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MacMillan Story from the Inverness Oran

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Published by the Inverness Oran, May 2006

Then and Now
The Heritage of Inverness County
by Jim St. Clair
San Francisco – May Day 1906-2006

Webposted Monday, May 01, 2006

May Day – this year with the very warm days and the early blossoming of the mayflowers and spring beauties, we can appreciate the memories of schoolchildren of many years ago who recalled how they celebrated May Day by gathering such flowers as they could find and leaving them on the doorsteps of neighbours. In the yards of some one-room schoolhouses, trustees and teachers, encouraged by the Department of Education, erected Maypoles with their ribbons fastened to the top as a spring rite. Unaware of the ancient symbolic significance of the Maypole as a fertility symbol, children danced around the pole as they held on to the ends of the coloured ribbons. Physical activity was a new item in the school curriculum of a hundred and twenty years ago.

May Day – for generations, our European ancestors celebrated Beltane in various ways. To honour this Celtic deity connected with the sun, torches were carried across mountain-tops, bonfires were lit and wooden wheels were set on fire and rolled down hills. In some communities, a Queen of the May was chosen with various rites and much revelry and feasting. Even Robin Hood (or the Green Man as he is sometimes called), according to some authorities had his origin as a symbol of the returning fertility of the fields.

Old stories of our own countryside suggest that for some years in the 1800s, bonfires could be seen on the tops of hills in our region with others sighted across the Northumberland Strait on Cape George. It was a time as well in some Gaelic-speaking households for people to take outside stalks of grain preserved from the previous harvest and set fire to them on May Day as a recollection of ancient customs and in the hope of a good new crop.

May Day 1886 – the start of an international working class holiday for on the first of May in that year, a strike was called to support workers in their efforts to bring about an eight hour work day. Curiously, various craft guilds in Europe several centuries earlier held this day as important. Today, in many places around the world, parades are held in recognition of the rights of members of labour unions.

May Day 1906, a hundred years ago, in San Francisco there were no parades or maypole dancers, only turmoil, grief and dismay as the damage done by the earthquake a week earlier was surveyed and evaluated. So many buildings gone, many lives lost, much looting of stores and vacant homes and fires still burning!

In that California city, an Inverness County native, a survivor of the earthquake, was busily re-organizing his life. John MacMillan, born August 28th, 1841 in Upper Southeast Mabou (now Mull River), the son of John and Ann (Rankin)MacMillan, chose to fabricate a story of his death in the earthquake. Sometime, soon after the event which had been widely reported in newspapers across the continent, a letter “edged in black” arrived at the home of his brother, Duncan MacMillan (the parents had died many years earlier). The letter, said to be written by a friend of John MacMillan, spuriously reported John’s death and said that a suitcase containing some of his effects would be sent as soon as possible.

John MacMillan had not died but apparently wished to disguise his current situation. In reality, he lived until December, 1918, twelve years after the earthquake brought such sadness and destruction to San Francisco. But John had lived a life of some turmoil and mystery after he left his Inverness County home as a young man in the 1860s.

A shoemaker by trade, he had moved to Rawdon, Hants County where he set up shop. Married to Sarah Blois of Upper Nine Mile River, he fathered two children, George Simpson MacMillan and Ann Rankin MacMillan. Both of these children lived to be quite old, with Ann Rankin (MacMillan) Grant (her married name) living to be just short of one hundred years with a fairly accurate memory of her father, John MacMillan, even though he left Rawdon when she was very young.

According to Ann and her descendants, John and his wife quarreled constantly. Abusive to his wife and children, John left home and seemed to disappear. His wife divorced him for desertion and cruelty. Sarah (Blois) MacMillan had no contact with John’s family in Inverness County who often wondered what had happened to him. They knew nothing until the letter announcing his presumed death arrived.

A similar letter, apparently, was sent to his former wife in Rawdon. But she had died in 190l. The children who were still living were astonished to learn that their father had gone to California, maybe in the years of the gold rush. With unpleasant memories of their father and no contact for more than thirty years, they did not experience much grief – just curiosity about his life.

The MacMillan descendants of Rawdon, Nova Scotia would not learn any more of their father and grandfather until some people by the name of MacMillan arrived in Nova Scotia in the 1960s in search of information about John MacMillan’s past. They found their way to Rawdon and met their relatives. It came to light that John had married again in California and had fathered a second family, much younger than his first two children. Neither family had known of the other. Apparently, John MacMillan had wished to prevent his Nova Scotia wife and children from having any claim on his eventual estate, so had fabricated the account of his death as one of the victims of the earthquake.

In the meantime, John’s brother, Duncan, had been so abusive to his wife and children that the daughters took their mother to live in Lynn, Massachusetts, where she died. They had all left home at an early age. One of their brothers died in World War I, one committed suicide, and one died in 1952. A sister, Sarah (MacMillan) Sinnott of Massachusetts, in her older years was a frequent visitor to Inverness County, despite her unhappy memories of her childhood. She was quite surprised to learn that her uncle had not died in the San Francisco disaster, despite what the letter had reported. No descendants of the MacMillans are to be found in Inverness County today.

May Day 2006 – the memory of celebrations and flower sharing of earlier years have faded now. But they were colourful activities. Just dim recollections as well survive of the MacMillans and the letter “edged in black” which came from California a hundred years ago with its strange account of a death which did not occur – and a reminder of the difficulties encountered by rural families in the years before medication and social services could assist people suffering from psychological torments. Inverness County – Hants County – San Francisco – all tied together in a curious manner, interwoven like ribbons from the top of a pole. And the dance of life goes on, but no longer around a Maypole.

Linked to  Sarah Maria Blois
Annie Rankin MacMillan
George Simpson MacMillan
John MacMillan 

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