Do you know this family? Man hopes to return decades-old P.E.I. letters to relatives

A man from Halifax is asking Islanders for their help to return 74 year old letters to the relatives of the P.E.I. family who wrote them.

Paul LeBlanc found more than 50 letters dating back to the 1940s

A Halifax man found more than 50 letters from the 1940s, and wants to track down relatives of the man who wrote them. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

A man from Halifax is asking Islanders for their help to return 74-year-old letters to the relatives of the P.E.I. family who wrote them.

Paul LeBlanc has been spending his summers on the Island since he was a child and helped build his family's cottage in Cape Traverse. After a few days of working on the cottage with his father in 1988, he said they decided to go for a walk down Wharf Road where they found an abandoned house.

"It was kind of an old dilapidated house," LeBlanc said. "The roof was caving in and the floors were caving in and the wall paper was showing … seven different versions of wallpaper from previous years."

Paul LeBlanc found more than 50 letters from the 1940s, which he hopes to give to the family of the letter-writer. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

As they were looking around, his father found a small cubby under the staircase and when he reached inside he pulled out a letter dated 1944. The letter was from a man named Vernon McNeil and he sent it to his mother from the warfront.

LeBlanc said his father then reached in and pulled out about 50 more letters McNeil had written and sent home during World War II.

"It was pretty interesting, just the correspondence between the mother and the son," LeBlanc added. "Just news from the frontline."

'Keep smiling'

Among the letters were photos, grocery lists and old receipts from local businesses in Cape Traverse in the 1940s, LeBlanc said.

The letters are a treasure that provide a small glimpse into the past, he said.

"It's mesmerizing, you know," LeBlanc said. "I was sitting there last night reading the letters and you're in it with them and you're listening to the stories of what entertainment consisted of back then and what life was like on the frontline and how long it was that people waited to communicate back and forth their affection for each other where as today everything is so instantaneous."  

Paul LeBlanc has enjoyed getting a glimpse into the past through the letters. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

LeBlanc said the letters are full of details about McNeil's time on the warfront, including his experience at the invasion of Normandy.

"In one of the letters he talked about the fact that they thought the war was over," LeBlanc said. "That Hitler was killed and they thought that was going to bring the end of the war."

But, LeBlanc said McNeil mostly asked about life back home on the Island.

"A lot of the letters were just questions about the weather at home and 'what's dad doing' and 'how are my siblings doing,'" he said. "A lot of that just trying to stay connected to his home when he was out in a pretty grim task."

Vernon McNeil wrote to his family, often asking about life back home on the Island. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

Most of the letters also include poems McNeil wrote to his mother, LeBlanc said, and he signed off each one with "Cheerio, all my love. Keep smiling."

Trying to find relatives

LeBlanc now owns the property where the McNeil house once stood and the mystery of McNeil's letters is one his whole family hopes to solve.

He added that he and his dad were fascinated by the letters for years and after his father died a few years ago he felt he needed to get the letters back to the McNeil family — as his dad would have wanted.

"There's such powerful emotion in these letters and for you to be able to find that and give that as a gift to an unknowing family is something that's irreplaceable. It's more than money can buy for sure," LeBlanc said. "It was one of the great mysteries of our family to be able to connect to another family and offer that gift."

Help from an old acquaintance

And LeBlanc already has one local who hopes to help him in his search. Ninety year old Sheldon Campbell grew up in Cape Traverse and knew the McNeils. He said he knew both Vernon and his sister Mildred.

"He was a nice fellow, Vernon. They were all nice kids," Campbell said. 

Sheldon Campbell says he used to know Vernon McNeil, and could like to help LeBlanc track down McNeil's relatives. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

He lost touch with the siblings, Campbell said, and doesn't know what happened with Vernon after the war. But he said he'd now like to help LeBlanc with his search for relatives.

LeBlanc says since he took his search to social media he's found a few leads, but he is still asking any Islanders who knew the McNeil family to get in touch with him and help him return this special family heirloom home.

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About the Author

Brittany Spencer

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Brittany Spencer is a multi-platform journalist with CBC P.E.I. Email: brittany.spencer@cbc.ca