My father and uncles spent their boyhood on Pelee Island (until 1950), and I have often heard my father mention Dr. Reece, the island doctor. Does anyone know why and when the doctor moved to the mainland, or what happened to him and his family?
I recently visited the island’s museum, located in the Town Hall, and made some casual discoveries. Before the Mennonites came the island was in fact owned by the Chippewa and Ottawa native peoples. The Museum shows many arrow heads to attest to their presence there. The island at one time supported much wild life that is now extinct (like bobcats). The Island was loaned from the native people in 1881 for 991 years. In 1867 McCormick obtained a patent from the government sealing the deal.
The Island was not available to Mennonites without a battle however. 1918 a Battle of Pelee Island took place between the US forces and The Patriot Forces of the 32nd Regiment.
The Amerstburg Echo (published on Dec. 24, 1880) showed a picture of a ‘cutter’ that had to be driven around channels on the ice for five hours, ice which was only 1 and ½ inches thick for 18 miles. Mennonites living on the island would have felt isolated during the winter months by a lake which was 20 miles across. One of the pictures showed a group of men pushing hard on a Model T Ford which was stuck in deep snow. The ‘Ironclad Mail Company’ at one time made certain that the delivery of mail was reliable. Kathryn Isabel McCormick Williams (sister of Olive Stewart, first telephone operator in 1913) saw to it that telephone operation was available for 50 years, which means that Mennonites might well have benefited from her work at the telephone exchange, making the necessary connections with ‘banana plugs’.
The Amuerstburg Echo, (1878) published picture of a group of old men, seated – all with beards- ,who might have represented The Brandy Distillers because Pelee Island was once the centre of a prosperous wine industry that flourished until World War I. Mennonites might well have grown grapes. But what Mennonite on the island would really be interested in was the type of thing that William McCormick apparently did on Jan 24, 1817 when he built a church and a public school in Colchester by selling them lime stone from the island and some rocks as well. They (the Mennonites) would also have been interested in a fishing fleet pictured in 1900 together with that of sturgeon as big as the fishermen. But most of all the Mennonites would have been interested in Burley tobacco. This was money making crop for which some of the islanders actually pulled out their grape vines. It might not have been healthy for us humans but money is money. That is what a certain Mr. Kerby of Windsor reported in the Pelee Island Reporter 1913.
In July of 2010 a group of former Pelee Island residents made a trek to the Island to discover some of their roots. The name of ‘Scudder Dock’ that their boat docked at might well have been derived from John Milton scudder of Cincinnati Ohio who purchased 4000 acres of marsh land from the McCormick’s in 1888 ($2/acre).
The first group of Mennonite people to arrive in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, had left Ukraine in 1924. During this time, an American from Leipzig, Ohio, namely George Cruikshank, was looking for six families to share-crop the Pelee Island, Ontario farms he had invested in.
These first six families accepted Cruikshank’s invitation to farm on the Island, and they were soon followed by other Russian Mennonite people who rented or share-cropped Island farms. Approximately forty Mennonite families lived on the Island during their twenty-five year sojourn there.
The Mennonites’ time on the Island helped them learn the English language, acquaint them with the Canadian way of life, pay their travel debt, and save enough money for a down payment on a mainland farm.
Russian Mennonite immigrants and their neighbours greet one of the first planes to Pelee Island, c. 1926. (This photo and that used in blog banner courtesy of G.E. Wiebe.)
Photos and identification for our book of photographs are being collected by former Islanders Anne Fast and Astrid Koop. To date, a member of every former Mennonite Pelee family has been contacted and all but four out-of-town people have supplied photos. We expect to hear from the four soon.
Speedprint will be printing the completed book. Approximately 300 photos, a total of 150 pages, will comprise the book.