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.
Pandemic times puts to the test our Canadian tradition of quietly waiting-in-line in an orderly fashion. At the Vankleek Hill Post Office, clients today are to be congratulated for their consideration and patience as they wait outside. Our post office staff compare the unprecedented number of boxes arriving to be sorted and managed to working in a mini-Amazon warehouse – without the benefits of space and robotic technology. Everyone, inside and outside, has done their best in a challenging situation. Christmas arrives in short days. As I waited in line at the post office, I thought it may be a good time to take a closer look at the history of postal services in Vankleek Hill. Never take postal services for granted. Before post offices were formalized by the British in Canada, anyone writing a letter had to depend on the goodwill of family, friends, travellers to take and pass their letters along – traveller to traveller – to hopefully reach the final destination. Rural post offices have a long history of being located within the home or business of the postmaster. Vankleek Hill has only ever had post box service, and like most rural villages, no door-to-door delivery.
In Vankleek Hill, formal postal services arrived in 1827 when Neil Stewart was appointed as the first Postmaster. The date 1827 is given in an 1896 history of Prescott County. However, the Ontario Archives holds the Certificate of Appointment of Neil Stewart as Deputy Postmaster in Vankleek Hill dated July 6, 1831. No matter the year, he was the first Vankleek Hill Postmaster. Stewart arrived in Canada with his mother from the Isle of Skye, Scotland in 1816. He then came to Vankleek Hill in 1825 at age 32, where he took over the general store of John Glass McIntosh in the general location of the northwest corner of Main East and Home Avenue. He was active in the community – he joined the Prescott Militia, was our Member of the Legislative Assembly for Prescott 1844-1848, was a Justice of the Peace, and the County Treasurer. Neil Stewart was also the Crown Land Agent for Prescott and Russell. Stewart was a prolific letter writer, exchanging prickly political opinions with his brother William Stewart who was MPP for Russell County. The Ontario Archives holds his remaining records. During these early years of government services, Stewart’s community activities and politics made him an easy choice for appointment as Postmaster. At the outset of this public service, there was no one with experience. The notion of having an application process is more than a century away.
It is difficult today to locate a full-service gas station that offers towing, repairs and vehicle supplies together with a jockey at the pump to serve your gasoline and diesel needs. While fuel remains the mainstay, more often than not, today it is a convenience store attached to the self-serve pumps. Electric charge pumps are also making their appearance; in Vankleek Hill, there is an electric charger at the rear of the Scotiabank. The last 70 years have seen a lot of change.
About 1951, the Fina Station was built in Vankleek Hill. The signature Fina building had a rotund office and two-bay garage. In an interview with The Review in 1993, Denis Martin explained that his father Roland “Rolly” Martin first worked as a mechanic at the auto sales room of Art Wilson at 76 Main Street East, Vankleek Hill (current location of The Review). Rolly then decided to go into business for himself. He rented the Fina Station near the north-east corner of Highway 34 and Higginson Street. Just as he made his decision, Euclide Turpin decided to sell his tire shop that sat on the west side of Highway 34 across south of the Fina. Rolly decided that the tire shop was a better investment for him and in 1958, said Denis Martin, he purchased Euclide’s business. The Fina location then remained idle for about 6 months.
Delbert Barton was working on the St. Lawrence Seaway construction and could see that the work was nearing an end. The Seaway opened to navigation in 1959. Delbert needed a new way to bring in income to support his family. He heard about the vacant Fina station, met their representative and made the investment. He then successfully operated the business for 20 years.
Jean Barton, Delbert’s wife, recalled that it wasn’t all about business all of the time. There was a card table, and regular games of euchre in the office. The two gas stations, so near to each other, had a cooperative approach for many years – in rotation, they each closed every second Sunday. Denis Martin explained, “When we were closed on Sunday, Delbert would be open. It was a good arrangement. That way, people could always buy gas, and each of us would have a second Sunday off.”
Denis Martin, who began working at his father’s tire shop in 1969, purchased the business from his father in 1986. His brother Michel Martin focused on the towing service, at one time operating five tow trucks. Denis Martin explained in 1993, “We used to cover an area that went as far as Rockland. But there are more towing services around now.” In 1993, Martin’s Tire Shop had sales of about 2.2 million litres of gasoline and diesel in a year. According to Denis Martin at that time, “There is a lot of traffic on Highway 34 because people are using the 417. And after Rigaud, apart from Herb’s on the 417, there are no other gas stations for quite a distance. So, a lot of people from the cities are stopping in Vankleek Hill to buy gas.” In about 1977, after 20 years in the petroleum retail business, Delbert decided it was time to sell.
Rod St. Denis was at a local restaurant having breakfast when he was approached by a fellow looking to find the funds to buy Delbert’s business. The fact that it was up for sale was news to Rod. He knew Delbert wanted to find the right person to bring his customers the same high quality of dependable service. Rod quietly went to Delbert to express his own interest in purchasing the business. They met at Delbert’s home after supper and Delbert explained that there was no stock as he had returned everything to Fina. There was no equipment except for a small tire changer. Delbert had a new air gun which he kept in the office under a bench. To move ahead, Rod contacted Fina, then met with the Fina representative at the restaurant. He was asked if he had $20,000. Rod asked, “in cash?” Yes, replied the Fina rep. Rod said he would have to check with his banker, and if he did not have it, he would raise it. Rod wondered to himself how it was all going to work out.
Rod had a good relationship with the bank manager, and explained the situation. The bank manager proposed that the bank would loan Rod $20,000 to be used to stock the garage. Rod agreed. Fina approved. Rod had the garage business, Jack Denis joined him and the garage became the RodJack Fina. In 1981, Petro-Canada purchased PetroFina, and the station changed name. Although now covered with PetroCan logos and colours, the distinct Fina look was still there.
Rod later sold the business to Mike Lamoureux. Under Lamoureux, the business became part of the independent MacEwen Petroleum family based out of Maxville, Ontario. A convenience store was added, and the easily recognizable Fina look was lost. The station continues as a MacEwen outlet today.
For an idea of the other gas stations in town, see the listing from the 1878 -1978 St-Gregoire centennial book. These include the Willis Garage, currently the location of Nicko’s Restaurant (High Street south, east of the traffic lights) and the Willis Garage at High Street, on the southern edge of town. This was a Texaco station operated by Erwin Bond. He and his wife Isabel lived in the house on the west side of the Post Office on Main Street East. Erwin was also responsible for testing drivers who wanted their driver’s license. Jeannine Duval Seguin recalls going to his garage to take the driving test. On her arrival, she was told by Erwin that he had already seen her driving about town, and she seemed like a good driver. He gave her the driver’s test approval to bring to Andrew Boyer at The Review office, where she paid for her first driver’s license. It’s not so simple today!