A big family, a house fire and a terrific old farm dog: The Story Line

"Everybody's got a story" is the theory Dave Atkinson is working on, opening the P.E.I. phonebook to a random page and stabbing his finger at the first name he finds. This time around it was O'Leary resident Jessie Cameron.

Jessie Cameron tells Dave Atkinson about her life growing up in Alberton

Jessie Cameron was the second of nine children growing up on a farm in Alberton, P.E.I. (Submitted by Dale Cameron)

She picks up on the second ring.


"Hi," I say. "Is Jessie there, please?"


"Hi Jessie! It's Dave Atkinson calling from CBC Radio in Charlottetown. How are you?"

"I'm alright," she says flatly. "What are you doing, a survey?"

Not a survey

I'm sitting in the studio at CBC in Charlottetown, talking to a stranger on the phone. I do this every month. "Everybody's got a story," is the theory I'm working on. To prove it, I open the P.E.I. phonebook to a random page and stab my finger at the first name I find.

This month, I've picked Jessie Cameron in O'Leary.

I manage to convince her I'm not conducting a survey. I just want to hear the story of her life. She agrees.

"That's great!" I say.

"It might not be," she says with a chuckle.

Jessie Cameron left P.E.I. at 19 to become a nanny in Boston. She returned three years later and married her pen pal. (Submitted by Dale Cameron)

Cameron is 80 years old. She doesn't think her story is very interesting.

"Let's start at the beginning and see where we get," I say.

Cameron is 80. She was born on a farm in Alberton. She's the second of nine kids, but only seven made it to adulthood.

"We had a big family," she says. "We were poor. But I think there was more love and more understanding back then than there is in the families now."

'Goodnight Ma. Goodnight Pa'

Being one of the oldest, she had a job to do.

"Well, you just sort of looked after the younger ones as they came along," she says. "But I loved every minute of living back then. We were a lot like The Waltons. At night, when you said goodnight, everybody would answer. 'Good night, Ma.' 'Goodnight, Pa.' It'd go right around the family."

All nine of them were packed into three little bedrooms in the upstairs of their farmhouse. Cameron remembers her father waking up every morning to start the barn chores. On the way out the door, he would always light the kitchen stove. The stovepipe ran right through her bedroom, so it was nice and toasty. One morning, she woke up and it was a little too toasty.

I'm a tough old broad.— Jessie Cameron

"I could feel the heat," she says. "And I knew the house was afire, so I yelled."

They didn't have much time to get out. Cameron rushed around the house to get all of her brothers and sisters outside, still in their pajamas. It was first of March, and she remembers the cold and the snow.

"There was crust on the ground, I'll never forget it. We walked up to our grandmother's house across the field in our bare feet across the crust. It wasn't nice."

"That must have been terrifying," I say.

"It was. I'm a tough old broad, though," she says with a laugh.

Terrific old dog

Her brother dashed back into the house to save the family dog. Her brother made it out, but the dog didn't.

Mickey was a terrific old farm dog. A bulldog. He was fiercely protective of all those kids.

Cameron was sick a fair amount as a kid. She spent some time in the hospital for problems with her kidneys.

"When I got out, I couldn't go to school. I was 10 years old, and two miles from the school so I couldn't go. He hauled me in the wagon in the summertime and a sleigh in the wintertime."

"The dog pulled you?" I say.

"Oh yes! And he hauled the kids around all day. He was a wonderful old dog."

At 19, Cameron took a job as a nanny in Boston. She was nervous to leave the Island — she'd never been as far as Borden before she left. But it was an adventure she never forgot.

"I was going to look after their two children — a baby and a three-year-old. I said 'I'll take care of the children, but don't ever call me a maid. Call me a nanny or whatever else you want to call me, but don't ever call me a maid.' I never could stand that word. We got along just wonderful. They were really nice people."

Pen pal named Ernie

While she was in Boston, she picked up a pen pal back in P.E.I. A man named Ernie. After three years in the states, she decided to come home. A year later, she and Ernie were married.

They lived the next 49 years on his family's farm in Milburn and raised a family of their own. They lived in the house Ernie's father built out of timber he cut himself when he cleared the property.

Ernie died nine years ago of cancer. Jessie lived in the house until three years ago and moved to the Jubilee Home in O'Leary to be closer to her doctors. Her granddaughters live in her old house now — the very house their great-grandfather built.

Jessie Cameron doesn't think anyone wants to hear her story. She thinks there are more interesting people I should speak with.

I tell her I think I hit the jackpot. She laughs.

"I just touched on the most stand-out things in my mind. You know? Everybody laughs, but it's the truth. Everything is the truth."

Ain't it though?

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