McCrae House Keeps Poet’s Memory Alive

April 1, 2011 by Sheena Bolton

The life of John McCrae, author of the famous poem, In Flanders Fields, and the First World War are brought to life daily by dedicated volunteers and staff at McCrae House, the Guelph, Ont., home where the poet was born in 1872.

The western half of the four-bedroom limestone cottage in a residential part of the city was built in 1857. In 1867, the second storey was added, and sometime between 1875 and 1966 the veranda was removed and a small porch was added.

The house was used as a private residence until the mid-1960s when it was threatened with demolition. At this point, a small group of Guelph citizens formed the John McCrae Birthplace Society which purchased the house and opened the museum in 1968. The society operated the museum until 1983 when the City of Guelph assumed ownership.

“Most people know John McCrae for the writing of the poem, but here we get to explain more about his life,” said co-ordinator of public programs Valerie Harrison. “He was in his 40s when he passed away, so he had a chance to establish a career and he had a lot of military training. Visitors get to find out more about the man, the significance of the poem, the significance of the poppy and the war.”

The son of David and Janet McCrae, John attended Central Public School, Guelph Collegiate Institute and the University of Toronto, where he graduated with a degree in medicine in 1898. At 14, he joined the cadets and, while at university, served as a captain in the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada. In 1899, he was given a fellowship in pathology from McGill University in Montreal, but delayed it a year to fight in the South African War.

On Aug. 4, 1914, when Canada declared war on Germany, McCrae was one of the first 45,000 Canadian’s to join the fight.  During the summer of 1917, he suffered severe asthma attacks, something he had dealt with all his life, along with occasional bouts of bronchitis. In January, he was diagnosed with pneumonia and meningitis and on Jan. 28, 1918, he died. He was buried with full military honours in Wimereux Communal Cemetery, north of Boulogne in France.

“I think he truly was a likable person and a man of great honour,” said Harrison. “From everything I’ve read he was thoughtful, studious and a storyteller.”

When the museum opened, the society made a decision to restore only part of the house to the time period when McCrae would have lived there. Currently two rooms are restored to this period; a complete dining room and a bedroom.
“The furniture in the dining room is from John McCrae’s mother and grandmother,” said Harrison. “The dining room set was purchased by John’s grandfather, Thomas McCrae.” The bedroom furniture wasn’t owned by the McCraes. However, it was built in Guelph and the family would have used something similar.

“If the entire house was [restored to the period], we wouldn’t have been able to tell McCrae’s story after he left,” she said. “So part of the museum is an exhibit that features his life; from when his family came from Scotland, to the point of the writing of the poem, up to his death.”

Another section of the house is used for temporary exhibits. Each year Harrison showcases a different First World War theme. This year it’s Life In The Trenches. The exhibit includes objects dug from a trench in Ypres, Belgium, near McCrae’s dressing station during the Second Battle of Ypres. Besides working as a doctor, McCrae was appointed brigade-surgeon to the First Brigade of the Canadian Forces Artillery with the rank of major and second-in-command.

It was in these trenches, as McCrae was tending to hundreds of wounded soldiers daily, that In Flanders Fields was conceived. He wrote the poem the day after one of his closest friends, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed in battle. Helmer was buried in a makeshift grave with a simple wooden cross. When McCrae wrote the poem, wild poppies had already began to bloom between the crosses.

The museum also has a program room. The museum works with local schools and has a large interactive collection. Here, children can touch and try on uniforms, gas masks and other artifacts from the First World War. “It’s an experience, so they remember it,” said Harrison.

McCrae House is open year round. Its busiest month is November when, for the last 22 years, the Guelph Amateur Radio Club sets up an antenna outside and uses the program room to send messages of peace all over the world. Any school group visiting the museum during November can participate.

“We had children talking to Manchester, England,” said Linda Willis, a volunteer with the radio club. “We’ve talked to places all over Europe, the United States, Australia and South Africa.”

Willis has been participating for 20 years, even taking time off work. She enjoys watching the students send messages of peace. “A lot of the children are shy at first, but once we get them talking, they get excited,” she said.

McCrae House has two designations from the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. One is for John McCrae as a person of national historical significance and the other for the house itself as a historic site.

During the summer McCrae House hosts summer teas outside on the back patio. Dedicated volunteers maintain the award-winning heritage gardens that surround the house.

Adjacent to McCrae House is the Lt.-Col. John McCrae Memorial Garden, established by the Legion’s Col. John McCrae Memorial Branch. It was built in 1946, before McCrae House was established, as a permanent place of remembrance.

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