had travelled to other towns in southern Ontario.

A good portion of the sojourners were teachers, taking advantage of the week-long Easter school holiday to return home or visit friends and relatives elsewhere.

Unlike the Christmas season, there were no special Easter entertainments. The visitors appear to have spent their time quietly in the homes of their hosts.

Devout Christians considered Good Friday to be the holiest day of the year. Few people dared to break the ambiance of brooding piety, preferring to spend at least some of the day in personal prayer or quiet contemplation.

Few, if any, of the churches scheduled special services on Good Friday.

For Easter Sunday, though, the churches put up decorations and arrangements of flowers for their regular morning and evening services, and the choirs and organists performed music appropriate for Easter, in many cases after extra practice sessions. Wherever possible, the churches arranged for a guest minister to deliver the sermon.

The Easter floral arrangements at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Mount Forest, both on Easter Sunday and the preceding Palm Sunday, attracted particular attention. The  Mount Forest Methodists heard guest sermons from the Rev. Dr. Henderson of Toronto, while the town’s Presbyterians absorbed an Easter sermon on the subject of a major famine in India.

Church services in other towns were similar in nature. Some of the sermons dwelt on the subject of the South African War, which was not going as well as advocates of the British Empire would have liked. A handful of Wellington County young men were on their way to South Africa, and there was apprehension that many more would follow.

Unlike Christmas, few churches offered seasonal musical evenings, performances or social events. One of the exceptions was the St. James Anglican Church in Rothsay. On Easter Monday the congregation held a box lunch and social evening at the parsonage. But such Easter events were uncommon in 1900.

Virtually no one risked outraging pious neighbours by working on Good Friday, but there were exceptions.  Richard McClelland on the 4th Concession of West Garafraxa raised a barn that day.

The railways ran regular passenger schedules on Good Friday, as they seem to have done since they started running, but there were complaints about freight trains. Devout religious people did not consider them necessary.

The Grand Trunk narrowly avoided a major wreck with a southbound freight train at Fergus on the afternoon of Good Friday. Crew members by chance noticed that a beam under a refrigerator car was broken. They spent a couple of hours chaining it into place. The car could easily have derailed the train. To some minds, this was a divine warning to those who would desecrate the holy day.

The economy in 1900 was booming, though, and the railway was anxious to move its freight before it piled up at stations.

Local prosperity, plus the emigration of a large number of young men to Manitoba in 1899, some with families, resulted in a local shortage of labour, a situation made even worse by enlistments as a result of the South African war.

At Christmas 1900, there were more than a dozen weddings in Wellington. I was able to find only one for Easter that year: the marriage of Zada Johnston and John G. Lowe at Mount Forest the afternoon before Good Friday.

Miss Johnston, a former Mount Forest resident, had moved to Toronto; she decided to have the wedding in Mount Forest so that her friends and relatives could attend. After a salutary supper, the newlyweds returned to Toronto by the evening train.

Easter lagged far behind Christmas in acquiring a commercialized and secular aspect. Very few stores in 1900 even mentioned Easter in their advertising. Of those that did, the most common were the milliners, who used Easter to present their spring hats to the public.

Fred Templin of Fergus was the only grocer in the county to offer special Easter goods. He broke ranks with his St. Andrew Street brethren and featured a list of Easter luxuries, all made possible by the miracle of refrigerated (and heated if necessary) railway cars.

Fresh fruit and vegetables from California and Florida have been a commonplace for more than 50 years, but in 1900 they were rare and novel luxury items.

The railways began running refrigerator cars and building ice houses in 1891 and 1892, initially to deliver meat products from the American midwest to Atlantic ports. The Grand Trunk began refrigerator car service in Wellington County in 1897, largely to transport meat and dairy products from the smaller centres.

If not the first, Fred Templin was certainly one of the earliest grocers using this service to import fresh off-season produce into Wellington County.

The Saturday after Good Friday in 1900 could not have provided a greater contrast in activity. Traffic in the form of wagons, carriages and pedestrians choked the main streets of all the towns in the county. Some of this may have been pent-up residual energy from the day before, but the weather had a lot to do with it.

In Fergus, for example, passage on St. Andrew and St. David Streets was all but impossible at times due to the congestion. The roads in the townships had dried up during the previous week, allowing farmers to get into town without miring their equipage to the axles in mud. Many had not been shopping for three or four weeks, while melting snow and waterlogged roads made passage all but impossible.

For everyone it was a time to encounter old friends, including visitors to town, on the streets and in the stores. Customers packed the stores and hotel bar rooms until late in the evening.

The next morning everyone woke to another day of solemnity and Easter church services. This wild swinging in the tone of the 1900 Easter season, from the brooding solemnity of Good Friday, to the boisterous bustle of the Saturday crowds, and back again to the strict Sabbath observance of Easter Sunday, is what stands out most prominently a century later.

Although virtually everyone was a regular church-goer in 1900, organized religion played a smaller part in the lives of people in 1900 than it had in 1870. Its place would diminish a great deal more in the generation immediately to come. The duality of Easter in 1900 points both backwards and forwards.

As in 1900, many Wellington County residents will travel this Easter, or welcome guests. A much smaller proportion will attend a church service, most in the very buildings whose walls resonated with the words of an Easter sermon 100 years ago.

My clergyman friend didn’t say whether he would consider the shifting nature of spiritual values over the past century as a theme for his sermon, but it is a question we all can ponder, whether or not we are sitting in a church pew on Easter Sunday.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on April 14, 2000.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015