When it comes to relatives we’ve never met or created memories with, it’s easy for them to feel like flat, lifeless names atop the page. When ancestors are flat, they’re boring. They’re not always easy to research. We forget the very few facts that we know about them because we’re disconnected.
How quickly one artifact can change things!
Edwin Cantello Bagnall is my great, great uncle (the brother of my great-grandmother). To date, I’ve never found a single early family photo of him (the one close-up photo I’ve seen is of him as a senior). He was a farmer who never married, never had children, and who didn’t seem to leave much trace of himself. My grandma talked about him to me when I was growing up (he was her uncle), and the only thing I could remember about him was his funny name (he went by his middle name as most of the Bagnall siblings did)–Cantello.
“Cantelope?!” I remember asking her on a regular basis. “Who names their kid Cantelope?!” And my kid sister and I would laugh ourselves silly.
Sadly, when I began digging around for preliminary info on dear Cantello, other than his interesting name, this fellow was pretty dull from a genealogy standpoint. I found it hard to connect with his story, although I knew it was an interesting one. After all, he was one of two brothers who led our entire family out west to Alberta from Prince Edward Island; he and his brother, Louis, came out ahead of the family to stake a claim on homestead lands. As a result, they wrote letters back home to their parents and ten remaining siblings, urging a move west. Soon after, the family obliged and came to settle in Edmonton. So, he was important in the Bagnall family. He was beloved, too, to be a bachelor uncle that was included around my great grandma’s dinner table often enough for my grandma to remember.
Too bad on paper he was so dull I could scarcely remember even the approximate date range that he lived within (you see, he’s not to be confused with a different Edwin Cantelo Bagnall in my family tree! ;)
And then I found a good database to search at Peel’s Prairie Provinces through the University of Alberta. I plunked the names Bagnall and Bagnell into their old newspaper directory, just to see what would turn up. I had my fingers crossed that with 14 Bagnalls having moved out to Edmonton in the early part of the twentieth century, perhaps I would get lucky and score one small article or announcement. So, imagine my delighted surprise when I instead turned up PAGES of results for the Bagnalls in my family line! And, imagine my shock at seeing that Mr. E.C. Bagnall, formerly totally elusive, now actually seemed to be becoming the star of the show! Now, part of this was because he seemed to have a bit of an affinity for being a bit of a troublemaker in his day (see a full post on that here); nevertheless, I felt like with every article I read, this chap was coming to life before my eyes! And I found he was growing on me; I began to find I was rooting for him a little bit.
I then tried my luck at the old Henderson’s Directories on the Peel’s Prairie Provinces site. With great luck, I was now able to easily locate good old “E.C. Bagnall” or “C. Bagnall” as he was sometimes called. Through this, I found out that he was the owner and proprietor of the Strathcona (‘Scona) Garage, and that before he became a farmer, he repaired cars and lived in the Strathcona Apartments above the Garage (often with a sibling or two!). Again, fact by fact, he was become more of a flesh and blood person to me, and I found myself gravitating more and more towards his enigmatic story when I sat down to do my research.
The real highlight came for me just several days ago, when I stumbled upon an old packet of saved letters in some family files. I believe even my grandma (whom the packet last belonged to) hadn’t known they were in there as she says she can never remember seeing or reading a letter from Uncle Cantello in all her life. I told her the details in them and she too found them amusing, fascinating, and moving.
In this letter to his father dated 14 September, 1936, Cantello is obviously living in Northern Alberta (Beaverlodge) at this point, likely with or near his older brother, Louis, living the hard life of a farmer on a homestead thick with scrub brush and hard labour. Add to this the fact that it’s the “Dirty Thirties”, and with the Depression, most folks found themselves in hard times financially as well. Additionally, Cantello has 9 remaining living siblings (most married and with their own families to care for at this point). He also has two aging parents whom he obviously has some financial ties with. This letter details some technical details of his homesteading as well as the financial woes that he and father, George, are obviously mired down in. Lastly, the language, humour, and financial “strategy” that this letter reveals have made me fully endeared to Cantello all of a sudden. This man that I once felt was a stranger now truly feels like family. He was obviously a hard-working man who cared about his family and was charmingly rough around the edges. To see his character flushed out in his own handwriting in thick pencil strokes, and with his own signature (“As ever, E.C.B.”) is a true treasure among treasures.
Cantello, I’m glad I’ve gotten to know you.
Wed didn’t get quite through cutting have about 20 acres on the Oakford place and that piece of greenfeed home. Could of been done put (but) broke down one of those darn old binders and couldnt get Repairs for a week. However we got a Hell of a snow storm its fine today and the weather looks settled We may get some good weather from now on. The weather was cold windy & squally for a week before it snowed so held Harvest up to some extent. There arent much more than Half the oats in the country cut and the majority of them were still green They are as flat as a pancake now and a lot of them will never be cut this should put the price of oats away up. Barnard Has 150 acres down I don’t know if he will ever cut them or not. We will cut ours as soon as the snow goes off
Tom Watt got some threshed His oats were very light I dont think more than 20 or 25 Ill find out some of those days. There was a few outfits started to thresh the day before the storm But didnt get much done. We would of been ready in another day if the weather Held out But However I guess well get some good weather yet. Aberharts new Legislation will make some change in the country give everybody a chance to get them old Bills fixed up without being swamped with Interest. It will make quite a difference with to us with Johnston & the International people. Ill pay Cockshutt and the rest of the Bills we owe. But we wont give them a goddam cent more than we Have to. I saw Mr Swinton he said the office wrote him to cut 500ºº off the Interest I told him I guess they will cut more than that off. I asked him if he read the new act in the paper. However he said we’ll just let it go for now
and when we got threshed and ready to do Business we’ll settle up O.K. without any trouble. So I geuss they will may be cut all the Intrest so that will just Be 1100ºº principal. With Interest cut off the farm since 1932 will leave us owing Johnston around 6000ºº if he wants to take about 4000ºº we’ll settle up with him too otherwise he’ll have to take it in yearly instalments and nothing this fall. I wonder How he will like that. After Threshing we will have to arrange to meet Johnston and get this all straightned up so we will know exactly whats, what. Stan Davis went down last friday night for a new truck I told him to call you up Wilbur might come with him also to send up that rifle But I geuss the roads will be absolutely Impassable for another ten days. We had rain and about 8 in of snow. I geuss thats all for now.
P.S. Margaret rec your letter and was quite pleased to get it. Arnald Johnston told me them were 5 of the finest Hogs that were shipped from the Peace River country this year 4 selects 1 Bacon.