Rhea Woods happily grew up in the Gore Bay area of Manitoulin and went on to raise her own family there as well. As a grandchild of Haweaters, she has earned her rite of passage. Her husband Marvin was Gore Bay’s mayor for a number of years. Rhea’s entrepreneurial family held prominent commercial properties, including a meat market, a grocery store, a restaurant, a jewellery store and laundromat. These commercial pursuits have helped this Manitoulin town grow over five decades.
“My dad, Ray Witty, was one of 13—10 boys and three girls. All were born on Barrie Island. My mother Mary was a Campbell. I am not aware of my European heritage, only that our names suggest an Irish, Scottish and English heritage.” In 2000, Rhea was selected to be ‘Mother of the Year’ in Gore Bay. Four years later, she earned more credentials as ‘Citizen of the Year.’
Rhea was born to Mary and Ray Witty, in Mills Township, on May 19, 1931. She was the youngest of four children. Her siblings were Jean, Harry and Alex. “My mother was a school teacher and she knew someone named Rhea. The name also sounded a bit like my dad’s name, ‘Ray.’ “Perhaps that’s why I felt especially close to my dad and wanted to follow him everywhere.”
When she was three, Rhea and her family moved to Seventh Line in Gordon Township. “Our uncle, mum’s brother, had been running the family farm. He had just died of cancer so we took over the Nelson Campbell farm and joined our grandparents by moving into the seven–bedroom home.”
“My first cherished memory is the beautiful red sleigh I got for Christmas. My dad had managed to hide the sleigh in the workshop, despite my following him everywhere. I had no inkling of the gift awaiting me on December 25,” Rhea explains. “It was a real surprise. I took real good care of the sled and many years later, my brother gave it to his kids.”
“The first day of school stands out too because our teacher, Dick Clark, asked us to draw three little pigs. He was new at his job. Our previous teacher had gone to war and he hadn’t returned. They had declared him missing.”
“I liked school, especially drawing, for which I got lots of stars. Writing was alright but I disliked geography.” Years later Rhea reminded Mr. Clark about having to draw three pigs on her first day and he laughed heartedly at the recollection.”
“All our dogs were called ‘Teddy.’ One Teddy would often walk us to school. Perhaps he knew when to come back from the distant chattering. He would often be waiting for us, especially in the winter. There were huge snow drifts in Gordon Township in those years. “I can still see my brother and I stepping over telephone wires on top of those huge snow drifts.” I also remember spraining my ankle and being carried home a few times from school. It seems I couldn’t resist jumping from the wood pile.”
Occasionally, Rhea would have a pet lamb to nurture. Sometimes a mother rejects a baby and then the young lass would take over feeding it with an old square vanilla bottle. “The nipple fit perfectly on top. Dad would fence in a separate area for the orphan babies to keep them safe. I idolized my dad. By the time I was 10, he had taught me to rake the hay with the big fork.”
“Each evening, it was my job to collect the cattle from the field on the other side of the street. I was accompanied by my pet lamb and Teddy, our border-cross.” When Rhea got the cows back to the barn, she would help milk them and assist with cutting the turnip for the cattle. The young farmer would also help her dad take care of the pigs and the chickens and she helped fill the cream cans for pick-up. “I managed to stay out of the kitchen, much preferring the outside work with my dad.”
“We had a big apple orchard; including red crabs, Whitney crabs, larger Dutchies and Macintosh apples. These were closer to the house near the sour apples and the cherries. Occasionally mother would ask me to fetch two sour apples so she could make icing for a cake. I loved the fruit and could often be found perched on a branch feasting on apples. Once I fell from a high branch and broke my tail bone.”
“I was always afraid of bears and spiders. I still shiver when I recall the time my mother chastised me and locked me in the basement. That was not an unusual punishment for parents to bestow at the time. There was no electricity yet, so the basement was really dark. I was so terrified that I cringed and stayed on the top step. I imagined spiders all around me and a big bear coming for me.”
“Years later I told my mother how I had felt and she was mortified that she had chosen this method of punishment. ‘Why didn’t you tell me about your fears?’ she asked. Strangely enough, she had the same fears so that made her feel even worse at the time.”
School ended for Rhea after Grade 9. “I didn’t have a way of staying in town for high school, so decided to find work. I rationalized this decision based on an assumption that the girls in Gore Bay seemed kind of ‘snotty,’ but this impression changed when I actually met them.”
At 13, Rhea became a clerk at Stedman’s store. One of her jobs was laying out the candy. It cost only 10 cents for a good-sized bag. At 17 Rhea became a telephone operator which included lighting and maintaining the fires in the wood stove at the back of the office. She conceded that it was fun to listen in on the conversations too.
Rhea met Marvin Woods in 1948 at the ‘Sailor’s Ball’ held each winter for all the sailors of the Great Lakes freighter, after the shipping season had ended. These dances were very well-attended by people from all over the Island. It turned out Marvin lived right across the street from where she worked. “I knew his two younger sisters. He was the eighth born and the last son in his family of 14 children.” Fridays and Saturdays, movies were held and this was a great opportunity for dates.
Marvin had been discharged from the Navy following the war’s end in 1946. He was quite charming and an entrepreneur to boot. He could make her laugh with his pranks. She recalls the time he pretended to step on her newly-bought, fresh loaf of bread right in the middle of the street. Marvin would visit Rhea at the telephone office, walking over from the nearby corner meat market he owned. It was later expanded to include groceries and a restaurant. As each expansion took place, Marcin’s parents’ living quarters were slowly moved further back in the big building.
Marvin convinced Rhea to come work with him in the restaurant. “I agreed and found out what hard work really was. You had to do several jobs at once and stay on top of it all.” Marvin was busy too, as the cook and the baker. His mum had taught him how to make great pies. He always wore a white shirt and a bow tie in the kitchen.”
Marvin and Rhea were wed on a sunny September 12, 1950. “I had two attendants and we drove to the Manse for our nuptials. Afterwards, it was back to the farm where my sister had prepared a big dinner, attended by many members of the Woods family,” Rhea explains. Afterwards, the newlyweds drove to Sudbury and then to Toronto. “Dave and Doreen Frasier, Marv’s sister and her husband, visited us at the hotel in Toronto. By the time we got home I had come down with some kind of virus, but that hadn’t detracted from the joy of our trip.”
Rhea found she was gaining a lot of weight during her first pregnancy. It looked awkward on such a small person. “Marvin said it was easier to jump over me than walk around. I weighed in at 163 lbs but must have been scared skinny after the early birth, because I was back to my normal 115 lbs a week later. The baby weighed eight pounds so much of the rest was fluid. Dr. Henry had been attending his sister’s wedding so Dr. Strain nervously took me on. I was his first delivery in Little Current. He had to use forceps and my tail bone broke during the birth.”
Rhea worked hard to get herself back in shape. She ate well and walked each day. Little Bill was a touch ‘colicky’ and had issues with constipation, both of which had him howling morning, noon and night. “The doctor told me to wait for three months and he would be fine, but it took six months. Luckily, he was a very cute baby with his blonde corkscrew curls. People adored him.” Jim Mac and Mary Lou, born later, completed the Woods family. Rhea’s tail bone was re-broken with each birth.
Daughter Mary Lou, ‘Lou,’ really liked her stroller when she was little. She would squirm about in her carriage until Rhea put her out on the step. Then she would relax and go right to sleep. Each summer, Rhea would take the kids to the lake for swimming lessons. She would take turns getting the boys to different early-morning hockey games. “It was a long drive to Wiky before roads were dependably plowed.” Daughter Lou was into figure skating. “Sometimes I wondered why I didn’t meet myself coming the other way. It still boggles my mind when I think back to those hectic times. We were running the businesses and keeping long hours. Marvin seldom came home early.”
“My oldest son Bill, at 14, delivered milk by horse and wagon in Gore Bay. He had been anxious to get out to work.” Younger son Jim Mac, however, loved to hitchhike to his cousin’s nearby farm, even when he was asked not to. He would call to let his family know where he was when he got there. “I guess it was really important for him to hang out with his cousin who was nine months younger, especially since he would get out of doing some extra work at home. He preferred farm work to store duties.”
Both Rhea and Marvin curled at the local rink each winter. “In 1950 our team, Marvin, Mary and Grant Williamson and I, won the big tournament and we were gifted with a clock. It was fun travelling to bonspiels with friends. The furthest winter destination was Wawa. “We have a granddaughter living in Wawa and her son is three-years-old today.”
Marvin was the mayor of Gore Bay from 1960 to 1966. This was the time the Woods-Lane apartment for seniors was constructed, the name rising from both mayors that had worked on the project. Marvin had begun another term in 1973 when he had to step down for medical reasons a year later.
The couple invested in a laundromat, ‘Econo-wash’ first, then in 1970, a jewellery and gift shop, M & R Jewellery, all in Gore Bay. Their pace of work slowed down a little at this time but the machines in the laundromat still had to be serviced and cleaned and the jewellery store needed daily attendance. Wood’s Brother’s Clothing opened in 1978.
Each winter, the couple escaped to Florida where they had their own trailer. As they neared retirement, it got harder to maintain the businesses, especially after Marvin developed heart disease. His open-heart surgery compelled him to cut back his hours. This also meant less time in Florida. Neighbours in Florida began to comment on the long grass at the trailer site, so after three years, Rhea and Marvin decided to sell.
“We rented for a few more years, enjoying the company of some good friends we had established there. This included a couple from Gore Bay we had met in our first year. Many American friends visited too, residents of Ohio and Michigan that had frequented our restaurant in the summer. Europe was a destination for us as well, but I wasn’t impressed with Spain. We found dirty beaches that weren’t raked and a lot of donkey poop.”
“Whilst in Spain, I remember good friend Ron saying that he would eat anything put in front of him.” Rhea decided to test his resolve by wrapping some donkey poop in saran wrap and offering it to him. He didn’t hesitate to decline the offer and conceded that Rhea had been correct in her assumption, that not all was edible.
“In Hawaii, there were a lot of flies on the food sold on the street, so I was reluctant to buy any.” However, Jamaica was impressive. “The people were very friendly and the food was so clean and appetizing, I was eager to eat anything they put in front of me. Anything but raw fish, that is.”
Rhea smiles as she recalls her sister-in-law turning back during the plane ride home from one of their trips. She warned her not to eat the lunch. Apparently sushi was on the menu and everyone knew how Rhea felt about raw fish. Meat that was too rare suffered the same fate of being ignored. “Generally, I loved visiting new places and trying new foods, with only those two exceptions.”
“Later, when we actually retired, we sold our businesses to our two sons and they are still operating them today. Jim Mac operates the Woods Brother’s Clothing and the M& R Jewellery in a new location. Bill runs B & J’s Restaurant.”
“Marvin died a few years ago and I have been living alone in our family home. I have three stents that don’t slow me down. I do a lot of volunteer work at the Lodge, mostly at lunch time, to help my sister Jean who has a very debilitating disease that stiffens all her joints and prevents her from eating or doing anything for herself. She can no longer communicate so that adds to the challenge.”
Rhea has contributed her time to helping the Lions Club where her brother was a member also. “I collected for the Cancer Society for many years. I take used books to the local health store, The Island Pantry, to sell them to raise money for the Society as well.”
It was Jim Mac who nominated his mother for ‘Mother of the Year’ in 2000. He entered her name and explained why she should be given this award. His entry was chosen as the winner. Four years later Rhea was awarded as Citizen of the Year from the Town of Gore Bay. Rhea was ‘Grandmother Rhea’ to many other kids in the neighbourhood, including young Brady Wilson.
“My favourite seasons are spring and fall. I really don’t enjoy the humid heat or the bitter cold, although now that I am older, the cold is worse than the heat. I don’t watch much television except for the news and weather. I much prefer to read and my favourite authors are Nora Roberts and Danielle Steel. I used to collect spoons but have given many away or sold them in the jewellery story. There are only two racks left. People know about my collection of 28 teddy bears. They have asked to borrow the bears for events like Christmas in the Park, an annual celebration in Kagawong.”
Rhea loves animals but is reluctant to adopt a pet. “When it’s my time to go, I just want to worry about a lock on the door and not who would take a cat or a dog. That would be hard on both myself and the pet.”
People say about Rhea that she is an organized person, always thinking about others first, before she considers her own needs. When asked if there is something she would love to do that has evaded her in the past. “I can’t think of a thing. I believe I have done it all. It’s my time to rest now.”
“If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change anything. I have had a good life so there is nothing I would do differently.” She smiles as an afterthought presses in. “Perhaps I would have stayed with the telephone company and not chosen to work in the hectic atmosphere of a restaurant; but it was for the man I loved, so that made it less painful.” When asked, Rhea declares, “my recipe for happiness is taking the good with the bad. You often get both so you should expect that there will often be a setback, and that will make it less of a burden.”
“A few years ago, someone took me back to the old farmhouse I grew up in. I was saddened to see the barn completely gone and the new owner was using our house to store his hay. But time changes everything. Thanks to the current owner, I still get to enjoy some Macintosh apples from the old farm each year. We’ve always had good neighbours. I haven’t met my new neighbour on my right yet, but I will soon.”
“I am proud of what my family accomplished. My husband was both a hard worker and a visionary. He knew what would do well,” she concludes. “Manitoulin really is the only place to be. I am a Haweater, so my roots are here. I feel safe. People still leave doors open when they step out. That’s a good, comfortable feeling. Friendly people that make such a difference. I wouldn’t dream of being anyplace else but here in Gore Bay.”