Sharing Lunch With… Betty Hill: At The Green Door

THE MAINSTREETER INTERVIEW

Sharing Lunch With… Betty Hill: At The Green Door

The Mainstreeter:  Betty, growing up as a child in Old Ottawa East in the 1920s and as a teenager in the 1930s, what were the activities and events in this community back then that made childhood special and fun for you?

B.H.:  I didn’t really know that many children in Old Ottawa East growing up as a child, because there were hardly any houses around us on Main Street. Most of my friends were in Old Ottawa South because that’s where I was going for kindergarten right up to Grade 6 at Hopewell School, and when I was 12 years old, I moved on to Glebe for high school, so I met a lot of friends from the Glebe.

Betty, 3, posing in front of the family car, circa 1919. We don’t know if the vehicle pictured is the family’s Model T-Ford or their Hupmobile. Photo Courtesy of Brown Family Archives

Betty, 3, posing in front of the family car, circa 1919. We don’t know if the vehicle pictured is the family’s Model T-Ford or their Hupmobile. Photo Courtesy of Brown Family Archives

For me, I most enjoyed all the birthday parties we had as kids outdoors on the lawns of our homes.  You see, I had 20 first cousins living in Ottawa so the parties were very common.  We played these kind of stupid games at the parties, like London Bridge’s Falling Down.  When I think back to those days I wonder how we could have put up with those games, because they really didn’t have any sense to them!

I enjoyed going up to the cottage for two months in the summer at Rideau Ferry with all my cousins, the same cast of characters!  We had a Model T car at the time with the gas tank under the front seat, and we also had a Hupmobile.  I remember with the Model T you had to stop and change tires often on the way to the cottage, because you couldn’t go 60 miles back then without a puncture.  My mother didn’t really crank up that car, it was my father.  She could do it, but she didn’t think she had to, she didn’t think it was her job.  And I certainly never did!

The Mainstreeter:  For much of your life in Old Ottawa East, Betty, your family lived in a stately old home known as “The Pines” at 388 Main Street, which dominated the southern stretch of Main Street , just north of Riverdale.  It was demolished in the early 1970s, replaced by what remains on the site today, the Cuban Embassy.  Can you tell us a little bit about The Pines…and what it was like to grow up in that formidable house?

B.H.:   My grandfather built The Pines in 1884 and they moved in a year later in 1885, but I never knew him.  He died before I was born, but my grandmother was very good at looking after things and she was well organized, looked after the chickens we had then at the back of the house, and grew all of our vegetables and some fruits like raspberries and apples from our trees.

Our house was built about 30 years before I was born, and it was a lovely home with 11 foot ceilings and a banister staircase.  My room was upstairs around the side of the house.  We had a big circular driveway in front of the house and a large round flower bed, a very large back yard and a fence bordering our house right up to the elm and maple trees on Main Street.  There was nothing but fields across Main Street from the house and when I was young you could look across the street from the front porch and you could see all the way to Brantwood Park and the river.

Betty Hill (nee Brown) grew up in the stately family home, known as The Pines, which was built in 1884 and dominated the southern end of Main Street until demolished in the early 1970s and replaced by the Cuban Embassy. A real estate brochure of the times described it as, “A comfortable and charming Home on Main Street”. Photo Courtesy of Brown Family Archives.

Betty Hill (nee Brown) grew up in the stately family home, known as The Pines, which was built in 1884 and dominated the southern end of Main Street until demolished in the early 1970s and replaced by the Cuban Embassy. A real estate brochure of the times described it as, “A comfortable and charming Home on Main Street”. Photo Courtesy of Brown Family Archives.

The Mainstreeter:   At some points in your life, Betty, you lived in Old Ottawa East through some tough times – the Depression in the 1920s and early 1930s.  What were those times like for you, and for the people of this community?

B.H.:  I was in high school during the Depression in the 1920s, and it was pretty quiet during those years in Old Ottawa East, not too much happening.  We lived in a big house on Main Street, and when they put Mutchmor Street through to Riverdale – we used to call Mutchmor the Road to Nowhere – people from other neighbourhoods came in and helped themselves to our garden and pinched all of our raspberries for food.  “Oh, we thought they were wild,” they would say to us, and here they were all tied up in rows and pruned and everything.  They found our squash, but they never seemed to find the asparagus!

Back then, you have to remember that Old Ottawa East was not a high income area at all.  It was not nearly as ritzy as it is now!  Some of the houses up past Clegg and Main were pretty ramshackle in the Depression.  There must have been almost no tax income coming from Old Ottawa East back in those days.  The houses were very small and most of the property was owned by the Church.

When the men started coming door-to-door for food for their families, my mother never turned anyone away from The Pines.  We weren’t well off, the same as most everyone else, but we grew our own food and we had chickens that other people didn’t have so we helped where we could.

The Mainstreeter:  And you were still at The Pines, living on Main Street during the years of the Second World War.  What was that period of time like for you, as a young working woman during the war?

Through the Second World War, I was a working girl at Metropolitan Life Insurance, we called it the Met. The Met at the time sold what they called industrial insurance, and people paid 25 cents a week to get it, and the Met agent came around to your house and collected the money each week.  While he was there he sold you another policy if he could, life insurance or insurance for one of your kid’s education.  Can you imagine? Twenty-five cents per visit, who would do that now!  Nobody!

I think I was 17 when I started at the Met, around 1933, and I worked there until my husband Cliff came back from the war and took his position again at the company.  That’s where we first met, working together before the war in the same department of the company, and then he went off to war, started up in the army but then the air force was running out of airmen so he got recruited into the RAF, but the war ended soon after that.  The ship he was on in the St. Lawrence leaving Canada got torpedoed, so he never made it overseas.

We had a lot going on back then to support the troops.  We were all young people and all the men were joining up, so the Met decided to allow  married people to work – before the war they didn’t allow married women to work, so if you got married you had to leave the company.

We knitted sea boot stockings for the Navy, they were made from this very heavy wool with lots of lanolin in it and they came right up to here!  It was a heck of a job making a pair of sea boot stockings, a lot of work!  We made mitts and helmets too, and we made Ditty bags for the Navy as well.  A Ditty bag was provided to a survivor of a torpedo attack, and it replaced all the things they lost at sea, shaving cream, razor, all the supplies they needed.  We just sent them off and never knew who they were going to, but we used to get letters back from them, in all languages!  We sometimes needed to get them translated, and that was fun.

Dr. George Armstrong had a hospital in Scotland where he was doing the first hip replacements that I ever heard of.  We used to knit afghans for the patients during the war just to cheer them up and keep them warm.  We used to tell our knitters to make an eight inch square, but you can imagine what a mess that was.  My mother used to knit half of them over again, that was her job.

It was all very social and lots of fun, but it was also a tough time.  We experienced the war directly. You know, I lost three of my 20 first cousins in the War, two Air Force and one Army.  They were closer than cousins usually are because we had seen so much of them, really grown up together.

The first one was Frank Orme.  When the War started he was working in New York and he came home and went to England and joined the RAF, and he was killed in the Battle of Britain.  A second cousin of mine, Lewis Burpee, was one of the Dambusters who was shot down blowing up a dam on the Ruhr River, maybe you’ve seen the movie about that?  It was an interesting concept about how they had to drop bombs on that dam flying very, very low, and it worked, but many of them were sitting ducks.  The Burpees used to live on Echo Drive.  The third cousin was Bill Harrington and he was killed in mainland Italy in the Army, as far as I recall.  The Harringtons lived in the Glebe.

The Mainstreeter:  Betty, we are expecting  to have some new shops and stores in the next few years coming to Old Ottawa East with the Main Street redevelopment.   What were the popular stores and shops in this neighbourhood in the 1920s and 30s?

B.H.:   Well, we had a lot of deliveries to our house back then, not like today.  We had a butcher back then in Old Ottawa East, a Mr. St. Jean down by the railway tracks north of Hawthorne and he had a delivery man by the name of Pat who had a horse and wagon.  My mother would phone and place her order, and they would send her whatever she ordered right to the house.

There was a fruit man who came around too – Harry Soloway.  Ottawa Dairy would bring us milk in their horse carriage, and there was the Morrison-Lamothe bakery up somewhere there at the end of Main Street.  I never went there because our bread was delivered to the house.  We would also get ice delivered in the winter for our refrigerator and oil too…we were one of the first to get oil in Old Ottawa East, because nobody knew how to run an oil furnace back then, but my grandmother was very mechanically-inclined, so she took care of that.  Before that, we got coal from Ballantyne’s up on Main Street and they delivered it to your home and dumped it right through your front window into your coal bin.

There was Sinclair’s Grocery Store on Drummond Street which turned into Art’s Market after that, and Mutual Dairy on Echo Drive where we would go to get our ice cream, which had previously been Ballantyne’s Coal.  There was a drug store where the Green Door is now and another Drug Store, Rogers, up around Pretoria Bridge.  We all went and bought different things at Matier’s Corner Store on Main Street.  In the early 1920s, when  I was 5 or 6, my mother would take me to see Mr. Messeck for my haircuts at his place off of Herridge between Clegg and St. Pats.

Many of the things we shopped for back then we got from Old Ottawa South, since there were more stores there, so that hasn’t changed too much.  They had pretty good shopping back then, pretty much everything you could need.  There was Loblaw’s, a Beamish store, two hardware stores, two dress shops, a butcher shop, and the bridge to Billings was there, and there were two service stations for gas on each side of the bridge on Bank Street.  Billings Bridge Shopping Centre wasn’t there, of course, it was just empty space, fields, no development until they started building Alta Vista.

They had the Mayfair Theatre, of course, and I would go occasionally to see a movie.  They always played God Save the King at the end of the performance and I remember that everyone would stand up and sing, unless you ran out just before it ended!  But I didn’t mind singing it.

The Mainstreeter:  You were born Elizabeth Brown, and the Brown Family was related to the Lees Family and was one of five or six prominent families that were the pioneer landowners in this corner of Old Ottawa East on both sides of Riverdale, bounded by Main Street to the east and the Canal to the west.  What do you remember about these founding families – the Slatterys, the Pattersons, the Hayes, the Williams – they were some of the leading families that settled this area from Confederation to the turn of the century.

Surrounded by her four daughters, Betty Hill celebrated her 100th Birthday Party at Southminster United Church back on December 9, 2016. L to R: Susan Hill, Margaret(

Surrounded by her four daughters, Betty Hill celebrated her 100th Birthday Party at Southminster United Church back on December 9, 2016. L to R: Susan Hill, Margaret(“Jo”) Fisher, Nancy Attfield, the birthday girl Betty Hill, and Barbara Davis. Photo Courtesy of Brown Family Archives

B.H.:   Well, the Slattery Family lived on Riverdale, next to our property which wrapped around Riverdale from Main Street.  They had the big, old main house, and then they had a string of six or seven houses that they built for the children of the family all along the north side of Riverdale.  The father was Bernard Slattery and he owned a butcher shop up in the Market, and they had a lot of children.  My grandmother claimed one time that they had 19 of them – now not that many survived, but there must have been at least a dozen of them.

We didn’t see too much of the Slattery’s or socialize much with them.  When I was a little older, I used to canvass for everyone back then, collecting for March of Dimes and things like that.  I used to show up at their houses on Riverdale and they would say “Not you again!” when I went collecting for charity.

One of the Slattery kids was Florence Slattery, and I used to take her to school at Hopewell when she was in kindergarten and I was probably in Grade 2.  Her mother wanted me to call at the house everyday and pick up Florence and take her to school, but she was never ready to go.  It was so frustrating, I would be standing there one foot to the other waiting, and then we would have to run to school because she was  always late!

I was promised a big present by Mrs. Slattery for Christmas for taking Florence to school.  Christmas came, and I got a buttonhook!  Can you imagine!  Kids used to wear button boots buttoned all the way up, and you would use this little buttonhook to do them up.  That was my big present!  She was funny that Mrs. Slattery!  The family had a summer place up at Meech Lake, and I heard later that she drowned up there…it was a sad story but I don’t know too much about that.

The Slatterys had a bear living at their house.   I don’t know why they had the bear, but it wasn’t a cub, it was a full-sized bear. They kept it tied up outside the main house, but my grandmother used to find it at her door quite often when it got loose. It made her quite nervous!  I don’t think it was very ferocious, probably from sitting in a cage all day.  That thing really annoyed my grandmother, but I don’t think it ever attacked anyone.

They kept the bear in an area of bush between their main house and our house mostly on our property, all pine trees and things.  They used to build huts in there all the time, because the law at one point was that if you had established a building on a property you could claim ownership of it.  My grandmother used to have to go onto that land between us and knock down all the Slattery huts, because we thought they wanted to take over our property!  I think the bear was actually kept on their property, and we certainly had no interest in claiming that area.

The Williams Family lived right down at the River, and my father knew Mr. Williams but I didn’t.  One of my cousins took cello lessons from Christine Williams in their home, which still exists in Rideau Gardens.  The family owned Rideau Gardens, it was a big market garden. They grew their crops for the Byward Market, and they would bring them up Main Street on horse and buggy.  Rideau Gardens was as much Ottawa South as it was Ottawa East because it was on the southern side of Riverdale all the way down to the River and between Sunnyside and Main.  The Williams owned horses and kept them in stables there.  I remember they had a big stable fire and the horses were all burned, oh, it was horrible!

There was also the Hay Family in the big old stone house on Echo Drive and they were of my grandmother’s generation.  Their house became the Cuban Embassy, before the Embassy moved to Main Street, and then it was the Echo-Bank guest house.  My grandmother used to visit a lot with the Hays.  They were good friends with the Lees family, and I remember my grandmother reading the little newspaper that the Lees used to bring out every week called the “Wildwood Echo”, and they would have stories in there about visiting the Hay Family.  It was a sort of social thing to have visits with the different families.

I knew the Patterson Family daughters, Yule and Anna, but I didn’t know their dad who built the house across from us on Mason Terrace.  I knew Yule Patterson best, she used to go to work on the bus with me into town.  Yule was quite a bit older than me, and she used to speak very carefully and she didn’t move her mouth at all when she talked.  I had hearing problems even back then and I used to read lips, but she never moved her lips!  She was very nice, but very proper.  They were one of our only close neighbours when we moved from The Pines to Brown Street.

The Mainstreeter:  Most of us today don’t realize that a lot of famous people over the years called Old Ottawa East their home.  Many of them were your friends, or your cousins and uncles, or folks you knew in the neighbourhood.  (NHL hockey star Aurele Joliat, Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Finance Minister Michael Wilson, and local residents )

Well, Aurele Joliat, the hockey player lived up at the corner of Clegg and Main.  That area wasn’t built up when I was growing up, it was actually a field where the Slattery’s kept their sheep, and every once in a while you’d see a dead sheep floating by drowned.  They got loose from the field and there was nothing to stop them getting into the canal and drowning.   In the winter there was a skating rink there.

Then, that whole area got developed, from Clegg right down to Bower, and Joliat had one of those houses.  I never met him, but I met his sister Jeanne, at something to do with school in the Glebe, can’t recall what.

And we had Prime Minister Chretien living close by on Bower Street for awhile, and he always said hello to me when I met him, always talking to you and being very friendly.  Now I never actually met Michael Wilson the Finance Minister when he lived across the street from me here.  And we had the Chief of Police of Ottawa living here on Brown Street, and that was always great because you always got your street ploughed first!

The Mainstreeter:  You have lived in this lovely neighbourhood all of your life…for over a century.  What is it about Old Ottawa East that you’ve enjoyed the most, and how do you feel about all the changes that are happening in this neighbourhood?

B.H.:  Yes, my whole life has been spent here in Old Ottawa East.  I guess I never had the gumption to go anywhere else!  My grandmother had this house and she wanted us to share it with her, and we did.  This neighbourhood has changed a whole lot since back when I was growing up.  It was real quiet back then.  We used to have a bus stop right around the corner from us on Riverdale and Main. The streetcar turned around at Clegg but the City bus had a route along Riverdale back then. If the bus stopped at our stop, we knew it was a visitor for our house, because there was no one else around.

I’m excited about the changes to the neighbourhood.  It’s nice that Old Ottawa East is coming up, but it’s ironic that Main Street is now back down to two lanes, like it was when I was a child!  I remember that Main Street used to have big maple trees lining the entire street from our house all the way up to Hawthorne.  One morning, I went off to school, and I came home that afternoon and all the maple trees were gone, all stripped away by the City.  They worked from both ends, and met in the middle at Clegg Street.  I couldn’t believe it!  They told us it was Dutch Elm disease, which struck us funny since they were maple trees!  But they did it to widen Main Street to four lanes to handle the new traffic from Alta Vista over the bridge from Smyth Street.  It’s funny how things go full circle…

The Mainstreeter:  Betty, this December you will turn 102, and you are still going strong.  Our readers at the Mainstreeter wouldn’t forgive us if we didn’t ask you to tell us your secret for longevity…to what do you credit your long life here in Old Ottawa East?

B.H.:  Well, if people want to know the secret to my survival, I have an easy answer for that question.  It’s oatmeal. Some people say beer for breakfast, but my approach is much more healthy. I eat oatmeal for breakfast.  Each and every morning, that’s what I have for my breakfast, just the little instant packages you know, two minutes in the microwave and it’s done.  Eat oatmeal and live longer!

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