Historians impart lessons from winters past to illuminate and warm the dark and frigid season

by Isobel Harry

MANITOULIN—Stories abound on Manitoulin and, thankfully, many are recorded in the locally written, often spiral bound, community histories. There are dozens of books, too, that celebrate and preserve times gone by on the Island in prose, poetry and photos. Never less than colourful and engrossing tales of local folklore, these accounts, in varying assortments, are available in libraries and wherever books are sold, and are great resources for the curious searchers and amateur historians among us.

Browse any of these tomes and you’ll find many descriptions of the hardships of winters past, lives lost while crossing the ice for scarce supplies, lives lived in tiny floorless and frozen homes by the light of coal-oil lamps. If you think getting the snow tires put on is a chore, consider the days when there were no snowplows and you took the horse and sleigh to town because your car, if you had one, would never make it.

John McQuarrie, an historian who lives in Gore Bay and has written several volumes of local history, such as ‘The Early Days of the Manitoulin District,’ ‘The Early Years of Gore Bay,’ ‘Whiskey Smugglers of the North Channel,’ ‘True Tall Tales of Algoma-Manitoulin’ and many others, remembers the delightful scene that was Gore Bay’s main street on Saturdays in winter. “The streets were alive. All the rural families came into town on horse-drawn sleighs that day to shop and visit. The only stores were in the town. There was a barter system then so that in exchange for firewood, eggs or butter people could get the goods they needed from the merchants.” Once back home with meat from the “two or three” butcher shops in town, it would be stored outside, perhaps in an icebox, with ice cut from the bay.

Three livery stables operated to take care of the horses while women shopped and men visited one of the five hotels that operated in Gore Bay at the time (the Queen’s, Red Onion, Ocean House, Atlantic and Pacific). “The street was busy with horses coming and going, and sometimes they’d become out of control and run away; there could be serious accidents, such as when two runaway horses got caught in the gas pumps at Charlie’s Shell which started a fire that killed one of the horses. But we kids would often hitch a ride on the runners of the sleighs leaving town, and drag our toboggans along behind us. When we got to the top of the hill, we’d toboggan down, across Meredith Street and right onto the ice in the bay.”

Life was difficult compared to the ease we experience today, and John McQuarrie recalls seeing the doctor arrive at the house in winter in a car that had sleigh runners in front and tank tracks in back instead of tires. “He could get around more easily that way,” says the historian, “and when he had to operate on a patient at home, he’d take a headlamp from his car to light the table.”

But there were plentiful diversions and Mr. McQuarrie remembers, especially his childhood escapades. “In those days, we didn’t look to someone to suggest what to do. After chores on Saturdays, you’d go with the boys skating on the bay. We’d go sledding or skiing on the many ski trails around the town, including one each down the East and West Bluffs. There was a rink that was privately owned by the McGills and we’d skate there.”

Youth and adults all went to the same dances, often with music by the Gore Bay Orchestra in the community hall. “There was a violinist, drums, horns, my sister Kaye was the pianist,” says Mr. McQuarrie. “There were many bootleggers operating then. We’d go to a dance in Spring Bay and buy a bottle from the bootlegger who lived next door. We’d stick it in a snowbank outside while we went into the dance.”

John McQuarrie met his wife, Arlene McGibbon of Silver Water, when he worked at his uncle’s bakery (Mac’s) and she worked across the street at the bank. He recalls his first thought when he saw her: stunning. They soon married and would spend Christmas day having an early dinner in Silver Water with her parents and family and a later dinner at his parents’ home in Gore Bay. “There was a lot of visiting going on in Silver Water, everyone dropping in. In those days, if you got an apple, an orange and maybe a little candy at Christmas you were lucky. At our parents’ home, we had a full table of family, everything was homemade, Christmas pudding being my favourite.” During one winter at their Tolsmaville home on Cockburn Island, they set up a lone Christmas tree outside and hung lights. “There were four people on the Island. I still remember looking out the window at our tree all decorated and lit up and we felt the true meaning of Christmas there, despite being almost totally alone. We had to make do, we had to get along, and we did.”

In Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve, Al Shawana, an historian who is now 82, recalls his own youthful winters: “People took shortcuts in horse-pulled sleighs across the ice of Manitowaning Bay to get to the stores in Manitowaning. There were no stores then and no cars in Wikwemikong. Trails led to the bay in those days, to all over, you could sled over to Killarney.”

At home, Al Shawana’s family heated the house with wood. “We cut long logs after dragging them from the bush with horses. It was easier to haul wood in winter over the snow. We didn’t have chainsaws, we used a Swede saw to cut the wood at the end of the day, when it was dark. We used coal-oil lanterns for light and the wood stove for heating water and cooking. Toilets were outdoors.”

But the long winter darkness brought particular pleasures, too. There was “lots of wild food,” says Mr. Shawana, “deer, rabbit and fish caught from holes in the ice. We had fresh scone baking, and drank natural tea from leaves and twigs we had picked and stored.”

In those days, people dropped in to visit in the evenings. “Today, people don’t know their neighbours, especially in urban centres. But we would all get together when I was young, people made homemade crafts together, bark and quill work. Birch bark can only be harvested once in a year, around June and early July, and we’d dye the porcupine quills different colours. The whole family was involved, we were wholesalers and sold to buyers in Manitowaning and Little Current. We made baskets and moccasins for extra money then and these crafts are now in museums such as the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa [now the Canadian Museum of History].”

After the long cold days of hard work, adds the historian, “music was a big part of the household. There were many talented musicians who would play instruments, the violin in particular. Many stories were told around the woodstove, stories of our mythology. The two most-often repeated stories were Bearwalker and Nanabush tales. Nanabush stories were entertaining but they also gave lessons. Bearwalker stories let people know these negative things existed and taught that they could be warded off by holy men who could use medicine with positive power to heal.”

There is much we can learn from our history and the resilient ways of our ancestors in winter. Perhaps the greatest lesson is that it can be much simpler than we think to entertain ourselves and enjoy the holiday season. John McQuarrie remembers taking his wife Arlene by the hand as they headed out to spend the winter of 2001 on Cockburn Island. His words resonate today as we seek a small measure of comfort and joy in this season of darkness and icy cold: “Come, my dear, grow old with me, the rest of life is yet to be.”