The volunteer work of local women was the leading edge of health care, education and public works in rural communities. Here’s one change maker’s story

Though less than five miles separates Portaupique Mountain from Bass River’s Riverside Cemetery, Rachel Elizabeth Cooke cut a remarkable and elegant swath before those two points were eventually encircled with a lifetime that spanned most of the 20th Century.

In 1900, when Rachel was born, the population of Nova Scotia was about 459,000 and all of Canada’s was a sparse 5,301,000.1 Sixty-three per cent of all Canadians lived in rural areas that year2 while Boston, for which Nova Scotians had special affinity, was America’s fifth largest city with a population of 561,000.3 It was the urban centre that attracted many from Nova Scotia for salaried employment. Portaupique Mountain, if it boasted at all, was home to possibly two hundred people employed in subsistence farming and lumbering. Even the local shoemaker probably kept a cow and put in a garden toward the support of his own family.

In Her Heyday

Mitchell Cooke, his wife Margaret Giddens Cooke, their daughter Rachel E. Cooke, about 1914. –Rachel Cooke Wilson Collection

At Rachel’s birth her father, Mitchell Cooke, was aged sixty two and already the father of eight grown children, while her mother, Margaret Giddens, was a mere twenty year old. Whatever eyebrows were raised about this December-May marriage, relatives from both families took it all in stride and Rachel grew up as an only-child. The Cooke family had not yet moved to Bass River when their house on Portaupique Mountain caught fire. No running water in houses then; nor a fire department to call or trucks to rush in with pumps and hoses. Rachel as a 14 year old remembered gathering up the winter coats and purses before escaping the house with her parents. Practical child, we might surmise. No surprise, either, that some forty years later, Rachel would become a key player in establishing a permanent fire department in the Bass River area.

“Some Cookes add the ‘e’ to their names and others don’t, even in the same family. Why is that?” Rachel was asked. Her father was one of those adding and subtracting the ‘e’ at various stages in his life. Rachel laughed, “My father used to say it depended on whether or not it was popular to be considered Irish!”

With the forty-year difference in the ages of Rachel’s parents, it’s natural that her mother would still be young when she was widowed. She was known already in the district as a midwife and practical nurse, so following the Halifax Explosion in 1917, Margaret was called to Truro, one of the outlying towns that offered shelter and care for survivors. Tincture of iodine, bandages and shelter were the most that could be offered in those days. The explosion occurred in that war-time December when two ships, one packed with explosives, collided in Halifax Harbor. One ship was blown to smithereens, a huge chunk of its anchor thrown two miles across the city. Hardly a pane of glass remained intact while 9,000 people just barely remained intact and some 2,000 not at all. Many people assumed that the war in Europe had just descended on the city of Halifax. Reverberations were felt as far away as sixty miles.

Many years later, when Rachel was in her eighties, she was asked “How did you hear the news about the Titanic?” A symbol of the modern century, touted as unsinkable, the Titanic was the luxury ocean liner that set off from Belfast April 10th 1912 on its maiden voyage to New York. On the moonless night of April 14-15th 1912, it hit an iceberg near Newfoundland and in less than three hours more than 1,500 people had perished. Confidence in modern technology suffered a stunning blow. Rachel was only eleven that April and she thought the news was circulated at church. In those days, especially in out-of-the-way communities, the church was a reporter of world events as well as a social centre and the authoritative source on the verities of life.