The following story is part of a volume of stories collected from the residents of the R.K. MacDonald Nursing Home in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. For more information on this project, click here.
Leafa was born in Powassan, Perry Sound District, in 1920. Her parents worked as cooks in the logging camps during the winter, and at the sawmills in the summers. When she was young, she would travel to the camps with them. Once she was old enough for school, she would live with her grandmother during school months and then spend the summer with her parents, wherever they would be working at the time. Leafa has fond memories of the music and song of the camps her parents worked in. She loves to paint and can often be found in a quiet corner of the RK, working on one of her many projects.
The Dionne Quintuplets
Leafa (nee Shelley) Humphrey grew up in Northern Ontario. Her family lived about 10 miles from Callander, the community where the Dionne quintuplets were born in May of 1934. Leafa was 16 at the time and remembers well the effect it had on the Dionne family and the community at large.
It seems the doctor, Dr. DeFoe, who had only arrived just in time to see the fifth quintuplet born, was eager to take full glory for the successful birth of all five healthy girls. It didn’t take long for the news to travel.
The Dionnes were a poor family who lived in a very ramshackle sort of house. At first, the government would provide no aid, and the family were left to manage for themselves. In time, it seems, under public pressure, they came forward with aid, only too much so. The government built a mansion in the community for the quintuplets to live in, but with the understanding that the rest of the children in the family were not welcome to share this home with their sisters. The mansion set the quintuplets apart from their siblings and the community. The house was so large that it soon became overwhelming, and the family was unable to look after it. Eventually, the father did move all of the family into the house, but lines had been established between the children by this time, and the quintuplets and the older children never grew up together as siblings.
With this mansion, the government built a round garden/playground area within glassed walls of one-way glass—a solarium in which to display the quintuplets. They could play there without notice of all the tourists and locals alike who would come to watch from the other side of the glass. Each quintuplet had her own tricycle and there were always 5 of every toy in the yard.
When they were only 9 months old, Leafa remembers them putting the babies out on the veranda, one by one, each in a different color coat; one was in purple!
They kept a big box of “fertility rocks” outside of the house—fist-sized rocks that tourists could take with them, at no charge!
“When the quints are still babies, the Ontario government takes the sisters from their parents, apparently to protect their fragile health, and makes the girls wards of the state. For the first nine years of their lives, they live at a hospital in their hometown that becomes a tourist mecca called “Quintland.” The Ministry of Public Welfare sets up a trust fund in their behalf with assurances that the financial well-being of the entire Dionne family would be taken care of “for all their normal needs for the rest of their lives.”
Between 1934 and 1943, about 3 million people visit Quintland. The government and nearby businesses make an estimated half-billion dollars off the tourists, much of which the Dionne family never sees. The sisters are the nation’s biggest tourist attraction – bigger than Niagara Falls.” (Birth of the Dionne quintuplets, The CBC Digital Archives Website – http://archives.cbc.ca/society/celebrations/clips/983/)
Article by Kim Ells, Fall 2011. All photos by Kathryn Collicot.