Book Reviews

Arlene Stafford-Wilson has penned another book in her Lanark County Collections series.

This one, “Winding Our Way Down Memory Lane,” will be released Saturday, Sept. 12. She will be at a book signing at The Book Nook and Other Treasurers in Perth from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The Ottawa author, with deep roots in Lanark County, has readers travel through the 1960s and 1970s with a fun trip to the Port Elmsley Drive-In, a visit to the Rideau Ferry Inn and even a stop at the Stumble Inn in Ferguson Falls.

Preserving history is Stafford-Wilson’s other passion, as she’s a genealogist. Writing books about stories from her own past is a way for her to combine both loves of writing and genealogy. Her last book about the stories of Lanark County was released two years ago.

Inside the pages of this latest book, Stafford-Wilson shares some homespun goodness with one of her mother’s famous recipes. So famous, she said, that her mother was a red ribbon winner at the Perth Fair. The writer remembers: “There was something peculiar in the pantry … in a glass jar that seemed to have a life of its own,” alongside the “collection of shotguns and rifles leaning up against the corner by the window.”

“Memory Lane” shares how water was found by dowsing. Stafford-Wilson explains what this method is and how it was used to find water every time by the local well drillers.

Another detailed yarn is one highlighting the history of the Perth library. From its humble beginnings, to a devastating fire, and how it rose from the ashes like the phoenix to become the mainstay it is today in the heart of Perth.

Who remembers the Stumble Inn at Ferguson Falls? “At one time, there were three hotels,” the author writes. In the early 1900s, loggers would “come to spend their pay on drinks and a good time.”

In this chapter, Stafford-Wilson writes about the seven Irish bachelors who came to clear land in Ferguson Falls. Find out about Patrick Quinn, John Quinn, James Carberry, William Scanlan, Terrence Doyle, John Cullen and James Power — who declared a solemn pact to help each other establish themselves. Here is where the Quinn Settlement was born.

Another local hot spot was the Rideau Ferry Inn, where “nearly every well-known rock band in the country performed during the 1960s and ‘70s in the 472-seat Poonamalie Room,” Stafford-Wilson writes. Many people also enjoyed the country music played at the nearby Antler Inn.

Parking lot fights were regular occurrences, Stafford-Wilson notes. “We saw more than a few bloody noses … there was often far more wild behaviour outside than inside.”

A fun read was learning about the Port Elmsley Drive-In, and how in the 1970s, Friday nights were for gleaming sports cars ripping up Roger’s Road in Perth. High school boys would race the quarter-mile track timed with a stopwatch “borrowed” from the high school.

Which one was the fastest between Kenny Moore’s green fastback Mustang, Craig Cullen’s black Camaro or Steve Richardson’s big sleek Plymouth.

Stafford-Wilson writes: “These races were followed by a tour around town complete with burnouts and smoke shows,” and the occasional ticket was issued by the police for unnecessary noise.

It was the next night that this same group of people would head to the drive-in to show off their hotrods.

There is a lot of history about the drive-in and how it closed on opening night in 1953 after rain washed out the fresh gravel and all 50 cars had to be towed out, which took most of the night and into the next morning. The theatre closed for a week until the ground dried out.

These short vignettes will leave you wanting more stories from days gone by.

For those families mentioned throughout the book, in true genealogist fashion, Stafford-Wilson has alphabetized names in an index for easy reference.

Lanark County Calling:  All Roads Lead Home –

by Dianne Pinder-Moss

LANARK COUNTY – While it’s been many years since Arlene Stafford-Wilson lived in Lanark County, she will always consider herself “a country kid.”

“I miss falling asleep in the summer hearing the crickets outside, or watching the bats and fireflies on warm summer evenings after a long hot day,” the now resident of Ottawa says as she reminisces about her childhood growing up on the Third Line of Bathurst Township (currently part of the amalgamated Tay Valley Township). “I miss hearing the sounds of the trains rumbling down the tracks back near the 4th line. I also miss walking into the little church Sunday mornings and seeing everyone I know, and of course the candlelight services on Christmas Eve. I think about those things a lot. I cherish those memories of those days.”

With many of those familiar faces from that small country church, Calvin United, now gone, Stafford-Wilson strives to keep the memories of that time period alive through her writing.

“I want to make sure people remember what it was like to grow up in that time period – the 1960s and ‘70s,” she states.

Her newest book, Lanark County Calling: All Roads Lead Home, is a compilation of stories about some memorable people and places of that era. These include the Ompah Stomp, The Soper Theatre in Smiths Falls, Sophia Haggis — the “Candy Lady” of Perth, the Ghost of Ferguson Falls and the Witch of Plum Hollow.

In deciding on what stories to include in the book, Stafford-Wilson told the AgriNews it has always been important to her “to capture people and places so that they will be remembered in future generations.” As an example, she noted that Haggis was such “a trailblazer” not for her candy making as much as she was for being one of the first women bus drivers in Kingston – “a job she did to support her child as a single parent.”

Similarly, the author pointed out that Jane Elizabeth Barnes, who also became known as the Witch of Plum Hollow, started reading tea leaves to support nine children on her own after her husband left and moved to Smiths Falls. She wanted readers to know that this woman, who ended up helping police solve crimes, was a single parent who came up with something innovative to provide for her family.

Another “very interesting fellow,” who Stafford-Wilson shares about in her most recent literary work, was Bert Soper, the owner of the first movie theater in Smiths Falls who had been a Liberal MP for the Lanark riding from 1940-45.

“Probably most people, if asked, couldn’t even tell you who the Soper Theatre was named for and I wanted people to remember Bert – the man, the horse lover, the horse-racing enthusiast,” she stated. “Like the other main characters in many of my stories, he took lemons and turned them into lemonade so to speak. They rose like the Phoenix out of the ashes, out of difficult situations and became successful.”

It was during the author’s childhood that she initially heard the story of the ghost of Ferguson Falls from her late father.

“Dad loved a good story — must have been the Irish blood in him,” she stated fondly.

Another great story teller that Stafford-Wilson says she encountered from there was the late Jim Quinn.

“He spoke with me about all of the old families who settled around Ferguson Falls, going back to the Seven Irish Bachelors,” she mentioned. “He had it all in his head, nothing written down, and I do believe that this was in part because of the story-telling that went on in the evenings before they all had televisions.  It was a way to pass the time for that generation.”

Referring to a quote from one of her favourite authors, Mark Twain, who stated, “Write what you know”, Stafford-Wilson believes that everyone has their own stories to tell and that only they can tell them.

“Our own stories document a first-person account from a point of view unique to us,” she remarked.

In her new book, Stafford-Wilson has a personal connection to most of the stories.

The first motion picture she ever saw at a theater was at the Soper at a young age when her brother Tim took her to a James Bond movie.

Likewise, she spent some time during her high school years “hanging out” with Haggis at her candy store on Gore Street. The store where the candy maker created her popular Horehound candy and other sweet treats like taffy, fudge and the author’s personal favourite, milk chocolate peanut clusters, is the current location of The Book Nook where the book launch was held on Sept. 29.

Similarly, Stafford-Wilson was an attendee at the Ompah Stomp.

“I’m not sure exactly how many times I attended the Ompah Stomp, but I do recall the wonderful talented performers, the lively crowds, the kind people who volunteered at the event and the beautiful tranquil setting,” she related. “Those are the things that I treasured about the event.”

Little did Stafford-Wilson imagine when she released her first book, Recipes and Recollections — Treats and Tales From Our Mother’s Kitchen, in 2011 that it would be followed by six more. Interestingly, that book was originally intended to take the form of a small folder of her late mother Audry Stafford’s recipes to be given as a Christmas gift to the grandchildren.

At the time, she thought she might have 10 or 12 recipes to share. However, once she reached out to her two brothers and two sisters for some of their mother’s recipes, she ended up with 93 recipes in total. In addition, each included memories associated with the recipes, whether it be one of mom’s award winning pies for the Perth Fair, the cookies one brother remembered being sent with them when they worked on the milk truck for Chaplin’s Dairy, etc.

“Each of my siblings begin reminiscing about the recipes that they sent, so I started writing their stories and the memories that they shared and ended up with a 300-page book,” she recounted.

At that stage, in honour of their mother, Stafford-Wilson’s siblings suggested getting the book printed and donating copies to Calvin United Church, which they attended as children. The book ended up being used as a fundraiser by the church.

After that, the rest is history. When asked whether she considers herself a story teller or local historian, Stafford-Wilson replied by saying both. While she loves telling stories, particularly ones that have been passed down from others, she also has a keen interest in preserving the history of the 1960s and ‘70s — the days of her youth.

“We began in such innocent circumstances at the little one-room school, and while we were children, we recall having to get under our desks because there was a threat of nuclear war – during the Cold War years,” she related. “We watched as the war in Vietnam unfolded each night on the evening news. We witnessed the first man walking on the moon. We lived through the hippies, the flower-power years, observed the struggles of the civil rights movement in the U.S., and our teenage years as we enjoyed arguably the best rock and roll ever played.”

Through her books, Stafford-Wilson hopes to record and preserve what it was like growing up “in those very magical times.”

“I believe it’s a time that historians will look back on, and I feel as though I am helping to document what it was like being there and being a part of it as it unfolded,” she said.

The author makes it clear however that the research for Lanark County Calling and its predecessors was greatly aided by the support of the community. For instance, in regards to the current book, she said Neville Wells and Marilyn Dunham were “very kind” to share their stories and memories about the Ompah Stomp.

“I wanted to make sure that the story of the Ompah Stomp was told accurately, because there had been so many rumours about what went on there, and why it eventually closed in 2000,” she stated. “It was important that the story be documented. It was another magical place that was unique to our time!”

Likewise, she related how former employees of the Soper Theatre were keen to share their stories.

“Ushers I spoke with loved telling their stories about policing the back rows where the smoking, drinking, and amorous behaviour sometimes got out of hand,” she mentioned.

In fact, long-time employee Violet Gariepy who worked at the theater from 1958 until it closed in 2012 – initially working at the candy counter and, in later years, being a familiar face at the front ticket booth – attended the book launch at The Book Nook.

“I think what she did is awesome,” Gariepy said of Stafford-Wilson’s account of the theater included in the book. In fact, when the author read aloud a couple passages from this particular story, both got teary-eyed.

Afterwards, in an email response, Stafford-Wilson spoke of how researching and writing a story over so many months makes it difficult not to become somewhat attached to the people in the stories “and to empathize with their struggles, as well as their victories.”

“Almost everyone I spoke with who were former staff at the Soper said that working there was like being a member of a family,” she stated. “The employees took it very hard when they were told that it would be closing, and for Violet, it was like a second home.”

Violet’s daughter, Karen Gariepy, believes the story of the Soper is an important one to tell “for the history.”

Otherwise, “all of the new people moving there (to Smiths Falls) wouldn’t even know there was a theater,” she commented.

While Stafford-Wilson is pleased with the popularity of her books, she believes there is a niche for this type of writing because of the lack of books with local stories.

“I would like to picture my readers smiling when they read a passage about a place they know,” she stated. “One of my readers from Almonte sent me a note saying that he knew exactly the road that I wrote about as he had driven on that road many times and that the story brought back memories of his childhood. That always makes me smile when I hear that, and I feel like, well…mission-accomplished!”

With any of her books, Stafford-Wilson’s hope is that readers will recognize a name or two –whether it be their neighbour, their cousin or even a close family member – and realize that their memory has been captured forever in the book.

“I want to honour the ordinary person – the owner of a general store, the ladies at the church who baked for the auction sale, the kids who hung around the corner at Dewitt’s when our lives stretched out ahead of us like a freshly-paved highway, not knowing what the future would hold for any of us,” she stated. “I like to capture the extraordinary things that happen to ordinary people – as in the story of Sophia Haggis, or Bert Soper, a farm-kid from Leeds who would become the Member of Parliament for Lanark, a successful business man, and owner of the local theater. That’s a story worth remembering.”

Stafford-Wilson concedes that she wandered out of Lanark County for two of the stories in her new book. Thus the choice of the words, “All Roads Lead Home”, in the title.

“With that title, I wanted to convey to the reader that whether we drift a bit outside of the county, or move across province, or on the other side of the world, Lanark County is the kind of place that always brings you back home, pulls a person in like a magnet,” she explained. “Maybe it’s the landscape, the people, a little of both, but I’ve always found myself drawn back there again and again.

Along with The Book Nook, Lanark County Calling is also available for sale in Perth at The Bookworm. As of press time, copies could be purchased as well at Mill Street Books in Almonte.

Those who love reading Stafford-Wilson’s books will be happy to know that when she was queried about the prospect of writing an eighth book, her response was “probably.”

“Well, I’ve always got a story or two knocking around in my head, and sometimes I will be inspired by something I hear or see,” she remarked. “I don’t have anything on paper at the moment, just having finished Lanark County Calling, but I’m sure it won’t be the last.”

Carol Bennett McCuaig reviews –

“Lanark County Classics”

Lanark County Classics: A Treasury of Tales from Another Time.

“Autumn brings its own delights to Lanark County, and along with the falling leaves and the glorious colours we have come to expect a new literary contribution from local author Arlene Stafford-Wilson.

This year her offering is entitled Lanark County Classics: A Treasury of Tales from Another Time. This is the sixth book in her Lanark County
series and it does not disappoint. As with her earlier books, Arlene’s readers may enjoy Lanark County Classics from varying viewpoints: this is more than just a charming memoir providing information about the past. It will stir up memories of the reader’s own Lanark County days, or remind them of bygone people they have known.

‘Multitudes in Middleville’ recalls Middleville’s Pioneer Days in 1970 when the people of the village celebrated Lanark Township’s sesquicentennial. Were you there? I was, and If I have forgotten any aspects of the event I have only to refer to this book to have my memory jogged! The author has also included brief notes on Middleville’s pioneers which will interest those looking for their roots, I was pleased to see mention of my mother-in-law’s ancestors, Robert Affleck and William Borrowman.

The author also focuses on a number of tragedies that have rocked the county within living memory. Never to be forgotten is the great fire that destroyed much of Lanark Village in 1959. Arlene pays tribute to the heroism of local firefighters, as well as that of individual citizens, such as Mrs Eleanor Murphy who managed to carry a bedridden woman out of her home to safety.

Dip into this book to learn of other tragedies, including the drowning of people you may have known; the mysterious disappearance of Adrien McNaughton, a small boy from Arnprior; and the stillbirth of a young couple’s first child.

A chapter describing the history of a popular weekly newspaper, “The Lanark Era”, recalls the importance of such publications in the life of the community in bygone years, Social columnist Winnifred Closs is one of the contributors remembered here. We are told that the lady also excelled at needlecrafts… and some years produced over 150 pairs of socks. Whew! That’s about three pairs per week!

Truth is stranger than fiction, and you won’t want to miss the author’s accounts of a haunting in Burgess Township, and of the many UFOs and eerie lights that were reported in the 1960s and 1970s, appearing in the night sky within a certain radius of Smiths Falls. The mystery of the haunted house was eventually solved, but the UFOs have never been explained to anyone’s satisfaction.

In keeping with her previous books, Arlene’s latest work is a carefully crafted mixture of events in Lanark County’s recent history and an account of many of the people who participated in those events. In writing of Winnie Closs she observes that the lady will be remembered as an avid historian and dedicated chronicler of her time.

The same might be said of the author of Lanark County Classics and it is to be hoped that new books in the series keep coming.”  

Carol McCuaig

Carol Bennett McCuaig   1938-2018
Carol Bennett-McCuaig (1938-2018) was a weekly newspaper Editor who became a prolific and respected author. Educated in history and religious studies at the University of Waterloo, she authored sixty three books, including regional histories, commissioned works, books on Lanark and Renfrew County (Ontario) roots, and a long list of historical novels. One of her histories, “In Search of the Red Dragon: The Welsh in Canada”, received the Ninnau award for its contribution to North American Welsh culture. In 1997 she received an Achievement Award from the Ontario Heritage Foundation, for her body of work in recording regional history. She was a life member of Heritage Renfrew, and a past president of the North Lanark Historical Society.