Manitoulin couple donates historical items to Dionne Quints museum

Gaston and Louise Begin of Manitowaning pose with the Dionne family carriage and sleigh which are now housed at the Dionne Quintuplet Museum in North Bay.

MANITOWANING – It might be difficult for most Canadians to grasp just how big a deal the 1934 birth, survival and subsequent lives of the five children known as the Dionne Quintuplets was in the depths of the Great Depression, but interest in their lives consumed much of the globe and attracted visitors to their government-built home in Corbeil including the likes Jimmy Stewart and James Cagney.

The Dionne quintuplets, all identical girls, were the first quintuplets known to have survived their infancy. The identical girls were born just outside Callander, near the village of Corbeil—and all five survived into adulthood.

Gaston and Louise Begin of Manitowaning were vaguely familiar with the story when they came across a horse-drawn carriage and sleigh owned by the Dionne family when they stopped at a trading post on their way to North Bay some 20 years ago. “My husband saw them for sale,” said Ms. Begin. “There was an American fellow who was interested in buying them.”

The couple became alarmed at the idea that two items so closely related to the Dionne quintuplets’ family could be lost to Canada and decided to purchase them. The couple recently decided to pass the items onto the Dionne Quintuplet Museum in North Bay at a nominal cost.

“We knew about the Dionne quints, of course, sort of how you knew about Elvis Presley,” said Ms. Begin. “I had collected antiques for some time, mostly farm machinery,” said Mr. Begin. “It seemed the right thing to add to my collection.”

The carriage and sleigh remained on their property, first in the family home on a farm in Rodney, and then in Manitowaning for 10 years when the couple moved there, until they recently decided to sell their Manitowaning home and build a new house.

After buying the items, the couple learned more about the life and times of the Dionne quintuplets—especially the scandal of the government intervention at the time. “We read a lot about it,” said Mr. Begin. “The children were taken by the Ontario government and used a lot,” said Ms. Begin.

The pair of horse-drawn vehicles were owed by the relatively wealthy Dionne family, father Oliva-Édouard Dionne and his wife Elzire, with the carriage serving as the couple’s conveyance to the church on the occasion of their wedding. The Dionnes had nine other children, besides the quintuplets, including three sons born after them.

Four months after the birth of the quintuplets, overseen by Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe OBE and two midwives, Douilda (Donalda) Legros (an aunt) and Benoît Lebel, Dr. Dafoe was largely credited with the successful birth and became rich largely due to his association with the quints.

In fact, the first three quints were born under the guidance of the midwives, with the doctor arriving for the final two births.

“He was the one who was responsible for the government taking them away from their family,” alleged Ed Valanti, the chair of the Dionne Quintuplet Museum in North Bay, the new home of the pieces.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about the Dionne family,” supplied Mr. Valanti, a North Bay real estate broker. “They were not in any sense poor, that was part of the government narrative when they took the children, but Mr. Dionne owned a large farm and, unusual for the time, a car. In fact, he used the car to go and bring the doctor when the children were being born.”

Despite the credit lauded upon Dr. Dafoe for the successful births and survival of the children, Mr. Valanti said that the doctor originally expressed the belief that the children would not live out the night and had gone home after the births, only to become reengaged a couple of days later once he realized that the children were actually surviving—it was an historical first.

The children remained in government care, living and playing in a u-shaped building constructed by the government in order to showcase the international celebrities as part of a theme park-like existence—dubbed Quintland. Over three million visitors came to gaze upon one of the human wonders of the world—including movies stars like James Cagney and Jimmy Stewart, even aviator Emilia Earheart stopped in to see them on her around the world trip just a few weeks before the famed pilot disappeared over the Pacific Ocean and it was Corn Flakes inventor W. K. Kellogg who dubbed their birth “the eighth wonder of the world.” The world couldn’t get enough of them and three movies along with numerous product endorsements followed. Their toy sales actually pushed Shirley Temple to second place in 1936.

The quints are credited with pulling North Bay out of the doldrums of the Great Depression five years before the rest of the nation.

“If you couldn’t find a job in North Bay in 1935, you weren’t trying,” asserted Mr. Valanti.

The children returned home to the farm when they reached the age of nine, but the pampering they enjoyed as celebrities had left them somewhat jaded when it came to the life of French-Canadian farm children with the chores that accompanied that role, according to Mr. Valanti.  

The five quintuplets were: Yvonne Édouilda Marie Dionne (died 2001); Annette Lillianne Marie Allard (living); Cécile Marie Émilda Langlois (living); Émilie Marie Jeanne Dionne (died 1954); and Marie Reine Alma Houle (died 1970).

The Dionne Quintuplet Museum was successfully moved to North Bay when its existence became threatened and the foundation that oversees the board has been shifting some of the focus onto the family itself, making the donation of the carriage and sleigh particularly timely.

“We are very happy the carriage and sleigh will stay in Canada and be looked after properly,” said Ms. Begin, who admitted the couple could have secured more money for the items on the open market, something with which Mr. Valanti heartily concurred. 

Both items have been kept indoors over the past several decades leaving them in remarkable condition.

The Dionne Quints Museum can be found at 181 Oak St West in North Bay.