This story of five children, orphaned at one to eight years of age and taken in by the Catholic Church, shows a time when our society had a very different approach to well-being and mutual responsibility.
The Lach children: John, Mary, Greg, Henry and Michael grew up during their first years of childhood at the Heathfield Orphanage that was managed by the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul.
Heathfield, known as the Providence Motherhouse – the term “motherhouse” refers to the official home base of a religious congregation – was built throughout the early years of the Great Depression and provided employment for many workers. Built of limestone quarried in the Kingston area, it was officially opened on July 6, 1932, and housed the novitiate and general administration of the congregation. It stood in the middle of a hay field. See http://www.providence.ca/our-story/history/motherhouse/
When the children were four to twelve years old Wilma and Cecil Graham, as foster parents, welcomed them in their family on the Aragon Road farm .
John Lach Remembers
By Henk Wevers
John and Linda Lach were harvesting firewood on the Hydro right-of-way at the Graham farm just north of the Aragon Road. Hydro had cut trees to protect the lines from making contact with tree branches, and beautiful hardwood was available for pick-up by people who could use that wood.
I introduced myself, and the two took a break while we had a chat. Following our impromptu conversation, we came together at a later date to talk about their connection with the Graham family as part of the history of the Aragon Road.
Here is John’s story.
John’s father, Joseph Lach, emigrated from Poland to Canada when he was 16 years old. This was before the second World War in the depth of the Great Depression mid 1930-s. He somehow found work with the rail roads. He married Doris Davies in 1943, their first child John was then on its way, a silent witness at the wedding, he was born on Aug 18, 1943, followed by sister Mary in Oct 1944, brother Greg in 1946, Henry in 1949, and Michael, aka Mike, who was born in 1951.
Shortly after the birth of Mike, the father and family’s breadwinner died and Doris was left behind with five children, including the 10-month old baby Michael. This was at a time when little social security and organised, tax funded, community care existed. It was insurmountably tough for the mother to keep the family going.
Doris worked at the British American hotel on Ontario Street. It was built in 1807, was famous not the least because Dickens slept there on his visit to Kingston in 1842, and Sir John A. was often seen there to guzzle his favorite drink. The hotel burned down in 1963. [i]
After her husband’s death, she was utterly dependent on this job to provide for her five children ranging in age from ten months to eight years. To care for this large family and at the same time working full shifts at the hotel was overwhelming and depression set in.
As hard as she tried to make it work, Doris had to give up her children ranging in age from less than a year to eight years old. A brother of Doris was willing to take them into his family but since they were Protestant, the Catholic Arch Dioceses of Kingston was not in favor of this arrangement and the church stepped in. The children were moved to the Heathfield Orphanage run by the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul. The Sisters owned the convent, a thirty-acre property just outside the western limits of the city, now 1200 Princess Street. In 1941 the villa situated on the property became a home for needy children.[ii]
Mary joined the girls in the orphanage, and her four brothers were housed in the boy’s section of the children’s home.
John and other children in his group had a caregiver who was in her thirties.
“She was strict but kind. Before we had to go to bed she would slip into the kitchen of the Mother House and make us a slice of bread with brown sugar on top. Man we liked those.”
John’s smile and beaming face showed that the memory was still vivid.
“Yes, we were well taken care off. There was strict discipline though, if you didn’t behave, you would get the strap. Those nuns were good at that, too.
“Christmas dinners for the kids were offered in La Salle Hotel and for good measure at the Steel Workers Hall the next day. In the summer we had picnics at the conservation area near the DuPont factory on Front Road. That area was also used for camping by the Girl Guides. The kids in Sunnyside Children’s Centre on Union Street, a non-denominational orphanage, and the Catholic ones from Heathfield would be picked up by school bus and taken to these events together.[iii] [iv]
“Every Sunday the Heathfield children got an in-house movie. They were all films about nature. After 1950 the orphanage had also access to a TV, children and the nuns would watch at certain times.”
John remembered with much relish his role in a Nativity Scene that was set up in the display window of James Reid Furniture on Princess Street.
“I was dressed-up like Joseph among the Kings and the Shepherds. We would stand there and tried not to move or blink while the people outside the store stood on the sidewalk staring at us and making all sorts of comments which we couldn’t hear but from their gestures you could see they had a good time and so did we.”
“How did you and Linda get together, John?” I asked switching away from John’s youth to his early adult life.
They both smiled and looked at each other a bit hesitant. Should we tell?
“Well… I had a girlfriend, but it wasn’t going anywhere. One day I drove in my prized cream colored Chevy Impala that had bright red stripes, red leather interior, and what was called a “rag top” that could open up and folded back just after the rear seat. I was behind the wheel all dressed to the tee, with the rag-top open, on my way to this girlfriend’s house. She lived past Odessa. Just before Odessa coming from Kingston I had to stop for a herd of cows that were driven across the road by a young girl. She was barefooted and stood there confident in the middle of the road, stopping the traffic and letting the cows cross. She was in control of everything, for sure. I was impressed and right there and then got interested in her and we chatted a bit. I didn’t continue to where I was going, and the rest is history. We got married in 1969 and after a couple of year renting a house, we bought one in Odessa, fixed it up nicely and lived there ever since.”
“It was June 21, 1969,” Linda added with a smile on her face.
She looked at John as if she still was the young woman-farmer in the middle of the road, shy and barefooted. She was used to tramping around barefooted in the pastures and freshly cut hay fields, even enjoyed it.
John and Linda shared proudly that they got two children, now both married, and have four grandchildren, two girls and two boys not too far from Odessa in Brockville and Ottawa.
“So what else happened to the Lach children at the Heathfield Orphanage?” I asked.
“In 1955 after four years in the orphanage, all of us were taken in foster care by Wilma and Cecil Graham, a farmer with a large stretch of land on the Aragon Road. I was twelve then and Michael the youngest was four. The Grahams had no children of their own but had several foster children over many years.[v]
“Wilma cooked good meals in a pressure cooker and we were well fed. She cooked on an electric stove in the summer kitchen on the side of the house, and in the winter on the wood stove in the large kitchen inside the house. All the food came from the farm’s own garden for all of summer and winter. We’re well fed, but we’d to work to help with all the chores on the farm. It was hard, you better believe it.” [vi]
Cecil Graham came himself from a hard working farmer’s background and in the 1950-s it was not uncommon for children to work many hours before school and after school in the farming operation. Even in 1961, in Canada forty percent of boys age 14-19 were gainfully employed and not in school.[vii]
The Lach children did go to school and had to work hard on the farm: from 6 to 8 am was time for chores, and a quick breakfast. Then it was off to the corner of Fitzpatrick Road and the Aragon Road where the school bus picked the children up. After school, other chores were waiting.
“Haying time was particular busy,” John recalls.
“Cecil’s brother Matt would drive a two horse team to mow the hay, Cecil’s father would drive the raking machine also with a two horse team, and Cecil drove the tractor to gather the hay and bail it. The square bales would be thrown out of the baler and I being the oldest of the Lach siblings, I was about seventeen then, would stack the bales on the wagon. You needed to be strong and quick because you had to keep up with the machine that spat out the bales. You couldn’t stop because that shut the whole shebang down. That was before 1961.”
A two horse mower at work similar environment as the Graham fields. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2R-7gg5yyE
The Lach kids were kept busy on the farm, each according to their age and strength, and that gave them little time for anything else.
“We were ‘babe in the woods’ when it came to city life,” John said.
“The only contact with the city was on Sunday when we would go to church at 6.30 am Mass. Then after coming home and milking the cows, no more work, for once.
“Leisure time meant resting somewhere in a quiet space around the farm, reading some comic magazines or books, and in the summer swimming in Esther March Bay off the ‘island’ that Henry had named ‘Paradise.’ [viii]
“I went to school on Battersea Road in Sunbury. The building is still there, on the left if you head north. It became a candle factory and now it looks somebody restored it into a house?
“Did grade 7 and 8 there, and after that I went for one year to Kingston Collegiate & Vocational Institute, KCVI, in the city. Coming from a farm you were different, had this smell from milking cows, they teased me about it. Then with the chores every morning and afternoon and the homework it made it all very hard.
“After the first year I dropped out and worked full time at the farm for about two years. Then I had enough and joined the army for a couple of years, in 1961, when I was eighteen.
“Then after six years of army life, I de-listed and came back to the farm for about three years. I left again and worked in a car-wash for a couple of years before I got a job at Garnet Compton in the city at the corner of Princess Street and Collins Bay Road. The business sold washing machines and stoves. He was a very good man. He trained me in all the electrical and mechanical work needed for the repairs and home installations. I worked there for twenty-four years until 1989 when Garnet died and the business was closed.
“But I got another job in the same line of work at R.B. Knapp Appliances. They might be still there on Sydenham Road, as far as I know. Worked there for seventeen years and then in 2008 I retired at 65. We have a nice house in Odessa with a bit of land around it and we have a good time, Linda and I.
“Mary my only sister and second oldest of the siblings, worked her whole life on the farm and did part-time housecleaning and gardening for other families. Some of these people became good friends. She did some travelling during brief vacations and has been retired and living on her own in the city for the last several years now, still doing some housekeeping work for others.
“Greg, the second oldest boy was three years younger than me, we considered him the smartest of the lot. He finished high school but only because he wanted to study. When the chores and the homework just got too much he complained to the social worker who looked after the foster care and she talked to Cecil. After that he did not have to do chores before going to school in the morning and he got two hours every night set aside for his homework.
“After graduation, Greg went to work for the Fairbank Morse Locomotive Company on Ontario Street. Worked there till 1968 when it closed the business. He then went to Orillia in a machine shop as a tool and die maker, and from there he got an office job at IBM in Toronto, some combination of computing and inspection in the manufacturing part of the company. He retired early and lives now in Alberta with his wife and three children. She was a registered nurse in the hospital there. And now they have this nice camper-van and go south in the winter. They have this ‘snowbird’s life.’
“Henry worked his whole life on the Graham farm, and since Wilma passed away just recently, he helps out with the cleaning and downsizing of the farm and barns. He has been going a little slower after he reached his pension age, but he is the happiest when he can be around the farm and enjoy the country side.
“Michael finished high school and then went to St. Lawrence College to earn his certificate in small engine repair. He did well but passed away when he was only fifty-one.”
Around Farm and Field
John recalls, “When Cecil died in 1994 there were nine transport loads of cows shipped to auction and then Wilma, with the help of Henry kept some cows on the farm until she died in May 13, 2013.
“Henry also bred sheep on the farm at the corner of Maple Lawn Drive and Battersea Road. That had been the farm of Cecil’s parents. Cecil’s parents and their other son, Matt had farms side by side on Maple Lawn Drive. Cecil’s parents’ farm-house is still there and that farm is now owned by Mr. John Turner. Matt’s farm has been severed in some building lots where the large homes have been built in the early 2000-s but there is still land left there.
“That angle stone extension on Wilma’s house, here on the Aragon Road, was added after Cecil died. The same stones that were used around the little bungalow that sits at the east end of the Graham property, on ten acres of land. It’s now for sale.. Cecil had it trucked from the Isle of Man Road to Aragon Road and put it there on its foundation.
“It wasn’t the only building that Cecil moved. He and a team of family and neighbors also relocated a large barn on their property from the south side of the Aragon Road to the north side, where it sits on a limestone foundation wall. It’s the one that is parallel with and closest to the road. They used a 1953 John Deere AR tractor and rollers the get it out of the field over the Aragon Road, which is a lot higher than the land where it sat. Then it was pulled further up the hill, to the left of their driveway, where it is now one of a group with two other barns and a three bay drive shed.
“Cecil wanted to keep the Aragon Road as a rural road with trees, and he opposed a planned subdivision that Mr. Chippier had surveyed and laid out on the land, opposite of Jack Colden’s house, north of the road, just west of Fitzpatrick Road, about 75 acres. Cecil won that fight and the development came to nothing.
“The big house on the lake across the road from that land, was built by Chippier who owned a Tim Horton’s store, on Princess Street, corner McDonnell. Chippier sold the house to Jack Colden in 1983 who also bought most of that land on the north side of Aragon Road. It’s still used for taking hay off. It’s for sale again, I noticed.
“That limestone house just east of the boat ramp, that’s where Dr. & Mrs. McCuaig lived. He was Superintendent of the Rockwood Psychiatric Hospital.[ix] They had cattle on what’s now Keirstead’s farm at the end of the road, they rented that land from the Co-op.[x] Their cows often broke out and then we herded them back over our fields south of the Aragon Road and the road itself. That was something else…
“And did you know that the house on Fitzpatrick Road had a native person renting part of the house and he had four wolves in a pen about two years ago? Henry delivered hay and straw for bedding. Sometimes you could hear them howling. That person left after about a year ago.”
[i] Former Kingston firefighter recalls one of the more spectacular fires in the city. The Kingston Whig Standard. http://www.thewhig.com/2015/05/01/former-kingston-firefighter-recalls-one-of-the-more-spectacular-fires-in-the-city
[iii] Despite dissolution, Sunnyside’s work will continue. At: https://www.google.ca/search?q=Despite+dissolution%2C+Sunnyside%27s+work+will+continue.&oq=Despite+dissolution%2C+Sunnyside%27s+work+will+continue.&aqs=chrome..69i57.997j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8
[iv] Queen’s archives: Orphans’ Home and Widows’ Friend Society, which established and maintained an orphanage in Kingston from 1857 and 1947, and since then a home for children called Sunnyside Children’s Centre on Union Street, Kingston, ON.
[v] See Wilma remembers at: https://aragonroadhistory.wordpress.com/2014/08/26/wilma-grahams-story/
[viii] See Wilma Remembers. At: https://aragonroadhistory.wordpress.com/2014/08/26/wilma-grahams-story/
[ix] Kingston General Hospital, A Social and Institutional History.
[x] See Marjorie Allen story at: https://aragonroadhistory.wordpress.com/2014/10/30/marjorie-allen-remembers/
The Graham Farm on our Aragon Road. Photo by henk Wevers fall 2015.
To read more about the Oral History by people who lived on the road click the photo of Graham’s barn yard, below.