Research can produce more questions than answers

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 months ago I purchased an interesting postcard sent from Drayton in 1911.

The message on the back is a printed one, asking for a donation of handkerchiefs for a sale planned by the Ladies Aid of the Drayton Methodist Church, predecessor of the Drayton United Church. It is a delightful souvenir of a time when church activities dominated the social calendar, but several things about it struck me as unusual.

Although the Methodist Church was then the dominant one in Drayton, it was still a small congregation by most standards. A specialized sale of handkerchiefs, therefore, seems somewhat out of place – something more likely to be undertaken by a large city congregation.

Second, the card was printed with an obvious professional touch. This seems to be a lot of trouble and expense for a relatively minor activity.

Thirdly, the message is in the form of a 12-line poem. The verse, though charming in its way, can only be described as atrocious. Still, someone went to a lot of trouble to compose it especially for this sale. Who was this bard of the Drayton Methodist Church?

It appeared that the only remaining records of the Drayton Methodists from this period are some annual financial statements, a source that is not much use for further information on the handkerchief sale.

Next, I checked old issues of the Drayton Advocate for December 1911 and the early weeks of 1912.

The newspaper made no mention whatever of this handkerchief sale. On the other hand, I was astonished at the vitality of the Methodist Ladies Aid. This was obviously the most active community organization in Drayton at the time.

Its major activity in December 1911 consisted of a bazaar on the 16th, on the second floor of a building occupied on the first floor by a barber shop. Those quarters had been formerly occupied by the Drayton library, and had been vacant since the library moved to the town hall in 1905.

The Ladies Aid had been collecting usable household items and good used clothing for some time. Along with these offerings, the group served lunch, at a small charge, to anyone who wanted something to eat.

The Ladies Aid advertised the bazaar as an excellent place to purchase small Christmas presents at moderate cost.

At first glance, I assumed the handkerchief sale to be part of the bazaar, but the postcard states that donations to the sale should be sent in by the 18th, the Monday after the bazaar.

Even without the handkerchiefs, the bazaar proved to be immensely successful, raising net proceeds of $71 from the time the doors opened at 1pm until near midnight when they closed for the day. The present day equivalent would be in the range of $3,000 to $4,000.

The event proved to be so popular, in fact, that the Ladies reopened again the following week on Wednesday and Thursday. Proceeds were much more modest – the Saturday crowd on the first day included dozens of farm families in town for their weekly shopping.

Very little was left when the sale closed on the last day.

That same week, the Ladies Aid put on a social evening for the Stinson family, who were leaving town. The Stinsons had been active in the church and its various organizations: the Ladies Aid, the Sunday school, the choir and the Epworth League, which offered activities for young people.

Methodists dominated the crowd, but others from Drayton came as well. The highlight of the evening was the presentation by the Ladies League to Della Stinson of an expensive writing desk. She had been a teacher in the Sunday school and a choir member.

After reading these stories I still knew nothing more about that handkerchief sale. I looked at it again. It is significant that the address to send handkerchiefs to was not printed, but was filled in by pen, in this case, Mrs. R.A. Bruce of Drayton.

Thus it would seem that the Ladies Aid had several of its members involved in assembling the linen. Turning the card over, I noted that it was sent to a Miss Boyer in Moorefield, far outside the area served by the Drayton Methodist Church. The scheduled date for the sale is vague, mentioned in the poem as “at no distant day.”

It would seem that the handkerchief sale was intended to be a major event for the group, drawing from a wide area and from outside the church circles – why else would a printed and mailed postcard even be necessary?

Could the Ladies Aid have been planning and stockpiling handkerchiefs over a period of many months, with a scheduled date later in 1912? Or could response have been so poor that they scrapped the idea? I don’t know.

The mystery of the fancy printing of the card has an obvious answer. The publisher of the Drayton Advocate, J.B. Coram, was very active in the Methodist Church, as was B.J. Garbutt, the typesetter. I am certain that they did the printing at little or no cost to the Ladies Aid. Mr. Garbutt would take over the paper in 1920, and run it for the next 39 years, remaining active in the church the whole time. He was one of the strong local advocates for the church union that resulted in the formation of the United Church in 1925.

The Drayton Methodist Ladies Aid continually raised money for improvements to the church building and for missionary work overseas. The social and community affairs the group staged undoubtedly were major factors in the vitality of the congregation in the years before the First World War.

This was a euphoric period for Drayton Methodists. Their church was less than 20 years old, having been constructed in 1892 at a cost of $5,000.

The Ladies Aid itself went back a few years further, to the mid-1880s. Their fund-raising activities materially helped the building fund, reducing the debt to about $1,000 when the building opened, and soon liquidating it completely.

It is a shame that so little information has survived on the Drayton Methodist Ladies Aid and the leading role it played in the community 90 and more years ago. The group accomplished far more than similar organizations in much larger churches and towns.

A common assumption today is that household duties, several generations ago, kept women busy from morning to night. The Drayton Ladies Aid shows that they were able to devote considerable time and effort to community, church and social activities.

I still haven’t learned much about my postcard, bad poetry and all, but I have gained some admiration and respect for a small-town organization in the early years of the 20th century.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Dec. 15, 2000.

Thorning Revisited