Before you get started reading this post, I will warn you, it will require some time, but well worth it! This is most of a transcript from a series of interviews I conducted in 2009 with Martha Baird, nee McDonald, who went to live at the Gowans Home in 1935. I do not exaggerate when I say Martha was one of the most memorable, wise and vibrant people I have ever met.
This is a lengthy post, and I was torn about whether I should whittle it down, leave out some of Martha’s colourful asides, her generous and loving descriptions of Collingwood people who touched her life. But no, I’ll let you decide. Read as much or as little as you wish. I’ve done what I always do with oral histories–I’ve given it the lightest editorial touch, so that the richness and depth of Martha’s exuberant character shines through. She is unforgettable, and I think, once you’ve read her recollections, you will treasure the piece of Martha that takes up residence in your heart, forever.
Arriving at Gowans Home
My mother and dad, they were married in September 1911, and in November they sailed to India. In those days there was no such thing as passenger flights. That was really their honeymoon; they had volunteered to go out, under the Presbyterian Church, as missionaries.
A lot of people, even in Collingwood, have the idea the Gowans Home was run by the Baptist church. But you see, the reason the Baptist church was affiliated so much with the Gowans Home, was that Miss Kaercher, who was a single lady, she wanted everyone going to one church. It made sense, and Mr. Eastman, he was the minister at the Baptist church. Miss Kaercher was trained as a nurse and she had planned to go to Bolivia as a missionary [with SIM].
When our family came to the Gowans Home it was 1935, September. We arrived in the afternoon and my dad, you see, we had already said our goodbyes before they left us, because it was going to be hard to say goodbye. So, we made up our minds we weren’t going to have any crying. My two sisters and my brother and I all came to the Gowans Home together. My three older brothers didn’t come and that was hard on us, too. But Miss Kaercher didn’t feel she could handle high school kids, you see? There was a place in Toronto and my dad knew the people very well and my one brother was just finishing up high school and the oldest one, he was already accepted to go to the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph.
You see, at that time, they just had young children–public school age, at the Gowans Home. Linda Kaercher, she was a wonderful woman, I’ll tell you. I don’t know how she did it. I look back on it now…she also suffered with arthritis…but there really was no breakout of sickness or anything, which is quite a credit to her given the number of kids. Now when I came, one boy had died very young—drowned in Collingwood. I don’t think Miss Kaercher ever got over that because she felt so responsible.
Now, the parents had to pay for the children to stay at Gowans Home, of course. We were kids and we never knew just how they did that, but they had to have some money, it couldn’t run itself. Of course, at that time I don’t think it could have been too much, because as I say it was just after the Depression. Now I don’t know whether it was according to the ages or what else.
But let me tell you about the house! The Gowans Home, you know, was built by one of the Telfer brothers and they were very wealthy and it was the grandest house in the whole town when they built it—a few years before 1900. It was very strange, the way it was built. You’d almost have to see it to understand, but I’ll try to explain.
The side of the house that faces Third Street is a whole separate house, a separate unit. And to get to it, you had to go down through the basement—it’s not like that now, it’s open now, but for a long time, to get from one side to the other, you’d go down to the basement. When we lived there that’s the way it was. It was built that way, the one brother lived in one half and his mother lived in the other half. They were entirely separate. So, the one part, that the mother had lived in, that was the girl’s part that faced Third Street. And the other part, it faced Oak Street.
Upper left: Gowans Home c, 1938. Upper right: Jonathan Hall, determined to make maple syrup. Lower: Picnic at Sunset Point, late 1930s
I’ll never forgot the day that Mr. Sherrick put those doors in between the two sides of the house. We thought that was really something, that you didn’t have to go through the basement anymore! And when you think about it, it was so stupid, you know? They’d do the ironing and they’d carry all the stuff for the kids and down through the basement.
“Not Trying to Make Anyone Baptist”
So anyway, Miss Kaercher explained to the parents when they came, she said, “You can keep them posted with your letters,” she insisted, “every Sunday.” Every child went to church and Sunday School. “But,” she said, “There’s no way,” she made it clear to the parents when they came, she said, “Mr. Eastman is the minister of the Baptist church and he’s the only minister in the community,” because there was the Anglican, there was the United, “but,” says Miss Kaercher, “he’s the only one who took such an interest!” And he became almost a father figure to the kids because he knew the parents were so far away.
Just to give an example, I went into nurses’ training just after I finished high school and I was at the Sick Kids in Toronto doing my training.
When I came off duty one day one of the nurses said to me, “There’s a minister out there wanting to see you.”
And I said, “Who would that be?”
Can you imagine? Now, it was in the Depression years and he took the train, he never drove a car all the time he was minister of the Baptist church, he rode around and visited people on his bicycle. And he took the train from Collingwood down to Sick Kids Hospital and I thought he was bringing me bad news.
I said, “Is something wrong?”
He said, “Martha, the kids that are in school with you, the girls that are in training, they can go home every day and see their parents. I just had to come down and know that you’re okay.”
That’s the kind of a man he was you know? He never forgot us. And so that was why Miss Kaercher, she made it clear to the parents, “Now I’m not trying to make any of them Baptist or Anglican or Presbyterian, but while I’m here, they’re all going to go to the same Sunday School, the same church, they’re all going to come home together, they’re going to sit down at meals together. I don’t want to be wondering what time they’re coming in. They’re not going to be wandering in.” ’Cause each church had its own time schedule. So that’s why a lot people to this day think the Gowans Home was Baptist when a lot of the missionaries weren’t Baptist.
Now, Miss Kaercher was a Presbyterian, and she never gave up her membership in the Presbyterian church, but the whole time she was there, all those years, she attended the Baptist church. She said, “You lead by example.” She had told the parents that she wasn’t letting the kids go all over the place at different times and not coming home for Sunday dinner together, so she said, “I have to stand by my word.” So, it was a sacrifice for her too.
The Marvellous Miss Linda Kaercher. Born June 19, 1881, in New Hamburg, Ontario. Died April 30, 1965, Kitchener, Ontario. Linda Kaercher was among the first trainees and graduates of Galt General Hospital. In addition to her skills as a trained nurse, she was an accomplished pianist and sang in the well-known Alexander Choir.
Miss Kaercher nurtured the children of Gowans Home for Missionaries’ Children in Collingwood for 25 years.
She is lovingly remembered by many former residents of the home.
Why Didn’t They Stay at Home?
Now a lot of people would say, about the missionaries, if they were so well qualified to go out to all these places and help, why didn’t they stay at home and look after their kids? Well, there were lots of well qualified people but there weren’t people willing to go. I’ve had people say to me, “My mother and dad would never have done that, would never have left me!” I say, “Well, it takes a special kind of mom.” I’ve never held it against them.
1. Children of the Gowans Home, c 1935. Martha is in the back row, second from right. 2. Playing out back, 1944. 3. Bottles of pop for everyone! Collingwood had its own pop factory.
There were some of the kids mind you, Gowans Homers who even to this day, have never forgiven their parents for leaving them. I never did feel that way. I just feel so thankful, even though my mother died out there, she died happy. People loved her.
I was born in India, and a lot of the children at Gowans Home were born in Africa. Their eldest child died in India of diphtheria, when he was only two. Ellis was the eldest, but none of us remember him. Things were pretty primitive, you know, they didn’t have all the roads and everything else then.
I’ll never forget the day my mother died. We were all living in India, and we were home from school. We went to a boarding school because there was no school in the area where they worked. Our school was four days away from where my parents worked. We had to travel by train to come down, but they were all so glad for the holiday, and we were home for the whole month. This was December, because that’s when the weather there is the best.
Mother died in January 1932. She was only 43. I can remember even then; I’ll always be glad that I was old enough to remember the people out there crying and going on they felt so bad that my mother had died. She died so suddenly, from an acute heart attack and there was a doctor, a mission doctor so it wasn’t as if she didn’t have any medical help. But I’ll never forget it. I was just 12 but it’s so vivid, even to this day. And the people—they just felt as if their family had been taken from them. They always called her “Mama.”
My dad, you see, he always thought we’d end our years out in India, because there was a school there, and even though we were four days away it was a lot better than a whole ocean in between. But then when my mother died that changed everything. It was Bessie McMurchy who advised my dad that she could highly recommend that the Gowans Home was a safe place for the children. He always appreciated her advice.
After our mother died, Dad brought us all back to Canada because he wanted us to be close to our relatives. He didn’t intend to get married but then these things happen! My dad met Margaret, Auntie Margaret we always called her, and she was a wonderful person; we never called her anything else but Auntie Margaret. She was a person we just loved. He married her in 1935 and then they went out to India. I often think what a struggle that must have been for him to go, leaving his children, and yet he saw the need out there. There were a lot of volunteer women who went out, but not as many men, you know? And then Auntie Margaret, she died in 1940, after five years, when the flu went all through Asia.
Martha McDonald, 16, (polka-dot dress) with Gowans Home friends at Canadian Keswick, Port Carling
It was sad, but when you look at the overall picture of how much they were able to see in their lifetime while they lived there, that’s the way I look at it. The same with my sister Joy who just died. I mean, a lot of people say, “How can you be so cheerful when your sister just died?” I say, “I’m just so happy for her that she had all the fun packed into life that she had, and she was well named; she was such a joyful person.” We all have our time to go; none of us know when it’s going to be. As it says in the bible, there’s a time to rejoice and there’s a time to cry. Right now, I’m rejoicing for my sister. She doesn’t have any more suffering.
The Gowans Home
There was a man, Otto Sherrick, who lived on the corner of Oak and Third and he and his wife had no children but he loved kids, oh! And Miss Kaercher hired him and he would come over and do all the handyman jobs because at that time there weren’t any high school boys, you know? And he taught the boys a lot of things, just how to fix things, from watching him, you know? His wife’s name was Samantha and she did the most beautiful tatting.
The Whiteheads, Stan and Rae, they came with their boys [to look after Gowans Home] and I don’t think any of the Gowans Home kids realized how hard it was on Jim and his brother, Harold. The rest of us were there because our parents were away. But here they were, their parents were here but they were giving out orders to them just like everyone else…and a lot of the kids thought Rae, Mrs. Whitehead was tougher on her own than she was on the others. I guess she didn’t want to show favouritism, you know? But it wasn’t easy on them. Stan was wonderful with the kids, but Rae was the disciplinarian. Somebody had to be. But the Whiteheads—you see, I was already grown up and married when they came, but they were so good to me. They looked after my first child, Doug, when I went into the hospital to have my daughter, Ruth, so that my husband, George, wouldn’t miss any work. And Doug just thought it was wonderful, the kids all made a big fuss of him. So, the Whiteheads, well I can’t say anything but good about them, myself.
It must have been one of the hardest decisions for Mrs. Whitehead, because she didn’t really intend to come to stay. It was really Stan. I don’t know if he felt sorry for the kids, but it couldn’t have been easy for Rae because she came under duress. They had already volunteered to go to Africa as missionaries, and they had everything planned. They came from Woodstock and the first time, I don’t think they really thought they were going to stay, they thought it was just to fill in. It had been the same with Miss Kaercher; she was on her way to Bolivia and then the job just came up and I don’t know, I think it was a labour of love for Miss Kaercher. She just loved those kids. She could be stern, but oh, she was good.
I remember, Miss Kaercher had a great big double bed and the window in her bedroom faced north, to Third Street and the lake. It was quite a big room but she had three cots in it, children’s cots, as well as her bed. And all the really tiny ones, they stayed in her room with her. One of them was Gowan Thamer, and he remembers me going and reading him stories when he was put to bed. His parents were Ethel and Orville Thamer and he was named Gowan after Walter Gowan, who, of course, was one of the founders of the mission who died. And the home, of course, was also named after him.
Gowan always said he felt as if I was part of his family because I was; he felt I was like a second mother at the Gowans Home, because his own mother was away. I was only 16, come on! But I loved my time there, the kids, I just loved them all.
I often get teased about how many letters I write over the years, you know? They always say I was the one that kept my family together. Well, it is a habit I learned because of Miss Kaercher.
Every Sunday, when we came home from church and Sunday School, everybody wrote “home” – to their parents, no matter where their parents were. It became a habit over a lifetime because I don’t care for email or anything else. But there’s something about getting a letter. There’s nothing that means more than to get a card or a letter. Miss Kaercher would write and keep contact, how she did it I don’t know, with everything else she had, but she always let every one of the parents know personally how their kids were doing. She was an amazing lady.
And Christmas! Well, Miss Kaercher, oh, she went to no more trouble than at Christmas. Christmastime nobody ever needed to feel sorry for the poor little kids away from their parents. She went all out. When you walk in the front hall, there’s beautiful windows and big doors and then there’s a huge staircase going up and to the right there’s a huge living room and that’s where Miss Kaercher’s office was, off there.
Well, there was a huge area there, and that’s where the Christmas tree was always put and every child hung up stockings. There was a mantelpiece and every child, it was a pretty tight squeeze, so the little kids hung theirs right on the mantelpiece, and the rest of us hung them on the end of our beds, on everybody’s bed a stocking was hung. Well, do you know what Miss Kaercher did? And we older kids would help Miss Kaercher do it the night before. After everybody’d gone to bed it was our job to go up and switch the stockings—an empty one with a full one, after the little kids had gone to bed. Well, this one night, one of the girls who was my age—well, we had to tiptoe up the stairs in the dark, carrying these stockings, because we didn’t want the kids to wake up and find something had spilled out of it. So, I suspect purposely, somebody spilled a whole bunch of marbles and they went rattling all the way down the stairs. We were giggling so hard and trying to be quiet! I think a lot of the time, the kids just let on they didn’t know just for the fun of it. I’m sure a lot of them knew we were switching those stockings. But Christmas was a happy, happy time.
And then there was this Otto Sherrick I was telling you about, he added so much to the children’s’ fun, every age group. He loved the kids. He looked after the furnace, and he watered down the outdoor rink, you know, so when the kids came home from school it’d be nice and smooth and he did so many things that you look back on and I don’t think we half thanked him enough at the time. You don’t when you’re kids.
A Passion for People
To really understand why they were missionaries, they didn’t go on a lark and say, “Oh we’ll travel and it will be a great thing!” You had to have a deep love for other people, that was the initial thing that was required. They had to have a passion for people who didn’t have a fighting chance to get the Gospel. If that isn’t understood, then people don’t understand what the Gowans Home is all about.
Especially in his later years, I talked to my dad about how he felt, leaving us. I think it was far harder for my dad than it was for us. We were being left, sure, but I can’t even imagine his sacrifice. He’d already lost my mother, and then this young bride, because Auntie Margaret was so enthused to do the work out there with him. And then she died five years later.
I think every parent who made that decision had to bottle their feelings because they didn’t dare tell people how hard it must have been. They had made the decision and they knew they felt called to do it, but it wasn’t easy. What hurt me more than anything was when people would say, “How could your parents do that? My parents would never do that.” I never answered them because I thought if I tried to explain they wouldn’t understand anyway.
L to R: Peggy [relative?], Martha’s father, Martha’s daughter Ruth, and Martha’s sister-in-law Helen, 1969
I nursed Dad at the last. I felt so fortunate to think that, you know, all those years I hadn’t had him with me and I was nursing at Toronto General Hospital when my dad took sick; it would be close to six months. The top nurse was very uppity when I told her I was taking leave to look after my dad.
“Well,” she said, “when are you coming back?”
I said, “I can’t tell you. I won’t be back until my dad doesn’t need me.”
They were very stern in those days, and she said, “You realize of course that we could fire you.”
I said, “Miss Mac____, I’m not asking for your sympathy. I’m just telling you that I’ve lived the better part of my life away from my dad,” I said, and, “Now my dad is here, nobody’s taking that away from me. I’m going to be with my dad.” And I just hung up.
When I came back to work and she found out that my dad had died she was very apologetic.
But my dad was able to die at home, and the doctor said they couldn’t have done any more. They gave me the medication to help him at home and I was able to look after him.
Dad always said that I was older than my years. I think it’s because I could always understand how much he loved his work. And my mother, even though my mother was so young when she died, we just knew that she loved those people and they loved her. I didn’t think it was a case of Dad explaining anything to us. He made us feel, not just me, but my older brothers too, he made us feel that it isn’t a case of who is going to go but who is going to be willing to go. That was the way he put it across; he thought that somebody had to be willing to go.
He said, “I know that I could use the excuse and say, Well, let somebody else do it, but,” he said, “I felt…it was a calling.” He said he just felt, and my mother felt the same way, and they had taken training so they had everything they needed to go and do some good.
I think my dad, when he first brought us back, I don’t think he intended to go back to India. But they contacted my dad and said, “Would you be willing to go back even just for a short term, because there’s such a need. The women try to carry on but there’s so many things that are needed.” And he felt he couldn’t refuse. So that’s why he went back. The people loved him; the people really loved my parents.
My father did many things. He taught and then he had trained as a minister, but in those days if any building had to be built or things like that, he’d contribute what knowledge he had, whatever he could do to help. And he helped them realize the amount of nurturing that things had to have, the plants, if you wanted to grow food and so on. Mother, she taught them so many things: how to care for the babies–things they didn’t know they were doing wrong. Helping them with diet and so on, so that babies would be healthier.
The place where my parents worked, the people were called the Bhil tribe, in central India. When people got sick, the only thing they would do was put a dead chicken or something under a tree to drive the evil spirits away. If somebody died, they’d say they weren’t living right. They worshipped spirits, and they were always evil spirits. If they got sick it was because of an evil spirit.
But the missionaries, they went to them to explain that the sickness doesn’t have anything to do with evil spirits, and that God loves them. No matter what part of the world these missionaries went—the parents of all these kids at Gowans Home, each place they went to had different problems. But in that area my parents were, they were strong people, but…well the men, the men just wore a loincloth. They were warriors, very strong men. They were very strong people and the women—my memories. I’ve always been so glad I remember the Indian women, because they were such wonderful people.
One thing that really gave me a thrill, when I was nursing at Toronto General I met an Indian nurse. At that time there weren’t many immigrants here. There was this young nurse and I was thrilled when she told me where she’d lived in India, and I found out that Bessie McMurchy and my dad had been the ones who told her about Jesus. And as a result of their teachings, she had decided to go and take nursing training and then she had come to Canada. I met her when she was on duty. That was the biggest thrill to me, to meet a person who my dad’s work had touched. That put a face on it.
Miss Kaercher died in Kitchener. She stayed quite a while longer at Gowans Home than what she’d planned, until they finally talked the Whiteheads into taking over. She wouldn’t leave until they had someone, but by this time she needed the rest. She was there a long time. She went to Toronto and there was a place on College Street, where missionaries could stay for awhile when they came home on furlough; instead of going to a hotel you could stay there for a few days and then travel to wherever they were going. It was called The Mission Home, and Miss Kaercher did stay there—it would have been between ’40 and ’43 and then she moved to Kitchener to be with her niece.
Some of the people who worked at The Mission Home were preparing to go through as missionaries and it was part of their training, as well as education, part of it was learning to serve others. They cleaned and did all of the menial tasks. It was all part of their training, because when they went overseas, they didn’t know what they’d be asked to do. Miss Kaercher enjoyed her time there.
Now, I say that my parents came home on furlough, but it wasn’t a holiday, they had to work all that time, because they were expected to go around to all the different churches talking about the work and to raise the funds to go back. And don’t forget, they travelled by boat, so it took a good month to come and a month to go back. But I’d have to stop and think about how long the furlough was—at least a couple of years, I guess. I know my dad went and took a course while he was home, after my sisters were born, because he wanted to be that much more qualified when he went and they were upgrading all the time too. You know, just the same as here, there’s so much upgrading, now, and in those years, it was the same thing.
So, the Gowans Home, it became two houses. First of all, when there were so many children the girls did live for a while in a house on Cedar Street. It’s a big brick home. But then they got the chance to buy the house across the road that [was built by the other Telfer brother]. By the time the Whitehead’s came, with two of them there, they allowed high school kids to stay and by this time a lot of these younger ones had become high schoolers, so they didn’t have to leave. But at that time, they needed more space.
The End of the Gowans Home
The Gowans Home was closed eventually, because as they got schools built and better controls for malaria and so on, and so people were able to keep their children with them, safely. The risks weren’t so high as they had been in our time. The Cockerell family bought the house when the Gowans Home was finally sold and they did a beautiful job of fixing it up because it had really been neglected for ten years before they bought it.
I didn’t have my parents to teach me but other people filled the hole because my parents weren’t there.
Miss Kaercher used to tell us, “If you don’t try how do you know if you can’t do it.”
Many times, you’d say, “Well I can’t do it.”
“Well,” she’d say, “try.”
It didn’t matter whether you were out helping in the kitchen, learning how to make something and you’d say, “Oh I can’t do it like that.”
She’d say, “Just try.”
And when I went into nurses’ training, I could hear Miss Kaercher’s teaching, “Well, try.”
Mind you I have to be honest, there were some that came with a chip on their shoulder and some of them never got over it.
My brother, Edgar, who did come to the Gowans Home, he resented it for a long time. He held it against our dad and that hurt my dad. I felt sorry for my dad and I felt sorry for my brother too, and yet once Edgar met his wife Helen, nothing else mattered. He loved Helen so much, and well, it was both of them, and all the bitterness and everything else just fell away. Helen made him see, she made him understand. He seemed to battle everybody else who tried to explain to him, but Helen’s love did it. She understood right away. Then my dad, when he came back for my graduation, he met Helen’s people and they just loved my dad. Then my brother began to see it. It takes time, each person has a different way, and a different time, an age when these things begin to make sense.
For me, living at the Gowans Home felt like I had more brothers and sisters. I had my own brothers and sisters, but we were so lucky we had all these other brothers and sisters. I feel all my life, even though I didn’t have my parents I’ve been overwhelmed by peoples’ love and kindness all my life. And every one of those kids can say the same thing. It isn’t just me. Each one of us got a share of other peoples’ love. I don’t think they did it because they were thinking, “poor little kids.” I don’t think they felt that, but they just knew they wanted to share their kindness and their love. I just don’t know how to express it, but I just feel that my life has been blessed with so much.