Growing Up In Gereaux Island Lighthouse in the Early 1900s
The Lamondin family has lived in Britt, Ontario since the beginning of Britt’s history. I’ve heard stories about when Britt was a logging town, when the coal docks were the centre of activity, when the railway was installed, when electricity arrived, and when the lighthouse became automated and no longer required a keeper. As my parents drive up and down the Britt road, they recite histories of the buildings and the families, sometimes going back a hundred years.
My grandfather, William Lamondin, lived at Gereaux Island Lighthouse as a child. His father, Louis Lamondin, was the lighthouse keeper there for at least 29 years. My grandfather died before I could ask him about his experiences there. It was so much a part of the family story that no one talked about life at the lighthouse much.
Grandpa’s sister, Bernice, also lived in the lighthouse. We were lucky to spend lots of time with her each summer. I often asked her to tell me stories about her life growing up in Britt and living in a lighthouse. In June 2002 I took notes on our conversation. Aunt Bernice was in her eighties at the time. Here is what my great-aunt Bernice shared:
Aunt Bernice’s grandfather, Joseph Normandin (1835-1912), piloted the first ship into the Britt Harbour. She didn’t remember the name of the ship or the year and I haven’t been able to find any sources to verify this. Joseph Normandin became the first keeper of the Gereaux Island Lighthouse in May 1875.
The year he was born, Joseph moved to Penetanguishene from Drummond Island as a displaced Metis family. (His father, Joseph Normandin Sr. (a Voyageur born in Quebec, 1797), describes the move in a documented oral history. And it’s likely that Joseph Sr.’s father was also named Joseph Normandin and a Voyageur.
In 1858 Joseph Normandin Jr. married Scholastique Berger (1839-1923) in Simcoe, Ontario. It is likely that they moved north to find work and they were probably in the Britt/Byng Inlet area from the beginning of its history in the late 1860s when the sawmill was built. Other families had also moved from the Penetanguishene area during this time too.
Joseph Normandin and Scholastique Berger had six children:
- Charles Napoleon Normandin (1863-unknown); born in Penetanguishene
- Marie Josephine Normandin (1866-unknown); born in Penetanguishene
- George Normandin (1872-unknown); born in Byng Inlet
- Gregoire Normandin (unknown)
- Jean David Normandin (1874-unknown); born in Byng Inlet
- Louis Normandin (1877-1948); born in Byng Inlet
- Adelia Normandin (1879-unknown); born in Byng Inlet
In the records, the family name can appear as Lamondet, Lamondin, Narmandin, and Normandin. Even my grandfather, William, often interchanged between Normandin and Lamondin.
I wonder if the name changed because the family felt out of place. After generations of living in a community of Métis people in Michigan, the family was given land but not jobs in Penetanguishene. I wonder if they tried to hide their Métis heritage by using “Lamondin” to appear more French and less Métis. Or maybe I’m over thinking this and it was simply a family feud among siblings trying to create space in a small town by changing their name. Or maybe it was just bad spelling skills!
Aunt Bernice’s father, Louis Lamondin (1877-1948) lived in Britt all his life. He worked at the lighthouse for about 30 years. Aunt Bernice says Louis was upset and disappointed when his term as keeper came to an end in 1946. Perhaps at 69 years old, the work was getting too challenging for him to manage. He didn’t want to retire. Louis wanted to keep working.
Some other details:
- At some point Louis worked as a Tug Captain for the lumber mill Graves Bigwood.
- Aunt Bernice talked about how he won a sail ship race and received a silver medal.
- During the winter, Louis worked for a lumber camp in Britt (located behind St. Amant’s current store).
- He earned $62 per month to feed the whole family.
- Louis and Cecilia (1888-1966) had five children: Alcide, William (my grandfather), Florence, Ernest, and Bernice (1921-2012).
- Louis was a self-educated man. Cecilia only learned to write.
At the Lighthouse:
- In the early 1900s, when the railway came to Britt, the town became a centre for coal. Louis would notify the coal docks when he could see boats six miles away. He would keep the town posted on their whereabouts so they could be greeted and receive help with tying. (There was a big boom on the coal ship, a deck hand would jump from it as it swung to the dock to tie the ship.) The coal served all of Northern Ontario. Sometimes there were up to 5 ships at the coal docks in Britt. Aunt Bernice remembers going to the coal docks to play, sliding down the coal dumps in her new silk pants.
- Louis hauled five gallons of gasoline up the lighthouse stairs. She described it as an inside and outside staircase.
Childhood Memories at the Lighthouse
Aunt Bernice said they sometimes ate seagull eggs as they were “very poor.” The eggs were grey in colour and some eggs had real seagulls in them. (We always wondered if this was a long “I remember when I was your age” story like the classic walking to school six miles in the snow story.)
When they were on the island, they used ashes to brush their teeth. The kids bathed in big metal tubs; the water had to be carried in jugs from an outdoor waterhole.
The kids began working at a young age. Her brother, Alcide, began working in the tower at the coal docks at 10 years old. He would dump coal from the ship into a moving car (that went by like as a conveyer belt). My grandfather, William, would take the cars of coal and help dump the coal into train cars. The boys made 20 cents an hour and when they came home they were all black, covered in coal from head to toe.
Louis put a swing for the children in the boathouse on Gereaux Island. The kids would swing for hours on a rainy day. Louis also made candy out on the rocks. He boiled water and added brown sugar, waiting until the sugar was stringy. He put the mixture outside in a puddle in the granite. Then he would pull and pull and pull. He broke off a piece of candy for everyone. Aunt Bernice said it tasted like caramel.
Her brother, Earnest, sometimes tied a string to a leg of a huge turtle. When Aunt Bernice was a little girl she would stand on the back of the turtle and Earnest would lead her around the island, taking her for a turtle ride. The boys also played with snakes as though they were pets. Turtles, snakes, fish, rock, windblown spruces, water, and each other were all they had to pass long summer days.
Louis would often make eggs for the kids. He’d put the eggs on toast. When the eggs were ready, Louis would clang a pot and yell, “Okay snakes and rabbits, chicken ass on toast!”
They all slept in one room in the lighthouse. They ate a lot of local fish, so much so that Aunt Bernice wouldn’t eat fish as an adult for many years.
Aunt Bernice went to a school that was in the same location as the current Britt school. It had three rooms for Grade 1-8. She remembers there being 3 teachers. It was common for students to skip grades. After Grade 8, Aunt Bernice took extra lessons at the school in Latin, French, Geometry, and Algebra. Aunt Bernice wanted to continue her education by becoming a nun. It cost $54 to buy a habit to be able to join the convent. Unfortunately, the family didn’t have the money for a nun’s habit to help her achieve her dreams of becoming a teacher or a nurse.
The local youth went to weekly dances hosted on Salem’s Island, not far from the lighthouse. Boat access only.The island dances always fascinated me. Aunt Bernice talked about these the most over the years.
While her brothers worked at the coal docks, Aunt Bernice worked at the local store for 10 or 15 years. She said she worked for $20 a month and worked 14 hour days. After she got married she negotiated 6 hour work days and $75 a month wage.
Aunt Bernice spent a lot of her time sitting in a docked boat at Gereaux Island, watching the ships roll into Byng Inlet. She ended up marrying a ship boat Captain, an American named Art Armstrong. She had only danced with Uncle Art a few times before he proposed.