Ellen Eff

While there were many men who worked at the Tillsonburg newspapers, women also played important roles in putting out the news. One of the most memorable women who worked for the Tillsonburg News was self-proclaimed local historian, Ellen Eff.

Born Helen Fribicer, she changed her name to Ellen Eff after she started working for the Tillsonburg News. Ellen’s father was a farmer in Vienna, Ontario and she grew up there and then moved to Tillsonburg to attend the Business College. Her parents followed and they lived together on Broadway.

 

Ellen attended the Tillsonburg Business College in 1950 and was instrumental in setting up their paper. She served as editor on two papers, donated to the museum, which both featured her poetry, a talent that she honed throughout her life, later self-publishing several poetry books.

It was through the Business College, that Ellen got her job at the Tillsonburg News. A letter from 1952, written by L. A. Herron, principal of the Business College, states in a post script , “did you have an opportunity to work on a newspaper last week. I sent a gentleman to see you. Kindly let me know if you took the position.”

At her time in the paper, Ellen filled many roles, she was a reporter, women’s editor, and also a prolific photographer. Her most interesting role came during her time working for the Tillsonburg News but happened outside of work hours. 

Ellen’s description of her role of town historian is best described by Ellen herself in the 1997, Tillsonburg 125th Supplement to the Tillsonburg News, printed on May 23.

“Tillsonburg this year marks the 125th anniversary of its incorporation as a town, and that it has reached this milestone is of considerable interest to me. I know the pertinent facts, all the historic data pertaining to its early development and growth, for as it happens, I’ve had the rare privilege of being the town’s first historian.

This happenstance came about some four decades ago when I was a newspaper reporter-photographer on the editorial staff of the Tillsonburg News, the News Printing Co. Ltd., then located at 136 Broadway.

As a journalist actively involved in the town’s present activities, it wasn’t long before I wanted to be informed about its past history, and as no historical information was available anywhere, I began my own research.

 

On a shelf near my desk in the editorial room I place a bound book of the Tillsonburg Observer (forerunner of The Tillsonburg News) and, when time permitted, I took notes on “happenings” in Tillsonburg during its formative years. I delved through one volume after another, from page to page, line after line, from where I garnered a few lines of facts at a time, and thusly, over, a 10-year period, I managed to collect a treasury of local lore.

 

This activity came to impose a new duty on me for it inspired the editor, W. J. Pratt, to run a weekly column Yesterday’s News, which he assigned me to do. The column ran for years on the editorial page where I used for the first time some of my painstaking research material.

 

Then J.C.R. McKnight, editor-in-chief, asked me to put in writing the first 100 years of Tillsonburg, the historical sketch to be released in book form in conjunction with the centennial of the newspaper, and I consented. On my own time I began to write what came to be Hamlet On The Otter but as it was the first history book ever on Tillsonburg, I felt I needed more info than I had so far collected. To accomplish this feat, which turned out to be a three-year stint, daily, one hour before the start of my working day at The News office, with notebook and pencil in hand, I would hurry up the ladder to the “morgue” upstairs. There in the small stuffy room where innumerable volumes of The Liberal and the Tillsonburg Observer awaited me, volume by volume, I leafed through every page and scanned every line, where the march of events of early Tillsonburg were recorded. I took notes and as the pages of the earlier editions, brown with age, crumbled at the slightest touch, all in all, it was a most formidable task and time-consuming. Nevertheless it was worthwhile for I ended up with my notebooks filled with notes based on actual accounts of what transpired here in earlier days which I regarded as truly apropos for use in what was to be the foremost history book on Tillsonburg, Hamlet On The Otter.

Next six months I spent every spare moment preparing Hamlet On The Otter for publication, and was quite taken back by surprise when I was asked to prepare the manuscript pages for print myself!

The News rented an Underwood Raphael (a model with  Linotype type) and I got started with it, learning to type it seemed all over again for it was so different from the Underwood I pounded day after day.

So now I commenced to arrive at The News office two hours early each day, worked through my noon hours, and stayed after work when I had no night assignment so I could learn to type better on it and how to justify the lines which was required. After three weeks of this ordeal I was told I had three days to complete typing the master pages hence, allowed to stay home where with much enthusiasm and determination I finished typing up the manuscript pages from which Hamlet On The Otter was printed.

Thus, Hamlet On The Otter, the original standard history book on Tillsonburg, a 58-page book, compiled in chronological order, and liberally illustrated with photographs reprinted from old prints (all searched out prior too), was published on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Tillsonburg News (July 1863-July 1963). It went to press in 1963 on the 15th of August, my birthdate! That unexplained phenomenon I took to be a good omen which proved to be so for comments on Hamlet On The Otter after its publication were extremely favourable. I especially recall those of a prominent lawyer, a descendant of pioneers here: and that of a young student at Teacher’s College, London, who stopped me on the street one day with the words “You don’t know what you’ve done for me!” and excitedly explained that due to my history book, she received full marks on her paper on her hometown.

Although Hamlet On The Otter is presently out of print, first edition copies exist in all libraries in the tri-County area, as well as a copy I donated, still on the shelf at the Tillsonburg Public Library, which to my delight I discovered recently has been re-bound with a new hard cover to preserve it. 

Hamlet On The Otter is noted to have initiated and inspired two historical works, namely Earliest Tillsonburg (J. I. Cooper 1980) and Tillsonburg – A History (J. I Cooper and John Armstrong 1985).

After publication of Hamlet On The Otter, a women’s magazine Chatelaine (published in Toronto) published a photo-story on my accomplishment and after the story appeared in an issue I received a request from Mrs. Mollie Gillen, associate editor. She wanted me to inform her readers on how to write a history of a community, and in my write-up I wrote that I had no “magic formula” but mentioned what had worked for me as referred to as the “five I’s”: Inspiration (reason for wanting to); Initiative (the will to take the time and effort for it takes both); Information (knowing what to look for and where); Interpretive Intelligence (having some know how what to do with notes, notes, notes); Interest (to see the project through to the very end)."

Ellen was actively involved in the early days of the museum and even wrote a song about Tillsonburg for the Town’s 100th anniversary. A large collection of documentary artifacts, donated to the museum in 2014, illustrates her time at The Tillsonburg News, her involvement with St. Mary’s Church, and her role in documenting Tillsonburg in the past and her present. A passionate individual, Ellen’s contributions enriched the Tillsonburg News and also the community it served.

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