Hobos, Apple Pie, and the Depression–Tales from 569 South Street

Hobos, Apple Pie, and the Depression–Tales from 569 South Street



Canada-Rail Postcard


As a child, my Grandmother used to tell me all sorts of stories about the Depression. Each morning she made sandwiches for the hungry people knocking on her door, and her weathered screened verandah sometimes became a shelter for homeless people during rainy nights.  The train station was just a few blocks down from where they lived on South Street in Cowansville, and those that rode the freight trains would get off daily to see if they could find work or food. Once they came knocking at your door, chances are you would never see them again, as they would never spend too long in any one place.

I was always told that we once had a hobo mark on our side door, and Grammy would also take in needy families until they got on their feet. Grampy once said that he never knew who would be sitting across from him nightly at the dinner table, but each time my Grandmother asked him to go to the grocery store to get another loaf of bread for someone in need he went without complaining.



(image via: D-Arch)



One day Grammy hired a young homeless woman named Gladys who worked for her until she died. I was barely eight years old when Gladys passed, but I still remember her like yesterday. Gladys was an odd looking woman who tried to hide her chain smoking habit from my Grandmother. The ‘manly-looking” woman would talk up a storm while she cleaned with stories that young ears should have never heard– but I did.

Gladys would tell me all about her days as a teenager where she would hide along the tracks outside the train yards. She would run as fast as she could along the train as it gained speed and grab hold and jump into the open boxcars. Sometimes, she missed, and sometimes she watched some of her friends lose their legs or their lives as they jumped off as the train was reaching its destination.


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Knight Residence and business–569 South Street Cowansville Quebec-Photo from Linda Knight Seccaspina Collection


Gladys told me that there was nothing left at home during those horrible years of the Depression. There were too many mouths to feed and she knew she wasn’t going anywhere anyways if she remained there. So she just rode the rails as it was free and she knew she would find food somewhere, which was more than she was going to do at home. So she cut her hair, wore overalls and a cap, and survived life on the road until my Grandmother hired her.

Gladys ended up dying in her sleep in ‘the back room’ of my Grandparents home as it was always called. After she died, my Grandmother promptly labelled it ‘Gladys’s room’. When I was older and came home on weekends, that very same room was where I slept. You have no idea how many times I thought I saw Gladys in the dark shadows scurrying around with her feather duster, and yes, still chain smoking. The room was always really cold, even in the summer, and it never stopped smelling of apples.

You see, Gladys could make anything out of everything. My Grandmother was an apple hoarder among other things, and always had a huge wooden barrel of apples in the shed. The top part of the bin held apples that were crisp and fresh, but, if you ventured to the bottom looking for a better apple, it was nothing but decaying fruit. So when Gladys made an apple pie she insisted on using the older apples, and worked her magic with them. Somehow the odd cigarette ashes sometimes found in that pie gave it that “je ne sais quoi” in added flavour. But Gladys like my Grandmother never bothered with tradition as even in her late years she was still the young woman who had been thrown off trains, begged at back doors of strangers and generally got by because she had too.

Hard times had driven her from home so a few rotten apples were not going to stand in her way of making a great apple pie as those issues were transient to her now. After all, any emotions she had been through in her life from love hate or fear- my Grandmother and apple pie now covered the whole territory for Gladys.  She had left that life somewhere among the years of former crumpled packs of cigarettes and loneliness.



Fred and Mary Knight Cowansville Quebec – Photo from Linda Knight Seccaspina Collection






Whose Depression era grandparents would make a simple dinner for themselves i e my grandfather would cut up 🍅 tomatoes, add mayo like a dressing with salt and pepper …. when I watched him eat it I would say “is that all you’re having !!?? He would say to me “look I’m from a time that if you looked in the ice box you put together what was in there and that’s what you had …. and you learned what you liked and made it for yourself . Remember that my birdie … it isn’t always right there for you when you get home .”

About lindaseccaspina

Linda Knight Seccaspina was born in Cowansville, Quebec about the same time as the wheel was invented and the first time she realized she could tell a tale was when she got caught passing her smutty stories around in Grade 7 at CHS by Mrs. Blinn. When Derek "Wheels" Wheeler from Degrassi Jr. High died in 2010, Linda wrote her own obituary. Some people said she should think about a career in writing obituaries. Before she laid her fingers to a keyboard, Linda owned the eclectic store Flash Cadilac and Savannah Devilles in Ottawa from 1976-1996. After writing for years about things that she cared about or pissed her off she finally found her calling. Is it sex drugs and rock n' roll you might ask? No, it is history. Seeing that her very first boyfriend in Grade 5 (who she won a Twist contest with in the 60s) is the head of the Brome Misissiquoi Historical Society and also specializes in local history back in Quebec, she finds that quite funny. She writes every single day and is also a columnist for Hometown News and Screamin's Mamas. She is a volunteer for the Carleton Place and Beckwith Heritage Museum, an admin for the Lanark County Genealogical Society Facebook page, and a local guest speaker. She has been now labelled an historian by the locals which in her mind is wrong. You see she will never be like the iconic local Lanark County historian Howard Morton Brown, nor like famed local writer Mary Cook. She proudly calls herself The National Enquirer Historical writer of Lanark County, and that she can live with. Linda has been called the most stubborn woman in Lanark County, and has requested her ashes to be distributed in any Casino parking lot as close to any Wheel of Fortune machine as you can get. But since she wrote her obituary, most people assume she's already dead. Linda has published six books, "Menopausal Woman From the Corn," "Cowansville High Misremembered," "Naked Yoga, Twinkies and Celebrities," "Cancer Calls Collect," "The Tilted Kilt-Vintage Whispers of Carleton Place," and "Flashbacks of Little Miss Flash Cadilac." All are available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle. Linda's books are for sale on Amazon or at Wisteria · 62 Bridge Street · Carleton Place, Ottawa, Canada, and at the Carleton Place and Beckwith Heritage Museum · 267 Edmund Street · Carleton Place, Ottawa, Canada--Appleton Museum-Mississippi Textile Mill and Mill Street Books and Heritage House Museum and The Artists Loft in Smith Falls.

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