Old Memories – Langstaff/Dufferin Street Area

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Early childhood memories. Look at that image, and realize that it all used to be farmland, and some of my earliest memories are of that area – but it was nothing like what it is now.

I am sorry for such a large image, but I wanted anyone who finds this interesting, to see all of it. My head can’t get around it, sometimes, how different it is now, from when I, as a child, after immigrating from Northern Ireland with my family, lived in a farmhouse here.

Memories are interesting to think about it. Sometimes they flood back into the mind, and even some of the emotions that I felt at the time overtake me in the present. I have some very happy memories of living in a farmhouse that was a good walk up a lane (driveway) off Dufferin Street in Vaughan – back then it was the Township of Vaughan, and our mailing address was simply, R.R. #1, Maple, Ontario. Not even a postal code. R.R. stood for “Rural Route.” I can even remember our phone number: 889-9095. My grandparents – my mother’s parents (she was born in Canada) was 221-4461.

There were guns, there were chickens, there was a goat, and a pony. Life was sometimes hard; I can remember days of eating porridge three times a day. That’s all we had for food, sometimes. But often there was more, like one of the chickens that we kept for eggs. Slaughtered right on the tree stump that was near the house – and I understood from a very early age, the real meaning of “running around like a chicken with it’s head cut off.” Yes, my father’s hatchet would do the job, and later, we had dinner.

I’d take the chicken’s feet to school for “show and tell” and show how if I pulled the tendons, I could make the feet curl. Everyone laughed and thought it was pretty cool. I was mostly a very quiet and shy kid, so when I could make the others laugh, I was pretty happy about that.

Some background: My family, including me and my younger sister immigrated to Canada in 1966. That’s another story that involves family issues, IRA terrorism (which would go on to effect us even here in Canada, years later), and a ship called the “Empress Of Canada.” I still have vague memories as a toddler at Merville Garden Village in Northern Ireland, but my first strong memory involved the ship. When we came to Canada, we first lived in a small apartment building in Richmond Hill for a very short time (where I hung out with older kids in a “gang” and where family friends from N. Ireland also lived in the same building). We then moved to Maple – and lived in the second house south of Major Mackenzie Drive on the east side – it’s now a medical centre, I believe. And there are memories there as well – my father was a police officer on Vaughan Township Police, and he walked to work – through our backyard – to the Vaughan Township offices. Sometimes I’d go wait for him to get off work under the big old willow tree in the backyard.

Then we moved to the farm. And tonight, as I was wanting to show the area from Google Maps to Kiriaki, the memories started to flood in. Smelly pigs, long walks through the “bush,” slaughtering our own chickens, and each morning, my chore was to take pails of water to the donkey and also see if there were eggs to collect from our chickens. Playing “Cowboys & Indians” with my childhood friends. Sometimes, often alone, and not wanting to ask too many questions, wondering why we were not back home in Northern Ireland, realizing there were things going on that I was not supposed to know about, but I could hear the talk. Even when the parents appeared to not know I could hear; I always wondered about that: “When they were kids, did they not realize their parents thought the kids could not hear or understand some things, but they did? Did they not remember?”

But back to the farm. It’s not just my memories about myself, but I often wonder, especially with how drastically its changed, what happened to the people? We rented the farmhouse from the Baker family – I believe it was Paul Baker, son of Amos Baker (who actually owned the place). The rest of the farm land was rented to a Ken Baker, who grew crops and kept pigs. The barn where the pigs were kept was just a hop and a jump away from our house, so it could get pretty smelly at times. I have no memory of how Ken Baker was related to Paul or Amos, but I’m sure he was; he had the same surname.

While other adults insisted I call them “Mr ‘Surname’,” Ken always told me to call him “Ken.” He often smiled, and would let me help him with simple chores, and I can remember, when he was harvesting the field out in front of the house, he’d glance at me as I ran through the “aisles” or lanes he created in the field as he harvested.

I mentioned we had guns. Yes, we had guns. There was a “real” gun, and then there was the Crossman Air Rifle. The “real” gun was my father’s police service revolver, which he would have under his pillow, when he was sleeping. I think there were several reasons for that, including some of what I did not really know back then, that had to do with IRA Terrorism. One of the reasons we came to Canada, my father later would confide to me, was because he had been told our family had been “marked” by the IRA – this was even before “The Troubles” had broken out, in Northern Ireland. Indeed, later experiences in life would show that it was correct; our family was under some kind of surveillance by the IRA – at least some shady people back home seemed to be kept abreast of our family activities, over the years.

But there were real guns, and there was the air rifle. By age 5, I had been taught firearms safety by my dad. I knew that even with pretend guns (pointing a finger for example in play), you should NEVER point a gun at a person, when playing. Guns were sometimes needed, and they were something you could have fun with as well, competitively to see how good “a shot” you were. But my dad did not like guns like some do. They were neither to be liked or disliked; you needed to learn safety rules just like you do if you want to use a saw to cut wood.

Indeed, as a young five or six year old, I’d even walk through the “bush” behind the house, to go visit the Winger kids on the farm who’s driveway was on Bathurst Street. It was a good walk – and through wooded trails, but in those days, it was no issue for a child of five or six to do that, alone, in order to spend time with friends. And when I got to the Winger farm, me and the Winger boys would laugh, play, and even do some “target practice” with our air rifles. It’s so hard to believe for me today, that people have such a weird emotion about guns, rifles, or even plastic toy guns, the way I was brought up.

It was at the Winger Family farm where I first had corn on the cob. I still remember it very well; the Wingers had been harvesting their crops and had invited lots of neighbours over for a “corn roast” – but the corn was not actually roasted – it was boiled in a big iron caldron over a fire. There was lots of butter to roll the cob of corn into, salt, and pepper…. my belly was full of many cobs of corn!

Speaking of iron caldrons, we had other neighbours as well…. the Reesor family, who lived on the property just north of us on Dufferin Street. In the spring, they would tap maple trees and I can remember spending time there, when the maple syrup season was going on. There was a fire that was kept going, with another big iron caldron that maple sap was dumped into, to be boiled down to syrup.

The Reesor family had a beautiful house made of wood boards and it was large enough to have a separate residence for old “Mrs. Reesor,” the mother of the dad and grandmother of the teenagers there. Mrs. Reesor would frequently come and “babysit” my sister and I, when my parents would go out for an evening. Mrs. Reesor loved Scrabble, and that’s what we would do when she babysat us: Play Scrabble. Mrs. Reesor always won, fair and square and knew the best words in the dictionary. But even though she always won, she taught me new words. Which I liked.

Through Grade 1 and 2, I attended Concord Public School, just north of Langstaff Avenue I believe, if memory serves correct. It was a two floor school, but without many rooms. Maybe enough rooms for each of Grade 1 through 6, a library, and a Principle’s Office. Each week, we would go to the Library, and the Librarian would introduce us to new books. I was in love with the Librarian, although I cannot recall her name. One day, I waited around until the rest of my classmates had left, and ran up to the librarian, kissed her, and then ran out. With embarrassment. But I remember she smiled at me and laughed, in a “awwww” kind of way.

But, I also had a little crush on Connie Baker, the daughter of Ken Baker, mentioned above… she was in my class at school. But I was pretty quiet in school… kept to myself, still missing Northern Ireland and unsure of my place in the world.

We kept chickens for egg laying (and sometimes to have for dinner), but we also had this rooster. He could be mean and horrible, and he was big. Sometimes, he would get defensive (I guess now that is what it was) and would “buck” my sister and I when we got close to the chickens. It hurt.. he would “buck” us with his big wing against our legs and get very aggressive. My mom would get angry, and she would load the pellet air pistol revolver, and shoot at the bird. She thought she always missed – but one day, it was decided the rooster had to go, and we were going to eat him for dinner.

The rooster was duly slaughtered and when the feathers were plucked, it was discovered there a whole bunch of pellets stuck in it’s skin, just under the surface. My mom was not a bad shot, after all!

My mom actually pulled that revolver on someone. As a child, I did not know the circumstances completely, but I think there had been a rapist in the news. She had told me, “Ian, if I tell you to ‘Get your sister’, it means to get her and take her to the basement.” I did not know completely, but I knew my mom was depending on me for some reason for protection; that something bad could possibly happen, and if it did, I was to save my sister.

One day, I heard, “Ian get your sister!” I grabbed Janice and took her to the basement. A basement that was nothing like basements most people have today. I took her down there and waited, and worried, as I listened to my mom yell at someone, “Go or I’ll shoot!” I was there, to protect my sister no matter what happened above!

It turned out that someone unexpected had driven down our driveway, while my dad was away…. and he got out of his car and was banging on all the windows of our farmhouse. It freaked out my mom.. and she was sure it was the rapist that had been in the news. So she sent me off to protect my little sister, while pulling out the revolver, and when the man made it to our door, after all his window banging, he was met with my mom pointing this revolver at him.

He of course did not know it was an air pellet revolver, and he freaked out. Naturally, being down in the basement protecting my sister, I am not witness to what happened next, but apparently the man stuck his hands up in the air, yelling in an Italian accent, “Missus, I’m not him! I’m not him!”

Then he challenged my mom with something like, “It’s not a real gun anyway.”

My mom apparently raised the revolver, pointed above his head, and pulled the trigger. Of course, an air gun when fired does not make the sound of a real firearm, but it made enough of a sound to scare the shit out of the man, and he turned around and went off running…

Who was this man?

Later, it turned out, he was a recent Italian immigrant (who later talked about the “crazy lady with a gun”) who had been living in the area of Woodbridge, and wanted to buy some stuff – hay straw or something – from Ken Baker, the farmer. But it wasn’t until the next day we discovered this, but in the meantime…. it was what it was and appeared to be.

Ahhh.. memories.

I wonder where that man is today, or his family. I’d love to meet him now, or his children, if he had any.

It was not an easy life, coming to Canada, no matter where you were from. No matter your age. You adapted. Sometimes, painfully so. But that is what the human spirit is all about.

Anyways, if you live in that Langstaff/Dufferin Rd area now, tread on it.. and know there is some history.. long history that you might read about that seems so long ago, but please also know, there is recent history… memories of the area that is totally different from what it is now, and really – not that many years ago. Here’s another idea – if you live in that area, and area “progressive” or “environmentalist,” I personally think you are a hypocrite, because you reside of prime land, that you’ve chosen to buy, that was once… in a very short life time ago, much more wild, and it was the developers you hate so much, that actually saw the opportunity that someone like you, would like to live there.. even though I can remember running around as a child, tapping the trees, feeding chickens, having chores as a child of taking pails of water to the donkey tethered near the barn on the land you might actually live on now….

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