McClung's formative years in Manitou help shaped her role in the suffrage movement
This article was published 7/9/2017 (741 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
MANITOU — We all know about Nellie McClung’s lead role in the suffrage campaign, giving Manitoba women the first right to vote in Canada in 1916.
But in the way small town stories go unrecognized, and makes them hidden time capsules waiting to be discovered, we know little about McClung’s early years living in Manitou.
After all, nearly 20 of her 23 adult years in Manitoba were spent in the community of Manitou, and she didn’t just bide her time there waiting for one historical moment.
It was there she had her first teaching job, (at age 16), met and married husband Wesley, (just shy of her 23rd birthday), had four of her five children, and last, but not least, wrote two best-selling novels.
She went on book tours and proved such a dynamic sspeaker she became famous across Canada. She was a national celebrity in Toronto yet chose life in a small Prairie burg of less than a thousand people, 145 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg.
When it came time to say goodbye to that small town, she nearly broke down.
"Tears rolled down my cheeks," she wrote in her autobiography, Clearing in the West: My Own Story, describing her departure to live in Winnipeg, where she would stay for only three years.
The family was moving because her husband, a former provincial lacrosse champion, found his vocation as pharmacist too stressful and affecting his health. (There’s probably more to this story but it seems to be lost.) He opted for a post with an insurance company in Winnipeg instead.
McClung tried to hide her emotion from her four children. "I kept my face pressed to the window, trying to subdue this flood of emotion, which was really downright homesickness, premature, but nevertheless real."
But history beckoned. "You can’t go back, I kept saying to myself."
Today, we all walk in Nellie McClung’s footsteps, but now we can walk in her footsteps up and down the stairs, into her kitchen, onto the landing and down the hall like she did thousands of times, and especially into her magical writing room.
The two houses where McClung spent her formative years in Manitou have been returned to the town and restored, with their doors thrown open to the public Friday.
The houses were previously held privately on a farm in the area: a 1.5-storey yellow home with a clapboard exterior built in 1878, where McClung boarded for her first school teaching job; and a two-storey, mansard-roofed abode where newlyweds Nellie and Wesley lived from 1899 to 1911, and where she wrote her first novels.
They are now situated in plain view almost right along Highway 3 in Manitou, 35 kms west of Morden in southern Manitoba. Together with Manitou’s excellent log cabin museum next door, the three buildings line up in a row to present a spectacular bank of history. Nellie McClung: The Manitou Years, it could be called.
The Free Press got a sneak peek at the $200,000 restoration in advance of Friday’s grand opening attended by dignitaries including Manitoba Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon (founder of the Nellie McClung Foundation responsible for erecting the statue of McClung and other suffragists in front of the legislative building), and Premier Brian Pallister.
During the Free Press visit, 18 volunteers who made up "the sod squad" were busy rolling sod out around the buildings. That was just one small sample of the volunteer effort behind the project.
The town is grateful to the Wallcraft family, who rescued the homes from demolition many years ago and had kept them up all these years, said Bette Mueller, local resident and co-chairwoman of the Moving Nellie Home committee.
The Wallcraft family cared for the homes on their farm in their private Archibald Museum, 14 km northwest of town and off the main highways.
Mueller, who is the local authority on McClung’s history here, said the late Bill Wallcraft, who had the foresight and initiative to save the McClung-connected houses, had a slew of anecdotes he would share with visitors to his private museum.
Wallcraft remembered one time sitting with his mother as a boy when she suddenly said, "Oh, listen. Nellie McClung is coming." She could hear a horse and carriage coming but the boy wondered how his mother knew it was the school teacher. By the trot of her horses, his mother explained. One of McClung’s horses was lame and had a different cadence.
The 16-year-old McClung boarded with the Hasselfield family in the yellow clapboard from 1890-92. It still has the worn yellow floorboards McClung described in her writing. It was originally located near the Hazel School five km north of town.
McClung, who was born Helen Letitia Mooney in Chatsworth, Ont., on Oct. 20, 1873, wasn’t any older than some of her students. Her accommodations included sleeping in a small bed with the family’s eldest daughter, who was only a few months younger than McClung.
McClung recalled in her memoirs the daughter, Clara, asking Nellie permission to share her room and bed. "I am very quiet and won’t kick," she told McClung. Numerous plaques on the walls tell these and other intimate anecdotes. McClung would often read books to the family, sitting around a wood stove.
One day the school children were in a tizzy because there was a new pharmacist in town, explained Mueller, who provided the Free Press a tour of the McClung homes. McClung took her horse and buggy to town to see what the fuss was about. She obviously liked what she saw because shortly after she met Wes McClung’s mother, Annie. McClung thought she would like Annie for a mother-in-law.
"If you wait until you are ready to write, you will never write. Don’t you know that conditions are never perfect? Life conspires to keep a woman tangled in trifles." -Annie McClung, Nellie's mother-in-law
"She had all the sweetness, charm and beauty of the old-fashioned woman," McClung wrote of her mother-in-law, "and in addition to this had a fearless, and even radical, mind."
In fact, Annie could have been named to the first all-star team of mother-in-laws. It was Annie who insisted on looking after Wes and Nellie’s children so her daughter-in-law could write. McClung refused at first, saying there were too many tasks, but Annie wouldn’t listen.
"Trifles all of them," McClung quoted her saying. "If you wait until you are ready to write, you will never write. Don’t you know that conditions are never perfect? Life conspires to keep a woman tangled in trifles."
McClung admired Charles Dickens and wanted "to do for the people around me what Dickens had done for his people."
In 1908, McClung’s first novel, Sowing Seeds in Danny, about life in a small Manitoba town like Manitou, sold more copies than any other book in Canada. More than 100,000 copies would be purchased, and it ran into 17 editions.
McClung was invited to speaking tours at first locally and then across Canada. She was a hit in the nation’s media capital, Toronto. "She had a very good memory, and was a very dramatic speaker," said Mueller. "Her readings were really a dramatic presentation."
It was also a time before television, when public speaking was a major form of entertainment. Her success in writing and public speaking fuelled her other passion: politics. You can count on one hand the famous writers who have also led political movements, but McClung breathed that rarefied air.
Of course, no one in Manitou could have predicted McClung would turn into the unstoppable force she became, mocking prevailing views into obsolescence.
Annie was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. McClung would join, too. As Mueller explained, McClung saw the right to vote as the only way to the temperance movement’s goal of liquor prohibition.
Little is written of her husband while all this was going on. However, it would be unfair to characterize him as a kind of Dennis Thatcher, neutered by his wife’s political ambitions the way the husband of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was sometimes portrayed.
It wasn’t as if Wes didn’t know what he was getting into. Before their marriage, Nellie and Wes went on long walks "threshing out our beliefs," she said.
Wes was also steeped in social activism growing up. The family was Methodist, like Nellie, and her father-in-law, James McClung, was the local pastor who often gave sermons on social justice.
What could it have been like for Wes to be married to one of the country’s leading suffragists? Many people would have thought he should have better control over his wife. Right-wing newspaper columnists attacked McClung with names like "angry mosquito," and "a raving battle-axe in trousers."
The "trousers" line insinuated McClung was perhaps too manly. A prevalent joke at the time was questioning who wore the pants in the family, and it was surly mouthed in households across the country about the McClungs. Today, the saying sounds almost quaint and it seems odd that it was ever a thing.
It’s doubtful anyone questioned Wesley’s masculinity in Manitou. He was an avid sportsman and his lacrosse team won the southern Manitoba championship in 1895, the year before he married. He was also a community leader. He was a founding member of the local curling club, and was elected councilor and later mayor of Manitou.
"She consistently said that Wes supported her wholeheartedly," said Al Thorleifson, a member of the 12-person Moving Nellie Home committee.
"We have been married 52 years and I still consider that the day I cut him out of the herd, was the best day of my life," McClung would later write. She makes it sound as though she was the predator and he was the prey, not that he seemed to mind.
McClung gave full credit to her mother-in-law for Wesley’s support of equality. Annie made sure her children shared chores around the house equally. The boys did their share of dishwashing and bed-making, and their daughter did her share of work outside the house.
Living in Winnipeg pushed McClung into an even brighter spotlight. It was her public speaking that thrust her to the forefront, said Mueller. She was the only suffrage speaker who could charge for her speeches, raising money for the cash-starved movement.
Much has been made of premier Rodmond Roblin’s opposition to the suffragists and his comment that "nice women don’t want the vote." McClung’s most famous moment came from mimicking Roblin at the staging of a mock parliament run by women, performed at the Walker Theatre in Winnipeg. on Jan. 28, 1914.
McClung was near perfect — "eloquent, logical and dramatic," raved the Manitoba Free Press — and brought down the house. Performances followed again in Winnipeg and Brandon, attracting capacity crowds and generating much-needed funds to support the suffragists.
But they lost. In 1914, despite all their efforts, the men-only voters re-elected Roblin. More enlightened times would have to wait.
They didn’t have to wait long. A scandal over construction contracts for the new legislative building continued to swirl around the Roblin government. Another election was convened a year later.
The McClungs had moved to Edmonton at the end of 1914. She wished to go back to her writing, but women in Alberta were also stumping for the right to vote and she was drawn in again.
Then the Roblin government fell in May 1915 due to the construction scandal. McClung couldn’t say no to a good scrap and she was back in Manitoba campaigning for the provincial Liberal party.
That included giving a speech in Manitou, where she stayed with friends. The lectern from which she spoke is still at the Manitou Opera House. She made one last appearance, at a Liberal rally at Walker Theatre, the night before the election. Organizers held her off stage until the climax and the audience erupted with applause and cheers when she walked out.
Roblin was trounced this time. The Liberals under leader Tobias Norris came to power and granted women the right to vote on Jan. 28, 1916.
McClung returned to her family in Edmonton and helped Alberta women gain the vote just three months after Manitoba. Her reputation as a suffrage speaker spread and she was signed to a two-month speaking tour through the United States, where she gave speeches almost every night.
From 1921-26, McClung was an elected member of the Liberal party in the Alberta legislature; the family moved to Calgary in 1923 when Wes was transferred.
In late 1920s, McClung was among the "Famous Five" women — along with Emily Murphy, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards — who petitioned the Canadian government for women to be considered "persons" under the law, and therefore eligible for the Senate. After a legal battle lasting several years, women were indeed ruled persons in 1929, and Canada’s first female senator was sworn in the following year.
Wes was transferred again to Victoria in 1932, where the couple retired.
The relocation of the McClung houses to Manitou began at the start of 2017 after the Wallcraft family said it could no longer look after them. The family’s Archibald Museum had been closed for three years.
A call went out for members of a committee to manage the undertaking. For many people, such as Barbara Biggar, president and CEO of Biggar Ideas and former senior adviser and communications director to former premier Gary Filmon, the project is personal. "It took me one second to put my hand up (to volunteer) when I heard the museum had to close," Biggar said.
Biggar’s family moved to Manitou when she was 10 and Nellie McClung has always been a guiding light in her life.
"Manitou and the inspiration of Nellie were instrumental in my life. I learned to write and public speak in Manitou. So did Nellie. She left Manitou for politics and so did I," said Biggar, who is handling the project’s communications and marketing, and is lead fundraiser.
She said her mother, Dolores Biggar, also a big McClung fan, predicted the homes would one day return to Manitou. Her mom died this past spring, but donations in her memory have been forwarded to the project. "Sad that mom won’t get to be at the opening, but my sisters will," said Biggar.
Robert McLean is the committee’s co-chairman and he assembled a team of contractors, movers and builders that includes Fraser McIntosh, Dale Baloun, Jake Goertzen, Jim Moores and Walter Mueller. Bette Mueller and Pat Mitchell led local fundraising, and Bette and Thorleifson form the committee’s historical backbone. Penny Schoonbaert and Cassandra Morrow are administrators.
They raised $200,000 for the move and restoration. The Wallcraft family donated the buildings complete with pioneer artifacts, and the Prairie Spirit School Division gave up the land. The Asper family chipped in $30,000, Manitoba Sport, Culture and Heritage $25,000, and $15,000 from a local benefactor.
Many local trades and contractors have also donated. There are too many to mention but some include B&B Movers, Darren Wood Contracting, Ferdinand Grenier Painting, Subcan Ltd., and HTFC Planning & Design, Inc. Gary and Janice Filmon, and Senator Everett and Lila Goodspeed, are also donors. Winnipeg Blue Bombers general manager Wade Miller and partner, Melissa Malden, also stand out on the donor list.
More than 100 people also donated in the under $1,000 category. The committee still needs $25,000 to reach its funding goal.
McClung would write 16 books in total, including two autobiographies. Today, Manitou continues to produce writers. Free Press columnist Maureen Scurfield is from Manitou. Her grandfather was one of the Scurfield brothers that built the McClungs’ first home.
Ed Tait, former football writer for the Free Press, and an inductee of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, is another Manitou alumnus. Bette Mueller, now retired, taught both Scurfield and Tait at Nellie McClung Collegiate.
What always appealed to McClung about Manitou is it had one of three Normal Schools in the province where people trained to become teachers. So there were always about 40 future school teachers in the community, keeping the education level high.
What McClung didn’t like was the bias the nation’s increasingly urban population was developing towards small towns.
"I loved the life in this little town, and have always resented the condescension with which many people view the small country town," she wrote. "There were many advantages; I began to take music lessons — and painting lessons."
Small-town life may have offered fewer choices than urban centres but they were better choices, she maintained.
"We had no telephones, picture-shows, radios, phonographs, daily papers or lending libraries. We made our own fun — and we had plenty of the sort of fun you can remember for forty years and find it still warms your heart."
She always held a special place in her heart for Manitou.
"I have lived in several small towns, but I have not known any other place that had such a decided flavour. Manitou was engaging, unexpected, and altogether adventurous."
The McClung houses are open this weekend, coinciding with the Manitou Honey, Garlic & Maple Syrup Festival on Friday and Saturday. Admission to the houses is free but public donations are welcome.
The homes will only be open until Sept. 15. People planning to visit after the weekend festival can email ahead of time (firstname.lastname@example.org), or call phone numbers posted at the museum to one of the on-call tour guides.
The hours for its first full 2018 season will be decided over the winter.
For groups of students, the committee plans to charge a minimal $2 per student to ensure the McClung homes are affordable for all teachers and divisions.
Bill Redekop has been covering rural issues since 2001.
Updated on Friday, September 8, 2017 at 8:30 AM CDT: Makes minor corrections and updates throughout