Most of the time, historians depend on documents, oral history, and photographs to understand what life was like in earlier times. But in this instance, a wonderful record of this area in 1955 is available on film. The National Film Board produced a film in 1955 called “Farm Calendar”, which had been commissioned by the Department of Citizenship and Immigration. It followed a full year in the life of a farm near Heckston, where a new immigrant from the Netherlands, Peter DeVries, was learning about farming, looking for a farm of his own, so that his wife and family could join him.
The aim may have been to show new immigrants something of rural life in Eastern Ontario, but what it gives us is an amazing insight into our past. The farm featured in the film belonged to Don and Minnie Sloan, just outside Heckston, which is described as having “Two stores, a church, a garage, a Post Office and the school”. Scenes show the hamlet as it was in 1955, with Cesc Hess’ store, the school, which is now a private residence, and the large General Store. The village store owned by W. A. Gilmer, where the men sit around the central stove and smoke and talk. The narrator notes that the people: “may be a little more formal and stiff with a stranger than they are ordinarily, but they really are friendly and interested in someone from another country”. There’s a gas pump outside, and as Peter walks away from the store, the church is silhouetted against the evening sky. One wonders who the men and women seen in the store may be, and to see the traditional store and residents in that environment is fascinating now that the era has passed forever.
The account of farm life in 1955 is equally interesting. Cows milked by hand, and churns left in a water trough for pickup by General Milk Products of Canada Ltd., of Brockville, a powdered milk company. The eggs are collected by the young boy and his mother and sold “for pin money”.
Cows and hogs. 200 lbs and then to the meat packing plant. The farm is 150 acres in size: 15 acres in a wood lot, 40 in hay and pasture, and 95 under cultivation. Oats, corn, Barley, wheat and buckwheat are being grown as feed for livestock.
You see farm machinery from the time: a hand-cranked Chatham Mill, various tractors and other equipment by McCormick-Deering. Liam McDougall and some of his workers do the custom bailing of the hay with a McCormick bailer. The heavy hauling of hay bales from the machine and storing them in the barn makes you wonder about the comment by Don Sloan’s old father, that “Farming in Canada is getting soft”. Old Mr. Sloan remembers when he and his parents arrived from Ireland, the roads were just trails then. He and Billy weed the garden by hand and hoe, and Grandfather notes that “More people have broken hoes by leaning on them, than by working with them.” Billy and his grandfather plant potatoes, onions, raspberries, and strawberries, enough to last the whole year. In the Spring, cows and geese are let out of the barns and jump and run about, lively and noisy.
Every week or so the Sloans make a trip to Kemptville, “a typical small town: several general stores, a bank, a bakery, a railway station, three restaurants, a Post Office”. The views of Prescott Street in 1955 are revealing. The street is full of parked cars and pedestrians, with the Office of the Agricultural Representative in the side door of the Red and White Store. Mrs. Sloane shops with Billy at Sam Leckers Store, beside the A. M Parkinson grocery. Stall outside Leckers hold fruit and vegetables, and Sammy himself comes out to help them.
Then to the Red & White Supermarket, where Mr. Sloane and Billy examine the rifles on a rack at the back. Who are the other women in the store? The family head to the Empress Theatre, the local cinema, for a feature, a newsreel and a cartoon, followed by a burger and drink at the Midtown Grill on Prescott Street, with its soda fountains and jukebox. The Empress Theatre stood on the site of the current Post Office on Reuben Street.
There are so many great scenes in the film, with so many unidentified locals. There are scenes inside the school, where young Billy learns alongside his friends – who are they? Threshing is a community activity and men come from surrounding farms to help. Who are the men in the film? Harvest supper in the church basement after service of Thanksgiving. Then a square dance at the village hall, or playing Euchre upstairs. All on film.
In the Autumn, pickles are made, and jams and jellies. Storm windows are put up, and stove wood has to be chopped. It would be wonderful to have a public showing of Farm Calendar, and may have some of the people from 1955 given names again. The final word goes to Don Sloan, who sums up the achievement of a year of farming. “The cattle will be fed and you’ll have clothes on your back”.