Chapter Nine Mae Skilling

Mae ( Marion Emma) was born on June 2, 1885 when Orville was 23 months, Maude barely 4 years, and Floss was 6 ½. She was 12 years my senior. My mother said Mae was the most ‘aggressive’ of our family, but she did not use that exact word. Mae distinctly had qualities of leadership from an early age.

My earliest recollection of her is when she and Gert left home to attend a Teacher Training School called ‘Model School’ in Mount Forest, Ontario. This was a four month course which gave them what was called a Third Class Teaching Certificate. A group of six of them went: Mae and Gert, Merle Mann, Louise Howson, Wilma Johnson and Gladys McPherson (who later married Dr. Midford Gillies, and was mother of James Gillies, former MPP). Gladys, the last survivor of this group died in January 1980 at the age of 94. These girls were an extremely clever and peppy bunch. I was about 10 at the time and worshipped them. All were accomplished singers and formed a double trio which performed in the Teeswater area. I reveled in the times they came to our house to practice. 

About this time I used to take a great interest in watching them dress for parties and singing engagements. I was put in bed by this time but wasn’t asleep. First, they put on a corset which was laced up the back, with the laces pulled very tight, so that their waists were quite tiny and their hips looked quite large. This was a desirable contrast, and I remember hearing a lady once compliment Mae on her nice plump hips. That wasn’t enough. They would then pad the hips out with what was called ‘a bustle’, a four or five inch thick padding fastened around the tiny waist with tapes. Next came the tight ‘under waist’, designed to flatten their bosom, and upon this was pinned a sort of bib with many starched frills, each edged with valentine’s lace. This gave a nice round smooth front for their shirt waists and hid any semblance of breasts. If no one was around to pull the laces of the corset, the lace was looped around the bed post and the lone person getting dressed would walk a few steps to tighten the corset.
In those days all the women had long hair. The front of the hair was combed down over the face, furiously backcombed, and on top was pinned ‘a rat’, about three inches in diameter. This was made of their combings or could be purchased. They securely pinned it from ear to ear then with one grand sweep, threw the teased hair up over the ‘rat’ and produced what was called ‘a pompadour’. The back hair got the same treatment: the ends were formed into a knot or a figure 8 and pinned securely with many hair pins.
Then the hats were placed on top of this masterpiece of hairdressing and fastened securely with great long sharp hat pins which often had a gorgeous knob on the end. (The hat pins, I heard, could also be used as a means of self-defense.)

Mae was musically gifted and played the piano and violin in the Teeswater Orchestra.
About this time (around 1905?) Mae got a job teaching in a remote place called Scotland, on Manitoulin Island. She talked for years about the hardships of the winter and earned the princely sum of $250 a year. After Mae saved enough money, she and Gert registered at Normal School in Toronto to upgrade their qualifications. They lived with Orville and Rose Skilling.
Mae was accepted on the staff of the Toronto Board and in a few years climbed to assistant principal at Perth Avenue Public School, an unusual position for a woman at the time. She held this position for many years.

While at Perth Avenue School she trained and directed the school choir. For nine years in a row, they were awarded the Gold Shield at the All Toronto Elementary Schools Music Festival, held annually on Empire Day at Massey Hall. It became a foregone conclusion that Perth Avenue School would sweep the awards even with different adjudicators. Others began to complain that some schools would not enter the competition as there was no chance of winning. One day the judges gave First Place to another school and Mae was devastated by the loss.  She called it “jealousy”.
That was a hard summer for us. Even though I was thrilled to have her home, it wasn’t long before she was slapping and yelling at me. I could never do anything right in her eyes.  We kids learned to tread lightly when Mae was around as one never knew when that left hand would whack us out of the blue.
Mae had a boyfriend named George McQuibban whom she met at ‘Model School’ in Mount Forest. That seemed to me to be the ultimate in love stories. She talked about him a great deal but I never met him because, when he came to Teeswater, Vern and I were shipped off to friends in the country. George was going to medical college. This ‘affair’ went on for years and years. (I use the word ‘affair’ in the connotation of 1912 not 1980.) Alas, around 1917 or 1918, George ended the relationship. He was going blind and died a few years later.
I admired Mae tremendously with all the glamour surrounding her. She could be most generous. When any financial help was needed for education, she was the first to offer. She paid my board and fees when I went to Normal School in Stratford. When Harold and Bill returned from the war in 1920 she was right there to help. When I had to have a serious operation at Easter of my Normal School year and had given up all hopes of passing, she encouraged me to take some of my exams in bed and others in a private room. Fortunately I passed. I wonder if I ever paid her back or thanked her sufficiently. She also rallied us all around to help pay Harold’s expenses at Dental College when he returned from France. There was no Department of Veterans’ Affairs in those days.
Mae was a natural comedienne and could keep a roomful of people in stitches for a whole evening with her mimicking. She had a way of making funny faces that would have me rolling on the floor, helpless with laughter.

Mae had begun teaching music appreciation in the classroom where her talent was recognized by the Columbia Gramophone Company. There was a developing interest in the use of phonograph records as an educational device.  Mae was offered a job with Columbia teaching music appreciation, writing to music, folk dancing etc. in Normal Schools and Colleges. She travelled across Canada, all expenses paid and for the unheard of salary at the time, of $3000 a year. She once gave me a present with a tag saying “to Norma, from the three thousand dollar lady”.
In 1924 she gave up all this affluence and married Wadd Mason, a widower with a 10 year old daughter named Doris. They lived on Hillsdale Avenue in north Toronto.

When the music teacher at Toronto Normal School died suddenly in 1930, Mae was called in to replace him. Later she was approached to direct a Toronto Women Teachers’ Choir. She trained them beautifully and for a few years she filled Massey Hall and Eaton auditorium for two nights with lovely choral music.
Mae and Wadd had one of the first camping trailers and went on trips coast to coast every summer. When Wadd retired, they bought five acres near Unionville, Ontario and lived in the trailer while Wadd set about building a lovely substantial home for them with his own hands.
“The Farm” as we called it, with its large garden and beautiful apple orchard, became a Mecca for their large circle of friends and the family. We always felt welcome to come whether it was to skate on the ice on the little lazy river that wound through the property, to gather spring flowers, to devour strawberries, to load the car up with vegetables, to have corn roasts, to pick apples or to have Christmas dinners or New Year’s Eve parties. So many memories there.
During the last few years of her life, Mae seemed to have much less energy though she still had a great interest in life and all her surroundings. She died on August 2, 1967 and has been sorely missed both by her wide circle of friends and all the family.

Chapter Eight Orville Skilling

Orville was born June 16, 1883. He was only 13 when I was born but I have no early recollection of my eldest big brother. He was always playful with me and taught me how to waltz, although dancing was frowned upon by our parents. With a lovely tenor voice, he would often sing “Goodbye My Bluebell” and other songs popular at the time of the Boer War. He used to slip me the odd penny and would dance me on his knees. He had a quick temper that would sometimes flare up but was soon over. When we used to stand around the piano and he would sing with that clear beautiful tenor voice putting harmony, I was really in heaven.

Orville left school when he was quite young and went to Toronto. He married Rose Darling there in 1909 and she was a wonderful wife. Their home was a happy one and whenever I visited, there was a lot of fun and laughter. When they were first married they lived on Wascana Avenue in Cabbagetown, when it really was Cabbagetown. Orville was a very hard worker and had a great talent for business. He started off working for himself going door to door selling butter and eggs. Soon he had a horse and wagon and continued to expand. (If you have seen the Kraft Cheese ad on television, you know what kind of wagon I mean.)As his business grew, he bought 311 Jones Avenue, a block above Riverdale Collegiate with a large yard and stables in the back, and a lane at the side of the house. Before long he had about 12 employees and was doing a thriving business.
Orville and Rose had four children: Grace, the twins Jack and Marion, then a son Harold William, the latter named after my brothers Harold and Bill, both off fighting in France at the time of his birth.

When the twins were 9 months and Grace was about 3, I spent 2 months of the summer holiday helping Rose with housework and the children. I was only 16 and had a lot to learn. Rose taught me so much and gave me good advice. I am forever grateful to her. She also made me some very nice dresses.
At Easter 1918 I was in Normal School and had to have a very serious operation for appendicitis with complications of a bowel perforation and gangrene. There was no Ontario Health Insurance then and I had no money. My wonderful big brother Orville paid the doctor and all my hospital expenses.
When the Spanish Influenza epidemic struck in September 1918, I had just started teaching. My school was closed so I went back to Teeswater along with sister Gert and 2 year old Merren who were visiting from Calgary. Gert was pregnant with Jean and it was said that this flu could be fatal for pregnant women. In Toronto Orville was sick in bed but got up to go and help the widow of one of his employees who had succumbed to the flu. He returned, went to bed, and never got up. His little daughter Marion died on October 18th and Orville on October 21st. They were buried in the same grave in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
Orville was a going concern when he died at 35 years of age. He was a good father as well as a wonderful husband, son and brother. He left behind a grieving widow, a daughter Grace of 6 ½, Jack nearly 5 and Harold only 16 months. Young Harold was just walking then and carried his father’s hat wherever he went for days after Orville’s death.
The world lost a wonderful man in his prime and on his way to his first million dollars. He left behind a great many descendants who will carry on his tradition of doing good in the world.

Chapter Seven Maude Skilling

The second child born to our parents was Eugenia Maude on June 29, 1881. Like Floss, she had bright brown eyes and dark hair, but a much quieter and gentler manner than her older sister. She had a lovely singing voice and was an accomplished pianist.

She too, was away from home when I was little, but spent more time in Teeswater in my childhood than Floss. She was very loving and treated us younger children with affection and grace. She played the violin in the Teeswater Orchestra and had music pupils in Gorrie, Fordwich, and Wroxeter in Huron County, as well as being organist on the large pipe organ in the big church in Gorrie. These villages were not far from Teeswater so she got home fairly often. She travelled to these places by train and the fare was only a few cents in those days.
I was always delighted when Maude came home. She would curl my hair and never pulled when she was combing it. I loved to hear her play the piano. Whenever singers came to give concerts in Teeswater, she was called on as an accompanist and complimented for her skill. The ‘Sons of Scotland’ used to bring talent and put on what we called the ‘Scotch Concert’ every year in Teeswater. Maude used to tell me how the performers made up behind the scenes: added little false curls to their hairdo and even painted their cheeks. 

Maude married Lambert Stinson from Gorrie in 1915. He was quite a humorist and always looked nice as he was a very classy dresser. He was quite a clever man and the story was that he had passed his exams for University Entrance at age 15 and his parents enrolled him in Victoria College. They later were informed that Lambert had never turned up for classes; so his father went down to investigate and found his son working at pasting up signs on billboards. He just didn’t want to go in for higher learning. When Maude met him he was the proprietor of a little butcher shop in Gorrie, Ontario.
Maude and Lambert left Gorrie after their marriage and went to live in Toronto. Maude always had a large piano class and kept a number of boarders, usually teachers. Lambert worked for my brother Orville in the office as a bookkeeper. After Orville died in 1918 Lambert became a car salesman. Maude sang as a paid singer in the Eaton Memorial Choir and was one of Sir Ernest MacMillan’s favourite choristers. Lambert also sang there.
Maude and Lambert never had any children and this was a great disappointment to them. (She had a large tumour removed from her uterus at one time.) Maude however showered a lot of love on her little nieces and nephews. Orville’s children, Jack, Grace and Harold, all went up to Aunt Maude’s every Saturday morning for their gratis music lessons. Our two children were too young to avail themselves of her wonderful talents as a teacher, but she loved them dearly and they loved her too.
When Ray and I were married in 1926, Maude took over complete responsibility for the catering and had plates for 30 guests. As there was no refrigeration then, these plates were all taken down to the cool basement and carried up again for the wedding supper. I wonder if I ever thanked her enough.
Maude had a thyroid condition which was wrongly diagnosed by her doctor. When she went to have the operation, it was too late, and she succumbed to complete dehydration. My dear, gentle, patient, kind, loving and generous sister passed away too soon.

Chaper Six Floss Skilling

My eldest sister was christened Florence Elizabeth but always called Floss or Flossie. She was born December 6, 1878 and by the time I was born in 1896, Floss had moved to Aurora, Ontario to work as a milliner.  I was told she taught piano before that. She was an accomplished pianist, but had many other talents as well. Floss had dark hair and snapping brown eyes that were almost always crinkled up in laughter. She had a wonderful sense of humour and in 1902, she married Will Guinn who had an even greater wit and a very congenial personality.

Their wedding is my earliest recollection of either of them. I was six when they were married in our tiny house in Teeswater, with Mae and Maude as bridesmaids. I do not remember the bride as much as I remember the bridesmaids’ white organdy gowns with many tucks and ruffles. I thought they looked like angels. The crowning event of that day for me was when the bridegroom gave me the stupendous gift of a whole dime with instructions to buy myself some ‘Newports’. Newport Chocolates were the elite chocolate of the day and I felt like a very lucky girl.
Floss and Will took up residence at Gore Bay on Manitoulin Island where Will started a monument business. In 1903 their first child Marion Winnifred was born, named ‘Marion’ for our paternal grandmother and ‘Winnifred’ after Winnifred Nixon, Floss’ best friend. I remember my mother went to Gore Bay to be present at the birth, taking my younger brother Vernon, aged 2, with her. I was left at home at the mercy of my older sisters. When Marion was 11 months old, the next child, Ruxton made his appearance.

Floss with Ruxton and Marion Winnifred Guinn
c. 1905
 I’m not sure when they moved to Neepawa, Manitoba but they lived there for their remaining years and produced seven fine children. Will moved his monument business there and was very successful.
Floss and I used to say to each other we were distantly related as she was the first and I was the ninth of our parents’ children.  Over the years she spent considerable time with us and this was when I really got to know her.  She had very high ideals and worked very hard to bring up her children to be fine citizens. She was an ardent member of the Eastern Star and the Methodist (later United) Church.

I visited them in the summer of 1920 when I was teaching in Winnipeg, and saw why they had such a happy home. She told me once she always hated to see Will Guinn go out the door. They were a truly devoted couple.  She lived to be 83 years old and still retained a youthful outlook on life. She never ceased to grieve for Will Guinn, who died several years before her.

Chapter Five Our House on Railway Street in Teeswater, Ontario

The house all nine of us were raised in was quite small and certainly had none of the conveniences of homes today. How my mother coped with what she had to work with and sent out her 9 children well-dressed, well-fed, with good manners, and the ability to absorb as much education as was available in Teeswater, I do not know.

Skilling House
Teeswater, ON c. 1910
The house contained fairly large living room or parlour which was called “The Room”. It had a carpet woven of rags with a dark border around the edges. It was tacked down and was lifted every spring and fall, taken out to the backyard, and whacked with a carpet beater. This was a wire a heavy wire in a long loop with the two ends driven into a wooden handle. We all took turns whacking the dust out of the carpet, no doubt working out a lot of hostilities unknowingly. (No one had ever heard of hostilities or working out anger then!) We always had a piano, a couch, several cane bottomed chairs and two rocking chairs. I don’t know what became of them. We did not know enough to appreciate or preserve them.
Off “the Room” were two bedrooms. The one at the front of the house was occupied by our parents and the other was the “spare room”. Some of the family slept there and vacated it when we had company. In those days people would visit each other for several days or weeks at a time. This was the room occupied by our father when he nearly died of typhoid fever in 1902. I remember at 6 peeking in at him in fear when he was delirious. His face was red and he was raving. Many people died of typhoid at that time as it was easily transmitted by unsafe water.
Our paternal grandmother Marion Cochrane Skilling McIntosh also died in that room. I remember peeking in again then and hearing my father saying:  “Mother, mother can you hear me? Squeeze my hand if you can hear me.” I remember a little of the funeral in 1902 and seeing my aunts with white shirt waists tucked into long black skirts. The skirts had little trains on them and their tiny waists above bustles gave them an interesting figure. I remember seeing them with their hands over their faces standing in different windows weeping.
We had another fairly large room on the main floor which contained the wood stove. The stove was brought into that room in the fall and taken out to what was the summer kitchen in the spring. It was always a very traumatic affair, heaving that heavy iron stove down 2 steps and setting it up out there. Moving it also necessitated removal of the stovepipes which extended half way across the room to the chimney and were usually filled with soot. These pipes were about 9 inches in diameter and were composed of many short lengths about 30 inches long fitted together. It was essential to be very careful when removing them as the pieces could come apart spraying everything nearby with soot. Sometimes some of my brothers would get impatient and try to hurry. The deluge of soot was nothing compared to the roar of epithets from our father. Mother was usually patient but this activity used to raise her ire too. We all breathed a sigh of relief when the pipes were set outside well beyond the house. They we had to bang the pipes with sticks until all the winter’s soot was dislodged before putting them in their summer quarters.
This same room also contained a work table with a leaf which could be raised to hold extra things or dropped to a flat perpendicular position on hinges when not in use. These are called “fall leaf or drop leaf tables” and can bring a pretty penny now at auctions. Mother did her baking here and I washed the dishes here too. Just beside this table was the pantry door and this was the only place our mother had for storing food. She usually had 100 lb. bags of flour and sugar which stood on the floor. This pantry was under the stairs and its space diminished as the stairs came down.  On the floor of the pantry was a trap door with hinges which could be opened by lifting a metal ring then fastening the ring on a large hook attached to a lower shelf.  This was the inside entrance to the cellar. Often people with short memories would go off and leave that trap door open. It appalls me to think we all made it to adulthood without anyone falling down those stairs. Only one minor disaster I know of occurred and it is still a family anecdote. One summer our brother Orville and his four lively children were visiting us and my mother, using the outside entrance, had set a couple of pans of milk on the cellar steps for the cream to rise. She would then skim off the lovely thick rich cream and leave the skim milk. Someone left the trap door open in the pantry and little Jack (one of the twins), 20 months old, opened the pantry door and hurtled down the steps right into the two pans of milk. We all worried about his safety but found nothing but a skinned upper lip. He kept showing his sore lip to everyone saying: “Fa down a milk”. To this day, that is a family saying.
At the other end of the room was the dining room, with an oak extension dining room table, a cupboard for the dishes, and several chicken coop chairs painted yellow. My job every Saturday was to wash all these chairs. I was proud of my handiwork. Our father’s desk stood at the end of the room and was called “the secretary”. It had a bookcase above enclosed with 2 glass doors. One of the books inside I remember was a doctor book and the front and back pages were an ugly colour I called “bitter”. My father kept great ledgers where he accounted for every twenty-five cents. Why I don’t know, since he never balanced them that I know of and there weren’t even any income taxes then!
Mother’s sewing machine stood under the window at the end of the room. Along one side was what we called “the lounge”, a plain upholstered couch raised at one end. This couch was so comfortable that nearly every evening one or another of us children had to be carried up to bed, having succumbed to the sandman in eyes of a tired child after a busy day. My brother Bill occasionally used to have night terrors after falling asleep on the lounge.

Two steps down took us to the summer kitchen which contained a table, the wood stove in summer, and a cupboard of sorts and the wash tub. Under the table was another trap door, similar to the one in the pantry, but when it was opened, it disclosed the cistern which collected all the rain and melted snow collected and piped from the eaves around the outside of the house. We never had a pump for it. To obtain water we had a pail with a chain attached to the handle. The pail was dangled down to the surface of the water and, with an adroit twist of the wrist, was turned over and sank in the cool depths then drawn up hand over hand. This is the way we obtained all our water used for washing clothes, bathing, and washing hands and faces in an enamel basin set on a backless chair. Again I am shaken at the thought of how easily any of us might have drowned, so easy would it have been to slip into that deep cistern.

Chapter Four My Mother Agnes Ruxton

My mother Agnes Ruxton was born on July 3, 1860 in Woolwich Township, Waterloo County, Ontario. She married John Skilling when she was about 17 in about 1877. I don’t know the date or the year because they never mentioned their wedding anniversary and I regret that I never questioned them. I do know that all the ladies wore hoops under their skirts at that time.

I remember my mother telling me of the time when it was becoming fashionable for the girls to leave off their hoops. Another girl dared her to go to an event without her hoops, promising to do likewise. My mother took up the dare but the other girl chickened out, much to my mother’s great embarrassment.
My mother’s father was named Andrew[1] Ruxton and her mother was Nancy Smith, a Pennsylvania Dutch girl I am told. She died of cancer before I was born.
My mother was a gentle, sweet, kind woman.  She had been a tailoress before being married and was quite musical. She had a good alto voice and usually sang in Father’s choirs when she was not pregnant or nursing a baby. They had 10 children all born in Teeswater. So you see our dear little mother had little time for anything else but mothering and housekeeping.

Agnes Ruxton Skilling
My mother did not have many conveniences. There was no hydro or indoor plumbing of course, and I remember how the wind would whistle up the holes of what was politely called “the water closet”. We never had a well but got our drinking water from our next door neighbour’s pump. We had a cistern which provided lovely soft rain water for bathing and laundry.
Saturday night was bath night and the wash tub was brought in to the kitchen beside the nice warm wood-burning stove.  There was a copper tank at the back of the wood-stove which, if kept filled with soft water, provided hot water for dishes and the bath. It was usually supplemented with the copper wash boiler which was put on top of the stove. We each took our turn in order of age, beginning with the youngest. Some water was dipped out and some clean water put in after each bather finished.
Bathing was only one ritual of the weekend. Our shoes were also all polished and set out ready for Sunday. Wood and kindling were split and neatly laid out for Sunday morning’s fire. Often the vegetables were prepared and as much work as possible done so that the Sabbath could be religiously kept.
On Sundays no music except hymns could be sung or played. No sports could be indulged in. One activity permitted was taking a walk. In my mid-teens a young man, a student at the university, came home and took his younger two brothers skating on the pond. There was a great hue and cry from all the church members. This was aggravated by the fact that these were the sons of superintendent of the Sunday School who had so gravely sinned by ‘breaking the Sabbath’.
Our family of John and Aggie were taught to respect the Sabbath and to eschew all forms of card playing and dancing. We attended church services at 11 a.m., then Sunday school at 2:30 p.m., and back to the evening service at 7 p.m. Then we often went for a walk depending on the weather or the season. Usually our family would go home, bringing a friend or two, to have a sing-song around the piano. We all sang in harmony, with someone holding the lamp so that whoever was playing could see the music. My brother Orville had a particularly beautiful tenor voice as did Harold. My father and Bill were baritones and Mother, Mae and Gert were alto. Maude and I sang soprano and we certainly all delighted in harmonizing the old gospel songs. Then we went up to bed, carrying a lamp to each of the upstairs bedrooms.

My mother was a peace loving woman. She always seemed to be making excuses for anyone who got into trouble for failing to reach a very high standard of character or behavior. That is not to say she wasn’t high spirited or couldn’t on occasion get very angry, but at the same time, I think of her as the most compassionate person I ever knew. How else could she have kept her sanity while raising 9 children, all so different and all of whom adored her? I do not think I ever heard her say “I love you” but there was no doubt in any of our minds that she did love us all dearly. I recall one day some kids made some insulting remark to me that hurt me greatly. Who it was or what was said has been long forgotten. I do remember as I ran home crying I was thinking: “Well if nobody else likes me, I know that Ma does anyway.”
We never had much money but the thought that we were poor never entered our heads. In fact, at special occasions like Christmas, we always gave to the poor. Our mother kept us well-dressed even though she would have to rip up a thread-bare overcoat and turn the nice new-looking inside to the outside. When our older brothers and sisters outgrew their clothes, we younger ones fell heir to them. I rarely had a brand-new dress, but I was so proud of my sisters’ clothes that I couldn’t wait until they discarded them.
My mother’s sister Emma, whose husband, uncle Alvah Watson was stationmaster for the railroad in Michigan, often sent us a parcel of her used clothing. We received with delight these fine clothes made of beautiful fabrics. Mother would often sit up till long after midnight, with the lamp placed in a strategic position on the treadle sewing machine, in order to have some garment or outfit ready for a special occasion for one of us.
My mother always moved very quickly when chopping things up or rolling out pie crust or kneading bread. Her very large eyes were brown but not dark brown. I suppose you could call them hazel. I often used to see her deep in thought, staring out into the distance with those warm brown eyes wide open and her thoughts far away. She had very long, lovely dark brown almost black hair which she wore in a large coil at the back of her head, called a ‘Psyche’ knot. She often wore it parted in the middle and drawn back in waves over her ears to the back. These waves were achieved by winding the hair back and forth through very large hairpins kept for that purpose. I loved to brush her hair which came down to the choir seat. In those days women considered it an accomplishment to be able to sit on their hair. As she grew older, her hair became streaked with grey but never white. She never had it cut. Rosemary and Ned have inherited hair similar to my mother’s and I like to think mine used to be like hers too.

[1] likely her father was David Ruxton not Andrew

Chapter Three My Father John Skilling

Agnes & John Skilling and his sister
c. 1878

My father John Skilling, the oldest son of John Skilling and Marion Cochrane, was born in Galt, Ontario on December 8, 1853. He was 11 years old when his father was killed and he had to quit school and get a job to help with the finances. I don’t know exactly what my father did at that time, but I’m sure there was a great deal of variety because, as I remember him, he could turn his hand to almost anything. He was a self-taught man and read everything he could in science, history and world geography.

As he grew up, he became a master painter of houses, not pictures, but re-graining of woodwork in houses, very popular at the time. He taught himself to sight read music using the “sol-fa method”, and in later years he conducted many “singing schools” around the rural areas. This was often the only way many people could achieve proficiency in music. His classes gave them the opportunity to learn music and brought pleasure to their lives. He was very musically gifted and had perfect pitch. He taught himself to play many instruments including the piano, organ, violin, trumpet and trombone.

My father kept his tuning fork in his vest pocket, the way men keep their Parker pens nowadays. One of my earliest memories is hearing him get out his tuning fork, tap it on the table to find middle C, sing ‘doh, so, me, doh’ and then start to sight read a pile of new songs just sent to him by various music publishing houses in the city.
My father used to be a choir leader in our Methodist church (now United ). But, by 1903 some larger churches such as Knox Presbyterian were eager for his services, not only in Teeswater, but in Wingham and other surrounding larger towns. When he was away, his pupils would take over in Teeswater. He was leader of the first ‘Old Boys and Girls Reunion Choir’ in 1905. His choirs were highly praised by visitors from other parts of Ontario.
All my brothers and sisters were very musical and sang and played in Father’s choirs and orchestras. By 1909 there was a Teeswater Methodist Sunday School Orchestra in which my brother Vernon, at 9 years of age, played the violin.
In addition to directing choirs and orchestras, John Skilling was an entrepreneur. His personal stationary letterhead around 1903 read as follows:
“John Skilling – Dealer in High-Grade pianos, organs, gramophones and records, small instruments, books and music, sewing machines, etc.”
He travelled to places like Gorrie, Bervie, Proton, and Port Elgin by horse and buggy. It is said that he had a horse, thin and poor looking, that he called ‘Ladysmith’. When eventually the horse died and was replaced by another similar one, the local men called her ‘The Relief of Ladysmith’.

In 1917-18 my father travelled by train to Neepawa, Manitoba, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and Calgary, Alberta to sell musical instruments. While in Neepawa visiting my sister Floss, he stayed for awhile working at tuning pianos and giving vocal lessons.

Teeswater Methodist Sunday School Orchestra
c. 1909

By 1917 John Skilling was directing a male chorus in Teeswater. His choirs and orchestras put on concerts in halls and schools in the Teeswater area. In 1917 he did a musical play called “The New Minister” which was performed in the Town Hall in Wingham as well as in Teeswater.
John Skilling died after a brief illness in Toronto in July 1937 at the age of 83.

Chapter Two My Paternal Grandparents

My recollection of my paternal grandmother is rather dim. She seemed to me a small, wiry woman, rather acerbic in manner. My earliest memory of her was at age 5, while I was wading in the deep snow in great glee, and with a strong Scots accent, she was calling me in. She gave me a brisk command: “Come in, my foolish bairn, with snow up to your backside.” I also remember she had no back teeth and chewed her food with her front teeth. This gave her a rather poutish look. The poor dear had a very hard life. She was born Marion Cochrane in 1828 in South Africa; her father belonged to a Scottish Regiment sent there to quell some uprising. (This was long before the Boer War of 1900.) She was brought up in Scotland and married John Skilling, my paternal grandfather, in about 1852 in Scotland.  He was a ship’s carpenter in Scotland. They emigrated to Canada and had a family of four, my father, the eldest and also named John, Janet, Willie, and Maggie. (They were always known by their diminutives.) They lived in a small village, named Leith, on Georgian Bay near Owen Sound, Ontario.
In 1864, my grandfather John fell from a high mast to the deck and was killed, leaving my grandmother with four children and another on the way, my Aunt Aggie. My father was eleven years old and already in the equivalent of Grade 9, called at that time ‘Junior Leaving’. He had to quit school and go to work as there were no pensions, welfare, workman’s compensation or mother’s allowance in those days. My grandmother Marion went to work in the woolen mill and the children were “taken in” by kindly and, perhaps not so kindly relatives until they also were ready to go to work. They always stayed together as much as possible and I remember my aunts, uncles and cousins with great affection.

Marion Cochran Skilling centre with Aggie, John, Janet, Willie & Maggie
c. 1874
I lived for a year in 1918 with my Aunt Aggie in Stratford, Ontario when I was attending Teacher’s College. She used to talk about her early childhood and I got the impression that it was not happy. She used to be sent in her bare feet to bring in the cows. She said she would have to walk through the wet grass and would stand on big stones along the way to warm her feet. I never heard any of my other aunts talk of their hard times and I do remember the good times and much laughter when they got together. I remember particularly Aunt Maggie (Margaret) who married Will Byers and moved to Detroit, Michigan. He was a delightful and quite artistic man. His job was painting delivery wagons, etc., and doing lettering on the sides of them. They have a fairly large family and we visit back and forth considerably.  They had a daughter Monita, the same age as me, but she was much more aggressive than I was. I suppose being city bred had that effect on her, compared to me, a village girl.

Chapter One Introduction

As the youngest daughter of John and Agnes Skilling's nine[1] children and now, along with my brother Vernon, the only surviving members, I find myself looking backwards to the life and times of the members of our family. Being number eight in the series of what was known as “The Skilling family” around Teeswater, Ontario was not any guarantee of fame. My elder siblings regarded my younger brother Vernon and me as decided nuisances. We bore them no grudge or resentment, as we quite considered ourselves wonderful, clever, successful and talented people. My life was fraught with successes and failures as, I think, could be considered average, but I always did have a great admiration for my older brothers and sisters. Eventually, when over a period of years, they passed on from this life, I experienced great grief but also acceptance. Suddenly we realized that we three youngest members of our family were the only survivors of our generation. We drew closer to each other and tried to see each other oftener. But as age was shortening our capacity for getting around, it became increasingly difficult.

We had arranged for my elder brother Harold  (3 years my senior and aged 84) to spend the month of March 1978 with us in Florida but were shocked and stricken by the news in January, that Harold had been struck down with a massive coronary and, in three days, had died. I felt this bereavement very keenly and spent many sleepless nights grieving this loss. During one of these midnight vigils, I started to recall the lives of my 8 siblings, all of whom had gone to the great beyond, but who,I felt, had made considerable impact on the world – each in their own way. Many people are now becoming interested and curious regarding their roots, and I regret that I did not find out more and ask my parents questions that now arise in my mind when there is no one left to ask. I have so many nieces and nephews who often ask me questions about our kith and kin. I realized that many knew nothing about their great uncles and aunts, so I have decided to bring them to life on these pages to the best of my ability. This will be a labour of love.

The seventh child,[1] John Alexander Skilling, died three days after birth in 1891.

Prologue: Children Born to John Skilling and Agnes Ruxton

Florence Elizabeth (Floss) -- Born December 6, 1878

Eugenia Maude (Maude) -- Born June 29, 1881

Orville Ruxton -- Born June 16, 1883

Marion Emma (Mae) -- Born June 2, 1885

Gertrude Edna (Gert) -- Born April 14, 1887

William Milton (Bill) -- Born August 20, 1889

John Alexander -- Born April 28, 1891 -- Died May 1, 1891

Harold Roy -- Born July 31, 1893

Agnes Norma -- Born July 25, 1896

Vernon David -- Born August 8, 1900

Skilling Family c. 1896
back: Maude, Floss, Orville
middle: John, Gert, Mae, Norma, Agnes
front: Harold, William

Norma Skilling Jackson began writing her memories in January 1978 and had not finished them when she died suddenly on May 10, 1981. She had not yet written about herself (except in passing), and her two brothers, Harold and Vern. In 1996 her notes were edited by her daughter-in-law Ruth Zaryski Jackson and typed by her granddaughter Larissa Jean Jackson. In 2010 Ruth re-edited Norma's notes for coherence and clarity and posted them on this blog for all to access. Additional material collected from Grace Skilling Smith about Harold and supplemented with information provided by his granddaughter Lynn Skilling was added. Ruth has written up notes on Norma and Vern and inserted photographs for all the  Skilling family.

My mother Norma Skilling Jackson died suddenly of a massive heart attack in 1981 before completing her family story. It made us all realize how important it is to write down for our children and grandchildren, memories which may seem mundane to us, but are precious records of our roots. Norma's warm and compassionate account of the family helps us to remember our love for her and our pride in members of the family who went before us. Her spirit lives.

David Jackson
June 1996