This picture shows my grandfather, Vénérand Fortin, leading a funeral cortège at Saint-Damase-des-Aulnaies, Quebec, on a cold day in December 1939. Since my grandfather was the local blacksmith, and his shop was located next to the church, he was regularly asked to use his big black horse, named Le Coq, to pull the hearse fitted on a sleigh.
Saint-Damase is a small village about one hundred kilometres northeast of Quebec City. In those days, such villages lacked a funeral home. The deceased were prepared without being embalmed, and then the coffin was displayed in the family living room for a few days before the burial. Each parish prided itself in having a well-crafted hearse to carry the deceased to the cemetery. Families were asked to contribute a dollar or more towards its cost, which could be upwards of $300.
I believe that in this case the deceased was Adélard Pellerin — but we cannot confirm this. The photo was taken by an unknown photographer and is not precisely dated, so we can’t go into the parish records to prove it beyond any doubt.
My grandfather was a small man of five feet six inches who toiled from early morning well into the night. He had thirteen children, of whom only eight survived. Money was scarce in those days. Around 1915 he was charging thirty cents to completely shoe a horse. Even though he valued education, he had no choice but to take my father out of school at the age of thirteen to help in the blacksmith shop.
Aside from fabricating a range of objects needed by farmers, my grandfather cleared his land, worked his farm, and cut firewood. His happiest moments came in springtime when working to produce maple sugar.
He worked well into his seventies shoeing horses in lumber camps and the surrounding villages, and he also made snowshoes with animal hides.
His horse Le Coq weighed eight hundred kilograms and lived for twenty-nine years. My grandfather always said he wanted to live to be a hundred years old, and someone from above must have been listening. On October 5, 1980, at the age of one hundred years and a few months, he passed away in his home next to his blacksmith shop.
By Raymond Fortin of Embrun, Ontario. He is Vénérand Fortin’s grandson.
This article was originally published in the February-March 2016 issue of Canada's History magazine.