HISTORIC ST. MARYS - Mervyn and Greta Milne, Genealogists

  • History   Wednesday, September 15, 2021   Mary Smith

By Mary Smith
John Mervyn Milne was born in March 1903 in West Nissouri Township, east of the village of Wellburn. His father, Alexander Milne, was the son of Scots immigrants to Canada. His mother, Amanda Houck Milne, could trace her ancestry back to 17th century Dutch settlers in New York State. In the early 1800s, a branch of the Houcks moved into Ontario. Amanda was born in Downie Township in 1876. Mervyn had two older brothers, Fred and Hilton, and a younger sister, Ethel.
Greta Allin Stone was born in July 1902 on a farm on the Kirkton Road in Blanshard Township. Her parents, Joseph Stone and Frances Ann Mary (Minnie) Allin, were of English descent. She was the youngest child in the family; her brother, William Clarence, and her sister, Ella, were ten and eight years old when she was born. Greta grew up in a community that also included many uncles, aunts and cousins who lived close by.
Mervyn attended the village school at Wellburn and Greta’s elementary education was at S. S. #10 Blanshard (Salem School). They both attended St. Marys Collegiate Institute for their secondary education, the old high school in the north ward, shown in this week’s photograph. That’s where they got to know each other. Their high school experiences were positive. Many years later, Greta remembered liking sports and taking part in synchronized drills with Indian clubs. She enjoyed this so much that her father bought her a set of clubs of her own so that she could practise at home. Mervyn was an active student. In his graduating year, as editor of The Collegiate Echo, the school’s monthly magazine, he wrote an editorial, “School Spirit,” advising that the best way to progress both mentally and physically was to develop school spirit by participating fully in all the school had to offer. If a student did this, “after he graduated, his mind would often return to the institution where he spent a number of years, crowded with so many pleasant memories.”
By the 1921 census, Greta was living at home and still listed as a student. Mervyn had left the Milne farm and was studying mechanical engineering at the University of Toronto. They were married on July 20, 1929, at the United Church in Kirkton. On the wedding registration form, Mervyn gave his occupation as a clerk, living and working in Montreal. He eventually became an engineer with Bell Canada. The Milnes had a full life in Montreal. They raised a son and three daughters and supported their various activities. But they kept in touch with their home communities and came for regular summer visits. On the Milne side, there were first cousins of comparable age to their own children. For Greta, there always seemed to be something going on in Blanshard, such as centennial events and school reunions.
This nostalgic feeling for community may have been the impetus directing Mervyn Milne to genealogy. He began to collect dates of marriages, births and deaths for his and Greta’s relatives. His engineer’s mind required that these data be organized systematically. On large sheets of drafting paper, he constructed family tree charts to trace the lineage of the Milnes, Houcks, Stones and Allins. Soon the families of cousins, such as Beavers and Braggs, were also outlined in charts.
But he used this format for more than just dates. If an interesting story about one of these ancestors was part of family history, he wrote it out in several paragraphs and tucked it along one side of the chart. For example, Greta’s great-grandparents were among the earliest settlers in Blanshard Township, arriving in 1849. In his short narrative, Milne explained how in 1848, the Stone family had left their small farm in Yorkshire and sailed to Canada. They stayed briefly with relatives in Clarkson but in March 1849, John purchased 100 acres in the Fourth Concession in Blanshard and the family set out to take up their new property. “John, Ann, and son William walked along a trail about 25 miles from London, carrying all their possessions with them. A bible, Ann’s prayer book, John’s flint-lock musket and a whiskey decanter have been preserved. Mere survival under these primitive conditions attested to their industry and skill. John Stone was the first farmer in the district to have a barn on a stone foundation.”
Census records are a generally reliable source of basic statistics. They contain names of members of a household as well as the age, occupation and country of birth of each member. The historic censuses are now available on-line from Library and Archives Canada and are searchable. But this was not the case when Mervyn Milne was checking them for information. When his work took him to Ottawa and away from his family, he spent his free time in the evenings at the National Archives, reading the original census records. He soon decided that rather than checking for a name in a sub-district – Blanshard Township, for example – on one visit to the archives and then having to look a second or third time to check other names, it was better just to copy out the complete census, go home and arrange the names alphabetically for his own future reference. This must have taken an enormous amount of time and patience – the 1851 census for Blanshard contains 2,780 names! Nevertheless, he copied the census records of 1851, 1861, 1871 and 1881 for St. Marys and all the adjacent townships and placed the alphabetized names in binders for quick reference. His work was accurate, often better for users, even today, than the on-line LAC version because he was good at deciphering difficult 19th century handwriting and he did not make mistakes in his transcriptions.
When Mervyn Milne retired in the late 1960s, he and Greta moved to St. Marys, building a house on James Street North. Retirement gave him more time for genealogy. The new house was fitted with an office for his desk and a drafting table to hold family tree charts. Along the walls were shelves for his binders full of research notes, his reference books and his correspondence with other genealogists. The Milnes had travelled across Canada and internationally, logging hundreds of thousands of miles to do research. From his St. Marys base, he continued his on-site research, visiting the Ontario Archives and the Perth County Registry Office. He arranged with some local churches to copy out their birth and marriage records. He frequently rode his bicycle downtown to the St. Marys Journal Argus building on Queen Street where he sat in an upstairs room reading the historic newspapers even before they were transferred to microfilm. He had many ambitious projects underway when he died in February 1983 in his 80th year.
Greta Milne, who had accumulated considerable material on her own relatives, continued to do genealogy work. As long as she was able, she maintained correspondence with the Milnes’ wide network, sharing information. She died in September 1991. The Milne family generously agreed to have their parents’ research donated where it would be most useful, divided between the St. Marys Museum and the Stratford Perth Archives. Currently, in the Museum’s archives vault, there are a dozen heavy file boxes of the Milnes’ genealogical information about families from this area, a rich resource for many research projects. The census index binders are upstairs in the reference area where staff and visiting researchers still use them regularly.