The Story Of Vankleek Hill’s Retired Country Music Singing, Hops-Picking Postmaster
A glimpse into the life of Jeannine Duval Seguin of Vankleek Hill takes us through the 1950s and 1960s, a time of change and modernization in rural Ontario. Her life touches on experiences all but forgotten in our local history – the small subsistence farms that supported large families; early education; local hop growing business; postal services; and even local country music.
Moise & Cecile Duval farm, Ridge Road
Jeannine Duval Seguin is the daughter of Moise Duval (1889-1961) and Cecile Baron (1892-1994). She is the youngest of seven children born and raised on the family farm on County Road 10, the Ridge, west of Vankleek Hill at the edge of the Caledonia Flats with the Alfred Bog in sight.
Farm chores included milking 25 cows, growing crops of oats, corn and buckwheat, raising chickens for eggs and meat, salting down the pork, making butter, working the garden for preserves, prepare root vegetables for storage, pick cranberries and blueberries in the Bog, constant laundry, baking and sewing.
Milk and cream that required refrigeration were placed into a bucket then lowered down the well to sit partially in the ice cold fresh water. In the winter, Moise suspended butchered beef from the rafters in the coldest section of the barn. Keep in mind that electricity only arrived in this rural area in the 1940s and 1950s. Regulations about refrigeration hampered the efforts of many small farmers to grow.
There were winter months when Moise left the farm to work in logging, as did so many other small family farmers, to supplement their earnings. During these times, Cecile and the children maintained the livestock.
There was also Moise’s private still, discreetly tucked out of sight. Jeannine smiles and remembers when she and her youngest brother Henri were allowed to sip the sharp homemade whiskey.
Jeannine – school & hop work
Jeannine attended the one-room schoolhouse in easy walking distance just down County Road 10. Her one teacher for all her schoolyears, Madeleine Van Bergen, boarded with her family. Jeannine eagerly learned at school and at home. The two, teacher and student, remained good friends throughout their lives.
Jeannine achieved Grade 8 education, and she was proficient in French and English, math, reading and spelling, with exceptional handwriting. Her achievements made her the go-to person in the family to help with government matters such as income tax and driver’s licenses.
Jeannine Duval (left), 1950. In her teen years she picked hops near Fournier, Ontario. (Jeannine Duval Seguin Family Archives)
In her teens, Jeannine worked summers in the hop fields near Fournier. Amongst the family farms raising hops were: Ryan, Kelly, Lavigne, and Sproule.
Today, you can catch sight of the few remaining hop houses as you head along County Road 10 to Fournier.
Hop plants climbed high on cedar poles, so Jeannine and other pickers stood on a truck bed that moved slowly between the rows allowing them to reach up. Jeannine laughs as she recalls herself and Rolande Duval reaching down into the collecting box to fluff-up the airy hops to make the box look fuller. Afterall, payment was $3 per box.
Jeannine remembers the steam rising as the stove was stoked with wood on the ground floor, and the hops dried on the second floor of the hop houses. Once dried, the hops were baled in sacks, shipped and sold to the breweries.
It was a proud day when Jeannine used her hop earnings to shop at Mrs. Proulx’ on Main Street, next to the Chinese restaurant, where she bought herself a stylish jacket and skirt, plus a dress.
Hop-picking was seasonal work, and Jeannine needed a long term regular job. Her brother Philippe, 23 years older, delivered rural mail for many years from the Vankleek Hill Post Office.
A note here, that almost a century before Philippe began delivering mail, in 1859 Auguste Mercier, at age 14, was responsible for transporting the local mail. Each day he went from Vankleek Hill to Lancaster either on horseback, or with horse and cart, to pick-up the mail and then he delivered it. Auguste began the Mercier Carriageworks on High Street, Vankleek Hill in 1876.
Philippe Duval, Vankleek Hill mail delivery
Rainer Laufers remembers Philippe Duval as “a really nice guy,” a large man who was friendly and took the time to chat with people. Best of all, Rainer recalls the train slowing to a crawl as it glided by the Vankleek Hill station on Highway 34 (west side of the Trans Canada trail where it crosses the highway). The mail train did not make a full-stop as it hurriedly delivered to the many rural post offices such as nearby Stardale and McAlpine.
He explains, “Phillipe was there waiting with his station wagon. The railway clerk slid open the central side door of the mail car as it continued to move, then threw out three or four canvas bags of mail, closed the door and the train continued on its way to other mail stops.” Rainer said whenever he witnessed this, he was always impressed by how quickly and efficiently Philippe moved to collect the bags.
In no time, the bags were in his station wagon, taken to the post office and once there, mail was sorted by staff within 90 minutes. Philippe then began his deliveries along the rural routes – delivering mail, and picking up mail left in mailboxes with the change needed to buy stamps. On his return to the post office, stamps were purchased and affixed appropriately.
Jeannine gets her start
It was the custom for the Post Office to hire extra staff to handle the Christmas rush. One Christmas, in those mid-1950s, Philippe brought Jeannine to work, and by 1957, she had started what would become her 35-year full-time career with Canada Post at the Vankleek Hill Post Office.
The government building that is the Vankleek Hill Post Office opened in 1938. The Postmaster at the time, Frederick McAdam, moved the services into the brand new location, the same building that services Vankleek Hill today. Until then, postal servies were provided from the Main Street East homes of the post masters.
Jeannine became a full-time employee the same year her only child — local architect, Denis Seguin — was born. Ambitious for her family’s success, Jeannine partnered with her brother- and sister-in-law Edward Seguin, who was the Vankleek Hill town employee and a volunteer fireman, and his wife Lily Seguin, who worked part-time at Stedman’s. They lived next door on Stanley Street. Child care schedules were worked out, and Jeannine returned to work with new full-time responsibilities that she felt ready for.
The central corps remembered at the Vankleek Hill Post Office during the 60s, 70s and 80s were Postmaster Jack Hurley, Jeannine, Ida Cowan and Dorothy Conway. There were other part-time employees and rural delivery contractors who faithfully contributed as well.
There was a special camaraderie amongst these four, and they took pride in their public service to be helpful. There wasn’t much that went on in town that they did not know about. Yet, they were prudent with all that information.
The town mail was sorted by 10 a.m., with the rural routes heading out for delivery. Like clockwork, town residents arrived to pick-up mail and to engage in their daily confab. If you wanted to meet-up with anyone in town, you would find them at the post office in the morning. Some locals, unable to read, returned during the quiet mid-afternoon – asking Jeannine or Ida for help.
The Post Office was the subject of pranks from time to time, especially Halloween. One year, there were odd noises coming from the internal mailbox. Two chickens had been put through from the outdoor mail chute. After cleaning-up, Ida and Jeannine each brought home a chicken with great recipe plans.
At Christmas there were “Letters to Santa” addressed to the North Pole – handily located at the Postmaster desk – the only desk in the post office because regulations state post office employees are to stand. And each letter to Santa received an encouraging handwritten answer from one of the elves.
Jeannine and Johnny, the romance and the music
Jeannine met Johnny Seguin at a dance she attended accompanied by her older sister Laurette (Larry) and her husband Jean (Ti-Jean) Jean-Louis. She married Johnny Seguin in 1955, and she kept to her career. Johnny was the youngest of seven children. The couple lived with his parents, Thomas Hyacinthe Seguin and Scholastique Perreault on Stanley Street, caring for them into their senior years. The Seguin family once had a small dairy operation on Stanley Street.
From his time growing up on the dairy, Johnny was a jack-of-all-trades. During WWII he worked as a mechanic at the St. Eugene airfield where aspiring pilots trained. He delivered milk for the family dairy and for McDonald Dairy on Happy Hollow.
He is best remembered as “Johnny Crown,” from his many years working for Crown Cleaners as the pick-up and delivery driver with a daily route that took him to Lancaster and home again. His guitar was always ready at his side, and Maxville residents recount the times when he played in their kitchens.
Johnny loved to play guitar and sing. He had a country band, ‘Johnny & his Hill Billy Boys’ including “Peewee” Aimé Myre (Hawkesbury), Clarence Lacroix (Vankleek Hill). On weekends they travelled a circuit that took them to the Century Inn in Grenville, north to hotels in Arundel, and Boileau to name a few. Jeannine took to the microphone with her rich and melodic alto voice. A favourite was “You are my sunshine.” There were competitions at the Century Inn, and they came away winners.
After Jack Hurley retired, Jeannine was proudly appointed Vankleek Hill Postmaster (more about Vankleek Hill’s early history of Postmasters here). It was quite the accomplishment, for a woman of her time to maintain her career through marriage and motherhood, to earn the top job at the Vankleek Hill Post Office.
Jeannine retired in 1992. Jack, Dorothy, and Ida are now gone, and with them so many town stories. Today, Jeannine, at 86, fondly looks back on all those years, and remembers the great times she had with her family and her good friends. She also enjoys seeing her post office clients, and can likely still tell them their box numbers from memory.
Even though Jeannine led a modest life based on family, work, and music – it is a remarkable life of achievement for this woman when viewed through the lens of the time period it took place within.
It is reflective of the women who chose to raise their children, and undeterred to forge ahead with careers, full-and part-time, so as to improve their family situations.
(Feature photo of Jeannine Seguin by Gabriel Landriault, 2007)