A resident of the long-ago Grey County House of Refuge speaks in a new local history

·5 min read

A correspondent for the local Flesherton and Markdale papers (1904-07) is responsible for “more than half the words” in a new book about the Grey County House of Refuge.

His writings are a view from the inside of the first attempt in Grey County to do better than jail in providing a place for “poor, old and friendless folk.”

The imposing brick building, which would operate under various names until 1988, was located in Markdale, behind the present Grey Gables.

Before he entered the institution in 1904, Frederick Gee had already been a correspondent for Stone’s Settlement, Ceylon area.

He was admitted two weeks after the building’s grand opening – an event complete with a parade of school children and the Markdale Citizen’s Band and with 2,000 in attendance.

There was a 50-acre farm attached, with more land added later, to help feed residents, who would work on the farm as able.

But for the rest of the history, you would do better to open your copy of John Butler’s book, recently published by Ginger Press in Owen Sound.

Mr. Butler, a resident of Port Law, brought his avid interest in local history with him to the area.

He is a former chair of the Peel County Historical Society and the Region of Peel Museum and Art Gallery, and was on the board for the Markham Museum and Heritage Village.

While modestly referring to himself and Gee as “co-authors,” Mr. Butler provides a necessary frame to the story by providing social history and reflection on Grey County politics and society.

He even provides a cast of characters at the end to identify people who are named in Mr. Gee’s columns, some of whose families still live in the area.

Mr. Butler enjoys the characters – especially his co-author – but also feels the weight of the many dire circumstances that led them to the House of Refuge.

In 2018, he helped arrange for the Decoration Day at the Markdale Cemetery to include those from the house of refuge who are buried there. Grey County Warden Selwyn Hicks, and Grey Highlands Mayor Paul McQueen laid a wreath at the memorial erected by the county in the section which is mostly comprised of unmarked graves.

The book’s importance comes from its first-person account from inside what was a new social institution at the time. Many residents would have been unable to pen such articles.

Frederick Gee was, Mr. Butler writes, “a former British soldier, a failed and destitute Grey County farmer, and a man who transcended physical disabilities to become an observant writer.” His columns were published in the Markdale Standard, and under a different title in the Flesherton Advance.

Now, the way Fred Gee (d. 1908) and John Butler met was this. John, having moved to the area, decided he wanted to know the history of the place where he was living.

So he determined to read every single issue of the Markdale Standard and Flesherton Advance from 1905, which he describes as the “last golden year” before WWI.

He was captivated by Fred Gee’s columns. “I then read columns from 1904 when he was admitted, to when he was discharged.”

Mr. Butler lists three messages he found in his reading “as relevant today as when Fred Gee was writing”.

“First, disability is not invisibility unless we make it so.” Fred Gee was confined to a wheelchair but was able to be quite visible in his role as columnist.

“Second, poverty is not invisible unless we make it so.” Partly because of interest generated by Fred Gee’s columns, local people came to visit the inmates and meet those whose stories were told in the columns of their weekly paper. They often brought gifts of fruit and other presentations, and they came to share in the Sunday worship service.

“Here was a man who was literally destitute, and found a way to live a rich community life,” Mr. Butler said.

Mr. Gee was in a unique situation because of his background, and because he had relatives in the community in Stone’s Settlement, where he returned after leaving the House of Refuge in 1907.

The third take-away was that communities can nurture us and imprison us at the same time. The community that Fred Gee portrays existed by virtue of its members being confined.

When questioned, the author lists other examples from his own reading: Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn writing about Siberian forced labour camps; James Clavell in King Rat, a novel about a Japanese WWII prisoner-of-war camp and Betty McDonald, writing in The Plague and I, about a tuberculosis sanitorium where the author spent almost a year in 1938-39.

Mr. Butler observes that when Gee, as a former soldier writes about the institution, he stresses the importance of authority, obeying the rules and expressing gratitude for help given.

While some House of Refuge rules were punitive and unreasonable – such as no talking during meals, Mr. Butler says that the houses were at least a public attempt to address the situation of those who for any number of physical and mental reason were alone and unable to support themselves.

“It was a unique response across the counties of Ontario that it was shameful that elderly and destitute people were being committed to jail under the Vagrancy Act, simply to keep them from starving,” he said.

Before that, municipalities would occasionally give sums of money to disadvantaged individuals, but that was unreliable and sporadic.

John Butler said that the questions about how we give refuge and help to those in need – for example, the mentally ill – are still relevant today. These are questions he carries with him from time in his work life at the Queen Street mental health centre in Toronto.

After leaving the House of Refuge, Fred Gee lived in Stone’s Settlement again for a short time. In 1908, his health caused him to re-enter the House of Refuge, where he died. He is buried in Flesherton cemetery with his wife Mary Ann (Stone).

Still, you now can make his acquaintance in the pages of House of Refuge – Grey County’s Home for Poor, Old and Friendless Folk, available at the website of the publisher, gingerpress.com or from John Butler, agora@xplornet.com.

Mr. Butler will also be there with his books this Saturday for Author’s Day at the Flesherton Farmers’ Market.

M.T. Fernandes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Dundalk Herald

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