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Exploring the early years of Newmarket literary icon Mazo de la Roche

The renowned author of the Jalna series has early connections with Orillia and Sutton

Newmarket native Mazo de la Roche is probably the least-known member of the Orillia Hall of Fame. Orillia Museum of Art & History History Committee member Trish Crowe-Grande explored her young life and her Orillia connection.

Who is Mazo de la Roche?

When it comes to Canadian literary icons, Orillia is synonymous with Stephen Leacock, his summer home on Brewery Bay and his best-known novel, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. However, there is another Canadian writer with an Orillia connection, one of the least known inductees into the Orillia Hall of Fame. That writer is Mazo de la Roche.

The Jalna series of novels, written by de la Roche about the fictional Whiteoak family, who lived on an estate in southern Ontario between 1854-1954, was one of the most popular series of books of that time. Some might remember the popular television series, The Whiteoaks of Jalna, based on de la Roche’s books, released by the CBC in 1972.

To put her success as an author into perspective, by the time Mazo de la Roche died in 1961, the Jalna series had sold 11 million copies in 193 English-language editions and 92 foreign-language editions.

The only other Canadian female writer of Mazo’s time who enjoyed comparable success was Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gable series. The only Canadian male writer who enjoyed comparable success up until that time was Stephen Leacock.

There have been biographies and articles written about de la Roche that excluded her life in Orillia.

Barrie author Heather Kirk, who has extensively researched de la Roche’s life, was the first de la Roche biographer to document the author’s connection to Orillia through her research carried out in the Simcoe County Archives, Orillia Museum of Art & History (OMAH) and the Orillia Public Library.

It was not until after her two books about de la Roche were published in 2006 and 2007 that Kirk, with OMAH volunteer, the late Don Jenkins, worked together to pinpoint where de la Roche had actually lived in Orillia.

Kirk outlined her subsequent research in the 2008 article “Mazo in Orillia: A Long and Winding Detective Story for Literary Historians.”

In 2018, Esmee Rees, de la Roche’s adopted daughter, donated a collection of her mother’s original publications including the Jalna series, as well as a few other personal mementos to OMAH. In light of this donation, her Orillia connection must have been meaningful to Mazo.

What was Mazo’s Connection to Orillia?

Mazo “Maisie” Louise Roche was born in Newmarket on Jan. 15, 1871, an only child who moved frequently due to her mother’s (Alberta Louise Lundy) chronic health issues and her father’s (William R. Roche) job as a travelling salesman.

While she had spent much of her life in the Toronto area, Mazo de la Roche – as she was known later in life to reflect her French ancestry – lived in Orillia between 1888 and 1891 and between 1892 and 1894. This is a substantial amount of time for a child between the impressionable ages of nine and 15.

Kirk’s research verified that Mazo’s maternal grandparents, Daniel and Louise Lundy, lived in Orillia from 1888 to 1894, moving from Newmarket after their son was killed in a workplace accident.

Daniel found employment at the Longford Manufacturing Company, known by the locals as the Pail Factory. In the past, de la Roche had visited her maternal grandparents regularly, as they were a welcoming couple and provided a comfortable place to live. In later years, the author reflected upon this time warmly.

So, in 1888, Mazo and her mother moved up to Orillia, staying with the Lundys, at 40 Coldwater Rd. (at the northeast corner of Albert and Coldwater streets) in a duplex structure owned by the Ironsides.

They lived with the Lundys from 1888 to 1890 and from 1892 to 1894. They also resided at 29 Albert St., then moved to today’s 82 Albert St.. Over those four years, de la Roche’s father would visit periodically between his multiple sales jobs.

Not only did young Mazo have the Lundy connection in Orillia, she also had a connection with the Clements. Martha Clement was the younger sister of Mazo’s grandmother. Due to financial difficulty, Martha Clement left her daughter Caroline with the Lundys prior to returning to her husband in the United States.

When reflecting on de la Roche’s life, her close relationship to Caroline Clement (her first cousin once removed), was significant. Caroline grew up with Mazo as they both lived with the Lundys during Caroline’s turbulent childhood, which saw her father James dealing with unsteady employment in Dakota Territory, where the family lived.

The Lundys raised Mazo and Caroline as sisters. Caroline’s parents and brother eventually moved to Orillia from the U.S. in 1889 and Caroline joined her family to live a few blocks from the Lundys. Mazo and Caroline embarked on a lifelong friendship.

Life in Orillia at the Lundys and with Caroline, and her Schooling

The Lundy family provided young Mazo and her mother with the emotional and financial security needed at this time in their lives. On Aug. 29, 1892, Mazo, 13, was registered to attend a private school.

An Orillia Daily Times article dated April 24, 1889 states that a Miss Lafferty (later Gertrude Dryer, wife of Orillia’s chief of police) opened a private school opposite the English Church School house at 14 Coldwater Rd. W,, which now is the location of MPP Jill Dunlop’s office.

In her autobiography, Ringing the Changes, de le Roche stated she attended a “small private day school kept by a gentle and charming Irish woman” that was believed to be Miss Lafferty. Her cousin, Caroline, also attended the private school.

During the summers, the family often made one-day excursions by ferry from Orillia to Strawberry Island in Lake Simcoe, a popular summer destination for Orillians until the First World War.

In the fall and spring, the girls would take long walks and play the usual childhood games. In the winter, they skated on the lake.

The Beginning of Her Writing Career

During this time, Mazo started to develop an interest in acting and writing based on her joy of imagining. Together with Caroline, she would write and act out plays for their family. They also started a newspaper, each copy written out and sold to family members for two cents. It was the beginning of Mazo’s writing career, with Caroline close by her side.

Mazo in the OMAH Collection

In 2018, Esmee Rees, de la Roche’s adopted daughter, donated a collection of her mother’s original publications, including the Jalna series and a few other personal mementos to the Orillia Museum of Art & History. In light of this donation, her Orillia connection must have been meaningful to Mazo.

Also in OMAH’s collection are some personal items: a cigarette box circa 1930 of polished gold colour material, with a push-type lock and engraved in an angle “M de la R” on the bottom, with bits of tobacco still inside. Also in the collection is a silver-plated candle holder in three individual pieces marked M & W #@3550, circa 1890, around the time Mazo lived with the Lundys in Orillia.

It appears that Mazo enjoyed drawing, as some of her sketches, though not dated, were included in Esmee’s donation. There is a lovely colour sketch of a woman horse-jumping that has been signed by the author, as well as a pencil sketch of a handsome bearded gentleman – perhaps Mazo’s father?

Inspiration for Jalna

There are different schools of thought regarding Mazo’s model for the series The Whiteoaks of Jalna. Author Kirk feels that Orillia may have provided a potential model of a family that could have influenced the creation of the fictional wealthy Whiteoaks of Jalna – that being the Lundys and Clements and their time in Orillia, providing the principle sources.

The late Don Jenkins suggested that the wealthy Thompsons, who owned the 10,000-acre Dalton Ranch 20 miles outside of Orillia and ran a successful business that included the production of wooden pails made of white oak – may have inspired de la Roche.

Though it was never made clear by de la Roche who the true inspirations for her successful Jalna series were, her legacy to the Canadian literary scene is evident in the praise and recognition she received during her life.

Mazo’s Passing

Mazo passed away on July 12, 1961 at 82.

Caroline Clement made arrangements with the Sanderson Monument Company of Orillia to provide the distinctive granite cross that marks de la Roche’s grave in the cemetery of St. George’s Anglican Church in Georgina, on the south shore of Lake Simcoe, near Sutton. In the 1920s, this area was a popular place for Mazo, her mother and Caroline to vacation in the summer.

Years later, Caroline Clement was buried next to her long-time companion. It is interesting to note that, near where de la Roche and Clement were laid to rest, Stephen Leacock is also buried – two celebrated Canadian literary icons with strong Orillia connections.

To honour her with a place in the Orillia Hall of Fame, was truly fitting and well deserved. We acknowledge the invaluable research of author Heather Kirk, OMAH volunteer Jean Sarjeant and the late Don Jenkins.

Condensed from an article on Mazo de la Roche by Trish Crowe-Grande. To download a PDF of the full-length version, go to the file on the OMAH website by clicking here.