Rob Winslow Keeps our History by Telling our Stories

Photo Karen Graham.
Rob Winslow holds a drawing of a costume for Elizabeth Deyell, a character in his play Welcome, Death .

From the very first moment it is clear Rob Winslow loves to tell stories.  He approached the podium at the Millbrook and Cavan Historical Society’s talk about the history of the area with arms full of original research gathered over the past 30+ years.  Occasionally, he even used them, but they are stories he knows by heart.

Some stories need no research- he has lived through them.  Others are less plausible, including the one he recounted about brothers Hurden and Gurden (sp?).  Did they really lure their neighbour to destroy their belongings and ultimately lure them to their death?  Probably not in the way described to Rob by another storyteller Rob met in a pub in Cavan, Ireland.

On this side of the Atlantic in Cavan, Ontario, his sources were identified and recognized by some in the audience.  Most of the stories he recounted were humorous and heart-warming, making us appreciate the “good old days”.

Tales about threshing bees in the 1950’s provided a stark contrast to modern day harvests and were made possible by a clear division of labour.  Women worked from dawn until dinner providing two meals for as many as 25 workers, all prepared on wood stoves and featuring “threshing roasts” weighing between twelve and fifteen pounds, followed by desserts including eight to ten pies as well as cakes.

Apparently Millbrook was home to nine bootlegging operations during the difficult 1930s as families struggled to make ends meet.  The selling price for these beverages was three for $1, called the bootleggers’ price.  Winslow described the founding of our first local telephone companies.  Millbrook’s Docon phone company was established by the Downs and the Coons family, and lines had as many as 18 parties to each line.  The more people listening on the line, the weaker the signal, but word travelled fast.  South of town, Dr. Beatty established a phone system to help him connect with patients.  The phones were set up at four locations outdoors across the area.  He did not imagine anyone would want to have a phone in their homes.

Some tales showed a darker side to local history.  We heard of class prejudice in town where families of professionals snubbed their working class neighbours.   We learned that it was made clear to Catholic families moving into the area that they were not welcome, so they left.   Barnardo children in the area faced mixed situations, with some enduring outright abuse at the hands of their new “families”.

What might surprise the casual theatre goer is the amount of effort Winslow extends to tell authentic stories.  He keeps copious notes on his interviews, scouring public archives and other records and publications to find out what really happened.  He doesn’t need to embellish stories to make them entertaining: they already are.

For the 2009 production of Welcome, Death, which Winslow wrote, directed and assumed the lead role, he relied on a Coroner’s report to understand the details of the murder of Elizabeth Deyell.  The twenty-seven-year old wife left her home in Millbrook in the middle of a cold February night in the 1860’s and travelled 24 kms to Port Hope.  The following day she emptied her bank account of some $20+.  Her body was found several months later in a field near the town of Welcome, where she had been shot in the chest.  To better understand the young woman’s mindset, Winslow replicated her journey on foot, trading the dress shoes and winter night conditions for boots, daylight and slightly warmer weather.  Hearing him talk about the event, it is clear that like the Coroner, Winslow is still troubled by the unanswered questions around this unsolved murder.

Winslow’s final story of the evening was the reenactment of an imaginary scene where his parents and grandmother return to the farm to discover its new incarnation, pleased that it remains in the hands of the family but struggling to comprehend its new role.  Rob Winslow is not troubled by this question:  his vision of preserving and sharing local history in a place where for him it all began remains as clear as day.  KG

Tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.