These Eastern Townships

LESLIE ROBERTS August 1 1934

These Eastern Townships

LESLIE ROBERTS August 1 1934

These Eastern Townships



DRIVE southeast from Montreal toward the

Vermont border. Cross the Richelieu River on the iron bridge at Chambly, or on that structure of many electric bulbs which lies between the railways like ham in

sandwich at St. Johns. Leave behind the lands of the Western Seigneuries and soon you will be within that princi-

pality within a province, the Eastern Townships of Quebec.

They are more than an informal geographical subdivision ranged along the United States boundary, these five counties. Brome, Shefford, Compton, Sherbrooke and Stanstead, plus a section of Missisquoi and vaguely defined surrounding areas which common reference includes in the total. This is more than a region of farms, creameries, an occasional faetón-, lakes and rivers, uplands and downs, railway stations, country lanes and bus-ridden highways; more than a group of rural communities tributary to the capital city, Sherbrooke. These Eastern Townships comprise a point of view, a state of mind, a character that is native to the region.

Once that island quality was more pronounced than it is today, for the motor car and the radio have tended to standardize human tastes—a condition which I am sufficiently old-fashioned to regard as a mixed blessing. But despite these attacks on cultural autonomy, the attitudes and points of view of this countryside are as widely at variance with those of Shawinigan and Grand’Mère, or with those of the riverside country west of Montreal, as Kentish views differ from those of Yorkshire, or those of the Midi of France from the attitudes of peasants in the Pas de Calais. A great deal more than one generation of rapid transit and chain broadcasts will be required to break down the heritage of these 150 years.

Distant Fields Not Greener

ASK ME the most noteworthy characteristic of this A corner of Canada, and I shall reply that this is a fragment of New England fallen on the Canadian side of the border. By that statement I do not mean that all the Townships’ pioneers came from the New England States. Nor does the statement cast any aspersion on the district’s loyalty, for certainly the tie known as the British Connection is regarded highly in this vicinitya condition closely related to the fact that many of the early settlers were men who ventured north around I^ake Memphremagog to establish new homes in which they might continue to be subjects of the Crown. If loyalty arises at all, it does so simply as the principal item in which a citizen of Sutton, P. Q., differs from a resident of Richford, adjacent but south of the imaginary line.

The point to be made is that this corner of Canada has the New England mind, and its villages the peculiar quality which is, or should be, known as the New England atmosphere. Swing away from Newport, Vermont, toward Sherbrooke, Quebec, and only the presence of Canadian Customs and Immigration men in the vicinity of Stanstead, and the bilingual signs at railway crossings thereafter, will notify you that you have passed into the confines of another country. The scene itself remains unchanged. The villages retain New England’s charm, the charm of streets lined by aged trees which shade dignified houses of white-painted wood or ivy-clad brick, the charm of wrought-iron hitching posts, of church spires which look to the skies over the tops of ancient elms; the gentle drowsiness of the New England summer and the clean crispness of its winter—a climate which has not been reproduced anywhere on the Green Footstool, so far as my own wanderings reveal.

The people here are men and women of the New England temperament. A Vermonter and a gentleman from Coaticook or Lennoxville are brothers under and above the skin. They look alike. They follow similar pursuits in similar manner. They speak the same dialect. Excepting matters involving their respective nationalistic creeds, they think in the same terms. Even Sherbrooke’s bustling Wellington Street, its public buildings, its homes, its hills, the waters of its Saint Francis River, have the aspect of Burlington or of Bennington and the Northern Berkshires. If he is to judge by the scene and by the habits of the people, the stranger’s tendency must be to believe that he crosses the borders of Canada somewhere on the Montreal side of Granby, possibly as he leaves the apple orchards and truck gardens

of Abbotsford at his back; or. if he comes through Bolton Pass and Knowlton, after he has traversed the long main street of Sweetsburg-n/w-Cowansville and has entered the flatlands of the French Country between Famham and Montreal. This, then, is New England in Quebec, New England with a Union Jack flying from the Court House.

There is a clannishness among the inhabitants of these parts. A majority of these people are kith and kin, for their families have been hereabouts for what might be called Important.

Time as that commodity is measured in the Western world. Farms in the rolling uplands above the villages are tilled today by men bearing the names of those who settled the country in the 1790’s. The mayors, the insurance agents, the hotelkeepers and the horse traders are Townshippers of the fourth and fifth generations.

Some go away to the cities from time to time to become bankers and street-car conductors, but the majority always have remained behind. for the True Townships man has never been a subscriber to the theory that distant fields are greener.

Here, in fine, you have a people who settled a countryside, and then proceeded to behave in a remarkable manner by remaining in it. In all seriousness, I believe that when they venture afield their principal joy derives from coming home to sit near the hot-air register in the front parlor, where they announce how much better off we are in this southwestern corner of Quebec than are the residents of, say, Central Ontario. As for me, I agree.

Thrifty and Tidy

THESE PEOPLE have lived side by side with the realities since the beginning of their days in the land. If life has been good to many of them in the past, it is not because nature poured treasure into their laps, but as the result of unending hours of toil, the proceeds of which were managed by men and women who developed an exceptional capacity for thrift— because only the thrifty could hope to survive. Hence the copper penny has never ceased to be a medium of exchange in these elm-lined villages, for the excellent reason that hard-won money seldom is disbursed in pursuit of folly. The fields of this countryside yield gcxxl crops, but only as the result of hard work between plough handles, with the scythe, the cultivator, and on the business end of a pitchfork.

This is good dairying country, good garden-truck country, good poultry country, good potato country, gcxxi fruit country, and the best maple syrup country in the world, but it is not a soil which gives without careful nurture. Here nature insists upon being wooed, and the result of 150 years of wooing is that these Townships are occupied by men and women of sober mind, ingrained thrift, tidy habit and tidy thought; the sort of people who save bits of string, because all physical objects have ultimate value.

One of two things is bound to happen to a people who undertake back-breaking work from dawn to dark as a life habit: they turn sour or their wit and comments on life develop a mordant quality. When they become bitter it is because nature has refused to pay off on effort ; when they develop a pleasing irony of outlook, it is because Lady Luck has smiled slowly and gently, repaying work not with largesse but with hard-won dividends. Hence the speech of our people has bite in it, and the verbal exchanges of our school-board meetings, our political fiestas, our hockey-league foregatherings, even the tiltings of our ladies over the bridge table, are not noted for the careful concealment of barbed shafts. These people are not given to airy gesture and gay badinage. When a Townshipper turns commentator at the expense of a fellow citizen he scorns the subtleties and takes up the salt cellar.

Such manners, you may say, bespeak a people in whom the refinement of cruelty is present. If you say that,

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however, you are in error. True, the Townshipper is a plain-spoken fellow, particularly when displeased. True, he is critical of folly. True, irony and iron are found in him. Nevertheless he is the kind of man who will take the shirt off his back for you, but with one proviso; the recipient of the shirt must be worthy of aid. These people despise waste, and the rendering of undeserved assistance or of assistance which is not likely to accomplish its purpose are items which they list under that heading.

Solid Citizens

THERE ARE no folk of more independent character in all our nine provinces, even among the Scots of Nova Scotia, and their independence is based on pride. A small holder’s daughter from the hills of Brome is every whit as good as her summer employer, wife of a wealthy industrial executive from Westmount’s upper level. It is not permissible to high-hat a Townshipper, else he or she will walk out on you. More power to ’em!

Here, then, you have the essential ingredients of a people. Take thrift, industry and sobriety of mind and stir them. Add a dash of irony and a pinch of dour philosophy. Mix in a native love of dicker and barter. Add a generous portion of old-fashioned, hard-shell rectitude. Lace through your dish layer on layer of intense local pride and loyalty. Cook in a slow oven, and the result will be an Eastern Townships man. This is the New England temperament, and it is the essence of these people who dwell immediately north of the forty-fifth parallel. There are not many millionaires in these counties, but solid citizens may be counted by the hundred and the thousand. A day’s drive through this well-kept countryside will convince you of the accuracy of the statement.

And what a countryside ! This is a region which rolls down from rugged mountains through fertile foothills to the level ground of the plain. It is a land of placid lakes and of hurtling streams which slacken to dignified pace and saunter on to meet the great Saint Lawrence. Among these hills, beside the waters, sleepy villages nestle among trees in the broad, rich-soiled valleys. Arrant rhapsodizing this, if you like, but I challenge any lover of natural beauty to make his way through Bolton Pass—that amazing natural highway cut between timber-clad cliffs where the Green Mountains thrust north into Quebec—and not fall victim to the Townships’ charms.

Or, if the cynic remains unconvinced, let him clamber up the mountain road above South Bolton and, reaching the summit, look down to the sweeping expanse of Lake Memphremagog. Again at Knowlton, with its Brome Lake, he will find scenes to bring Keswick and Derwentwater to mind, or to remove all need to visit that gem of England’s Lake District. Orford Lake appears around a bend, where the SherbrookeMontreal road runs between the hills, beseeching you to feast your eyes. Or venture toward Hatley and Ayer's Cliff, either from Magog or from Sherbrooke way, and take stock of the landscape which greets your eyes as you top the last rise and, almost by accident, come upon Lake Massawippi, Coniston in a setting of Canadian hills!

Such sentences might be written without end after the fashion of the guidebook ballyhooists, for scarcely a village is without its lake, its river or its millpond, set against hill-country background and calculated to carry any man’s thoughts away from his troubles. Even industrialized Sherbrooke’s setting of hills, trees and winding river renders the capital town’s tangle of railway tracks, flat-topped business blocks and factory chimneys almost inconspicuous. No wonder so many of its sons and daughters are content to remain within the Principality all their days, or cannot return with sufficient speed whenever they venture abroad! No wonder Montreal dons white flannel trousers and beach pyjamas to descend on these Townships en masse in the holiday season!

A Land to Live In

TLJrERE BOARDS groan with good food.

-*• Here dwell the champion pie cooks of North America. Here the homemade pickle industry sets new highs for the rest of Christendom’s housewives to shoot at. We fritter away no time on caviare in the Cantons de l'Est, but when you fancy the kind of food your mother used to conjure from a piping wood stove let me urge you to attend that pace-setter among Lucullan repasts, chicken-pie supper in the church basement. Hereabouts we do not dine. We eat. There is a great deal to be said for the practice, no matter what the dietitians may tell you.

Here “early to bed and early to rise” is more than a copybook maxim, because there is always work waiting for the morrow and chore timéis nota movable feast. But we have our moments. Father drives down to the village after the last milk pail is scalded and stowed in its corner, there to don his bandolier and go to lodge with the boys, just as his urban cousin does. Mother gets around a good deal with the girls of the Ladies’ Aid and the Guild. Likely as not, son and daughter are down at the High School gym tonight, playing basketball or badminton, of all effete city-slicker pursuits! Intervillage hockey rivalry is as hot as any you will find under the Big Top, and, believe it or not, as free from money taint as the rule book proclaims amateur sport should be. More than a few of us worship at the shrine of the revered Master Culbertson and are as aggrieved as any acolyte in Notre Dame de Grace or Rosedale when we discover that we had the makings of a slam and didn't bid it. Here and there you will even find a son of the soil who spends his spare time in pursuit of a little white pellet down closely manicured golf fairways! Last, but not least by any means, remains that basic New England pursuit known in the vernacular of the country as visitin’—• for a check on which I refer you to the community goings-on recorded in that dossier of Principality happenings which issues from the capital town, the Sherbrooke Dally Record. This is a pretty good part of the country in which to reside, unless you insist upon a prospect of grey roofs, smokestacks, gasworks, traffic jams, and buildings which half obscure the sky. Me, I’ll look at a mountain, if it’s all the same to you.

Here, then, you have these Eastern Townships, land of hills and dales, lakes and streams, fertile farmlands and peaceful villages; home of a people who are industrious, thrifty and intensely proud. This is New England in Quebec, Vermont beyond the Imaginary Line, a culturally autonomous group of counties, a Principality within a province. You ought to come and see this country and get to know its people. Take it from a fellow who went to school in the Townships, who served in a Townships battalion in France, who summered here every year after putting away his tin hat and going into the business of being a parent; a fellow who at last has had the good sense to come back to the Townships to live.


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