OUR 35TH ANNIVERSARY 1985-2020: Before There Was The Mainstreeter, The Wildwood Echo – Old Ottawa East First Newspaper

Lorne Abugov

Who knew?

When we announced in our April issue of The Mainstreeter that 2020 marked the 35th anniversary of our community newspaper, we overlooked another significant milestone in the history of Old Ottawa East journalism.

Almost exactly 100 years before The Mainstreeter first hit the streets in 1985, the eight-year-long lifespan of the Wildwood Echo (published fortnightly between 1877 and 1885), the first newspaper ever produced in this community, was drawing to a close.

The 135th anniversary of the demise of the Wildwood Echo may have slipped by us back in April, but this window into the life and times of the village of Ottawa East and the prominent family that was responsible for its creation will, as per the parlance of the period, henceforth and hereinafter get its just rewards.

Pictured here on the front porch of Wildwood is the family of Robert Lees, publishers of the Wildwood Echo from 1877 to 1885. L to R: Robert Lees, who contributed poetry to the Echo, and was referred to as “Pater”, Jessie Lees (the youngest daughter, born at Wildwood), Lizzie Lees Brown (greatgrandmother of Susan Hill), W.A.D. Lees (Willie), Ella Lees Preston (the eldest daughter), Sidney Preston (husband of Ella Lees) and Victoria Lees. Supplied Photo

Pictured here on the front porch of Wildwood is the family of Robert Lees, publishers of the Wildwood Echo from 1877 to 1885. L to R: Robert Lees, who contributed poetry to the Echo, and was referred to as “Pater”, Jessie Lees (the youngest daughter, born at Wildwood), Lizzie Lees Brown (greatgrandmother of Susan Hill), W.A.D. Lees (Willie), Ella Lees Preston (the eldest daughter), Sidney Preston (husband of Ella Lees) and Victoria Lees. Supplied Photo

Much of what we know today about Robert Lees and the Wildwood Echo, which was written and distributed by the daughters and son of this early scion of Ottawa East, stems from the historical research and dedication of an OOE historian, as well as a Lees family descendant and archivist.

As it happens, the original issues of the Wildwood Echo seem to have survived in excellent condition and were donated to the City of Ottawa Archives, whereupon they are believed to have been returned to local historian, Rick Wallace, who is responsible for compiling and writing A History of Ottawa East (see:http://history.ottawaeast.ca/).

For her part, Susan Hill, a lifelong resident of Old Ottawa East, retain complete photocopies of 79 issues of the Wildwood Echo, which were handed down lovingly from her great-grandmother, Lizzie Lees Brown, a daughter of Robert Lees and a key contributor to the Echo.

Four issues of the Echo – published between June and August 1877 – along with several family photos, were loaned by Hill to The Mainstreeter to prepare this account.

In her historical portrait of the Lees family which can be found in the Notables section of A History of Old Ottawa East, Hill describes the Wildwood Echo as follows:

Several copies of the Wildwood Echo, dating back to the summer of 1877, display the fine writing, sharp wit and excellent penmanship of the members of Robert Lees’ family who took turns writing and editing the content. Supplied Photo

Several copies of the Wildwood Echo, dating back to the summer of 1877, display the fine writing, sharp wit and excellent penmanship of the members of Robert Lees’ family who took turns writing and editing the content. Supplied Photo

“The Wildwood Echo was a collection of contributions by many members of the Lees’ circle. They took it, in turn, to serve as editor to hand-write the pages and distribute them by mail around the province [posting each issue to relatives in Pakenham, Perth and as far off as Chatham]. [The Echo] contained poems; a romance novel serialised over several months, essays, drawings, photographs and watercolours. [Neighbour, friend of the family and Echo contributor] May Ballantyne was a prize-winning painter of flowers.”

“Also in the Echo was “Thistledown”, a column on the doings at Wildwood and Ottawa East. These doings included: fighting off fruit thieves at Halloween, gypsies with a dancing bear in the neighbourhood, a chimney fire in which Cousin Bob (Robert Dickson Brown of Ottawa) proved a hero by climbing the roof and extinguishing the blaze, and listing the many visitors from Perth, Pakenham, Brockville and other places.”

Taken together, issues of the Wildwood Echo present a vivid and detailed portrait of the Lees family, their adventures and misadventures.

An original poem authored by Ella Lees, using the pseudonym Elsie Ellesmere, was one of many literary works featured in the Wildwood Echo. Supplied Photo

An original poem authored by Ella Lees, using the pseudonym Elsie Ellesmere, was one of many literary works featured in the Wildwood Echo. Supplied Photo

After his marriage in 1852, Robert Lees and Jessie Dickson of Pakenham took up residence in Ottawa. According to Hill’s account, “…they lived at first in the Matthews Hotel (later became the Rideau Convent). With their growing family, they lived in a building on George Street, also housing the law firm of Lees and Gemmell. Four of their children were born in Ottawa: Ella in 1853, Victoria in 1856, Elizabeth in 1857, and William in 1859. Victoria was a sickly infant and not expected to live, so they did not name her but called her “Sister” for several years. She chose her own name – Victoria, after the Queen.”

While affluent for the times, the family nonetheless experienced some harshness and privations of daily living. The Lees initially lived within Ottawa city limits before fleeing to the “country” where they lived in a homestead setting on land within the village of Archville stretching south from what is now the Queensway between Main Street and the Rideau River that was well outside the Ottawa city limits at the time.

Indeed, according to Hill, life within Ottawa at the time was not without its own perils, as the city struggled to maintain rudimentary sanitary standards and services for its inhabitants. “The crowded town, epidemics of disease and bad drains in the summer led them [the Lees family] to move to the country in the early 1860s, to the suburb of Ottawa East, Nepean Township, just south of the Rideau Canal. When a friend asked why he wanted to live “in the wild woods”, Lees took that as the name of his house and estate.” A fifth child, daughter Jessie, was born after the family moved to their Wildwood property.

A prominent lawyer of his day, Robert Lees was better able to provide for his family than all but a few of the largely working-class families of the community, allowing his daughters and sons to enjoy the benefits of a privileged lifestyle. The Lees children were all accomplished in music, writing, drawing and other arts, skills which were drawn upon and put to good use in the pages of the Wildwood Echo, as well as in their daily housework, gardening, canning, marketing and framework.

The home of Robert Lees was built in the 1860s and was named Wildwood since it was located in the wild woods outside the city limits of Ottawa. Supplied Photo

The home of Robert Lees was built in the 1860s and was named Wildwood since it was located in the wild woods outside the city limits of Ottawa. Supplied Photo

According to Hill, every week for years, Lees family members and close friends and neighbours, such as May Ballantyne, “would meet by the dining-room fire for Elocution Class. Members took turns reciting selections of poetry or prose, some written by other members of the class. One member each week was delegated “Critic” and wrote up commentary on the performances for the…Echo”.

Excerpts from one of the commentaries in the Echo reveal both the wit and the stinging humour of the reviewer, as well as the pseudonyms by which the family members referred to themselves in prose. For example, consider the plight of poor Venetia Von Braun (Victoria Lees) “who recited At the Window, quite a sentimental string of verse, in a sadly pathetic tone she no doubt imagined would, of itself, touch her audience to tears, but which only succeeded in making them uncomfortably inclined to laugh.”

Other prominent contributors to the Echo, also known by their pseudonyms, included Trixie (Jessie Lees), Cassie Banks (Lizzie Lees), Elsie Ellesmere (Ella Lees), Will Percival (W.A.D. (Willie) Lees) and May of the Maples (May Ballantyne).

Despite its consistently readable mix of news, gossip, poetry and romance, the Wildwood Echo published its final edition in 1885, as a combination of out-of-town universities, marriages, children and other realities of “getting on in life” appear to have caught up with the Lees children.

Once gone, it took another 100 years for the Echo’s successor to materialize, but materialize it finally did, in 1985, when the first issue of The Mainstreeter rolled off the printing press. So, in 2020, now that we know, it’s hat’s off to The Mainstreeter – and to the Wildwood Echo!

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