News and views, and history and humor, about the lake I love.

"I can hear my granddad's stories of the storms out on Lake Erie, where vessels and cargos and fortunes, and sailors' lives were lost." ~ James Taylor, Millworker

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Adrift on Lake Erie: How a painter immortalized the story of four brave girls

I happened to be sifting through my collection of old postcards when one in particular caught my eye. The postcard (seen above), postmarked in Simcoe, Ontario, bears the title "Adrift on Lake Erie" and is noted to be "from a painting by W.E. Cantelon." I remember wondering when I bought the card online whether this was based on a true story. On the reverse side was printed the following:
Ena V. Stickney, aged 15, Luella Winters, aged 14, Louie Lowick, aged 15, and Stella Howick, aged 13, on July 20th, 1907, while playing in an old boat at Port Ryerse, Ont., were caught in a hurricane and after ten hours' brave battle with a heavy sea, were driven over to Big Bluffs, Long Point, twenty miles distant, landing about midnight.
Intrigues, I did some further checking. I soon learned that William Edgar Cantelon of Doan's Hollow, Norfolk County, Ontario was a painter who dedicated his life to collecting and preserving the history of Norfolk County. Cantelon was born on a pioneer farm near Streetsville, but young Edgar was not interested in the usual boyhood pursuits. His passion was sketching and painting. In those less than tolerant times, Cantelon was considered strange but fortunately his parents encouraged his passion for art. His mother saved the white paper found wrapped around tea they bought at the general store which she smoothed, folded and stitched together to create sketch books for her son. Edgar fashioned brushes from the ear hair of the family dog, clipping enough to make two or three brushes.

After studying art in Chicago, Cantelon returned and set up a studio in downtown Simcoe and began to paint. Much of his work was commissioned, consisting of portraits of local area residents but he was also keenly interested in documented local history. And then in 1907 he read a story about four local girls who had survived a wild night on Lake Erie.

It seems the four girls were out in Long Point Bay in a punt -- a long, narrow flat-bottomed boat commonly used for hunting. The boat was powered by using a pole and paddle. A storm arose and strong winds carried the boat and its passengers farther and farther from shore. With only the single pole and paddle, the girls could not get back. They were at the mercy of the storm-tossed lake.

Winter and the Howick girls bailed the boat with their aprons, while Stickney worked to keep its nose turned into the wind. As the four fought to survive on the water, those on shore were losing hope. The July 26, 1907 edition of the Waterford Star described the frantic search: "A search party started out on foot and in boats and a messenger was sent to Port Dover to get a tug, as there was a heavy sea and one boat had been overturned in the afternoon and the occupant had to be rescued. Sunday morning, all hopes of their safety had been given up by all except Mrs. Stickney, who said they would be found alive."

She was right. After what must have been a harrowing night on the lake, the girl's boat came ashore at Bluff Point near the tip of Long Point, a long spit of sand that juts out twenty miles into Lake Erie. From where they landed they were led by a small dog to a nearby home. The next day, the four returned home aboard a fish tug. They become instant local celebrities and known as "the four brave girls of Port Ryerse." Winter and the Howick girls later gave credit to Stickney for saving their lives.

After the incident, Cantelon photographed the girls in a rowboat in front of the Simcoe high school and from these pictures created four oil paintings. The paintings and photographs were turned into postcards, which gave the four greater fame in the area. Several years ago the Port Dover Harbour Museum celebrated the girls' story with a special exhibit of three of Cantelon's paintings.
William Edgar Cantelon died March 3rd, 1950. In his lifetime he produced nearly 8000 paintings. A large number of them can be viewed at the Eva Brook Donly Museum in Simcoe, Ontario.

Thanks to his determination to memorialize the local history, the story of these four young girls and their harrowing voyage on Lake Erie will long be remembered.

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