New-ish to Manitoulin: Wilda Thomas and Beatrice Baxter

Wilda Thomas and Beatrice Baxter

EDITOR’S NOTE: Manitoulin is being transformed with the influx of new residents and business owners who bring with them fresh ideas, experiences and perspectives that are enriching the area. Some individuals and families are still unpacking boxes, having only moved in the past month or two, while others made the over the last few years and are now comfortably established in their new communities. Here are some of their stories.

Wilda Thomas and Beatrice Baxter

by Heather Marshall

When sisters Wilda Thomas and Beatrice Baxter left Manitoulin roughly 50 years ago, they swapped country life for city living where they believed their future happiness and best opportunities lie.

Beatrice had no intention of making the Island her permanent home. “I left Manitoulin at 17 and vowed never to return,” she says. “I initially went to Toronto for several years before marrying my high school sweetheart from South Baymouth, Blaine Baxter. He was in the Air Force, so we moved around the country for most of our 44 years of marriage, primarily throughout western Canada.” When Blake retired in 2003, they settled down in Callander, Ontario near North Bay.

In addition to raising two sons and working in occupations ranging from sales and management to insurance agent over the years, Beatrice earned a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in her “spare” time. All this while also dealing with an escalating assortment of health issues following a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 1985. 

Wilda followed in her city-bound footsteps, moving to Winnipeg to study interior design at the University of Manitoba at the age of 19. She spent her first few years in the workforce in Sault Ste. Marie engaged in programming during the early days of electronic cash registers. That experience motivated her to complete an MBA at the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, where she would go on to live for 39 years. 

Wilda moved into the corporate world where she was employed in the marketing department of Canada Post for three years. A co-worker she met there, who also did wholesale picture framing, encouraged her to work with him to establish a retail store. In 1987, anxious to run her own business, she became a business partner in Creative Art & Frame.  In 2013, after 26 years, Wilda renovated her house and moved “Creative,” which now had a roster of 7,000 commercial and retail clients, into the new studio space.

Unlike her sister, Wilda always saw herself returning to Manitoulin. “My plan was to live on the Island in summers and travel in the winter months, but I hadn’t planned to do it for a few more years.” That swiftly changed in 2020, when she stumbled across a Facebook page, “Manitoulin Properties for Sale”, and saw a house for sale in Gore Bay that brought back a flood of warm memories. 

“I knew this house and its original owners, Fred and Pauline Smith, who owned Smith’s store in Gore Bay. As a child, my aunt delivered eggs to the house whenever we came into town,” Wilda explains.  

Wilda closed the deal to purchase the property in late September 2020 but was unable to land a contractor who could take on the extensive renovations she wanted to do.  The delay turned out to be a blessing in disguise because, by the time she landed Shane Eadie of Gateway Construction to begin work this past spring, the value of her London home had soared and she quickly sold above asking price.  

The additional time also allowed for dramatic changes to the renovation plans after Wilda showed Beatrice photos of the Gore Bay home. “Beatrice said ‘I’ll throw something in from left field, how about if I move up with you?’”

An exacerbation of Beatrice’s MS condition in 2017 left her wheelchair bound. By that time a widow, following Blaine’s death in 2014, she had spent several years living in Stratford and later in Guelph with her son Darren.  In early March 2020 she moved to a retirement home in Carleton Place outside Ottawa to be close to her younger son, Jeff.  Days later, COVID-19 struck and, for all its charms and benefits, the home proved not to be an ideal living location.

So, the siblings began planning a major rebuild and addition to the original house to make it disability friendly. Beatrice now has her own self-contained suite within the larger property that also provides Wilda with ample space to continue to run her business from home.

“We have never lived together before, as we were raised by relatives,” discloses Wilda. “But we have maintained close family connections and bonded through our travels together and are really compatible.”

Since moving back to Manitoulin, both women are reconnecting with family and friends, some dating back to their youth. Wilda frequently sees her friends from high school days, Willa Wilson and Wanda Nighswander, as well as beloved relatives.  

The siblings are especially delighted to be living close to their other sister, Norma Thomas, who also moved back to the Island four years ago after spending over 30 years in the London and Chatham areas. Norma and her partner, Rick, moved into and have since renovated her father’s former home in Sandfield. 

“In some ways it is like moving to a new place as I have been gone so long,” says Beatrice. “There are so many changes on the Island and lot of new people, so it will take a bit of time to adjust but I know it will work out.”

“For me, moving back is a homecoming,” adds Wilda, “My family, friends and new neighbours have been so supportive. Everyone seems genuinely excited by the renovations and the vision that we have for this new time in our lives.  I feel really blessed.”

Heather Marshall and her husband worked as journalists and consultants in the National Capital Region before making their Sandfield cottage their permanent home.  If you would like to share your story or know of recent arrivals we should meet, send a message to hmarshall@videotron.ca.