"But to me, you're as fair as you were, Maggie, when you and I were young..."
In 1888, Innes Rae Melvin (1866 - 1920) started work as a ferryman taking incoming settlers and grain shipments across the Souris River in south-western Manitoba. He charged 25 cents to take a wagon with team across the river and lived in a tent by the river during the summer months in order to be available on demand for river crossings.
That same year, Widow McRae was immigrating to Manitoba from Ontario along with her many children, including her daughter Margaret Florence McRae (1873-1920), to join her oldest son John who had already been farming in the area for two years. Following the death of her husband, Farquhar McRae, the young widow knew that her thirteen children would have better opportunities and access to farm land if they pioneered west.
The McRaes were able to travel as far as Deloraine, Manitoba by railway; however, they had to bundle all their farm equipment, food supplies and personal belongings into wagons to cover the last 50 kilometres to their homestead. With the Souris River lying between them and their destination, they had to make use of Innes Melvin's small ferry to cross over the river safely.
Their daughter Bella wrote down what happened next:
"Maggie, who had taken her Third Class (Grade X) examinations in Ontario, stopped in Winnipeg to attend Model School (teacher training). . . .
Later, the men around town were joking the young ferryman (father) about the family of girls he had taken across the river. They asked him if he had picked a wife from among them. To which he replied, 'No, I'm waiting for the one who stopped in Winnipeg.'
In 1891 Maggie McRae, after teaching for a year in a school near Reston, was engaged as a teacher in the South Antler School, about nine miles south of Melita. Before long, Innes Melvin, who had homesteaded on 22-4-28, was courting her. Old-timers recall the young couple walking through the bush at Sourisford, swishing the mosquitoes away with branches.
On December 24, 1891, the words spoken in jest by Innes Melvin in the fall of 1888 cam true when he and the young school teacher were married in Melita."
- (The Melvin-McRae Story by Isabel Reekie, Chapter 2)
From all accounts, the Melvin home was both happy and always full of music. Neighbours remember knowing that Innes was coming over for a visit because they could hear him singing on horseback before he arrived. Their children remember Maggie always singing to them at bedtime and while she worked at household chores, cooking big meals for a threshing crew or knitting new winter mittens. One song in particular stood out as a favourite, When You and I Were Young, Maggie.
"Mama's name was Margaret (she got Maggie). Mama had a clear, sweet soprano voice. Often she and Papa sang When You and I were Young, Maggie - he coming in with his bass, though he usually sang baritone. It was their song."
- (The Open Door by Isabel Reekie, pg 8)
|Innes and Maggie in the 1910s.|
Of course as soon as I read that quote calling it their song, I had to track down a recording of When You and I Were Young, Maggie to have a listen. Luckily it seems to have been a rather popular track (in fact it was added to the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005), so I had easy access on YouTube to a number of different recording versions online. I've embedded my favourite version at the top of this post, and it still makes me a little emotional to listen to...
I am forever grateful to their daughter Bella Melvin Reekie for recording her childhood memories and family stories into two books which she shared amongst family members. Those kind of details are impossible to know from records alone and would be lost in time without someone taking the time to preserve them in writing. It is such an incredible gift to know my 2x great-grandparents' favourite song and to be able to still sit and listen to the same music they used to sing as a duet almost 130 years after they first started courting and fell in love while walking through the prairie grasses on the plains of Manitoba!