2017-11-08

On the road: The story of how four women cycled from Blockhouse to Charlottetown during the war

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>One of the photographs taken as the women were on their cycling journey between Blockhouse and Charlottetown, P.E.I. Left to right: Dot Eichel, Nora Young and Ruby and Ruth Ernst. For more Remembrance Day coverage, please see pages 17, 18 and 27.</p>
  • <p>RUBY ERNST PHOTO</p><p>Nora Young, Ruth Ernst and Dorothy Eichel pose while Ruby snapped this shot as they were on their 400 km-plus bicycle journey in 1943.</p>
  • <p>GAYLE WILSON PHOTO</p><p>Ann Barry, now living in Marriott&#8217;s Cove, is the author of , which describes the bicycle journey her mother, aunt and two other women took from Blockhouse to Charlottetown in 1943.</p>
  • <p>GAYLE WILSON PHOTO</p><p>Ann Barry, the author of <em> Sweet Ride</em>, holds up one of the photographs of the bicycle journey her mother, aunt and two other women took from Blockhouse to Charlottetown in 1943.</p>
  • <p>CONTRIBUTED</p><p>A page of the diary recording the start of the journey four women friends took by bicycle from Blockhouse to Charlottetown in the middle of World War II.</p>

While Charles Dickens had been writing about the French Revolution in 1859 when he penned his famed quote, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," the timeless expression has been aptly applied to World War II.

Among the inimitable tragedies there was incredible courage and camaraderie, and for those not on the immediate front lines an almost surreal juxtaposition of normalcy and apprehension, sacrifice and frivolity.

It was amid that backdrop that four plucky women set off on their bicycles from Blockhouse in 1943 to make the nearly 400 mile return journey to Charlottetown for a performance by their favourite fiddlers, Don Messer and His Islanders.

And now, 74 years later, the daughter of one of the women has written a book to immortalize the adventure.

Ann Barry's self-published book Sweet Ride is what she calls a "creative non-fiction" account of the journey her mother, Ruby Ernst, her aunt, Ruth, distant cousin Dorothy (Dot) Eichel, and family friend Nora Young made to Prince Edward Island over a rainy, 10-day period in the middle of World War II.

"The impetus behind writing the story is the story's going to be gone if somebody doesn't record it. You know, another generation or two. And it is a bit of social history, of Nova Scotia rural life," Barry told LighthouseNOW in an interview in her home in Marriott's Cove.

Barry pieced together the tale from a diary the women had used to record the trip, which Dot, the last survivor of the group, had loaned her before she passed away a few years ago.

A member of the Mahone Bay Writer's group, Barry admits there is speculation and surmising throughout the 220-page book. But she says she has tried to paint a picture of the Maritime journey in the context of the war that was being fought on the world stage.

"My question was, I wonder why they left in the middle of the war? I wonder why they picked that time to go?" she recalled to LighthouseNOW.

On the cover of Sweet Ride, she notes, "To leave home on a long- distance bicycle trip during a time when Nova Scotia was prepped for war would, by today's standards, be considered foolhardy.

"If I knew then what I know now I would have asked, 'What were you thinking?'"

Barry had often heard her mother and aunt refer to the trip, but it was in a matter-of-fact way, she says. And to a degree, she understands their complacency.

Three of the women were in their 20s at the time of the journey, while Nora was 32. Ruby and Ruth lived in the family home on Mines Road. All rural women, they were resourceful and independent, feisty and fun-loving.

Despite the war going on, they enjoyed fishing, swimming and listening to music on the radio when they weren't working.

"They had their own conveyance. They could get on their bicycle and go wherever they wanted to go."

Still, while Barry is aware the bicycle was a regular means of transport in the day, it was only after researching the milieu of the time that she began to appreciate their daring and determined endeavour.

"I have tried to describe historic details accurately. However, my main aim was to paint a general picture of the 1940s so that the girls' achievement could be appreciated within that era," she writes on the cover.

"It was war time; gasoline was rationed. They didn't just get in the family car and go off for a drive," she notes.

Moreover, at 57 pounds, the bicycles were far from the light, geared cycles of today. Nora's make-shift wooden bicycle was especially heavy.

"They didn't produce bicycles, except for the war effort, after '39. And that's why I painted a context of the war around them, because it impacted their trip," says Barry.

"There was a moratorium on parts. People were collecting metal to sell back to the war effort."

Barry's father worked for the ammunition depot in Bedford and was later deployed to Shelburne to build another depot there.

"They felt that this was at risk of being bombed. Or an accident," she explains, adding it was a time of air raid drills and blackened out curtains.

"There were ships being sunk off the shore here. ... And it created a lot of suspicion about what might happen if we got infiltrated or invaded.

"There was a feeling around. And yet these girls go off on this journey. I don't understand it. And they're not here to tell me whether it was something they thought of or they didn't."

Expounding on the brief notations in the diary, Barry takes literary licence to chronicle the details and discussions of the journey as the women set off from Blockhouse at the end of July, 1943 and return (partly by train) a week and a half later.

Each woman retained a photo album of the trip. Barry's account features more than 30 photos, although there are none of Prince Edward Island itself, where supposedly it rained during much of the two days the women spent there.

A note in Ruby's album states that the weather prevented her from taking pictures. "Her humble Brownie camera had no capacity for taking pictures in rain or dim light. Regretfully, the instant photos from the photo booth have disappeared," Barry elaborates on the book cover.

Born in Bridgewater, Barry grew up in Dartmouth and was educated in nursing at the Victoria General Hospital and Dalhousie University.

She had a multi-dimensional career in community health that took her from Baffin Island back to her home province of Nova Scotia.

Although she has always been interested in writing as a hobby, she says it was only after joining the Mahone Bay Writers and the tale of the bicycle trip came to light that she was encouraged to publish the story.

Barry will be launching Sweet Ride at the Mahone Bay Centre November 13 from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.

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