Hilda Geddes spun her tales, and we learned to understand ourselves.Her book-The Canadian Mississippi River by Hilda Geddes is one of the referencebooks I use all the time. I wish I had met her.
Editor’s note: This is an edited version of a eulogy given by writer Michael Dawber at the funeral of Hilda Geddes, a historian, columnist and storyteller in Snow Road Station, Ont, who died March 13 at the age of 93. By Michael Dawber The English novelist E.M. Forster wrote that “our final experience, like our first, is conjectural. We move between two darknesses.” It is the contribution we make to our community, to society, and to one another that lights the way between those two doorways.
Hilda Geddes spent nine decades making that contribution. Her contributions were enormous and freely given. Like her father John, whose remarkable diary describes the life of Snow Road Station, a hamlet west of Perth, for more than half a century to 1966, Hilda recorded in 1988 the day-to-day existence of this community, which is my home too, for close to 30 years, almost as long as I have been alive.
Like the Yukon’s Edith Josie, Hilda was a community storyteller renowned far beyond her home. I am sure everyone who live in the area has read her words, heard her stories and, through them, experienced this remarkable place. Hilda has been a fixture of Snow Road for so long that the two are part and parcel. In her book The Canadian Mississippi River, Hilda wrote: “I have always had an affinity with the big Mississippi River and the K&P Kingston and Pembroke Railroad, having been born beside both.
While I was growing up, I always had the feeling that the K& P Railway and the Mississippi River would go on forever, my home from 1912 being beside the Snow Road station. During the 27 years I worked for the federal government in Ottawa, I never lost my roots at Snow Road. She told me her interest in storytelling began after she retired from the public service in 1967. In the mid-1970s she was asked to compile a historical sketch for the Presbyterian Church centenary, and from there began a 25-year exploration of this community and the Ottawa Valley beyond.
She told the collective story of this vast place in a way accessible to everyone, with humour and character, in six books and countless newspaper columns. Hilda could spin a long yarn from earlier days, and obviously enjoyed the spinning. I will never forget the afternoon Hilda and her brother Ralph told me the story of lightning striking five different places in the family home, the two of them each building the tale higher with burning telephone lines and smoking mail sacks. And another of her many stories was a tale about the excursion trains to the Renfrew Fair. “This train was scheduled to leave Renfrew around 9 p.m., but usually would wait if all the passengers were not on tap. On one occasion, however, it pulled out on time and some of our crowd got left behind. They had gone to a movie, thinking the train would wait.”
Instead, it pulled out on time, and when they arrived at the station, all they saw were the red rear lights going out of sight. They hired a taxi hoping to catch it at Renfrew Junction, but again it had left. They went ahead hoping to catch it at Opeongo, with the same result. They were forced to stay in Renfrew all night and come down on the morning train. They were a “sheepish looking bunch.”
She said her one regret was that she had not begun her work 50 years ago, when living memory reached back to the pioneer days. It gives you pause to realize that the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk only four years before Hilda was born. The youngest generation now could not imagine the reality of that time without the stories of our elders to remind us. Hilda wrote once, “Today, our memories of the old Snow Road as told by our parents are fading, and one wonders if the following generations will ever hear of it, or remember it if they do hear the story. This was at the root of my desire to chronicle all the data I could …” We are all fortunate that she had that desire.
More than 2,500 years ago, the Greek poet Sappho wrote, “I say that, in another time, someone will remember us.” Thanks to the commitment of Hilda Geddes, we can know we will all be remembered, and so will she.
27 Mar 2001
If you have not read The Canadian Mississippi River by Hilda Geddes.. run don’t walk!