I’m sitting at a table in front of my computer in someone else’s house in the little town of Thessalon, an hour and a half east of Sault Ste. Marie. It’s an unlikely place for a lively writing community, but it’s become home to a group that calls itself Stories in the North, with regular workshops, events, and guest authors; a monthly writing group; and occasional writing “binges”. That’s what I’m here for. Three solid days of writing with occasional cooking and clean-up duties. Mealtimes and happy hour with other writers and would-be writers, sharing ideas and building friendships. After-dinner sharing of the day’s work. And a guest room that looks out on a marvellous garden behind this grand, once stately old home. It’s the second binge I’ve attended. I’m working on a short story, but my mind keeps circling back to our house search and our conflicted feelings about moving on. Partly because that’s what the short story is based on.
We’ve looked at half a dozen houses now, none that seems right for us. But the exercise is helping us zero in on what matters. We’ve seen some houses we like and some yards we like, but so far they haven’t gone together. A yard that looks secluded and green reverberates with truck traffic on the other side of the trees; a house with a perfect layout has only a large deck for a yard; a yard with space for a small garden and a clothesline is attached to a dark and dingy house. So far, nothing that does it all. We’re also figuring out that we won’t move on until we do find something that does it all—or close. While there are many good reasons to think this is the time for a change, we’re not going to make a change that doesn’t feel good. Reminding myself of that helps flatten the hills of the rollercoaster a little.
Here’s an excerpt from Shifting Currents about the only other time we’ve gone house-hunting, in the spring of 1972.
In June, we phoned a “farm wanted” ad into the Sault Star classifieds, left the children with friends, and arranged with a neighbour to do the chores for a week. The trip took us north along rocky, pine shore of Georgian Bay, then west on the Trans-Canada and over the north shore of Lake Huron. Among the rocks, hills, and small lakes, little towns appeared every now and then—often just a row of houses on both sides of the highway, sometimes with a few side streets veering off at right angles until they ran into rocky outcroppings or dense bush. Perched on the edge of the wilderness, they signalled our departure from the beaten path. Also from the prosperity of rural southern Ontario.
Picturesque, I thought. Depressed, said Jack. We were both right. These little towns sprang up at the end of the nineteenth century with healthy economies based on mining, logging, and the newly constructed Canadian Pacific Railway. By the mid twentieth century, the homes and businesses visible from the highway showed little sign of those earlier boom times.
As we approached the Sault, we saw more cleared farmland but still little sign of prosperity until we reached the city, itself. In 1970, Sault Ste. Marie had the highest average income of any city in Canada—not due to pockets of great wealth, but due to its reliance on a single industry, the Algoma Steel Corporation, and its population of well-paid union workers.
We stayed with one of Jack’s former grad student colleagues, who had been teaching at Algoma College for just a year and was moving on to a real university. He had agreed to be a local contact for our ad. When we arrived, he handed us a stack of names and phone numbers and said, “You’re nuts.”
The next morning, road map in hand, we headed out of town. “Look at this place!” I said, staring at the map. “Sylvan Valley. Wouldn’t you just love to live in a place called Sylvan Valley?”
The first house we looked at was, in fact, on the edge of Sylvan Valley—a broad, slightly rolling valley east of the Sault, several miles north of the village of Echo Bay. We pulled into the driveway of an unfinished bungalow. Its owner, a man of about forty with two days’ growth on his face and a cigar in his mouth, invited us in. “There’s still some work to do,” he said, gesturing at the rough chipboard floors and taking a puff on his cigar. The two small bedrooms had insulation stuffed between the studs, but no interior walls. The kitchen counters were bare plywood. A wood stove—the only heat source in the house—dominated the small living room.
For the rest of the day, we drove from one run-down rural property to another. Some had septic systems, some had central heat, some had level floors, some had exterior finishing; some had enough land for a small farm; none had them all.
The next day, we contacted a real estate agent. She did her best, she really did. But along with our homesteading fantasies we carried a burden of middle class expectations. We’d been imagining a spacious southern Ontario farmhouse on northern Ontario scrub farmland. Those were few and far between—and apparently not for sale. We’d have settled for small and snug, but we did insist on plumbing and central heat. Over six days of touring the rural areas east and north of the Sault, we watched the dream drift away. We would sell the animals and rent an apartment in the Sault.
When we went back to thank our friend for his hospitality, we found one last message from the real estate agent. She knew we’d given up, but did we want to look at one more place? It was on our way out of town.
Jack looked at the map. “It’s not in Sylvan Valley, but it’s close. Looks like the next valley to it. On Echo Lake Road. Could be nice.” I shrugged. I’d given up on nice.
We drove through the little village of Echo Bay—general store, post office, church, school—and made a left onto Echo Lake Road. For two miles, we drove through trees and swampland, passed a few houses, and made a couple of sharp turns until the Echo River appeared on our left.
Elmer White came out to meet us—a lean man of about sixty, wearing work pants and a green work shirt. His white clapboard house was well built, close to the road with a deep yard that ended at the riverbank. It was nice. But there was not enough land to pasture goats and a horse and no barn to house them.
“What a waste of time,” I grumbled as we started backing out of the driveway. Jack stopped when he saw Mr. White flagging us down.
“If it’s more of a farm you’re lookin’ for,” said the old man, poking his head in the car window, “my brother down the road’s thinkin’ of sellin’. Best farm in the township.”
“Why not? We’re here anyway,” said Jack.
I shrugged again. “Not much point, but sure if you want.”
So, instead of turning back, we drove a mile farther, between the river on our left and a few small bungalows on our right, until we reached open fields with a rocky hill rising abruptly from the flat land.
The mailbox said “Fred and Gertrude White.” Not far from the tidy brick house—the first brick we’d seen—stood a huge grey barn, a long, red shed, and a tidy line of equipment. Peonies bloomed in a long flower garden that separated the freshly-mowed yard from the barnyard.
“Look at this!” said Jack, a hint of enthusiasm creeping into his voice.
I sighed and shook my head. “Don’t even bother. It’ll be way too much.”
“Optimistic as usual,” he muttered.
A plump, grey-haired woman in her early sixties answered his knock, joined a moment later by a lanky man, in blue and white striped overalls, who looked just like his brother. They spoke for a few moments before Jack waved me to come in.
Mr. and Mrs. White led us through a small, enclosed porch and into the kitchen—a spacious room with a small window above the counter and sink, looking out over the fields and toward the hill. On one wall, inset cupboards with glass doors held stacks of dishes and glasses. At the far end of the kitchen, one swinging door opened into a long, narrow pantry and another into the living room.
“Well, this here’s the kitchen,” Mr. White said. “The wife’ll show you through the rest of the house, then I’ll take you to the cellar.”
Mrs. White took us through the downstairs first—a large living room, with polished oak wainscoting and bay windows facing southwest, two tiny bedrooms (his and hers), and a sun porch that stretched the full width of the house with windows looking across the road to the river. Everywhere, maple floors gleamed. We followed her up the narrow staircase with oak treads and an oak railing.
“Fred had a heart attack, and the doctor ordered him to slow down. He’ll never slow down here, so if we can sell, we’ll move to town,” she said.
Upstairs, three small bedrooms and a bathroom opened off a narrow hallway.
“The bedrooms are tiny,” I said. I was trying hard not to look or sound enthusiastic. Before we began this journey, Jack had warned me not to look too impressed. “You give yourself away all the time with your face,” he’d said. So far, it hadn’t been hard.
“There’s no upstairs over the kitchen or sun porch,” said Jack. He would notice; I hadn’t. “Makes for a pretty small upstairs.”
“I guess it is small,” said Mrs. White. “But big enough. We raised nine children here.” Jack and I exchanged wide-eyed looks, and I thought about the two separate bedrooms downstairs. “Do you have children?” she asked
“Two,” I said. “And that seems like lots sometimes.” She chuckled.
The cellar was as tidy as the house. Mr. White showed us the wood furnace, the wood storage room stacked with split firewood, the cold cellar with bins awaiting this year’s crop of potatoes and turnips from the garden. Then he took us to the barn—much bigger than the Waterdown barn—leading the way along the short path with long, relaxed strides. The stable was empty; so were the haymows and the granary, both swept clean in anticipation of the summer harvest.
“I’ve been on this farm for thirty years,” he said. “Grew up in this valley. But I reckon I’ll be moving to the Sault now. Doctor’s orders.” He cleared his throat and blew his nose on a red handkerchief he pulled from the pocket of his overalls. “Well, I’ll give you the tour of the property.” He led the way across the dirt-packed barnyard to an old green pickup.
We began by driving back where we’d come from, where the small bungalows ended and the fields began. “This here’s the beginning of the farm,” he said, as he pulled into a laneway leading to a big storage barn—the lower barn, he called it—then backed around and headed back toward the house.
He drove past the house and the barnyard, then turned right, away from the river.
“School house acre there.” He was pointing to a fenced plot with huge old willow trees at the road and a vegetable garden. “School’s gone. School board deeded the land back to the farm when they moved all the kids into Echo Bay, meybe twenty years ago. Now it’s my vegetable garden. Vegetables for the family and turnips to sell. Good soil. A good strawberry patch, too.”
He kept driving, past fields shaded by groves of elm trees, past a herd of brown and white cattle grazing near a fence. “The farm’d be a full half-section, except the river cuts off the corner. There’s a woodlot, too. More than three hundred acres in all. About a hundred-twenty cleared.”
Three hundred acres was just a number to me, but I knew it was more than a homestead. “Is the hill part of it?” I asked.
“Yep. Almost to the top.”
When we finally reached the far edge of the property, Mr. White pointed to the next farm.
“There’s the farm I grew up on. Strange fella lives there now. Keeps goats.”
Back at the house, standing beside our car, we asked about the price.
“I won’t deal with them real estate people,” said Mr. White. “They’ll take you fer a ride. So, I reckon it’d be fair to ask what it says on the assessment notice.” He went into the house and came out after a few minutes with an official statement of the farm’s assessed value for property tax purposes. It was more than we’d figured on spending, but we’d seen enough to realize that the property was worth that, and then some. “And if you can make a ten percent down payment, I’ll hold the mortgage at [?] percent.
“How soon could we have it?” I asked. Jack glared at me. “That is, if we decide to make an offer,” I added.
“There’s a house we’re lookin’ at in the Sault now, and the family would help us move. We could be out by the end of August, but I’d need to come back for the grain crop.” He paused and frowned slightly. “You folks been farming? You have livestock?”
I piped in: “We have goats.”
Mr. White glanced toward the farm where he’d grown up and where the strange fella now lived.