On a beautiful autumn day in the Alberni Valley, we had the pleasant opportunity to visit with Grace McMurtrie in her home of Abbeyfield. With a welcoming smile, she invited us to enter her lovely and well decorated room.
“I love my room, it is cosy and very comfortable,” she says. “I am very grateful of my friends and family for decorating it!”.
Grace (nee. Hamilton) was born in Saskatchewan in 1928 and moved to North Vancouver when she was only six months old. “It was the big Depression of the 1920s that affected the livelihood of many families in Canada. That was the reason we had to leave Saskatchewan,” she adds.
The Hamiltons, Cedric and Ellen, had 10 children—five girls and five boys (one of the girls died as an infant). Grace was the second oldest. They faced tough times when the world market crashed, thus, creating unemployment everywhere. The mills were partially shut down (offering only seasonal work) making life hard to withstand.
“My father worked at ‘Horn’s Brothers Shingle Mill’ splitting the large blocks of wood, using what was called a knee bolter.”
Young Grace, along with her siblings, worked in the house helping their mother with the house chores as well as looking after the younger children. “In those days we didn’t have the commodities we enjoy today, with no electricity to heat the house or do the cooking and baking, we had to rely on manual work. Fortunately, our mother was a good cook and tried her best to provide us with the necessary meals, although, at times there was not enough for all of us.”
“She also made our clothing, which was passed on to one another as we grew up.”
The family moved constantly, so Grace attended several schools and only completed Grade 8.
Things got worse when her father suffered a work accident and left him with many broken bones, adding to more financial problems to the family. This situation forced her mother to work in the city. Also, Grace and her brothers and sisters worked at various different jobs to make ends meet, from doing car washing, making beds at a hotel, picking and selling blackberries, to setting pins at the local bowling alley. By attending school during the day and working by night, life became harder for the young Hamiltons, as they used to go to bed after midnight every day!
Grace did various other jobs on the Lower Mainland, including working at a fish cannery; sewing at a bag factory; waitressing at a local cafe and later at a hotel in Ocean Falls; selling tickets at a movie theatre, etc.
In 1944, the family was deeply affected by the passing of their mother Ellen at the young age of 36. She had been the pillar that kept the family together because of her strength, love and care for all.
In 1948, Grace, now 19, visited her sister Dot and husband Bob Gray in Port Alberni. “This one weekend, on the Saturday, we went to a dance at the Athletic Hall, a place most people enjoyed on weekends and it was there where Bob introduced me to Harry McMurtrie, a Plywood Mill machine operator. Well, I stayed here for another weekend and we formally dated. I totally fell in love with Harry. I knew other fellows but this one was so different. It was easy —we matched.”
So, she came for a weekend and never returned. Within six months they were married, a marriage that lasted for 66 years.
Harry once said: “The city girl and the country boy worked out!”
Once Grace got established in Port Alberni, before marrying Harry, she worked at Ward’s Laundry, followed by the Empire Café, behind the Arlington Hotel on Johnston Road (now the Blue Marlin Inn). She says that in the ‘40s, after the Second World War ended, Port Alberni became a boom town. A new plywood plant was built, many new stores opened, including Woodward’s, Jean Burns Ladies, Stirzaker’s Restaurant, McVicar’s Drug Store, among others. All this attracted many new workers and their families to the Valley.
The newlywed couple rented several apartments and houses before getting settled on a house on Lathom Road, which became their dream house.They had bought it from Jack Forrest and 1956.
Grace, who celebrated her 90th birthday on June 23, declares that she has lived a good life and is happy to enjoy the company of her children, grand- and great-grandchildren, as well as her many friends she has made throughout the years. She misses her husband of 66 years who passed away four years ago.
She now enjoys a quiet but pleasant life in her new home of Abbeyfield. “I truly like it here. I have everything I need.”
A special thanks to Diane Dobson for allowing us to get some information on Mrs. McMurtrie’s life from her “Memory to Memoirs life Writing Service” book.