Rural Diaries: a Conduit to the Past
“Feb. 9., 1918 – Papa did not light a fire as an order has been issued by the “Fuel Controller” that all business places with a few exceptions not to be heated with wood, coal or oil on the 9th, 10th, 11th.” Olive Burgess diary, A2012.087.014
There is notable similarity between Bruce County diaries of the late 1800s and early 1900s and modern social media posts. Many older diaries are small notebooks that allotted a few lines per date (about the equivalent of 140 characters) for a recording of the day’s events. Reflective and introspective entries are rare in these early diaries, but they still give us a personal connection to the past.
The diaries of siblings Olive Burgess (1896-1980) and Rowand Burgess (1890-1968), of Port Elgin and Arran Township, enable us to envision life in Bruce County in the early 20th century. Their entries mention all manner of work on the farm related to cutting lumber, growing crops such as oats, barley, beans, mangels, turnips, peas, and wheat, and raising livestock such as hens, pigs, and cattle. The installation of a Bell Telephone by their Uncle Alfred was a significant event as noted by Olive on January 25, 1918. Their social activities from 1911-1918 included Patriotic Picnics, School Box Socials, Literary Society Debates, and a Leap Year Party at the Cheesemans.
Snippets of life on the Bruce County home front are also revealed in these entries. Local communities and organizations raised funds through a variety of events and activities. James Burgess notes in 1916 diary entries that he attended a Patriotic Picnic in Burgoyne, while Olive mentions attending a Burgoyne Patriotic Society Concert on January 25, 1918. Many Bruce County residents and organizations regularly raised funds through innovative activities and events, and sent donations overseas, including towels, socks, military shirts, gauze shirts, stretcher caps and personal property bags. On February 7, 1918, The Chesley Enterprise notified the public that “every factory and business place in Chesley, excepting druggists, the hotel and restaurants will be shut down for three days.” This was in response to an order-in-council passed by the Dominion Government, on the recommendation of the Fuel Controller, directing that plants and stores in Ontario and Quebec be shut down on certain days to conserve fuel. Diaries reflect how people reacted to such notices. In Port Elgin, James Rowand Burgess notes in his February 9, 1918 diary entry, that his did not stay long in Port Elgin that day “as business places were not allowed to keep fires by order of the fuel controller.”
Historical diaries are fascinating in their revelation of the differences and similarities between times past and our own time. At the Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre, these diaries are stored in a secure Archival storage room with controlled temperature and humidity at set points best suited to the preservation of paper artefacts.