The following article first appeared in The Echo of Cantley Volume 32 no 8, March 2020. This article is made available for the enjoyment of others with the express permission of the Echo of Cantley.
Every March, Cantley 1889 marks International Women’s Day by telling Echo readers about an interesting woman from Cantley’s earlier years.
Katie’s grandfather, John Fleming, settled in Cantley in 1837. Her parents, Patrick Fleming and Margaret Holmes, raised nine children on their Fleming Road farm.
In 1907, Katie and her brother Paddy inherited the farm. Cleverly, Katie subdivided the farm to create a ring of unfarmed land surrounding the inner farm with its buildings. She kept the outer ring for herself to protect the entire farm, thus giving ownership of the central part to Paddy.
In 1909, Katie married Cantley’s Norman Burke. Of their six children, four sons survived: Gregory, Norman (a WWII officer), Maynard (Blackburn Mine employee, died of silicosis) and charming Billie. The young family moved to Timmins, Ontario.
In 1919, Katie’s husband died. Katie and her sons moved to nearby Haileybury on Lake Timiskaming to work in her brother Paddy’s hotel. In October 1922, the devastating “Haileybury Fire” ravaged the town. When she realized their imminent danger, Katie grabbed some blankets, then ran with her boys to the lake. After soaking the blankets in lake water, she covered her boys with them, thereby keeping them safe from smoke inhalation all night long.
After the fire, Katie and her sons moved back home to their Cantley farm while she looked for work. When she found employment in Ottawa, each of her children stayed with a different relative during the week. On weekends and holidays, they all returned to their “Fleming Farm” to be together.
Katie considered herself lucky to obtain employment, first as a hairdresser, then at Ottawa’s prestigious Russell House Hotel. She eventually became head housekeeper at the Chateau Laurier Hotel for many years, living in its small tower room facing the Rideau Canal.
Katie loved people, including the hotel’s clients many of whom were dignitaries. MPs travelled by train from their ridings then walked the underground tunnel from the train station (today’s Senate Building) to the Chateau Laurier where they stayed when Parliament was in session. Katie regularly brought her lunch to sit in the Parliamentary visitors’ gallery during Question Period. As a result, over the years she came to know most of the MPs and several prime ministers, and she understood political issues well.
Katie cared for her staff. One young maid, not realizing she was pregnant, went into labour. Katie acted as midwife and, at the girl’s request, kept the birth secret by concealing her in a hotel room saying she was sick. Sadly, the baby was stillborn. Katie and a hotel maid baptized the baby, wrapped it in hotel towels then, in night darkness, secretly buried it in Major’s Hill Park!
Because of her clever business decisions, hard work and dedication, Katie’s family survived well during these difficult times. During the Depression, she added to her Cantley land by purchasing the Patterson Farm.
Katie’s grandchildren remember her passion for hockey and politics. They treasure many happy memories of their clever and beloved “Grannie”, especially her wonderful laugh!
For more about Katie’s iconic Cantley family, read the February 2020 Echo. Stories of her sons Norman and Billie appeared in the November 2019 Echo and stories of Jan Turko (who lived with the family on the Fleming Farm) appeared in the November 2012 Echo.