The big little life of Anna Mae

Anna Mae Starrett was raised in the country, ran a marina, tended a hobby farm, operated a tea room, and married the man of her dreams. His name was Iain, rugged, good-looking and fresh off the boat from Ireland.

"I've never seen anyone so handsome in my whole life," recalled Anna Mae. "Of course, I could hardly understand him."

Anna Mae Starrett
Anna Mae Starrett

Relaxing in her seniors' residence in Uxbridge, Ontario, she still has a twinkle in her eye and a matter-of-fact way of seeing the world.

Experiencing the early signs of Parkinson's disease, the 79-year-old mother of two lights up when talking about her life in southwestern Ontario.

It was also the place where she met Iain, a gentle-hearted spirit who loved the outdoors, anything with four legs and, of course, his dear wife Anna Mae.

Her husband has since passed, but her memories of life with the man from Ireland remain fresh, strong and enchanting.

Raised on a farm in Essex County, Anna Mae came from a family of six girls and two boys.

Life was good and simple, but it wasn't until the Irishman came calling that she really started living.

His name was Iain McCallum Starrett. Born in 1930, he was hard working with good looks to boot – all the characteristics that a small town girl would love.

But, even the fact that he moved to Canada was a twist of fate.

There wasn't much work in his homeland of Ireland, so the farm hand decided to head to New Zealand to make his fortune. However, just before the big move, he fell ill with appendicitis.

The doctor suggested that maybe he should head to Canada instead. It would be a shorter trip at sea and the young country promised lots of opportunity. There was also good cattle work in Canada and Iain knew his way around a farm.

He moved to Canada in 1950.

Upon arrival in Canada, Iain was working on a farm owned by a father and son. The father was sick, so Iain helped with whatever was required. It was also a mile down the road from Anna Mae's homestead.

Anna Mae and Iain met at a Thanksgiving dinner at the local church, but Iain had to leave before dinner to do chores on the farm. A smitten Anna Mae promised to save him a plate of dinner. She also had a boyfriend at the time who wasn't too impressed with her offer.

"What, did you at least save me a wing?" Anna Mae recalled her boyfriend asking.

She hadn't. And she fell hard for the rugged farm hand with the Irish lilt.

"He was really easy on the eyes," said Anna Mae with a laugh.

After their dinner, Iain asked her to the "pictures".

She was 17, but her father said it was OK for the young couple to take in a movie, as long as she was home by 10:30 p.m.

That was a big thing for Anna Mae. Attending a church function was one thing, receiving approval to go to a movie with a boy was a big step for her strict father.

Iain enjoyed working as a herdsmen, something he had done back home. But it was a survival rate of pay and Iain knew that he wanted more. The farmer he worked for made him a deal. Work the farm through the season and then try his luck in Windsor in one of the car factories over the winter. If it didn't work out, his job at the farm would be waiting for him come next spring. It was a good deal, partly because of Iain's honest and hard working ethic.

But as fate would have it, Iain never made it to the big city. On his way to Windsor, there was a "Help Wanted" sign at the Hydro office in Essex County. Anna Mae's father knew the man in charge and told him about Iain.

His name was Mr. Montgomery.

"And so Mr. Montgomery said 'If he's Irish, hire him'," recalled Anna Mae with a laugh.

Iain was hired.

It was 1951. Anna Mae was working for the summer at a grocery store in Leamington. When the boss offered her full-time work in September, she quit school. Her parents weren't happy about the decision, but Anna Mae had other plans – like getting married to a dashing Irishman and starting a family.

Anna Mae and Iain were married three years later at Olinda United Church, the same church where the couple had that first Thanksgiving dinner.

Accommodations were tight in those early days. Things became even more cramped with the arrival of Iain's parents, James and Agnes Starrett, from Ireland.

The four of them shared a small apartment in Essex County for six months. Soon, the young couple moved into their own house, a real fixer upper, but a necessity as far as Iain's father James (affectionately known as Papa) was concerned.

"Papa said there was no kitchen big enough for two women," explained Anna Mae.

Soon after, they bought Iain's parents a little house nearby. Life was good.

"Those were the happiest times ever," remembered Anna Mae, "when you sat on a nail keg and just had a orange crate for a table."

Papa even found work on a mushroom farm.

While Papa loved his job, his wife Agnes took a little longer to take in country living. Agnes had been raised in a different world, a privileged world. She had taught music and history. She was used to the finer things in life.

"They lived a sort of aristocratic life growing up. You never saw her without earrings and makeup."

Agnes had a real gift for music and at one time played with an orchestra in Glasgow. Even in the rural setting of Essex County, she was always dressed impeccably.

Soon, even Agnes began fitting in, teaching music to children and taking a special interest in one particular student.

Anna Mae's daughter, Laura Irene Starrett, was born Dec. 7, 1960. And Agnes had her playing piano by six-months of age.

Agnes even put on the occasional concert, but her biggest accomplishment was getting Papa to stop his growing indulgence with alcohol.

"They loved Canada," said Anna Mae with a smile on her face, "they just loved it."

So much so, that when Papa had gone home to Ireland for a visit, he returned two days later, lonesome, miserable and in need of his life in Canada.

The years passed along. Laura grew into a well-behaved young girl, Iain continued to work hard, and Anna Mae ran the home. But life can turn on a dime. In 1968, Agnes passed away. Papa was devastated and moved back in with Anna Mae and Iain. It was not a good time for anyone.

"When Mama (Agnes) died, he went to the bottle," explained Anna Mae, the pain still evident in her words.

Papa was drinking too much, and hanging out with the wrong people who only encouraged his bad habit.

Meanwhile, Iain was putting long hours in at Hydro. He had no idea how bad things had become and Anna Mae knew she had to step in. She was dealing with an alcoholic father-in-law and raising her daughter, now seven-years-old.

When Iain finally realized the severity, he gave his father an ultimatum.

"Iain told his father to stop drinking or you're out of the house."

His father took the ultimatum to heart and stopped.

Life fell back into a regular, comfortable routine for the Starrett family. Iain's job was paying well, but something was missing. Growing up in Ireland, the ocean was like a neighbour to Iain and he needed to recapture that feeling.

"He just wanted to be near water," said Anna Mae, "because in Ireland you're near water wherever you are."

In the spring of 1968, Iain was reading the Toronto Star newspaper and heard about a marina for sale in Rosedale on the Trent-Severn Waterway.

"Iain loved the water and wanted to build a marina," explained Anna Mae.

Though not her first choice, Anna Mae was happy to go along with her husband's dream.

Rosedale Marine and Tourist Court near Fenelon Falls, consisted of 10 cottages, and boat and motor rentals.

For Iain, the marina was love at first sight.  Anna Mae was not as enamoured.

"I don't know what you see," Anna Mae recalled telling her husband, "but all I can see is hard work."

She knew if Iain didn't get the marina, he would be "like a bear with a sore paw".

After some soul searching, she reasoned that if the marina business didn't work out, they were still young enough to start over.

They bought Rosedale Marine and Tourist Court in 1968.

The Starrett family were now marina owners and working around the clock. Iain loved hard work and had taken a small engine course so he could fix the motors on the boats.

As Anna Mae described it, Iain's life consisted of working for Hydro during the day, then "change hats and fix motors" in the evening.

It was long hours for him, but Iain never complained.

They also bought a house in nearby Fenelon Falls, a house big enough for the young couple, their daughter Laura, as well as Papa. It had to stay that way for the time being because the marina didn't have any accommodations for the new owners. And living in one of the marina's tiny cottages was out of the question.

Iain worked as hard as he could, but it was Anna Mae who soon became the unelected, under-appreciated boss of the marina that first season.

It was hard work, looking after the cottages, tending to the needs of guests, maintaining the rental boats, and running the grocery store.

"I was the guy that went after the parts," recalled Anna Mae. "I was the guy who went to National Grocers and ordered the groceries to put in the grocery store."

She was also the recreational director trying to keep 10 cottages full of guests happy and occupied.

"And if it was raining, it my fault. It was certainly a change from sheep to people, trying to please them."

On those days when it did rain or a motor boat was out of commission, Anna Mae would organize cards in the recreation room. She also had a ritual of offering tea and homemade treats every night at 8 p.m. for anyone who was interested.

If it was raining out, she would just make a big pot of soup.

"I would put a sign on the door. Come for a bowl of soup, 12 o'clock, and that of course would go over big."

Those rainy days also turned into knitting sessions where quilts were made and donated to fire victims at the nearby hospital.

Strangers soon became best friends and it wasn't unusual for visitors to reserve the same cottage for the same week, year after year, in order to meet up with the new friends they had made.

"You know, that is one of the best rewards you can get," said Anna Mae, "someone spending their holidays with you and saying 'next year we want to come back again'. I mean what could be better advertising then word of mouth like that?"

Iain loved life on the water, but the commute to his job in Essex County was getting to be too tiring. So much so, that one day he gave up his stable, well-paying job at Hydro to work construction in Fenelon Falls.

"I nearly died when he quit," recalled Anna Mae, like it happened yesterday.

But, like everything in their lives, things happened for a reason.

Before they knew it, he was offered a job with Hydro in Fenelon Falls – a good job with great benefits.

"It landed in his lap," said Anna Mae with a laugh.

But there was another surprise coming.

It was the first season at the marina and Anna Mae recalled going out for dinner with Iain in Peterborough. Maybe it was the Chinese food, but Anna Mae just didn't feel right. In fact, she felt really sick.

"If I didn't know better, I swore I was pregnant," remembered Anna Mae.

It turned out that she didn't know better. In the fall of 1968, after the first season at the marina, Anna Mae Starrett was once again pregnant. Halfway through the second season of running the marina, a baby boy named Jim was born in July 1969. But delivering a child didn't mean rest and relaxation for the marina boss.

"Well, I just felt like a Polish lady. I dropped the kid and the next thing you know I was making beds again and pumping out holding tanks, getting gas."

But she had a lot of help from her daughter Laura, who became the entrepreneur of the family.

At eight-years-of age, Laura ran the business. Laura did all the ordering and ran that store.

In return for all her hard work, Laura was given a currency that any young girl would love.

"She was allowed one thing out of the store each day," said Anna Mae.

Now, with two kids, they decided to build an apartment above the marina's main store.

Rosedale Marine and Tourist Court soon became their home and guests turned into family.

Old friends from Essex County would come up for vacation and Iain was loving every minute of his new life.

"He was in his glory and the people from down home, coming up for their holidays, they were wonderful."

Anna Mae also got a glimpse of the world while running the marina. To say it was a learning experience was an understatement. In more ways than one for Anna Mae, the country girl from Essex County.

For example, someone had to explain to Anna Mae why people would only want to rent a cottage for a few hours in the afternoon.

"And I said 'what in the name of thunder would they want it for three hours'," said Anna Mae laughing at the memory.

Iain was forced to give her a quick education.

"And I said 'you've got to be kidding'. But I'm telling you, I sure had my eyes opened."

A group from Toronto would come up and book weekends during the off season, which really helped the owners financially.

She remembered a woman named Ingrid who smoked cigars … a woman smoking.

"That was a real learning experience for me," admitted Anna Mae.

Another gentleman used to come up from Toronto with a variety of visitors. He told Anna Mae that his wife was coming up next weekend, and asked if Anna Mae would tell her daughter Laura that the woman that had been with him the previous weekend was his sister.

"And I said 'I'm not going to do your dirty work and get caught'."

Along with building the apartment above the store, Iain bought an acre of land and built a storage unit to store boats during the winter months.

They had a really good mechanic named Ralph to help with cottages, boats, motors and almost anything else that needed fixing.

"He wasn't good at school. I shouldn't say that," said Anna Mae slightly embarrassed, "but he wasn't big on the books. He was a hands-on guy."

But after six or seven years of running the marina, they knew it was time to move on and sold the business. The kids were getting older, Papa had since moved to a retirement home and eventually passed, and Iain was still working at Hydro. But after two years, "we got the damn thing back".

Part of the deal to sell the marina was that Iain would hold the mortgage. The deal went bad and once again they were marina owners

"That was mistake number one," said Anna Mae.

Things were OK when they first sold the marina, but by the third season the new owners were behind a few months on the mortgage.

Iain was willing to let them catch up, but not Anna Mae.

"He (Iain) said give them a chance, and I said 'who the hell gave us a chance when the mortgage was due?' We paid it."

The new owners had no idea how much work was involved in running a marina. The glamour faded quickly if you weren't willing to put in the hard work as well.

"They didn't do a thing. It was so rundown," said Anna Mae. "You have to put something back in."

Never one to take life easy, Iain had a new plan once the marina was finally sold for a second time and they "had lost plenty of money" in the process.

Once again, Iain roots were calling him back to his first love – animals.

They bought a farm in Cameron and rented out their home in Fenelon Falls. The Cameron property had a lovely house, but the farm had been neglected. Iain soon fixed what needed fixing and bought sheep and cattle.

"He absolutely loved it," recalled Anna Mae remembering the early days on the farm.

Things were going great for the family, until Sept. 21, 1981. Anna Mae remembered that day distinctly.

Iain said he was having chest pains and he needed to get to the hospital right away.

"And I said, 'You're not going in those farm clothes'. So I ran upstairs and got a pair of trousers and a shirt. Oh, I should have never, ever done that."

Iain had suffered a major heart attack. He was in the hospital for a week and spent six weeks recuperating at home.

Even though he continued working on the farm, Iain soon took heed from his cardiologist and retired. He was 56 years of age.

A simple solution to running the farm came in the form of a couple who were renting Anna Mae and Iain's home in Fenelon Falls. The renters moved into the farm, and Iain, Anna Mae, Laura and Jim moved back into the house in Fenelon Falls.

Now it was Anna Mae's turn to fulfill one of her dreams. She wanted to run a tea room.

Anna Mae went to the township office to see if a tea room in her home was legal. It was.

She then stopped at the health department, and then an accountant to see how to start up a business.

On the way home, she stopped at a store to see if she could buy some tables. She purchased four and

told Iain, "we are going to have a tea room and its going to be starting at the end of May".

It opened on the long weekend in May 1988 and according to Anna Mae "it was a howling success".

But her friends told her to charge more. After all, a cup of tea and a scone for one dollar? Or a choice of ham, ham and cheese or chicken salad sandwich for $1.25 a plate?

However, she wasn't doing it for the money. It was something she had always wanted to do, and she loved  it.

"The people in Fenelon were so good for coming," recalled Anna Mae.

For the first year, her tea room was opened seven days a week from 10 a.m. to  4 p.m.

But her daughter – now a young woman – told her mother she was working too hard.

Anna Mae agreed and slow down a bit…she took Mondays off.

A typical day for Anna Mae started at 5 a.m. with five hours of baking. By the time she was ready to open for business at 10 a.m., people were already waiting.

While she ordered sandwiches in, everything else was homemade.

On a daily basis, Anna Mae baked cinnamon buns, at least five dozen scones, three types of soda bread, sponge cake and muffins.

"And believe you me, I was in running shoes from 5 in the morning until 10."

But the business didn't come without a few learning lessons along the way, like the fact that plastic chairs and throw rugs aren't always the best match.

She recalls one incident when a larger-size customer walked through the door.

"This big heifer came in and the legs (on the plastic chair) snapped. She cracked her head on a piece of furniture."

Luckily, the "heifer" was OK and there was no lawsuit, but that was end of plastic chairs.

She purchased metal chairs and painted them white.

And while she thrived as the tea lady, Iain was busy with his hobby farm, known as Erin Acres. Quality breeding for quality production. Iain had llamas, ponies, pygmy goats, Scottish black face sheep, four-horned Jacob sheep, peacocks, and geese. It really became a family affair.

Anna Mae also took a folk art course at Sir Stanford Fleming College in Lindsay and held folk art classes in her home. While the women enjoyed tea and talk, their kids could hang outside and play with the animals. Iain even added a basketball hoop for the kids.

The tea room ran successfully for about six years from the Victoria Day weekend to Thanksgiving. By 1994, Iain and Anna Mae were getting tired of all the hard work and decided to take life easier. She also became a proud parent once again…well sort of.

Anna Mae remembered this one particular lamb named Judy. It weighed in at about a pound and a half when it was born. Too little to survive, she made the lamb her house pet until it could fend for itself.

Initially, it slept downstairs by the furnace, but it was terribly lonely. Soon it was sleeping in a box upstairs and followed Anna Mae everywhere.

Iain even made a harness for the lamb, so the kids could take it to school for show and tell.

However, everything must come to an end. Anna Mae said it was time for her pet to move out when she caught the lamb up on the kitchen table with one hoof in the butter dish.

"He was sent outside to live with his sisters".

But with the good, comes the bad and 1998 was a sad year in Anna Mae's life. The love of her life, her husband, passed away.

Heart broken, she lived in Fenelon Falls for another three years, but her world had changed so drastically. It was also a period in her life when shed faced her own setbacks. She lived through open-heart surgery – something she admits she couldn't have gotten through without the support and love of good friends.

But living in a big house by herself was simply too much.

"It was so lonely in Fenelon," said Anna Mae. "I couldn't stay another winter."

She decided to move to Uxbridge. It made sense and her daughter Laura was living nearby in Mount Albert .

When Laura's family decided to move to Uxbridge, Anna Mae followed in 2000.

She now lives in an upscale senior's residence. She has friends, a daughter nearby, a son in Barrie and happiness.

"It seems like it was meant to be because everything just went so right."


Anna Mae Starrett passed away peacefully in November 2013 during the writing of this story


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