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Joe Tomes – by Carolyn Wilker

January 31, 2012

Little Joe worked for my grandparents, Will and Ardena, on their farm when my mom was just a kid. We have no record of the years he worked there, and my grandparents who would have recorded his wages are no longer available to ask. Whether my mother, middle child in a family of eight children, was one of the big kids in this story, I don’t know. The story was recorded by her older sister Doris in a local history book, Country Roads: The Story of South Easthope (1827–2000). This is my retelling of Little Joe.

The man’s name was Joe Tomes. He was “real old” as the kids would say, “about as old as our Dad.” Joe came from a poor family in England, came as a “home boy”, and he worked for his keep. Little Joe was often lonesome for the folks back ‘ome. He was called Little Joe because of his size, and he worked as a hired man. He slopped the hogs, shovelled manure and milked the cows, and was a great help on the farm. Joe teased the kids, and they teased him in return.
Joe chewed tobacco. Did I mention that he didn’t have any teeth? The wad inside his mouth seemed to grow bigger and bigger. You can imagine the juice dribbling down his chin. Gross!
My grandma was against drinking and smoking. Even Grandpa had to drink his beer warm—and outside. Little Joe was not smokin’ it, he was chewin’ it, but he was not allowed to bring this wad into the house, nor set it at his place at the kitchen table. Grandma ran a clean house. So Little Joe left it on the ledge inside the garage, just outside the kitchen door, when he came in for meals.
As happens in families, the big kids ask to be excused from the supper table at the end of a meal. They know Little Joe’s habits. He’d talk awhile about his folks back ‘ome and their father would talk about the price of hogs or world news while they drank their tea or coffee. Joe would leave the kitchen before their father. There was time.
These “trained-to-be-good kids” found some long sticks. They poked at this juicy wad gone dry. They would never think of touching it with their bare hands. They separated the drying mass with long sticks, then sprinkled it with black pepper from a shaker someone had snuck into a pocket of his overalls when his mother wasn’t looking. They closed up the wad with the sticks and betook themselves into hiding around the side of the garage. They knew Little Joe would linger in the garage to get the wad working again before heading off to the barn to do his evening chores.
Pretty soon they’d hear the squeaky springs of the kitchen door, the soft slam as it closed against the frame, the quick footsteps down the wooden stairs, unlike the heavy ones of their father. There was quiet, and then from inside the garage came a spluttering and a cursin’. Another thing their mother wouldn’t allow.
Little Joe coughed and sneezed, sputtered then cursed again. When he recovered, he would say in his English accent, “You’re little buggas, but I love you anyways.”


Carolyn Wilker is a writer, editor and teacher. Visit her at

Note: No pictures of Joe Tomes are available. This little story is important because it may be the only one ever told about him. (Rose McCormick Brandon)

Next Story: Isaac Foskett by Lisa Hall-Wilson

5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2012 9:55 pm

    The Dear Canada series has a book called “Orphan at My Door; The Home Child Diary of Victoria Cope,” written by Jean Little (who lives in Guelph, Ontario). Like all the Dear Canada series, it is fiction based heavily on Canadian history and the book has a lot of historical notes at the back. Jean Little mentions she met a former Home Child named Ethel Crane in 2000 when Ethel was 102.

    I also knew Ethel Crane when I worked as charge nurse for a while at the retirement/nursing home where Ethel lived in the 1990’s. Ethel was a sweet, gentle soul and I liked her a lot. Ethel was separated from her two siblings when she arrived in Canada as a Home Child (I believe she was about 11 or 12 years old). Years later she was able to reconnect with her siblings.

    I have always been fascinated by the Barnardo Children as they were also called.

    • February 3, 2012 1:34 pm

      I didn’t know Jean Little wrote a home child book. I met Jean at a writers event in Toronto a couple of years ago, bought two of her books, which she signed, for my grandchildren. Isn’t it interesting that you should meet the same woman that prompted Jean to write the story? You wouldn’t happen to have a photo of Ethel would you? You could share your memories of her and we could post her picture as one of our featured children. Just write as much as you know about her. I’ll be sure to mention Jean’s book on the blog and I’d like to find a copy of it for my library. I’m so happy to hear from you. Rose

  2. February 3, 2012 7:38 pm

    I’m afraid I don’t have a photo. And I don’t know much else about her. There is a photo of Ethel at about age 11 or 12 in the back of Jean Little’s book. Ethel’s little sister and brother are in the photo as well. I guess one would have to contact Jean Little and talk to her about it. She has a contact button on her website at If you would like me to follow this up I don’t mind. But she might be interested in your website.

    Diana Holvik

    • February 3, 2012 7:42 pm

      Diana – I didn’t realize this message was from you. I’ll check into the Jean Little book and see if I can find one. It would be nice if you could write a couple of paragraphs about Ethel. You don’t need to know all about her past, just tell your personal experience with her and whatever else you may happen to know. And include the connection with Jean Little – that’s pure Canadiana . . .

      Rose McCormick Brandon Professional Member of The Word Guild Listening to My Hair Grow: The Promise of Home, Stories of British Home Children:



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