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In the early 1900s, young Ernie Martin immigrated from Staffordshire, England, to Canada to seek his fortune. He finally ended up in Kirkland Lake, where gold was to be found if you were willing to work at it. Ernie was. And so was Harry Oakes. The two of them became prospecting partners. Ernie and Harry worked hard and non-stop to find a vein of gold so they could start a mine.
When it finally happened, the mine grew into a huge money-maker for the two of them. Ernie’s first wife, Mary, also was a prospector, and in fact ended up financially far better off than Ernie. Why was that? How is it that multi-millionaire Ernie Martin arrived at the end of his life virtually a pauper? This is a book full of surprises and answers — and a few questions.
Excerpt from Ernie’s Gold: A Prospector’s Tale:
By the time Mabel (Fetterley) had arrived in the Swastika area, Mary Violette had already been in mining country for several years. Mary came from even farther away, the small farm community of Goshen, Indiana. She would have a significant impact on the life of Ernie Martin.
Mary was born in 1874 on a farm at New Paris, just south of Goshen, the second of five children of Benjamin and Caroline Violette. Hers was a prominent family in the area, some of whom opted to drop the final “e” in their name. Mary’s father was the youngest of ten children born to John Wesley and Chloe Violette, who were among the area’s first settlers. One of Benjamin’s older brothers, John H., was not content to stay in farming and in the spring of 1850 joined the California Gold Rush. He was twenty.
John H. Violette had a hard journey west, coping with difficult terrain, hostile natives, and near-starvation, but once he arrived, it didn’t take him long to find enough gold to satisfy him.
After nearly a year, during which the territory achieved statehood, John opted for a longer, but less arduous, route home. He sailed south, by way of the Isthmus of Panama (the canal was more than fifty years in the future), and eventually made his way back to Goshen. With his new-found wealth, Violette purchased a sawmill south of town at Waterford Mills and bought a farm where, in 1855, he began building an impressive Italianate, walnut-trimmed, red brick mansion. It took more than two years to complete.
In 1860, Violette joined the Ninth Indiana Regiment of Infantry and went off to fight for the Union side in the U.S. Civil War. He was honourably discharged in 1864 after taking part in several battles and being captured by the Confederate Army in Tennessee. Upon his return, he was elected sheriff of Elkhart County.
Mary was intrigued by stories of Uncle John’s adventures in the California Gold Rush and his fine mansion along the main road between her home and Goshen. Hers was a traditional upbringing. She was sent to St. Mary’s College in nearby South Bend, from which she successfully graduated. But Mary had an independent spirit, and a future as a farmer’s wife had no appeal. For Mary, excitement lay in the exploits of her Uncle John and in stories she read of the Klondike Gold Rush. She wanted to see the world beyond the flat farmlands of northern Indiana.
Mary’s first destination was Chicago in the 1890s, where she found a job as a jewellery demonstrator and began carefully saving her money and learning about the retailing side of gold and silver. A quick study, she developed a flair for business and a knowledge of jewellery that so impressed her employer that he sent her on trips to Canada and to Europe.
In 1906, Mary was in Ottawa with her sister, Rose, who was five years younger and had that year married Dan Cashman, a local hotel manager. Mary had been invited to take part in the wedding ceremony but stayed awhile longer, during which time she became intrigued by stories of gold and silver discoveries 300 miles to the northwest. At age thirty-two and still single, Mary couldn’t resist. She was so close to the action, she had to see it first-hand. She quit her job and joined the trek to mining country.
Mary found a room in Cobalt and a job working as a stenographer for a lawyer who served the mining business and helped prospectors file mining claims. She explained later that she had once read about a stenographer who made $50,000 in a Colorado mining camp simply by making out affidavits for prospectors. If it worked in Colorado, she reasoned, why not in Ontario? Mary filled out and witnessed affidavits for prospectors–no mean feat, given that many were barely literate. The provincial mining recorder had an office a few miles away in Haileybury. In a letter home to family in Goshen to assure them she was doing fine in the wilds of Northern Canada, Mary conceded that her living conditions left a bit to be desired.
“Everything is frozen in my room,” she wrote during one of the colder spells that first winter. “The ‘furniture’ is painted on the wall.” She soon moved to Haileybury, where buildings hadn’t been slapped together quite as quickly. For a lawyer there, she made out from sixty to sixty-five affidavits each day, earning $2.50 apiece. Her plan to earn $50,000 was going to take some time. Aside from better accommodations, she found someone there who helped keep her warm.