Line Trouble

Under wartime restrictions life’s a fantastic tangle in the twin border towns of Rock Island, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vermont

LESLIE ROBERTS December 15 1940

Line Trouble

Under wartime restrictions life’s a fantastic tangle in the twin border towns of Rock Island, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vermont

LESLIE ROBERTS December 15 1940

Line Trouble



Under wartime restrictions life’s a fantastic tangle in the twin border towns of Rock Island, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vermont

MAURICE HECHT, the producer, scratched his head and gave e arnest thought to the idea of jumping out the second-story window of Rock Island's Opera House. Just a few days ago his leading lady had walked—or been carried —out on him to go and be separated from her vermiform appendix. Yesterday the R.C.A.F. had notified his leading man it would like him to report for duty tomorrow. Young Betty Bartlett had stepped into the star’s role. Hecht had gone out for coffee and, looking around for a new male lead, hadn’t been able to find anybody but a young producer, name of Hecht. Now here was the last straw, heavily weighted with the lead of sorrow. Uncle Sam, disguised as an immigration officer, was sorry, but the Canadian part of Mr. Hecht’s expected audience couldn’t come in by the front door of the theatre, because the front door happens to be in the United States of America.

Producer Hecht felt pretty sad about the whole business, and wondered why he’d ever gone to college and acquired a lot of intellectual ideas which had finally led him into the Adult Education movement and the business of spreading culture around the Eastern Townships of Quebec. As a result he had on his hands (1) a play; (2) a company of ambitious amateurs ready and willing to take it onto the boards before an audience; (3) a stage situated in the village of Rock Island, P.Q.; (4) a lot of seats clamped down in part to Rock Island and an almost equal number of seats clamped to the incorporated village of Derby Line, Vermont, U.S.A.; (5) a box-office entrance situated in the United States, and (6) a fire escape in Canada. Young Mr. Hecht decided that his Canadian patrons would have to enter the theatre by way of the fire escape.

There remained the question of seating arrangements in an auditorium which is bisected by the international boundary line. Along this line Hecht decided to sling a cable, on one side of which would sit Canadian devotees of the stage, on the other Vermonters. But could he cajole a sufficient number of Canucks to climb the fire escape in the interests of culture to pay the rent, the advertising and the numerous other costs of producing an amateur show? Mr. Hecht was inclined to doubt it. So he went down street, carefully eschewing all contact with parallels of latitude, and talked it over with the boys at the Canadian Customs, with the local ministers, with Mayor Holland of Rock Island, and pretty nearly anybody else who cared to listen. Within a day or so Rock Island was beginning to mutter. What kind of a town to live in was this getting to be. if a citizen couldn't walk around a few feet of grass and roadway to get into the library and opera house, because Uncle Sam insisted on passports and visas?

Next day, to Mr. Hecht’s good fortune, a travelling U. S. immigration inspector dropped in at the Derby Line station, there to learn of the impending riot of the good townsfolk of Rock Island against climbing fire escapes to enter a building, through the front door of which they had been in the habit of walking for numerous decades. Was the door to be closed to them simply because a war is being fought three thousand miles away and the United States wants to become an exclusive club? The Derby Liners were every bit as wrought up as the Rock Islanders. So the visiting official passed the word to his myrmidons on the station that it would be okay to allow Canadians to enter the opera house by the front door if they first reported to

the U. S. office and said they were going to the show.

Nobody was arrested for illegal entry; but every Canadian present was carefully watched across the Line when the show was over. And while the performance proceeded, each good burgher watched the heroine fade toward the manly arms of the male lead from whichever side of the boundary-line rope on which it was proper for said burgher to be sitting.

Communal Fantasy

NO WORD but “screwy” suitably describes the course of human life in the twin communities of Rock Island. Que., and Derby Line, Vt., since midnight of the last day of June, 1940. The condition overflows up the hill into Stanstead and down the river road to Beebe, but the apex of communal madness is achieved on a thin strip of blacktopped roadway in the heart of what is physically one town, but legally two, each of which, so far as the other is concerned, is in a foreign country.

Not one of Rock Island’s 2.ÍXX) inhabitants had ever thought of the foreign angle before. Nor had any of Derby Line's 500 dwellers. The two towns were one. People came and went with no more than a wave of the hand. en passant, at the customs and immigration offices. Ministers of the Gospel shepherded flocks on either side of the parallel. Rock Islanders went to work in Derby Line and Derbyites in the mills on the Canadian side. Canadian Government officers lived on the American side of the border; American officials bought homes on the Canadian side. Houses were built astride the boundary.

When the Haskell family presented the community with a library and theatre, the resulting edifice turned out to be part in Canada and part in the United States, but nobody gave it a thought. Boys and girls from adjacent Stanstead College casually walked across the border to sip sodas in their favorite tuck shop. To sum up the matter, the co-operation of these villages tucked away in the southern Continued on page 33

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comer of Quebec and the northwestern tip of Vermont, ran back so far into history that it is recorded that when Britain and the United States went to war in 1812, the good villagers and husbandmen on either side of the Line agreed to ignore the whole silly business and carry on their mutual affairs as usual.

Then came the first day of July, 1940, on which, by edict from Washington, nobody could cross the border into the United States from Canada unless he carried a passport, properly visaed. The result was bedlam. Now, months later, bedlam has subsided, and only a condition of congenital insanity remains.

Over-the-line trade, of course, is at a standstill. The normal lives of four or five thousand people have been shunted into new routes, most of which turn out to be culs-de-sac. The issuing of passports and of local thumb-print cards (good for restricted travel on a month-to-month basis) has alleviated the scramble in some degree. But hundreds upon hundreds of Canadians, living in the Rock IslandStanstead-Beebe area, who have no justifiable business reasons for crisscrossing the boundary, have not set foot in Derby Line—in other words, in the southerly part of their own home town—since Dominion Day, 1940, and are not likely to do so for some time to come.

When the lid went down on the border, scarcely one citizen of Rock Island, Stanstead or Beebe was prepared. Readers adjacent to the frontier in other parts of the Dominion will recall that not even Ottawa seemed to know what was about to happen until the Washington ukase went into effect. For a fortnight people had gone about saying King and Roosevelt would probably straighten it all out between them. Day by day news items appeared in

the press which seemed to indicate that the passport requirement would be lifted for Canadians before the zero hour.

So nobody had a visa, and virtually the only people on the Canadian side w'ho could walk up the hill into Derby Line were customs and immigration officers from the Rock Island port. The Government gentlemen did a land office business in fetching and carrying those first few days, for it had been the practice of Rock Islanders to maintain post-office boxes on the American side, primarily because mail deliveries are faster over there. Thus, during the early days of July blue-uniformed figures might have been seen carrying armfuls of letters, parcels and newspapers for delivery to Canadian householders who lined up at the customs counters, establishing an informal post office of their own. This went along for two or three days. Tempers were a trifle shorter than usual. Rock Island’s state of mind might have been called aggrieved by anyone interested in understatement. Then the lid blew off . . .

International Give and Take

ON THE fourth of July a prominent citizen of Derby Line died under tragic circumstances. Charlie Oswald had been the twin-towns’ undertaker, head of the American Legion in Derby, and a highly popular citizen along the border. When news of the accident which resulted I in his death was flashed to Doctor Arthur White on the Canadian side, the good medico promptly headed for the boundary. Reaching it, he stalked straight on until he came to the Oswald home, a challenging ¡ glitter in his eye. Nobody interfered with : him. Then friends took charge of the j funeral arrangements, and Rock Islanders ,

began to enquire what they could do about climbing the hill to attend the service and follow the cortege.

A considerable head-shaking went on. Nolxtdy seemed to know what was going to happen. Men began to say, “I’m going to Charlie’s funeral anyway. Like to see anybody stop me!” And when the day arrived, word was sent across the Line that Canadians would be welcomed in Derby Line, provided they would go straight to the church and check out of the country as soon as the service ended. Rock Island went to Vermont en masse that afternoon.

Meanwhile prominent citizens of Rock Island were beginning to slip off to Sherbrooke, thirty-live miles away, in search of the valuable visas which would pass them into the adjacent country. Mostly they came back to declare the task was hopeless. Principal Amaron of Stanstead College reported that he had taken his place in the queue at five-thirty in the morning, hut that it was still a day’s work to acquire a visa. Before the week was out the border folk liad just about given up.

On the first Sunday, the Reverend IL A. Carson, of Rock Island’s United Church, discovered that his two outlying flocks, across the line in rural Vermont, must go shepherdless. Father Deseve of the Roman Catholic congregation faced a similar problem. The Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs of the border villages found that they must meet on the Canadian side — Vermont citizens did not face similar border restrictions—or not at all. Husbands and wives found themselves separated for weeks on end by technicalities of citizenship. Rock Island girls slipped quietly down to the Line to meet their Derby sweethearts and hold hands across a boundary post.

When British refugee children were quartered at the big boarding school atop the hill in Stanstead, one of the lady staff members who was so fortunate as to possess a border permit, slipped across into Derby Line to buy essential articles of wearing apparel for one of the youngsters. The teacher returned bearing a skirt and a gingham dress. The Canadian Customs looked over the items. Patiently they explained that it is not now permissible to cross the frontier and buy things without first (illing in a budget of forms and securing the permission of the Foreign Exchange Control Board to squander five dollars.

With equal patience the lady teacher pointed out that in order to make such purchases in Canada she must go to Sherbrooke or Magog, a matter of seventy miles driving in either case. Meanwhile the little girl, fresh from England, must have a skirt. Customs pondered the matter. All right, they said in effect, you are facing an emergency; you may keep the skirt. But you’ll have to walk back up the hill and take back the dress. This in a community where‘nobody ever thought of opening a dress shop for the excellent reason that such an establishment was already in business in Derby Line, and there obviously wasn’t room for two.

Exchange questions have not contributed as greatly to the communal problem as has the passport imbroglio, but the ban on money-movement has played no small part in the chaos which has descended on this international community. Last July Canada drew a ring around its own borders, even around funds belonging to Canadian nationals in foreign parts. Now, besides the lid being clamped down on entry into the States, there was added the impost against spending Canadian dollars beyond the border. In a community which had shopped back and forth throughout its history almost as though a state of free trade existed—on the simple economic rule of tit-for-tat—the result, to state it mildly, was confusion. Canadians had to establish contacts with new retailers. Often they had to journey afield as far as thirtyfive miles to make simple purchases they had been accustomed to completing just a few steps up Main Street. Rock Island

didn't like the idea. And Rock Island made no bones about it.

A House Divided

TDONDER, for example, the strange case of Mr. W. E. Norris, an American citizen whose house is virtually bisected by the border. In fact, Mr. Norris’ parlor and two upstairs bedrooms are in the United States, whereas the kitchen, dining room and two other bedrooms are in Canada. What does Mr. Norris do about this?

The answer is simple. He buys his foodstuffs in Canada. Fortunately both rooms associated with the preparation and consumption of food are in the same country. But when it comes to acquiring a new car, Mr. Norris buys in Vermont and saves the Canadian uppage in price, for the excellent reason that, when in the front portion of his home, Mr. Norris is a resident on United States soil.

All this is extremely puzzling, to the authorities as much as to the lay resident or the visitor from the interior. I f passport problems have been straightened out in some degree, the same cannot he said of trade problems, in support of which statement it may be noted that the daily average for Canadian cars passing south through the Rock Island border port is now ten, whereas two hundred was regarded as a fair day’s assessment prior to the first of July.

There are, of course, variations to the main theme—the occasional trader who benefits from conditions. Down toward Beeide, for example, the road from Rock Island runs for a considerable distance astraddle the Line, which then gradually diagonals away into the fields. In this area, in which it is impossible to ascertain whether one is in the United States or Canada without the assistance of a surveyor, stand two service stations, one in each country, and immediately across the way from each other. The same gentleman owns the two places. What motorist can tell to which tank he should pull up in order to comply with the law?

And so Rock Island-Derby Line’s strange border jumble continues. The midsummer madness of July, 1940, has somewhat abated. Citizens submit to thumb-printing the comers of identification cards and to monthly re-examination, when required, in order to go to and fiom their daily labors. Those not so vitally concerned have swallowed with as good grace as they can muster, restrictions which forbid them walking up the hill after supper for a quiet bridge game with friends.

Sweethearts meet and clasp hands across the border. People whose ancestors ignored a war between the U. S. and what is now the Dominion, tell each other it is all probably highly necessary, and jestingly tell the visitor this is the border country’s contribution to the impending defeat of Herr Hitler.

But nobody likes it. As this is written, conferences between representatives of Canada and the U. S. are being arranged to consider the relaxing of certain stringent border regulations now in force. Yet, even with helpful changes in sight, the people of these two towns and the tributary areas up into Stanstead and out to Beebe, shake their heads with more than a suspicion of sadness, and tell you they doubt that things in the community will ever be the same again.