Jeanne Chamberlin – world traveller, adventurer, glamorous lady and my great-grandmother. When she passed away in 2017 at the age of 97 my family gathered from the US and Canada to celebrate her life. This is when I came into possession of a beat up old suitcase full of snapshots that was as well travelled as she had been. As I delved into its contents I was continuously impressed with the treasures within. It has been a welcome puzzle to me to attempt to decipher the dates and places she has been.
Along with the photographs of Jeanne, the suitcase also included her typewritten travel diaries: motoring to British Columbia in 1981; touring Europe in 1982; Russia in 1983; a tour of New Zealand in 1992; and her written memoirs from her birth in 1919 until the death of her first husband in 1961.
At least to me, her story is an interesting one. She was born on September 15, 1919 in Ste. Rose du Lac, Manitoba, Canada to French immigrants Georges Lebas and Sidonie Marchand. Her father had originally come to Canada at the turn of the 20th century aspiring to become a Catholic priest but returned to France for his brother’s wedding – where he met Sidonie who was a bridesmaid. The couple were married at Hotel de Ville in Paris in April of 1913 and immigrated to Canada shortly after.
Georges and Sidonie Lebas, Fall of 1925 with their family.
Back L-R: Georgette, Eugene, Jeanne. Front L-R: Cecile, Rene, Marie Louise.
From Jeanne’s memoirs I know the family grew up poor but happy. The children were tutored at home by their parents in basic reading, writing, and French grammar, until they moved closer to the school, when all attended public school. Jeanne remembers:
“Our public school was English, but I was fortunate along with the older children who started school our first years there, to have [for a teacher] Miss Loussy, who was French speaking[.] We weren’t long in mastering the English language, though we were not allowed to speak English at home. By the time the younger ones went to school they knew basic English.”
During the Depression years the Lebas family was quite poor, like most of the other families in their area. Jeanne remembered the Depression years vividly; her mother’s summer garden and the $4.00 a month her father made to light the furnace at the local school kept the family of eight supplied in vegetables and what could be purchased sugar, flour, and other essentials. The neighbouring hired men would come to the Lebas household on Sundays to stay for dinner, for chores, and for an evening of cards. During the Depression era young men, often from the city, were hired to help farmers, each party receiving $5.00 per month. Jeanne recalls learning most of the card games from these young men. For entertainment outside of cards, the adults usually told jokes, sang, and talked. They had a neighbour that played the mouth organ, and Georges taught all of his daughters to dance to the neighbours’ tune.
Jeanne and her brother Eugene were very close and did everything together. The siblings would work together to snare rabbits, help with haying, tending cows in the pasture, and tasks like collecting seneca root, and crows eggs to be sold for extra income in town.
At the age of 13, Jeanne completed all of the high school she was able to at her small country school. Being a girl, paying the extra money and travelling the 6 miles into Ste. Rose was out of the question. Meanwhile, her brother Eugene was able to continue his studies by riding his bicycle into town when the weather allowed, and boarding in town in the winter months. The family paid for his schooling mostly in wood, cream, and vegetables, and in Eugene completing extra chores for his boarding. Jeanne wanted badly to go to school and cried about this many nights. She resolved not to stay at home and at 13 started hiring herself out for $5.00 a month to be a mother’s helper.
Small Town Girl in the Big City – The fall she was 17 Jeanne followed headed for Winnipeg. Her older sister, Georgette, had moved to the city a few years prior and gotten a good paying job at Saint Boniface Hospital. Jeanne was keen to do the same and make some money for herself. Her mother thought she was too young to go, but she was quite determined and so her father arranged for an old army buddy of his to meet Jeanne at the train station. Upon arrival she promptly went to the employment office.
Her first job was as a mother’s helper for a widow in River Heights with an adult son at home and 6-7 boarders. They soon parted ways when Jeanne dropped a 3-legged candy dish they were using as a soup bowl and her employer said she would take the $5.00 cost of the bowl from her $8.00/month wage. Needless to say, Jeanne packed up that day and walked the 2 miles to Georgette’s and was back at the employment office the next day.
Her next job was for Mrs. Smith, whose husband worked in the Law Court building. Jeanne cared for their two young girls and was paid extra money to sew clothes for Mrs. Smith and her pet monkey for their vaudeville show. But that spring Mr. Smith passed away and Jeanne’s position was terminated as the Smiths needed to give up their house.
From there she moved on to live with the Boltons on Gertrude Ave. She remained with them for a year and then Mrs. B passed away. It was later discovered that Mr. B had lost his job at the Law Courts building sometime earlier and kept it a secret, keeping the same routine. This secret came out after Mrs. B died in 1938. Jeanne moved into a new home with Mr. B and his daughter Evelyn on the top of a large home on Warsaw Ave. She babysat for the family downstairs and did housework during the day.
The last job she noted was at Eatons, she got hired on as extra help. She would line up early in the morning with a hundred others to try and obtain work for for a half-day or maybe full day. This didn’t work out every week, but the pay was better than doing housework. She initially got on just at the snack bar, where she was provided a full lunch in the cafeteria and sometimes a full breakfast.
Finding Love – through her roommate Grace, Jeanne met Bob Chamberlin. They dated for a short time initially. After Grace and Jeanne were due to double date with Bon and his friend Allan, and the men showed up tipsy an hour late to go dancing Jeanne wasn’t interested in seeing him again until he quit drinking. But in the fall of 1939, Jeanne and Bon were te-introduced. Her sister Cecile was coming into the city, and Jeanne asked Allan to go with her to get Cecile from the bus depot. He was the only one she knew with transportation, and paying for a taxi was not financially feasible. Well, Cecile and Allan made a connection that day and the following weekend he arranged with Jeanne for a double date. She expected the blind date to be for Cecile but instead brought his friend, Bob Chamberlin!
Needless to say, Jeanne and Bob hit it off (for the second time) and continued to date until they were married on June 21, 1941 at Westminster United Church in Winnipeg.