Canadian Artist Katherine Day Writes about Country Living in Oro-Medonte circa 1936
Part 3 of 3
by Ted Currie
"Fate is a clown, we have decided," wrote author Kenneth Wells, in his Oro-Medonte inspired book, "The Owl Pen." "Even with our goats he has been a funny man with us. We love him for it. The expected never happens at Owl Pen. The unexpected always does. We have worried and despaired, and yet we would not have a single day of our life at Owl Pen changed. We have had fun. We have bought experience. We have learned a lot," he wrote, adding, "Next year we will discover a thousand new ways of making a thousand new mistakes. And we will learn some more of what a man and a woman must learn who would live on a concession line. We have our Hawthorn."
It is hard to imagine Katherine Day, reading this passage, not being amused at the insight possessed by Mr. Wells, as generated by daily living in the rural eden of Oro-Medonte, in the region of Simcoe County, Ontario.
The soft rhythmic patter of the sudden autumn rain, upon the remaining hardwood leaves of an old season, would have been a pleasant although nostalgic refrain of elapsing time, for this stalwart watcher-in-the woods; the artist, Katherine Day, who very dearly thrived on all the pleasant intricacies of its nature. Especially so in this picturesque, enchanting region of Oro-Medonte, not too far from the mirroring water of Bass Lake. It was indeed her Eden, to be able to look out the window of her cottage, which she named Hawthornes, to see the bounty of her small 50 acre hilltop farmstead, and the beauty of her planted gardens, which to the passerby, would have seemed more the residence of Queen Mab and her fairie-kind. To the artist, it was a place of many inspirations, and it showed in her work, particularly the fantasy-laden illustrations she drew for children's publications. Some who knew her, might have rightly claimed, she was at home in her strange fictions, and led as close to an enchanted life, as any human being could be expected of encountering, at least in one's waking hours. Here is the continuation of our story, profiling this amazing artist who as well, put Oro-Medonte on the map, as a result of her accomplishments. And it must be noted, especially so, her keen respect for the welfare of this community and her neighbours.
On the 14th day of June, 1936, Katherine Day presumably finished an essay of some 3,700 words, entitled "A Home in the Country," with a subtitle being "The Keeping of Bees." At the top of the page her address is listed as "Coldwater, 2, Ontario,” which of course is in the region of Oro-Medonte, of which was given considerable notoriety, after Kenneth Wells and his wife Lucille Oille arrived in 1937, and began establishing their restored log cabin near the Moonstone Creek; from which they would collaborate to write and decorate a series of books from "The Owl Pen." A collection of books still celebrated by the region, and historians are not likely to ever forget how these modern era homesteaders promoted this engaging part of the Ontario countryside.
The parallels between Canadian Artist, Catherine Day and Kenneth Wells, well known from his work with the Toronto Telegram of the 1930's, and his partner /artist Lucille Oille, are of considerable interest to this project. As the proverbial "crow flies," the residents were a relatively short distance from each other, homesteading in contemporary times, after tiring of city-living, and experiencing many of the same hardships known of such ambitious projects as working the land, and making a success of it as a means of economic sensibility.
As for other parallels, both Katherine Day and Kenneth Wells, although years apart, attended public school in their hometown Orillia, where Katherine's father Isaac was a regional superintendent. Wells moved on to a different community and school, and during the First World War, Miss Day served as a nursing assistant in England. According to the inside dustjacket notes, of Wells' 1947 book, "The Owl Pen," "Later he covered, in one year, the bulk of a five year Master's Degree course in English at the University of Western Ontario. He spent a year reading at the British Museum and writing a four-act play in blank verse. Then he lived for a time in Paris, in a Left Bank attic, where he wrote and published a book of verse. On his return to Canada he turned to newspaper work, writing for The London Advertiser, The Orillia Newsletter, and finally The Toronto Telegram."
Miss Day, with some curious parallels, studied art, not only in Canada but in London and Paris. In Paris she studied with famed Flemmish Artist, Nicolas Eekman, in the mid 1930's, amongst many other established painters in the art community thriving in France, before the onset of the Second World War. She decided in and around 1936, to move back to her former home region in Ontario, and was fascinated about the possibility of creating her own Eden, in the countryside of Oro-Medonte, where she would design her first homestead, known as Hawthornes, and later in the 1940's, at about the time of Wells publication of "The Owl Pen," her cherished "Pax Cottage," a short distance away.
"After his marriage to Lucille Oille, they (the Wells), lived for a while in a cabin in the backwoods, then spent a year in Orillia, before finding their home, The Owl Pen. When war intervened, Ken went overseas and Lucy kept the farm going. She has learned to feed goats, chickens, ducks; to endure bees, extract honey, garden, build dams, shingle, dig ditches and shoot rabbits. Ken turned down a good newspaper job when he got home in order to return to the four acres of paradise which he and Lucy named “The Owl Pen,” and where, be the gods willing, they hoped to stay. As a matter of interest, Day's initial essay of 1937 was all about perils of beekeeping. In addition, Day also turned away from a lucrative international art career, in order to return to her home region, as a matter of affection for a better way of life.
The parallels with Kenneth Well's wife, Lucille Oille, were also significant because of their accomplishments in art. Oille, according to biographical information, was born in Toronto in 1912, the daughter of a doctor. Her forbearers were United Empire Loyalists who came to Canada in the eighteenth century from Pennsylvania. Educated in Toronto public and private schools and the Ontario College of Art, she also studied at the Royal College of Art, in London, England. Her sculptures have been shown in many Canadian art exhibitions. In 1937 she married Ken Wells and left Toronto for Medonte township. Her chief interest now, when she can spare the time, is in wood engraving."
Katherine Day had benefitted from similar art instruction in Canada and England, and had been tutored by such famed artists as Franz Johnston, in Winnipeg, a founding member of the Group of Seven Artists, and J.W. Beatty at a summer art school in Ontario. Nicolas Eekman, who Day took private lessons with, in the 1930's, was also proficient at wood cuts, as was his star pupil. The woman who would become a close-by neighbor of Kenneth and Lucille in the enchantingly beautiful hinterland of Oro-Medonte.
Another parallel, was a short editorial piece Miss Day wrote about the "How Nots On A Well," undated, detailing the process of devining a well on her fifty acre parcel, known as Pax Cottage, built after the Second World War. "Hawthornes," of course, was her first residence, constructed to her design, a short distance away. Kenneth Wells, in the text of The Owl Pen, has a lengthy section devoted to the local fellow who "witched" their homestead well. Detailing of course, all the problems encountered. The stories have a lot of interesting anecdotes about this strange science, but it was Day who actually drew a picture of the "Diviner" at work, in the collection of images found in a sketch pad, from about the same period as Wells' book was published (1947). In all likelihood, the gentleman is the same fellow who found water at The Owl Pen. I doubt there are many such images, at least from that period, of these rare folks who could "Divine" wells with, well, a stick. “Day after day, night after night, we drove our dusty little car up and down the concession lines of Medonte," wrote Kenneth Wells, on page eight of his first book. "Night after night, we laid ourselves down to sleep with failure as a bed fellow. Night after night, we re-visited in our dreams the many lovely places that our searching had discovered to us. We were like the fisherman who set out for pike and came home with water lilies. Our days were not altogether lost."
The author penned, "We came to know Medonte as few can ever know it. We visited the ruins of early trading posts and Indian encampments. We kicked arrow heads and tomahawks out of sandy banks. We walked the banks of winding streams, from their rushy mouths to the gurgling springs that were their mothers. We found strange flowers planted generations ago by early settlers, and growing wild in old pasture fields, cowslips from England, bluebells, from Scotland, teazels from Wales, sweet-scented peonies, lovely moss roses and great clumps of the now rare double narcissus. We found human bones that told of ancient wars, and lovely vistas that whispered only of peace."
In 1936, Katherine Day wrote in her essay, "A Home in the Country," her own assessment of explorations of Oro-Medonte, looking for a place to build a contemporary homestead. Her journal reveals the following: "Such a day as this should not go unrecorded. The lovely soft air is filled with dandelion feathers. They fly in clouds across the branches of the pine trees, through the apple-trees, and drop softly on the buttercups and clover." Later than this, into the early 1940's, she wrote into her personal journal, the following overview of the hunt for property to build Hawthornes. "The requisites for the house in the country, were several. It had to be a log house with its lilac bush in front of it, and its old orchard at the side of it. The surrounding scenery had to be spacious and level and looking toward hills. I found the house on a tour of investigation with a former friend who knew Bass Lake and its vicinity."
Miss Day writes, "He took a Sunday morning off and drove around the lake. An extremely picturesque situation with an old log house inhabited by silly staring sheep, and an enormous lilac bush behind it. And an enclosed orchard in great disrepair was unfortunately found to be attached to a new set of buildings, and a prosperous farm. Very unfortunate, that, for the enclosure contains also the oldest plum tree I ever saw, and the oldest, heaviest sumac. But there was no buying a prosperous farm, and I did not want it in any case." The Wells also had a difficult time finding the right property to build on, and the old log cabin to buy and re-locate, to suit their modern homesteading proposition. They similarly visited many of the half fallen log buildings, of the region, just as Day did at roughly the same time.
The artist-writer, Katherine Day, added to her early property-hunting story, noting that, "As we drove slowly and thoughtfully away from the proposed place, another gate presented itself, with a few more sheep eyeing us very 'sheepishly'. A gate - a house - an old log house with a lilac bush in front of it, and an orchard at its side. We left the car and had to climb the fence, for the farm gate was wired shut. It was a snake fence of gray and twisted rails of the sort that seems stable until you start to climb it, and then you begin to see the cleverness of the shrewd old builders, who put it together years ago; for the rail span puts one foot on a slope inward, and there is no next rail to put your other foot on, because it has turned a scallop to meet the one you are, at present standing on. And the only thing to do, unless you are double jointed, is to roll off, and hope you won't over-load another rail, positioned at an angle of unfortunate degree, up from the ground. Which has been used to lock the corners of the snake fence. "Once over, a ladder was to be seen under an apple tree, which, propped against the house, let one climb it, and into an upstairs window. All other entrances and exists were clap-boarded up, or nailed. The attic was clap-boarded very lightly up each gable. There were two windows in the eastern end, through one which we had penetrated. A rickety red brick chimney entered the roof from between them, and a closed-in stairway led downstairs from the further end. The attic was full of peeled logs, some fifteen feet long, and about eight inches or less at their bigger end. Mice scuttled for shelter as we walked along the wide hand-sawn boards, to the stairway. No light came in downstairs. The flooring was uncertain and progress slowed until our eyes grew accustomed to the dimness. Then could be seen two large piles of some lumber sorts; pine, hemlock, spruce, and some oak. A flimsy partition shut off a bedroom on the east side, with its window to the south. Another window faced the south, also boarded up, and a door was in the middle. Exactly opposite was another door, opening into a shed as we found out prying it open. This shed was long and airy, boards of it on the west side pulled apart to admit the cattle and the sheep, which evidently took shelter there from the storms. It was heavily manured, so much so that it became a grand garden later. Here too was another pile of lumber."
The writer, Day, adds to her observations, that "We walked all over that farm. It was September, and I found some mushrooms and seedling apple trees dotting the fields near the fences, and the sheep had left only the most recent windfalls. I always like a seedling apple. Its flesh is crisp and tart, cool and juicy, just the tang you miss in the highly commercialized later products, though it is unusually small. And the tree is a lovely sight in the spring. Cherries growing plentifully along the fences, wine cherries, and choke cherries. Hawthorns dotted the meadow, crimson with fruit. Now wild fruit means a great deal to a bird's life, and that is greatly to be desired in the country." This reference to Hawthorns was special to Katherine Day, so much so, that she would later call her new abode by the same title.
"I built my house where waters runs, And silent cedars thank the sun. Where lilies bob and small trout play, And peace seemed settled down to stay. Where under ancient apple trees, Goats stood in daisies to their knees. I built and dreamed and this my fate, To shoulder arms and lock the gates." Kenneth Wells, and his poem "Interrupted Eden."
This series represented a small portion of a larger biography of Canadian artist Katherine Day, which was accepted recently into the archives of the National Art Gallery, Art Gallery of Ontario, Concordia University’s Canadian Women’s Artist Archives, The Orillia Public Library’s local archives, The Coldwater Pioneer Museum and the Simcoe County Museum. This abridged biography over three issues, was an exclusive for Curious The Tourist Guide.