Merretts of Metis

Professor (McGill) T.H. (Timothy Howard) Merrett

Over a period of some 65 years, one or more of the Merretts spent a summer holiday in Metis Beach, starting in the Boule Rock Hotel before I was born until 1973 when Helen paid her last visit, with Ernest, to the Boule Rock the year before it was demolished.[i]  Starting at 10 months old, I spent two summers in the hotel. The third year, Dad rented a newly built frame house, practically on the rocky “beach”, which remained our summer home for about 15 years.[ii]  It was the second to last house at the east end, before the village of Les Boules.

The house had six or seven bedrooms & one bathroom, and a huge attic full of trunks, cobwebs and dead blue-bottles. The attic was a good place on rainy days, or they could be spent endlessly riding my tricycle – later my bicycle – up and down the long L-shaped verandah, or on bread-making days in the kitchen baking burn by-products from surplus dough. On Sundays after church, I cranked the ice-cream freezer on the back porch. There was a period when I would bat a tennis ball by the hour against the drum-like siding of the house until Mother & sisters must have been driven crazy, but as always they put up with a lot from the youngest and I don’t remember them screaming.

Our landlord was one of the numerous Astle family who owned two of the four hotels and numerous rental houses as well as the general store. We relied on the Astles to stock the woodshed and ice house, and for all transportation to and from the station or for afternoon “drives” – first in fringed carriage, then a Model T Ford with brass radiator and leather windshield braces, and then McLaughlin or Chevrolet or Overland touring cars.

The house was so close to the shore that sometimes at an unusually high tide we could throw a stone into the surf from the verandah. At low tide there was, beyond the sand and stone “beach” littered with driftwood and seaweed, a stretch of black slatey rocks with occasional “erratics” and lots of seaweedy pools full of tiny shrimps, snails, mussels, and things. It was a great place to play but not really good for bathing – by most people’s standards – the water temperature rarely above 60° F. We all bathed in it and I liked it and never afterward minded cold water, but I never learned to swim properly at Metis, in spite of all the family efforts to teach me.[iii]  In spite of that I had a punt in which I was allowed to cruise along the shore on calm days, and with Hilda or Dad I learned to paddle our Peterborough.

I played golf and tennis at the Cascade G. & T. Club which was the centre of all social life (except for a preponderance of cocktail parties). I preferred tennis and actually gave up golf with a spectacular gesture when, in a family foursome, having been denied a birdie on the 7th hole due to some (I thought) unfair technicality, I scored another clean birdie 2 on the 9th hole and, having made my point, I walked off to the clubhouse in a pet and played no more golf for some 20 years.

About once a summer there was a family excursion to picnic and fish at the Tordigou River, or perhaps Fleet’s Lake [iv], several miles and concession roads inland, up a series of very steep hills which involved disembarking, in the early days, first from a carriage to give the horse a chance, and later on from a great green Daimler touring car (rented out and driven by M. Thibault the blacksmith) which overcame the hills only in reverse.

Other annual treats included half-day excursions, again in horse-drawn carriages, to have tea and ice cream at Miss Blue’s tearoom some 5 miles away, once stopping en route at Lighthouse Point to climb the tower and inspect the lantern, and below the machinery that produced the baleful wail of the fog horn. Later on, this sort of en famille activity gave way to dashing up and down the countryside in one’s wealthier friends’ roadsters, as far from families as possible; but before that we all (except Mother & Dad) had bicycles and I did a lot of tripping about apart from such routine runs as collecting the mail and the “Star” at the post office – a regular noon meeting place. Since neither Dad nor anyone else in our family ever owned a car in those days, the girls and Stuart relied on their friends for transportation to and from the Club. Again, most of these cars were McLaughlin touring cars.

In the early years, the journey to Metis from town, toward the end of June, (and home again after Labour Day) was by Grand Trunk (later C. N.) Railway to Petit Métis – the “outer station”, on the Halifax main line, and thence by horse and buggy some 8 miles to the “Beach”. It took two, sometimes three, such vehicles to carry the family, a cook and a maid, and our hand luggage, with the trunks – at least six – following on an open cart or buckboard. Later the C.N.R. found that it paid well to provide the “St. Lawrence Special” direct to Metis Beach using the Canada & Gulf Terminal right-of-way from Mont-Joli junction. This train would carry the families – mostly from Montreal with a few from Quebec and Toronto – to their various summer cottages and hotels in the little enclaves dotted along the river between the French villages from Kamouraska to Les Boules. The train operated three days a week each way, and throughout the summer every Friday evening the breadwinners, and the working sons, would leave their city offices and board the Special for the weekend with their families, usually bringing hampers of victuals from Dionne’s to augment the simpler supplies available in the resorts. And at Metis, every Sunday evening after supper, a ritualistic social gathering occurred at the station to see them off to the city again.

It was against Railway policy to allow pet animals, summering with their owners, to travel anywhere but in the baggage car, caged or on leash, but for many years our family took a drawing room on the train (as well as a couple of sections) in order to transport first, the dog Tyke, and, later, the cat Peter, in concealed comfort and companionship with us. The family suffered agonies of suspense lest a bark or whine, or feline wail, from the washroom should occur just as the conductor entered for tickets or the porter to make up berths. Whether considerations were involved I don’t know, but I do know that Mr. Mitchell, the perennial and jovial conductor, and Coleman, the comedian negro porter, were both fully aware and never batted an eye except as a conspiratorial wink.

The train trip was something I looked forward to for months. I would spend most of the night in my berth peeking out at the dark landscape floating by and absorbing the train noises, the doppler rise and fall of crossing bells, occasionally another train clattering by, and the subdued French chatter at the platforms where we stopped. At dawn I would dress and navigate between the swinging humping curtains of the Pullmans back to the rear observation platform and there sit until my hair and eyes were full of cinders, or until I felt sick or mesmerized by the clickety-clack and the swiftly receding rails and ties – all resulting in a deathly appearance and parental reprimand.

The first time I ever travelled between Metis and Montreal by automobile was with Stuart and Dick Dawes in Dick’s Hudson Super Six, practically all the way on dirt road. It meant leaving after an early breakfast and arriving late for dinner. Another friend of Stuart’s, Bill Sutherland, had a Wills-St. Claire with a twin-four engine: it had twin exhausts and corresponding muffler cut-outs and sitting in the middle between Stuart and Bill I could step on the two cut-out pedals simultaneously thus producing a roar like a large fire-engine – great fun for me but annoyed embarrassment for the others. We once drove the dirt road from Metis to Mont-Joli, 17 miles, in 15 minutes flat (or was it 15 miles in 17 minutes? – anyway not bad going in about 1920.

Stuart was part of a Metis crowd whose lifestyle resembled that of Scott Fitzgerald’s contemporary characters – all in line with the post-war society of the ‘twenties – complete with blazers, white flannels or plus fours, two-tone shoes, and even boaters (or, for the girls, cloche hats along with low waists and short skirts). Helen and perhaps even Hilda[v] were not in the thick of it, and I was 14 years, too young to see more than glimpses of it. Although many of the gang had lots of money to throw around, most of them also had businesses or jobs to mind, and the whoopee was also tempered by lots of healthy spots. Two Molson families shared a series of power yachts (named “Curlew” or “Edamena”) which brought them and their friends down the river from town to park inside Boule Rock for a couple of days of parties,[vi] then take them across to fish salmon at the Godbout River on the north shore.

Each year there was a baseball game between the girls and the boys, the latter handicapped in skirts and various accoutrements, which never seemed to stay in place and got in the way of their batting. Nearly everyone attended one or other of the three churches – C. of E., Presbyterian, and Methodist (in that order of congregation size, the last being mainly the original Scottish settlers.[vii]  After church some, walking home at our end, would stop off [at] the Boule Rock Hotel’s swimming pool to watch the “boys” do an “Australian splash” off the dressing-house roof, calculated to drench the assembled gallery. It was all good clean fun!!

I saw it without being part of it. My contemporaries who lived near us were, oddly, all[viii] Torontonians who, except for the Oslers, came and went, renting a house for a summer or two. My Montreal friends in Metis all lived at the opposite end and only occasionally did I join up with them. Thus I spent most of my time, at least before [reaching my] teenage [years], playing in our immediate vicinity, including the beach and the fields, inland to the railway track, where we regularly picked strawberries, raspberries & blueberries in their seasons, but extending also into the adjacent French village of Les Boules.

The permanent residents of Metis were descendants of original Scottish immigrants – MacNiders, Turriffs, Crawfords, Campbells – who in our day owned land, hotels, houses and the only two shops, and built the cottages for the summer visitors. I can remember no French name among either the “locals” or the visitors. The French lived in Les Boules and on down the coast eastward to Sandy Bay where their Catholic church stood, and on to Matane and beyond. Our relationship with the French inhabitants was basically through the various tradespeople and farmers who sold us our everyday fresh foods. One such was the butcher St. Laurent who sold meat from door to door and used to horrify me by gobbling up the raw scraps left over in his cart. But I made friends in the village, such as Moses Roi, the garage owner, the Duperrés [Dupéré] – father and son, who owned and operated the woodworking factory, and some of the golf-club caddies. Needless and sad to say, they all of course talked English to me., accessed June 12, 2020

, Fri Oct 17 16:05:04 EDT 1997

[i]       My last visits to Metis were when for several summers I would drive Helen and Ernest down in their car, spend a night or two at the Boule Rock, and take the train home, returning by train six weeks later to drive them back to town. This about 1970-74.

[ii]      The 1612#12 [?] year we broke away and spent a few weeks at Bon Echo in Ontario, but were back at Metis the next year, at the Cascade Hotel.

[iii]     I learned, under stress, to swim some years later while on a cruise at Madeira. Having managed a feeble cross between dog-paddle and breast stroke to accompany my ship-board girlfriend out to a rather distant raft, I was told that a row of buoys I had not previously noted were supposedly to support a missing protective shark net: returning to shore I seem to have achieved a spectacular fast crawl.

[iv]      Fleet’s Lake was owned (and lent us) by our Ontario Avenue neighbours, who were also Metisites.

[v]      Correction – I am sure Hilda played her part in the fun.

[vi]      One day Stanton Mathewson and I paddled out and went aboard the “Edamena”. Unfortunately the canoe’s painter came loose from the gangplank and the canoe drifted off while we were below decks. Hilda and Mother saw it from our verandah and (and this may illustrate the bad Merrett trait of imagining the worst) Hilda concluded that we had upset, and knowing my swimming incapability, assumed that we had both drowned, Stanton in an effort to save me. One of the yacht’s crew, in its dinghy, retrieved the canoe and we returned home to find Hilda still prostrated from shock, and Mother not much better off.

[vii]     Evidently some religious disagreement caused a rift, many of the original families switched from the Kirk of Scotland to the Methodist persuasion.

[viii]    Correction: mostly Torontonians. The Nicols from Montreal had a house next door. Two of the three Nicol boys were about my age and we spent a lot of time together until an incident of childish misunderstanding. For some unknown reason they reported to their mother that I had said something uncomplimentary about their father – which I certainly had not! Mrs. Nicol, a proud martinet, forbade the boys ever to play with me again. They did, of course, secretly, and our respective older siblings remained good friends, but it was at least 20 years before Mrs. Nicol spoke to Mother again.