There’s a 1916 photograph in our family collection that shows three young boys sitting cross-legged on the grass, wearing buttoned-up suit coats with wide lapels, neckties and knee-length knickerbocker pants. Freckled faces peer out from beneath straw boater hats, and one of the boys squints slightly, as if the sun over the shoulder of the photographer beams down on them. The boy on the right is our grandfather, Bill Cartwright, and alongside him are his brothers, George and Jack. Forming the background are the long skirts and folded hands of seated ladies, and along the bottom of the picture someone has written “McCormick’s Picknic 1916.”
McCormick’s was the London, Ontario, biscuit and candy company that employed Bill’s dad, George Cartwight, and, coincidentally, Ernie Deverill, our great uncle from the other side of the family. But in 1916, Ernie and George hadn’t met, and in fact Ernie was still a teenager, living in England and scanning the skies for Zeppelins. There was no hint yet that Ernie’s fortunes would bring him to Canada, or that his future would become so intrinsically linked with George’s son Bill, and that one day they’d attend the same McCormick’s picnics, two in a sea of faces turned towards the camera.
McCormick’s, like many other London companies and groups, often hosted employee picnics at Port Stanley on the shores of Lake Erie. Just 25 miles from London, the village had been drawing thousands to its beaches and magnificent hilltop park since at least the 1860s, described even in its early incarnation as “Canada’s Saratoga,” where “the air is always cool, and night delightful.” Despite a fairly constant population of fewer than 1,000 souls throughout the second half of the 19th century, Port Stanley boasted some five grand hotels, among them Fraser House, with a panoramic view of the lake. The hotel’s owner, William Fraser, was connected by marriage to Hollywood glamour, and the internationally renowned actress Annie Pixley made regular prolonged visits, contributing to the village’s cachet. A later advertisement for a competing hotel assured readers “if you are particular we want your patronage.”
Day trippers, though, along with company picnickers and school groups, made up the bulk of visitors to Port Stanley. One of the earliest large outings was made in 1859 by 400 school children from St. Thomas who were escorted on a day long picnic in honour of Queen Victoria’s birthday. Newspaper accounts made much of the outing, recording that the children departed at an early hour, each with a basket in hand, and serenaded by the music of the St. Thomas Brass Band. Such excursions would not have been possible without some reliable means of transportation, and for those traveling from St. Thomas, and from London further north, the London and Port Stanley Railway, built in 1856, served that purpose. One of the first railways in Ontario, the L&PS had been built to ease congestion on the plank road between St. Thomas and Port Stanley, and carried freight to and from the Lake Erie port, where cargo steamers loaded and unloaded shipments of coal, lumber and other goods. Responsibility for the railway changed hands several times over the years, and passenger service wasn’t always reliable, earning the trains a few nicknames – the Late and Poor Service, the Lost and Presumed Sunk – but by 1913 the City of London had become the owner of the line and converted it to electricity, improving its performance.
Electric trains, expansion of the village’s attractions and a concerted effort by Port Stanley’s Chamber of Commerce enticed people to visit “Canada’s Coney Island,” and the public came in droves, delivered by the L&PS coaches right to the foot of Invererie Heights – better known as Picnic Hill – where the visitors dispersed to stroll the boardwalk that boasted “every manner of booth,” or headed to the beachside pavilion to rent a bathing suit for a dip in the lake. For those inclined to a different sort of bathing, rows of benches lined the beach, inviting people to “take the sun bath cure,” and in the evening, lakeside dance pavilions opened their windows to let the strains of dance music echo over the water.
Our grandfather Bill and his family visited Port Stanley many times over the years, but the earliest photos are picnic shots like the one of Bill and his brothers dressed in their picnic best. On those days they’d have arrived at the foot of Picnic Hill with hundreds of others, carting picnic baskets and blankets to spread on the grass and forming long queues for the incline railway that would lift them the several hundred feet to the top.
There, as the Chamber’s pamphlet tells us, they’d find a “handsome, natural park … delightfully shaded by trees … with plenty of seats on the brow of the hill overlooking the lake and village, and swings and other entertainment for the youngsters. … In the evening, [the park] affords a picturesque view of the boardwalk with its many lights and promenading crowds.”
Bill and the picnicking crowd likely didn’t stay to watch the twinkle of lights in the evening. Following an afternoon of potato sack and three-legged races, bean bag toss competitions and tug-of-war, they’d have sat at the long rows of picnic tables spread with checkered cloths and eaten sandwiches and cold chicken and cakes and laughed over the day’s antics. Someone from the company probably made a speech, and a few employees might have been singled out for special mention – a recent marriage, a new baby – and the day would come to an end. The jostle of the coach on the way back to London surely lulled many to sleep, and stirred dreams of next year’s company trip, and another outing to Port Stanley’s Picnic Hill.
A postscript here that we’ll be in London, visiting The Book Store at Western, on November 17th, 2 to 4 p.m. Please join us!
A Spot on the Lake: A History of Port Stanley, by Len Hendershott