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Eastern Canada: Eastern Townships

by Kathy 14. October 2012 14:06

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Eastern Townships

Our trip to the Quebec province wouldn’t have been complete without a drive through the Eastern Townships, an area famous for its quaint towns, 2 lane country roads, covered bridges, old schoolhouses, rolling hills, and scenic rural landscape.

All that peeling paint kept my heart yammering:

One of the many covered bridges was near the town of Ulverton:

Here is a side view of the bridge, which is called Le Pont du Vieux Moulin (the Bridge of the Old Mill):

The bridge was originally built in 1890. It was painstakingly rebuilt in 1992; however, an arsonist promptly burned it down. The current bridge was completed the next year with the help of dedicated community volunteers and donors; it has a sprinkler system to prevent a repeat tragedy.

The covered bridge led to the Ulverton Woolen Mills, a historical textile mill from the mid-1800’s:

The Eastern Townships once had many woolen mills to meet the needs of local Scottish immigrants who were weavers. The Ulverton mill operated here until 1944, when the owners moved the production facilities elsewhere. At its peak, however, it employed 10 to 15 workers who labored 10-hour days, 6 days a week.

The Ulverton Mill is the only place in Canada that has a complete set of historic machinery that is fully operational. In order to see a demonstration of the wool production process, we signed up for a guided tour.

A note about the tours: The rule is that if there are any French speakers in your tour group, then the tour is given in French. Although we were the first to sign up for the next tour slot, an hour away, we didn’t know whether a French speaker would show up while we waited. So we accepted the tour guide’s offer to join an existing French tour that had just started.

Ben and I could follow bits and pieces of the explanations by dredging up our high school French, and the kids could get the gist of what she was saying from her physical movements as she demonstrated the machines. Our guide was also kind enough to wrap up each demonstration by turning to us and providing a one or two sentence summary in English.

First, she let us hold some of the wool that would have been dried in the attic of the mill and brought down for processing. It had a very oily feel.

Genevieve and Sebastian holding some wool:

The first machine was the “picker,” which had a rotating spiky cylinder that grabbed the wool, removed hay and other impurities, fluffed the wool, and blew it out into a big bin. Our guide placed a mass of wool on the machine, and we watched it get sucked into the roller:

The next step was feeding the wool into a mechanical carding machine, which had hundreds of bristles that rotated and brushed against each other to align the wool fibers in the same direction.

As the fibers were aligned and accumulated together, a razor shaved the wool into long soft ropes:

The ropes were then wound into fat discs called “cheeses” because that’s what they resembled. The cheeses were stacked into a long cylinder and placed on an industrial spinner:

On the spinner, a strand from each cheese would be attached to a spindle; then the part of the machine with the spindles would slide out and spin the rope strands until they were tight yarns. Next, the machine would slide back to the starting point while winding the thread around the spindles. The process would be repeated over and over until the spindles were full of yarn.

Here is the spinner in the “out” position:

If a thread broke, a mill worker would have had to enter into the open area of the machine in the “out” position and fix the thread before the machine rolled back inward. If he wasn’t quick enough, he would have to lie on the floor so that the spindles passed over him instead of squashing him. It was a stressful job.

The machine was noisy, and we could easily imagine the deafening roar if all the machines in the room were working at the same time.

When full, the spindles would be put on the “twister” machine, which would twist 2 or more strands together to make multi-ply yarn.

The yarn would then be ready for weaving. Here is a big “warping” machine that held 960 threads—stretching and keeping them separate before they are woven together.

Other weaving machines:

At the end of the tour, our guide offered to go back to any of the machines and answer questions that we might have in English. We also watched the English version of a short history of the Ulterton Mill.

Heading away from the rural towns, we spent the night in the city of Sherbrooke. The weather was raining on and off, and we didn’t do too much exploring. However, we had read about the fabulous downtown murals by artists from M.U.R.I.R.S., a non-profit group seeking to revitalize the urban area. We went on a treasure hunt to find them. There were supposed to be eleven, and we managed to locate three of them. But it’s quality that counts, not quantity, and these three were pretty impressive.

The first mural was “It Était Une Fois dans L’Est” (Once Upon a Time in the East), depicting daily life in the 1930’s and ‘40’s and including 29 well-known people from the city’s history:

The detail was astounding, both in the building and the people. Wherever our eyes looked, there was something happening—people engaging, characters in the windows, animals lounging about, and more.

Sebastian decided to get in on the action:

Ben couldn’t resist joining in the fun:

The second mural was easy to spot as it was right next to the first. It was called “Progress of the East” and depicted a scene from the late 1800’s.

Once again, the details were incredible:

And Ben and Sebastian took a step back in time:

The third mural that we found was called “Legends and Mena’sen” and was completed by M.U.R.I.R.S. in 2010. It depicted two First Nations people pulling back the outer layer of a building, painted to look like a curtain, and revealing a riverside scene with European explorers and settlers:

The First Nations member on the left was wearing the traditional dress of the Abenaki, a semi-nomadic people who lived from Nova Scotia to New Hampshire before the Europeans arrived:

The scene behind the curtain showed the St. Francis River with three European men on the riverbank. The man on the left was a ranger who had burned an Abenaki village, and the other two men were adventurers. In the middle of the river was a rocky island (Mena’sen), which resembled a turtle shell and had a special spiritual meaning to the Abenaki people.

A lone pine grew from the rock in the mural. This pine actually existed until 1913 when two drunk men cut it down and sold it as a souvenir for 25 cents. 

Also on the riverbank were two other men—an explorer and a surveyor. Note the deer skull hanging between them; this was an Abenaki symbol that indicated a stash of provisions had been buried at the foot of the tree to help people passing through.

On the right side of the mural was a First Nations member wearing the dress of the Iroquois, a group of semi-sedentary farmers that lived in the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada, and who fought the French and the Abenaki to protect their lands.

We thought it a bit odd that the woman in the above scene appeared ready to collapse.  There wasn't a plaque that provided an explanation.  However, subsequent research revealed that the man and woman were intended to represent a couple from Massachusetts who were allegedly captured during a raid by the French and Abenaki. The couple was forced to walk for months to reach Canada, where they managed to escape. Legend has it that the young woman died in her fiancé’s arms on the rock Mena'sen. He buried her in a hole in the rock to protect her from being eaten by wild animals. In the peat moss covering her grave, he planted a small pine as a tombstone before he died from exhaustion and was carried away by the river. Supposedly the pine tree grew into the heart of the woman and stood for over 200 years, until it met its end at the hands of the drunkards.

In one of the upper windows painted onto the curtain was the figure of Louis Georges Carignan, one of the founders of a community non-profit that helps the needy by selling donated clothes and objects:

While each of the M.U.R.I.R.S. murals was exceptional in quality, the “Legends and Mena’sen” contained layers of symbolism in everything that appeared; even the rocks and the willow tree had a meaning that was only revealed when we had time later to do some research on what we had seen. More information about the M.U.R.I.R.S. group and the murals around Sherbrooke can be found here.

Viewing the murals of Sherbrooke, seeing how wool was spun at the Ulverton Mill, and driving the 2-lane roads through farmland gave us a great introduction to the Eastern Townships. However, this is definitely an area that begs to be revisited.

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<< Quebec City | Ottawa >>

Back to Eastern Canada Index Page

<< Quebec City | Ottawa >>


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