The Jesuit Letter by Dean Hamilton: Book Review & Author Interview

The Jesuit Letter CoverThe Jesuit Letter

Dean Hamilton

365 pages

Published by TyburnTree Publishing, 2014

ISBN 9780993917400

The Historical Novel Society recently selected The Jesuit Letter as their Editor’s Choice for their winter issue and long-listed the book for the Historical Novel Society Indie Award.

Author Dean Hamilton’s book, The Jesuit Letter, set in summer 1575, is the first book in a series about Englishman Christopher Tyburn. We learn from back story that four years earlier as a young scholar, Tyburn left Cambridge University to join Queen Elizabeth’s army in support of Protestant rebels in the Netherlands. The rebels were in bloody religious warfare with their Catholic Spanish masters. Tyburn survived the cruel conflict by his wits and his sword, barely cheating death.

The story begins with Tyburn returned from war and working as a player with a troupe of entertainers travelling by caravan from London to Strafford, Warwickshire. Late at night the rowdy thespians discover a fellow-player’s murdered body on a dark road. Around the dead man’s shoulders is the handsome cloak he’d loaned to Tyburn earlier that day; and in his hand, a waxy Papist amulet. Thugs had spied Tyburn wearing his friend’s borrowed cloak while intercepting a coded letter between a Jesuit priest and an unknown correspondent. Tyburn realizes the hideous roadside death that killed his friend was meant for him. How can he right this injustice?

Tyburn is known by his fellows as a “gripper,” an Elizabethan term for someone who is curious and tenacious. While those around him don’t always understand his motivations, Hamilton shows the reader a flawed man with underlying decency and sense of fair play.

IMG_1492It helps to know a little background. Although avarice among wealthy landowners underscored the 1558 – 1603 reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Elizabethan period was one of England’s most glorious eras, an age of discovery and exploration. Central to Hamilton’s theme in The Jesuit Letter, is Elizabeth’s establishment of the dominant Protestant Church of England.

In her sister’s earlier reign, Catholic Queen Mary established the Catholic Church’s supremacy, which led to the persecution and execution of resistant Protestants, considered heretics and disloyal to the Crown. When religious supremacy reversed with Elizabeth’s Protestant ascendancy, Elizabeth chose tolerance for practicing Catholics, insisting only on their loyalty to her, and discretion in their worship. That leniency would change over the years.

Hamilton’s prologue introduces us to the secretive behavior of wealthy Catholic landowner, Edward Arden. He hires and acts as protector to a Catholic priest, Hugh Hall. The priest conducts secret masses at Arden’s manor home. Prominent Protestant neighbours resent Arden. They in turn hire thugs to intercept his letters to a Jesuit priest, to prove to Queen Elizabeth that Arden’s clandestine actions are disloyal to his oath to the Crown, and therefore treasonous and punishable by death. Providing evidence of Catholicism (often obtained unlawfully) would lead to the Crown confiscating Arden’s family lands and removing his titles. A grateful Queen was known to award those same lands to conniving and snitching neighbours.

Thrown into this cauldron is a writ issued by Pope Pius sanctioning the right of Catholics in England to deprive Elizabeth of her throne. The Pope sends undercover Jesuit priests throughout England to expand Catholic influence. Finally, Elizabeth orders all Jesuits and Catholic priests be driven from the kingdom.

IMG_1494It’s at this point of history that the story in The Jesuit Letter begins, narrowing the views of larger themes of religion and persecution to the affected lives of players, townspeople, minor officials and ruffians in Warwickshire. A whiff of suspicion about a Jesuit priest’s correspondence between wealthy Arden and the Pope’s emissaries unleashes an evil plot.

Hamilton cleverly includes characters that lived in that era: 11-year old William Shakespeare; prominent landowner, Edward Arden, and his hired priest, Hugh Hall, who is thinly disguised as a gardener; and despicable Richard Topcliffe, a sadistic aristocrat who relishes the hunt for Catholic sympathizers. The Earl of Leicester, known advisor of Queen Elizabeth (and lover) appears, too.

We wonder why this well-educated but impoverished returning soldier is a player with the Earl of Worcester’s Men travelling troupe. It isn’t until the last few pages that we discover the depth of the plot. Suffice to say that performing troupes had far-ranging mobility in Elizabethan times. Wealthy patrons arranged for troupes’ flags, liveries, letters and writs to protect them from Bailiffs and Puritans. The rich hired players to entertain in manor houses, and the poor clustered in local inn yards, enthralled by costume and song. Tyburn’s early education and steady demeanour allow him to pass comfortably between wealthy and poor alike. Although players are poorly regarded in a laboring society, they offer lively diversions with political songs, morrish dances and playacting at a time when very few can read or write.

Hamilton’s plotting is masterful. Through flashbacks and third person perspectives he leads the reader into intrigue and near impossible situations. Minor characters, often thugs and thieves play their roles in advancing the story. Wealthy aristocrats plot their schemes, hiring unscrupulous back alley ruffians to carry out their dirty deeds for a few sovereigns. We peek into the contrasts between the arduous workaday lives of merchants, tanners and farmers toiling for bread, severely limited by the whims of the prosperous and privileged. The poor are hopelessly poor, the merchants hold tightly to their emerging powers, and Puritans add severity to morality.

IMG_1496Much of the action takes place in the market town of Stratford situated on the Avon River. Hamilton introduces a distinct Elizabethan atmosphere with colourful settings in cobbled inn yards and dingy public houses where patrons complain the ale tastes more like “piss.” The players’ caravan traverses moonlit, rutted roads through pastoral fields. Thugs populate filthy back alleys. Merchants and councilmen ensure successful markets by tightening their strict codes. Rich and powerful disdain all.

Eleven-year old Will Shakespeare plays an important companion role in Tyburn’s path to discover the truth behind the plot of the greedy, grasping deBrage family and salacious Richard Topcliffe. Balancing many characters of varying backgrounds is a talent Hamilton writes convincingly. He feeds the reader just enough information in twenty-one chapters to make us eager to read on. Tension builds in each chapter, making readers fear there is no resolution to desperate escapes and maltreatment of innocent victims. There is a thread of romance for Tyburn in this story, which at times seems impossible to fulfill.

The climax of the story is well crafted. Hamilton keeps the reader on the edge in a final showdown between good and evil. I want to shout: “Don’t go in there,” for a nail-biting scene I feared would turn the tables on our hero.

Hamilton has a gift for capturing the language of the Elizabethan period. Only dedicated research could make believable the old terms (with explanatory footnotes). Whether through curses, pleadings, teasing or descriptive passages, this even-handed sprinkling never gets in the way, only enhances.

IMG_1495Sir Thomas Lucy:

The infernal machinations of the Papists and their anti-Christ Pius are legion. They would overthrow our Blessed Sovereign and place a reign of terror and devil-worship in her place. They would burn the righteous and lift high the traitors that lurk amongst us. They would,” he spat, “ place a Spaniard or that bitch-queen Mary on England’s throne.” Later … “Despite our exquisite queen’s expressions of tolerance for their heresies, or more like because of it, English Papists are growing in numbers. Clemency! Hah! It’s a fool’s policy. They breed treason like whores breed bastards. Show me a Papist and I will show you one with a liar’s visage, deformed of countenance and of evil manner. Vipers breed vipers, and we must ferret out this particular nest and expunge it.

Tyburn is a likeable character: taciturn, discreet, principled and loyal. He brings out these qualities in his accomplices. He drives himself to unravel the mysteries and expose the plotters who have implicated him in their dark scheme. We root for him. We want him to get the girl in the end. We want him protect children and the wronged. The Jesuit Letter is a satisfying read.

A 5-page sneak preview of Hamilton’s 2016 book that continues Tyburn’s exploits, titled, Thieves Castle, and named for a fictional London gang, presents at the end of the book. I’m curious about the troubles Hamilton imagines for Tyburn in the second of this series of historical fiction.

13995045Interview with Dean Hamilton

How did you publish your book?

TyburnTree Publishing is my own publishing name. I decided to create a self-publishing identity. The basic process you follow in any self-publishing endeavor is: Write. Edit. Rewrite. Edit again. Edit again. Edit again (and so on) until you reach the point where you think you have a viable book. Where that point lies is dependent on the author.

With self-publishing you own the entirety of the process. The end results, along with the mistakes, are dependent on you. How much work a self-published author puts into ensuring the quality of the end result may vary considerably. In my case, I made the decision to self-publish after sending out about 35 – 40 agent queries on my finished work. I found the lack of response disheartening, so rather than continue to reduce my own morale and confidence in my writing, I decided to move forward and self-publish.

Why did you choose Kickstarter for your project?

Crowd-funding projects offer many different sites, but the two most prominent were Kickstarter and IndieGo-Go. The key difference between them is that Kickstarter forced me to set a specific fiscal goal. If I failed to meet the set budgeted goal, I would receive nothing. I felt the discipline of a set goal would force me to develop the project and focus on my work. With IndieGo-go you keep whatever funds you raise. Running a crowdsourcing campaign of any type is a tremendous amount of work in a very short time frame.

I used the raised funds for hiring a professional editor and a professional graphic designer to develop the cover. At the end of the day I raised just over $3000 from about 45 backers, all of who invested in the development of the book. It was important to me that the book should be of the highest possible quality, to ensure readers received the best possible reading experience for their money. At the end of the day, self-publishing is a huge amount of work but intensely gratifying when you can hold your book in your hand.

What about the Elizabethan period appeals to you as a writer?

The Elizabethan era sits at the cusp of what could be considered the rise of the modern era at the end of the medieval world. The New World was being discovered. There were new schools of thought in art, literature and science. The Renaissance exploded across Europe, and in particular England, with the rise of the early theatre and Shakespeare. This environment spoke of tremendous cultural and societal flux.

As a writer, there is an endless fascination with the colour, ambiance and well-documented characters that sprang forth in the Elizabethan era. One of the things I’ve tried to do in my work is reflect a world outside the court and the nobility. Most fiction embedded in the Elizabethan era tends to be bodice-ripping tales of Court intrigue, set amidst the silken splendor of palaces. Mine tends to hang about in ale-soaked taverns, muddy streets and fetid back-alleys where cold steel by lantern light offers redemption or grim death.

What is your method for plotting the story?

The seeds of the Jesuit Letter sprang out of reading Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, a biography of William Shakespeare. I ran across some of the questions related to how much exposure Shakespeare had as a child to the many travelling theatre troupes that rolled through Stratford; coupled with the notes about the sudden reversal of his father, John Shakespeare’s economic position after 1575 and linkages to his supposed Catholicism. That led me to pulling various threads together including the timely arrival of a theatre troupe along with a heinous murder. The more intricate aspects of the plot were threaded together over a three-year period of intensive research about the era.

Your use of Elizabethan language is very effective. How did you go about researching for The Jesuit Letter?

My research involved a great deal of reading of original source documents, plus the creation of a fairly extensive glossary, along with pulling from existing works. I ended up with an extensive library on my shelves at home and a large annotated vocabulary spreadsheet.

Dean Hamilton works as a marketing professional in Toronto, Ontario. He is married with a son. His novella Black Dog won second place in Inkitt’s “Reclaim Time” story competition. The Historical Novel Society recently chose The Jesuit Letter as their Editor’s Choice selection for their winter issue and currently long-listed the book for the Historical Novel Society Indie Award. He is currently working on the second in the Christopher Tyburn series, Thieves Castle due in 2016.

See his Elizabethan blog:

Twitter: Tyburn__Tree

The Jesuit Letter available: (or , UK etc.)

Print Version:


Chapters /Indigo / Kobo:


Sanctuary Sundays

My personal sanctuary on retreat.

My personal sanctuary on retreat.

As an author, Sue Reynolds identifies with writers’ needs to regenerate their writing skills in a safe and quiet place. Her Sanctuary Sundays give new meaning to the word refuge.

From beginners to advanced level writers, a day with Sue at her country retreat is a peaceful, nourishing environment for practising writing, or working on existing projects. Sue, an experienced facilitator and writing teacher, guides morning exercises in a large-windowed room that overlooks a natural landscape of woods and water.

If Ontario delivers spectacular September days, my day at the retreat was just that. I elected to spend 2 hours of private writing time  in a zippered mesh gazebo on a grassy meadow at the side of the house.

Blue jays squabbled at the bird feeder, adding to the hum of a late summer afternoon. I cloistered in my gazebo-tent, perfectly appointed with a single table and chair. My project got the dedicated  focus I’d not been able to achieve at home. The time was a gift.

Others writers settled on the dock overlooking the pond, strolled the paths and trails, or nestled into cosy nooks with desks and plug-ins. There is only one rule for private time: silence. No one interrupts anyone else. Imagine that, my writer friends.

At a final gathering, participants shared their prose and poetry, uplifting on so many levels. I had a breakthrough in a portion of my writing that I’d been avoiding for a very long time. The difficult part of the day was leaving.



Through the Glass by Shannon Moroney

Memoir: Through the Glass by Shannon Moroney

Memoir: Through the Glass by Shannon Moroney

Canadian Bestselling Memoir based on Restorative Justice 


Would I marry a man who had served 10 years in prison for murdering a woman in a crime of passion?  I asked myself this question before meeting author Shannon Moroney at Turquoise Waters Writers’ Retreat at Sandy Lake, Ontario in July 2014.


Allyson Latta, Copy Editor for Shannon Moroney’s book Through the Glass (published by Doubleday), arranged for Ms. Moroney to speak to a group of writers about her decision to write a memoir about a three-year period when the trusted husband she’d married only a month before, betrayed her by kidnapping and sexually assaulting two women.


After the shocking tragedy of the kidnappings and rapes, the author’s experiences, and her ensuing battle within our Canadian justice system that failed to support her as a physically uninjured victim – but victim nonetheless – is a story of outreach, survival and transformation. Ms. Moroney spoke to us for nearly 6 hours, not only about the sadness and concern she felt for the victims in the aftermath of the event, but also about healing through the writing process, attaining an agent and acquiring a publishing contract.


She refused to allow her association with a perceived monster to dictate her humanity. We cannot forget that she lost a much beloved, but (unknown to her at the time) flawed husband. She lost her privacy. She lost her job as a high school Guidance Counsellor. She lost friends. She lost her sense of who she was as a person and the future she’d planned for her life.


At times the justice system dragged slowly through its complicated process, only to bluntly arrive at mind-boggling decisions that protect the rights of criminals, but left little room for protecting victims. Moroney’s determination to make sense of  her husband’s role by staying in touch with him was controversial, and challenged some to believe that she was naïve, foolish, or (her worst fear) complicit.


But her belief that criminals also have rights for timely psychiatric treatment made her an advocate for change. Waiting 5 years for treatment in a system where there is one psychiatrist for 600 inmates went against all of her beliefs and training.


But you’d have to understand the influential principles of her birth family and the career she’d chosen to help homeless and challenged youth in the justice system – a convincing argument for the woman’s sincerity and intellect. She interviewed her husband’s parole officer and prison psychiatrist many times to feel comfortable with the knowledge that her husband-to-be had paid his debt to society for his teen crime. The professionals confirmed that he’d been a model prisoner and fulfilled the requirements of his parole for many years. And evident to me after reading the book was the force of Moroney’s positive nature.


But after years of knock-downs, Moroney suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, weight loss and sleeplessness. Her family’s and close friends’ love and support sustained her through the fears, doubts, impoverishment of life and spirit and constant travel for jobs, court dates, prison locations and temporary places to stay.


There is redemption in her journey. Due in part to her belief in restorative justice she continues to fight for victim and prisoner rights. She returned to university and graduated with an MA, her dissertation based on a passionate interest in trauma recovery and restorative justice. Her life mission as an author and public speaker is to  change treatments for prisoners, people who are often childhood victims themselves, and victims of criminal or traumatic crimes.


“I was living in a landscape of broken dreams. As I tried to construct new ones, I found myself holding back with uncertainty. … I wanted to be able to trust and connect again.” Shannon Moroney

Botanical Artist – Maeve Hughes

Trout Lilies by Maeve Hughes  Honourable Mention March 2014

Trout Lilies by Maeve Hughes
Honourable Mention March 2014

In April 2013, my sister, Maeve Hughes, and I crawled on hands and knees in local woodlands to photograph one of our favourite spring plants, the Trout Lily. We captured the delicate  stages of development as the plant sprouted among dry winter leaves As a botanical artist Maeve uses this photographic memory to help create watercolour paintings, or coloured pencil drawings.

A year later, Toronto’s Todmorden Mills Papermill Gallery featured The Botanical Artists of Canada Juried Art Show titled The Four Seasons. Jurors, Pamela Stagg, Kathryn Chorney, and James Eckenwalder, selected 64 outstanding works for the exhibition. Artists are from Newfoundland, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.

My sister achieved placement in the show for four of her juried submissions in the Watercolour category.

Fiddleheads by Maeve Hughes Honourable Mention March 2014

Fiddleheads by Maeve Hughes
Honourable Mention March 2014

(See Maeve’s Coloured Pencil winning entry, Rosehips, from the show November 2012). This year she earned 2 Honourable Mentions for Trout Lilies and Fiddleheads. Recognition for her work makes crawling around the damp woodlands in the chilly spring worthwhile.

Months of preparation by the executive and membership of the Botanical Artists of Canada paid off. The heritage venue, Todmorden Mills, is an excellent locale for hosting an art show of this calibre. A record-breaking number of guests at the opening reception enjoyed a buzzing ambiance and delicious food and refreshments.

Congratulations to Best-in-Show winner, Quebec artist, Lilyane Coulombe, and to all selected artists who represented their categories. I’m proud of my sister’s accomplishments. She is a serious student of Botanical Art, taking weekly watercolour classes at the Toronto Botanical Gardens with instructor Leslie Staples. And she meets monthly with a group of Coloured Pencil artists who appreciate the discipline of this art form. Botanical artists painstakingly study plants to reproduce incredible likenesses in various media. It’s delicate work, requiring a steady hand and dedication to perfection.

2014 Jurors: Kathryn Chorney MScBMC is an avid nature journal-er, friend of fungi, and science/nature/medical illustrator. She is a full-time professor at Sheridan College where she teaches Scientific Illustration. An award-winning artist, Kathryn is a member of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators (GNSI) as well as the Southern Ontario Nature and Science Illustrators (SONSI).

Pamela Stagg came across a hidden talent at a workshop at Toronto’s Civic Garden Centre in 1987, her first solo show came only a short time later in 1989, and in the same year three of her works were acquired by North America’s most important collection of botanical art. By 1991, she was awarded the world’s top prize for botanical illustration, the Royal Horticultural Society Gold Medal. Recently  a commission by the Royal Canadian Mint to design the Trillium Coin for the prestigious Pure Gold Coin series. Pamela’s book Roses: A Celebration, published by Northpoint Press in the Fall of 2003, containing more than thirty of her original paintings. It is available in major bookstores in Canada, the US and UK.

Dr. James E. Eckenwalder, Associate Professor in the University of Toronto’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. Dr. Eckenwalder’s area of interest is plant systematics.

Port Stanley, Lake Erie

Port Stanly, The First Hundred Years, 1804 - 1904, co-authors Robert J. Burns and Craig Cole

Port Stanly, The First Hundred Years, 1804 – 1904, co-authors Robert J. Burns and Craig Cole

If you’ve grown up near Ontario’s Great Lakes you likely know the famous port towns that dot the shorelines: Colborne, Dover, Stanley, Grand Bend, Saugeen, Tobermory … to name a few. These port towns grew out of 19th century demands for produce and products, which were transported by sail, steamship and planked roads before a network of mid-century railways  linked them to larger centres.

Port Stanley on Lake Erie’s north shore, is an example of the necessity for early supply lines for 19th Century settlers, and the eventual transitioning of these towns to famous lakeside playgrounds. From the bridge overlooking Kettle Creek near the harbour, you see handsome stores, restaurants and art galleries. Old and new cottages rim deep sandy shores. New housing developments peer over the lake from the top of high bluffs.

Recently, I read Port Stanley, The First Hundred Years, 1804 – 1904, co-authored by Robert J. Burns and Craig Cole.

The importance of being selected as a “railway town” cannot be exaggerated in Ontario’s settlement in the 1900s. Port Stanley’s railway links from the shores  at Kettle Creek developed into a staging harbour for moving stock and passengers through Southern Ontario and the USA.

There was a genteel late 19th Century passion to temporarily holiday away from  more populated commercial cities like St. Thomas, London, Buffalo and Cleveland. Churches and organizations arranged massive excursions by steam ships and rail cars for the “fresh air” picnics beside Erie’s breezy shores. Port Stanley, with it’s natural escarpment set back from the town, and having a wide creek and harbour, and road and rail links to the interior was a desirable location for investing in resort hotels, cottages and popular amusements for entertaining large crowds.

The ambitious scale of constructing the recreational facilities that came after the  railways in the 1870s (to a town with a population of 600) is unimaginable today: hundreds of pleasure-seekers arrived by steamship and rail on the same day. They headed to many of the famous resorts, such as Fraser’s parklands on a bluff overlooking the lake. Large hotels with 150-ft verandas and a 2-car incline railway between Fraser’s Heights and the beach, led visitors to boating excursions, bicycling, diving towers at the end of long piers, recreational fishing, and taverns enough to satisfy all … captured in photographs in the book.

As the publication indicates, the heyday of growth did not come without  setbacks: fires destroyed early wooden buildings, and shifting silt and sandbanks blocked the harbour. There were long appeals for government help to develop a fishery, which became a successful enterprise after 1900. Maritime disasters lost steamships as they crossed the lake in all directions.

The authors, beginning with a Phase A report for a proposed Heritage Conservation District in Port Stanley, ended up publishing an entertaining account of a specific 100-year period of Port Stanley’s early development. They received much support from Heritage Port. Port Stanley’s Historical Society funded the publication, and all proceeds for sales of the book return to them to continue their good work.

If you are a history buff, and appreciate learning how our famous Great Lakes port towns developed and added much to the romantic remembrances of visitors who flocked to their sandy shores, I recommend this book.

The book is available locally in stores and venues in Port Stanley, or through the Port Stanley Historical Society.

How the Light Gets In by Pat Schneider

How the Light Gets In by  Pat Schneider

How the Light Gets In by Pat Schneider

I’d heard about Pat Schneider from friends who had attended her workshops in Canada. Pat is American, and known as a sensitive writing instructor.

I read her latest book How the Light Gets In. Unlike some books on writing, Pat’s approach, termed Writing as a Spiritual Practice, reveals much of her troubled early life and how to write  memoir based on a long life of contemplation.

A few quotes that appealed to me:

I feel my own smallness, but I feel that I too belong. If I am open to the possibility, I sense that I am seen; I am known: I am held in the attention of the mystery.

I hold suffering and secrets as sources of what may be our deepest and greatest potential, both as writers and as human beings just trying to make sense of our lives.

Darkness and light are inextricably bound together.

Writing is often a struggle between the personal and the universal …

What we mean is usually a mix of memory, knowledge and imagination. Myth is woven of those three.

Secrets more than anything else, are the stones that make up writer’s block.

That first voice, the voice of home, is the one that writers must protect from the contempt, disdain or disregard of any critic.

Hurt hangs on and you can’t pry its fingers loose.

Story can be the clothing that makes the mystery visible. Story kept us alive when food failed, when water dried up, when the body itself began to fail.

To be here now near the end of life, here with  love or the memory of love – along with the memory of stars and galaxies and the intimate roads of home – is to know how transient, how precious, the now is. And that knowing becomes more intense, more infused with joy every day.

Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge hosted Pat’s Canadian launch of her book in October 2013. See a review and what people say about this remarkable woman who has devoted her life work to helping writers.

Stouffville Raxlin Family

Dorothy and Irvin Raxlin, Main Street, Stouffville, July 2013

Dorothy and Irvin Raxlin, Main Street, Stouffville, July 2013

Former Stouffville resident, 92-year old Irvin Raxlin shared his memories of growing up in Stouffville from the 1920s when Stouffville’s population was 700. The town now boasts about 40,000 residents and continues to grow.

Stouffville old-timers will remember Raxlin’s Furniture Store and Frigidaire dealership at 6276 Main Street, east of Mill Street. In 1944, Ben Raxlin purchased the red-bricked building, which housed Snowball’s Barber Shop and Sanders Photography Studio.

Before the 1920s, Irvin’s parents, Ben, a Russian immigrant, and his wife, Annie (Rudnick), struggled for a foothold in Toronto. Ben’s sister, Elizabeth, and her husband, Mr. Herman, were already established in Stouffville, operating a new and used farm implements business. They convinced the young couple to live in the town and learn the business with Mr. Herman’s guidance. In 1924 Ben placed ads in The Stouffville Tribune, to pay the highest market price for Live Poultry, Geese, Ducks and Feathers. In 1928 similar ads for farm implements sales included buying wool, hides, fat and poultry for shipment to Toronto’s industrial market.

To prosper, Ben Raxlin worked long hours establishing his reputation and integrating his family into the community. When his brother-in-law’s health failed in the late 20s, Ben gradually took over the operations as proprietor of the farm implements business. This occurred as The Depression worsened.

With horse and wagon Ben attended frequent farm auctions and advertised acquisitions weekly in the Stouffville Tribune. Ben’s fascination and love of auction sales led to little misadventures, which Irvin fondly recalls. His father once bought a beautiful-looking horse – which turned out to have no wind. Another time he bought a load of hay, then discovered there was no way to transport the load over a tiny makeshift bridge. Buying items outside of his business line was often irresistible to Ben.

Irvin (nicknamed Sonny) and his brother Lewis were born in the 1920s. For decades, the Stouffville Tribune posted achievement grades for Stouffville’s Continuation School students. Not only did Irvin and Lewis show above average standings, reports indicated the brothers won several field day foot races, standing jump competitions and soccer goals.

Lewis became well-known as a skilled baseball player, representing the Stouffville Junior and Intermediate Baseball Clubs and Stouffville Red Sox team between 1947 and 1952. In 1942, Lewis won Best Comic performance at the Winter Carnival. He was also a member of the local Air Cadets.

The Raxlin’s first family home was south of Main Street on the east side of 10th Line, now demolished. Irvin recalled a superstitious neighbour woman who treated warts by rubbing them with raw meat and burying the meat in the back yard. The Raxlins later moved to central Stouffville on the north side of Main Street near St. James Presbyterian Church. Demolished in the 1970s, the house made way for a block of stores with apartment units above.

Raxlin's Furniture Store and Frigidaire Dealership, 2013. Building built by photographer J. Mertens in the late 1800s.

Raxlin’s Furniture Store and Frigidaire Dealership, 2013. Building built by photographer J. Mertens in the late 1800s.

In the post war boom, Snowball’s Barber Shop and Sander’s Photography relocated for Ben Raxlin’s expanding furniture and appliance dealership. Ben and Annie worked here until selling the business and building to Herb Kring in 1965. As Ben often travelled to acquire new merchandise, Annie managed the store. She kept up with housework, baking and gardening, and participated in her sons’ activities and community events. As is often the way of small town reporting, acknowledged public notices of thanks and travel plans appeared in the Stouffville Tribune.

For decades, Annie Raxlin won recognition for her garden flowers in the Stouffville Horticultural Society flower shows. Baking, especially her sponge cake, won prizes at the District Christmas Baking Exhibitions. Mr. and Mrs. Raxlin donated money and gifts to every local event and fund-raiser, and financially assisted the war effort and the Red Cross. As a member of the IOOF, and a keen euchre player, Ben (and Annie) joined in the social activities available in a small town.

In 1942, the Stouffville Tribune featured Irvin Raxlin for the following: Irvin Raxlin, second year Arts student at Toronto University, and son of Mr. and Mrs. B. Raxlin of this town, was among the 1,000 students who entrained at Toronto for the Western harvest fields recently. Ben went to the Union Station to see his son off, and says that when the students from the various universities assembled in groups the noise was deafening when the college yells were given. Some of the lads were dressed in straw hats, light shoes, and otherwise flimsy attire, while others were prepared for cold weather with their heavy boots, heavy coats and some good woolens. Irvin Raxlin appears to be Stouffville’s lone representative at University this year, and is having an experience no other student ever had from this village, since the student body is charged with helping to lift the Western grain crop.

In June of 1944, an announcement for Irvin’s graduation with a Bachelor of Arts degree appeared in the local paper, with this addition: Irvin is in military camp at present undergoing training in connection with his University degree.

Within a few years, Irvin graduated as a pharmacist, eventually owning a drugstore in Toronto on Parliament Street. His next store was in Scarborough at the Wexford Heights Shopping Plaza. The last store he owned was Milliken Mills Pharmacy, which he sold in 1986. Irvin married Dorothy Lichtenstein, and they now live in North Toronto. Their daughter and her husband and grandson live in Texas.

In 1954, Irvin’s brother Lewis Raxlin married Marilyn Logan of Canton Ohio. They resided in one of Stouffville’s new homes built on Rose Avenue, south of Main Street before moving to Scarborough. For a few years Lewis worked in his father’s Main Street dealership. Eventually, his father-in-law invited Lewis to join him in the restaurant business in Canton. Ben and Annie felt sad when Lewis and Marilyn moved to Ohio with their three sons. The Raxlin families visited back and forth across the border for many years. Lewis passed away October 13, 2001.

From the early 1950s to mid 60s, Ben Raxlin travelled in the province to meetings and conferences with fellow IOOF lodge members. Due to health concerns and a few hospital stays Ben hired an assistant to help manage the store. After over forty years of conducting business in Stouffville, Ben Raxlin retired in 1965. He sold his Main Street home to Gino Testa. He and Annie moved to Downsview where his son Irvin lived. The couple continued to visit old friends in town and donated to local fundraisers, acknowledged by notes of thanks in the Stouffville Tribune. Ben Raxlin died November 22, 1972. His wife Annie died September 5, 1977.

Perhaps a quote by Ben in The Stouffville Tribune, Dec. 3, 1964 sums up over forty years in the community. “We consider Stouffville our home,” Mr. Raxlin said. “The people here have always been fair. A newcomer to our town would never be lonely because people here are among the friendliest we have ever met. Stouffville has treated us well. We are sorry to leave.

Irvin stood once again by the red brick building at the hub of Stouffville’s Main Street. He remembered friends of his and his brother Lewis: photographer Ted Cadieux, the Schell boys, the Hazzard family, the Wards, Billy and Wally Nicholson, Lloyd and Bea Jennings, and others. Memories flooded back, like the times the local boys hung out at a blacksmith’s shop south of Main Street on Market Street where the CIBC parking lot is now. He recalls a functioning grain mill and slaughterhouse and skinny-dipping in the pond at the back of the park. The boys mischievously upended outhouses on Halloween night. He had his first glimpse of actress Mae West in a movie at the Stanley Theatre behind the clock tower.

Ben and Annie Raxlin’s family thrived in Stouffville. They worked through nearly five decades to become prominent business people on Main Street. They raised two sons and gave them opportunities to prosper. It is fitting that Raxlin Street in a new subdivision in southeast Stouffville beside a park with tennis courts, splash pad and basketball courts, commemorates the contributions of this family to the character of the town. Thank you Irvin for sharing your memories.

Update: On January 12, 1915, Irving Raxlin died at Toronto General Hospital.


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