The Story of Pelee

The Story of Pelee by Noah Garno was first printed in 1954 and I ordered it from the island’s Heritage Centre. This is a new reprint and a small book of only 63 pages yet its layout was dense with text. Unfortunately there were no photos or maps. The author himself moved to the island in 1915 and at the time of publication served as its reeve.

Garno wrote about Pelee’s earliest First Nations settlements and the island’s eventual sale to William McCormick, who also became the first lighthouse keeper. Scudder Marina in the north of the island was named after the doctor who developed a plan of draining the marshes. I recall seeing the ditches that flanked the roads, built in order to maintain drainage.

Garno was low on detail, as he supplied neither Dr. Scudder’s first name nor the date of the founding of the Pelee Club, a social place for wealthy men that occupied the extreme northwest corner of the island. When rich men get together and alcohol flows freely, tales of bravado and “roughing it in the bush” tend to predominate:

“There were several articles written about Pelee, mostly about the Club, which exaggerated the conditions as to the ferocious animals, the large mosquitoes that could crack hickory nuts in their jaws, and flies that could sting through a basswood board.”

Pheasant hunting has been a popular activity on the island at least since the 1930’s and when I was on Pelee I saw flocks of these birds all over the place. Garno wrote that the National Film Board of Canada produced a film about the pheasant shoot but I cannot find any information about it from the NFB website.

The author wrote about many of the first families to settle on the island and their descendants who still lived there. He detailed the history of agriculture, telecommunications and shipping to and from Pelee. When I visited the island three years ago I asked the residents about winter living. They said that only a small fraction of the population stays there year round as it takes a hearty sort to withstand brutal Lake Erie winters. Garno wrote:

“One of the worst winters on record happened in 1917-18. On December 8, our steamer was frozen to the dock and remained there all winter. The light ship came in next day and sank at the wharf during the winter. By January 1st the Captain and crew were taken to the mainland by team and sleigh. The snow was piled so high on the lake roads that you could walk over the telephone wires. A small poolroom beside the town hall had sixteen steps cut in the snow to reach it.”

While I was cycling all over the island I saw houses for sale everywhere. I wonder what the state of real estate is like there now. Back in the 1950’s flooding and shoreline erosion was a problem, as Garno explained, and I would be hesitant to buy a property there now–however cheap–if maintenance costs would be exorbitant.

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