With mild temperatures well into November there is more county driving on the calendar this year. This means more ‘car-conversations’. We talk about the weather, the progress the farmers are making in the fields, the glorious sunshine. And with very little prompting we talk about the past. There are two of us in the car – my mum and myself, but one can easily imagine the voices of long-dead family members sharing their delight in the memories that surface.
No matter which road we take, there is always a stop along the shores of Lake Erie. It may be Colchester, or Kingsville, or Leamington. Each village hugs the sandy north shore and offers an inviting place to sit and enjoy the sparkle of sun on water or the sound of the waves as they curl and recede along the beach.
Our family has deep roots in Essex County dating as far back as the late 1700s. My maternal grandparents were descendants of United Empire Loyalists, meaning their ancestors came to Canada as refugees following the American Revolutionary War. Records show that of the 121 people living along the lake in the summer of 1790, only three were not Loyalists or disbanded soldiers.
The village of Colchester founded in 1792 is where many of our Pastorius and Tofflemire ancestors are buried. A walk through the Erie Cemetery traces a familiar pattern of generations of our family tree. It is where the family in this photograph now rests. The slender girl pictured here at eleven years old, is my grandmother Lottie.
Perhaps this photo was taken on a Sunday afternoon. Both Albert and his son Forrest are wearing waistcoats and ties. I like the comfortable way my great grandfather sits with his hat resting on the ground nearby. Lottie stands quietly beside her mother Ellen. To my aunts and uncles, Ellen was always known as Granny.
Albert’s gaze is directed away from the camera as if he is studying the horizon where the lake meets the sky. Today that lake view from Colchester remains largely unchanged. Albert could not know that sixty years after this photo was taken his grandson Donald would be head Keeper of the lighthouse at Pelee Passage. Water and sky.
Albert’s name appears as the third entry in the Tofflemire Family Bible, an 1857 Oxford edition. He was one of 10 children born to Moses Tofflemire and Mary Ann Irwin. Mary Ann was born in Ireland and came to Essex County from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Moses traced his lineage back to Martin Tofflemire, United Empire Loyalist, originally from the late Province of Maryland. An artificer in His Majesty’s Service, Martin petitioned from Detroit in 1788 for land grants in the New Settlement. He received land at Cedar Creek where he built the first water mill in the county.
Albert Tofflemire and Ellen Alsorey Ridsdale married 12 March 1884 and lived on the corner of Bagot Street and County Rd 50. It was known as the Colchester Front, and he had lived there since boyhood. Their house was steps away from the Erie Cemetery with a view of both the schoolhouse and the spire of Christ Church Anglican-Episcopal. Beyond that lies the lake.
In 1935 the original family home was moved closer to the lake on Jackson Street to allow for the arrival of a World War I era bungalow. The new house was brought in from Windsor and is where my mother’s cousin Donald lived his entire life. It is this house I remember visiting as a kid – the home that Forrest inherited on his father’s death.
When my aunt Annie Pastorius was ten years old, she lived for one year with her grandpa ‘Tobe’ and Granny Tofflemire. This would have been around 1927. Her brother Hugh also lived there for a time. Annie told me that Tobe was the caretaker of Christ Church in Colchester village. She would go with him to the church and search for pennies and loose change under the pews while he cleaned. She didn’t mention what happened to any coins that were found.
I learned a lot about my great grandfather from the death notice published in the Amherstburg Echo 13 June 1930. Albert Tofflemire was recognized as a pioneer of Colchester and was well known in the area. “The funeral services were held at his residence and burial was in the Erie Cemetery, his plot being in the corner just across from the home, the pallbearers carrying the casket without using a hearse.” For twenty-five years he had been caretaker of Erie cemetery and did considerable work in the village. “He took a great interest in gardening and his place was always a bower of beauty, there being all kinds of roses and other flowers. He was a specialist in the work and rarely was beaten when it came to early vegetables in the community. He was a kindly man and always willing to do a good turn and will be greatly missed. To his widow and family is extended the sympathy of the community.”
The love of gardening carried into the next generation. I remember the lilacs and colourful gardens that surrounded the house when my great uncle Forrest and Aunt Sybil lived there. I remember a house filled with books. Books on chairs, under chairs, and tumbling out of shelves. It was a delicate exercise to find a seat if we stopped in for an afternoon visit.
Aunt Annie told me that when they were young, Uncle Forrie would drive his car onto the Colchester dock and fill a pail with water from the lake. While the kids washed the car he sat on a chair in the sunshine and read a book.
Granny Tofflemire passed away in 1935 in Colchester at the home of her son Forrest, where she lived after her husband’s death. Lottie would also find comfort in her brother’s home during an illness that ended with her death at the age of 48, in 1937.
There was a family reunion in 1971 with my mother’s brothers and sisters, Uncle Forrie, Aunt Sibyl, and their boys Donald, Richard, and daughter Betty. I remember the back garden as a lovely green oasis on a hot summer day. Aunt Sibyl was a welcoming host. She is remembered as a “modest, artistic and creative person who added beauty and pleasure to life through the flowers she loved.” She was known to keep an open door to many stray animals who found in her a loving rescuer and a home.
Memories of home are tied inextricably to the following two photographs: Lottie May Tofflemire age 21 with her mother Ellen, and her brother Forrest Henry Tofflemire who moved to Detroit, Michigan and joined the United States army – 81st Field Artillery Regiment in 1917. Forrest served in France during World War I and after the war returned home to Canada.
At the Baptist Parsonage in Harrow, 3 October 1911, Lottie married Gore Charles Pastorius. In her married life she would never move far from the homeplace at Colchester Front.
Forrest married in 1930 and lived the rest of his life in Colchester.
I would guess that the place you call home today is not the same ‘home’ where you were born and made your first memories. One little corner of the world in Colchester village remained in the Tofflemire family for over one hundred and fifty years. That is rare today.
It is not surprising that we are drawn to the place of our ancestors. We think of home as a physical place we return to at the end of the day, but perhaps in listening to the past we see that home is less tangible and more deeply rooted in the human spirit.