Elora boy’s diary describes 1895 trip to Chicago

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.

(Note: Like last week, this column focuses on some of the 1895 diary of John R. Harris, an 11-year-old from Elora. Comments about the diary are in parenthesis.)

John Harris stopped making entries in his diary at the end of July 1895, following a trip to Teeswater. A clever boy, he began high school in September 1895, but took some time off in October for a trip with his mother and younger brother Frank to Chicago, when he began making regular entries again.

Oct. 5: Got my books home from school in the morning. Mother, Frank and I started for Chicago this afternoon. Mrs. McKeown went to Port Huron with us. We got our trunks examined there too. We met two awfully nice girls on the train. They were from Guelph, the Steltons.

[The Harris family took the afternoon Grand Trunk train to Guelph, where they caught a through train to Chicago, which passed through the tunnel between Sarnia and Port Huron.]

Oct. 6: Woke up on the train. Train was cold through the night. We thought we were near Chicago when we were 90 miles from it. Got to Chicago about 11am. Polly met us. We took the elevated cars home to Aunt Jennie’s. Alice and little Frank were there. We went and met Frances and John at school.

We saw Aunty Jenny, Wilbur and Edna at night. They were all glad to see us. We took a walk out after tea and Oh! The houses – slick.

[These people were relatives of John’s mother’s family, the Smarts. Some had formerly lived in Elora. Much of Chicago was then fairly new: the Great Fire had destroyed much of the city only 24 years earlier, and the better areas had been rebuilt substantially.]

Oct. 7: Alice and Francie went to sewing school this morning. After that we went to Lincoln Park. We took the cable. We had our lunch, sardine sandwiches and grapes. There were animals, wapiti, bisons, goats, mountain lions, prairie dogs, opossums, etc. Then we went to the conservatory, but it was too hot. I was sick.

[This was a Saturday, and John’s cousins took their sewing classes at a private school of some sort. The reference to “cable” is to a cable car. Chicago then had several such lines (as did many other cities), though cable cars are now connected in the public mind only with San Francisco.]

Oct. 8: Went to Plymouth Sunday school before church. It was raining when we got out of church. We went to first Baptist church at night.

[Though they were Presbyterians, the Harris family thought nothing of attending the services of some other denomination. They did this as well at home in Elora.]

Oct. 14: We have been downtown this week. The stores are immense. “The Fair,” where Edna works, is the largest store in the world. It employs 1,900 girls alone.

[The Fair was a huge department store, covering half a city block. Founded in 1875 by S.J. Lehmann, it displayed mass-produced goods on 11 floors and catered to the growing middle-class market. Montgomery Ward purchased the store in 1957.]

Oct. 15: Went to Plymouth Sunday school, then to a Presbyterian church. It was so hot it made me sick. Miss Murdoch came and stayed for tea. We all went to Grace Church tonight. It was lovely. High Episcopal Church. There was a surpliced choir. Fifty boys and 25 men. They sang divinely.

Oct. 18: We were at Rasmussens for tea. They were all very nice. We hadn’t long enough there.

Oct. 19: Polly took Alice, Frank and I downtown tonight. We saw the Chicago River. Then we went to the depot as we are going home. We got to the station safely and got away.

Oct. 20: Last night two sharpies were on the train and won $90 off a fellow but he got it back again. We stopped off at Sarnia and went to Mrs. Gemmil’s. They are all nice. There is a little girl about my age there. We got home safe and were glad to see home again. The fall cleaning was all done for us.

[Railways took a dim view of card sharps and professional gamblers. They warned passengers to beware of them, and often the train conductors ejected them from their trains.]

There is another lengthy gap in the diary here, and it does not resume until mid-December.

Dec. 16: Am 12 years old today. Got my 5 dollars as usual. That makes $20.

[Both the Harris boys regularly received $5 gifts on their birthdays. That was a considerable sum in the mid 1890s. A typical labourer’s wage then was in the $1.50 per day. Their parents expected the boys to save the money, not spend it, and they both deposited their gifts in bank accounts.]

Dec. 25: We had a high old time. We were all here and Uncle John Smart got up. We had a good dinner and after we darkened the parlour and had a Christmas tree. All the women relations got gowns from one another and had to put them on. I got a volume of “Scots Poems.” Frank got a “Sunday” besides other things.

There is no snow on the ground. We had dinner with the windows open.

[The Christmas tree would have been lit with candles, an exceedingly dangerous practice. Trees, therefore, were lit only for brief periods of time. The reference to Frank’s “Sunday” is not clear after more than a century; it probably refers to a book of some sort to amuse younger children during the quiet times of late Victorian Sundays.]

Jan. 18, 1896: We have a new principal, Mr. McMurchy. Queer looking fellow.

[Norman McMurchy replaced J.A. Snell as Elora’s high school principal. The staff then consisted of three teachers in total. Despite the lukewarm impression left in the diary, McMurchy turned out to be a notable teacher, fondly remembered decades later by his students. The school’s reputation rose rapidly under his guidance. McMurchy held the position until 1906.]

The conclusion next week.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Aug. 1, 2003.

Thorning Revisited