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Digging for roots in Sackville and Halifax, Nova Scotia

August 2022

(I inserted quotes from my Granny’s (Lillian Smeltzer Lake) memoir throughout)

Halifax area warranted a full week for me as my fraternal roots go deep in the area. Sackville, where our KOA was located as a matter of fact, had been the home of the Smeltzers (my grandmother’s family) since her grandfather’s time. Halifax itself sounded interesting as well as being the scene of my grandparents courtship and the Great Halifax Explosion that punctuated it. More on that later: lets begin with Sackville, which in it’s Lower, Middle and Upper segments lies about 10 miles west of Halifax.

Our KOA lay along the banks of the river and was filled with families enjoying the last of summer. One of the first things we did was find a map indicating the David Smeltzer farmhouse location and “pin” it in Apple Maps for a drive by. I was already aware from my granny’s memoir that I was transcribing in top my iPad that the area had become shopping strips and parking lots long since. In fact she wondered what had happened to the little creek that ran through it - probably running through pipes underground now. It was still a thrill to drive by the car lot and sundry stores and know that she and her siblings had run rampant around there.

“Our large farmhouse had two parts. Our grandparents lived in the small part. Hall, living room, kitchen and a very large bedroom upstairs completely separate from our side. We had three bedrooms upstairs, one a very large room, a haven for us girls, with a large bay window with a wide shelf where we always did our lessons. Downstairs there was one bedroom for our parents, a very large living room, large kitchen, back porch and piazza.”

In her memoir she mentions how they were planning to name a school after her father (John). I was aware there was a school called AJ Smeltzer Middle School. I had thought maybe John was his middle name. After googling a bit and discovering the web page of the local Museum I realized the school was named after her oldest brother, indeed the oldest of all the children, Albert J Smeltzer who she called Bert. He was a well known blacksmith and on the school board since young adulthood like his father. One of his blacksmith shops was relocated to the Futz House Museum grounds. Even though it was my great uncle and not my great grandfather I still enjoyed driving by and snapping a photo later in the week.

One of the days I visited the Museum which, although dedicated to a different family, contained many Smeltzer photos and the house itself was similar in style to how my grandmother would have lived. I was allowed to take photos and found they had a photo of young men cutting ice that included my great uncles Bert and Frank. Frank had been the subject of numerous stories in my childhood as he was apparently a bit of a prankster and cut up. I remembered many of the stories so I was happy to see a picture of him. There were also several of the old farmhouse showing the bow window the Smeltzer girls studied and gossiped in. And best of all - a schoolhouse photo from 1905 showing the entire class body of the one room school. My granny Lillian would have been about seven and her sister Madeline a bit older. I found myself very sure I had picked her out and was further confirmed when both of my brothers guessed the same one as the little face looked so familiar.

“The school house was about half a mile away. In my first years, there was just one large room, around thirty students and one teacher. Penmanship and Arithmetic were the two most important studies. Most of our studies were done at home. The teacher would correct our work and give us more home work and instruct us as much as she could in the time she could spare. ”

On another day we went into Halifax. Unfortunately we had ceased to outrun the hot summer weather so we had to take turns sitting with the dogs. I went into the Maritime Museum specifically to see the exhibit on the Explosion. It had started as a normal day as WWI was going on. My grandfather Berte was preparing to ship out and my grandmother was working in Halifax not yet married. That morning two ships collided in the narrow harbor, one packed with explosives, and the resulting explosion destroyed much of the waterfront on both sides with huge loss of life. A school collapsed and my grandfather was sent to drive the ambulance picking up only bodies. My gran helped her landlady board up windows. As a snowstorm moved in her father came and started trying to get her and Madeline home. They ended up walking in the snow until brother Bert came with a horse.

“It was the terrible day of the Halifax explosion, and after spending the day helping our landlady barricading up doors and windows Dad arrived to take Madeline and I home. We walked five miles to the Rockingham station, it was crowded with homeless and slightly injured people, all hungry, so several, including Madeline and I went to the convent to ask for food. The good nuns loaded us up with fresh buttered bread and jam and cheese and tea, we heated water on an old wood stove in the station and everyone had something to eat. That was after midnight.”

From her notes about their courtship: “Shoffered (sic) a Colonel for a short time, got his orders for overseas, when the tragic Halifax explosion happened, all orders were cancelled and he worked day and night driving an Army truck picking up the dead and injured.

He said he was very glad he was driving, as he could not handle the loading of the dead and dying. He would sneak home for a few hours, rest then return.

In a few weeks he changed from a carefree kid to a saddened, mature man. He helped at St. Joseph’s school, which had been blown down, and burned, and many children were killed or injured. He always loved children and that experience really aged him”

There was also an excellent exhibit on the Titanic, including a deck chair. I particularly liked the windows framing what each class looked like for accommodations including menus. I spent more time checking out the exhibits on shipwrecks as well including how they find artifacts and exploring the Age of Sail wing with it’s figureheads and boat models. It is well placed on the harbor and I was able to capture several views.

We did walk the dogs through the city up the hill to the Public Gardens. I had heard my granny talk about them often. They were right near the Citadel as well, scene of the time my grandfather and teen age dad had to run after their car down the hill after forgetting to set the break! We were able to see some of Halifax on the walk.

“ Berte was driving Jerry around showing him different places of interest, he took him to Citadel Hill to see the fort. It was on a high hill overlooking the city and was used in years gone by as an Army lookout, as one could see for miles and a perfect view of the harbor. Berte parked the car on the side of the hill and after they got out the car must have been parked too close to the edge and it started down the hill, Jerry raced after it, got to it but could not get the door open and was thrown free but had a pair of badly skinned knees. He and Berte dashed after it. It went right down the hill where workmen were repairing the street luckiliy they saw it coming and got out of the way. It went right across one of the main streets, hit an ice truck in the back. an ice man was sitting there with his legs hanging down, he saw it coming and pulled his legs up just in time. The accident happened directly in front of the police station. Berte almost had a heart attack. They took him into the police station and they were very kind. The ice man said he was alright but must have been badly shaken up. Many people could have been killed but an unseen hand must have been guiding it. The car was a wreck but we had to have it fixed up and bring it back as we could not junk it. The Mounties were there and said we would have to pay duty on it as to the value of it when we brought it across the border. we could not even give it away. It cost a lot to have it patched up. one mudguard and the lights were gone so we had one yellow mudguard and one blue. We could only drive in the daylight as we had no lights and Berte was warned by the mechanic to drive slowly, as it was really falling apart. It was a sight. Everyone was staring at us when we crossed over the border, but we managed that far and decided to try to get home with it, and we did. and turned it in for junk, Berte’s mechanic could not believe we drove it all that distance”

The Public Gardens were pretty in a very contained way. They were smaller than I had imagined. I could see why my gran liked them as she enjoyed more formal gardens. We were looking for the statue of her cousin, a Mountie lost in a Yukon tragedy, when a cop came huffing and puffing after us. “Dogs! No dogs! You MUST have seen the signs!” We assured him we hadn’t noticed but would leave immediately while he still looked disapproving. Jim took off down hill with Chloe, intent on getting her back to the car, while Jax and I followed at a more leisurely pace. On my way out I looked for this supposedly obvious sign. There IS a while board sign to the side with various info including a small “no dogs” symbol. Not particularly obvious. I liked the waterfront of Halifax but they can have their gardens. Later I googled and found out the tragic Mountie memorial is a bridge not a statue so unsurprisingly we never saw it. Since apparently their tragedy was getting lost it seemed apropos.

“If you ever visit Halifax be sure to visit the Public Gardens, on one of the rustic bridges you will find a plaque honoring a native son, a cousin of ours, a North West Mounted Police Captain, who lost his life in the Yukon wilderness on the trail of an Indian outlaw. He and three other Mounties lost their way in snow storms, ran out of food and had to eat their sled dogs trying to survive. They all perished. In his pocket was his will, written before he died on a piece of birch bark. “I leave all I own to my dearly beloved mother”. His name was Frank Fitzgerald.”

Here are views of Halifax Harbor:

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