Now and Then: Willie Pegalo

Willie with sons Jon and Ben on Thanksgiving 2020.

When you connect eyes with Willie, you know she has led an interesting life; a life filled with challenges that she has conquered and risen above. A friend referred to her as a ‘joyful spirit.’ The summer before moving to Manitoulin Island, the family spent the summer in a large teepee, preferring the ambience of natural outdoor setting. Ten-year-old twin boys enjoyed this camping adventure nurtured by their large family garden. Willie has had a lifelong love for children and horses.

The boys were 10 when they came to Manitoulin where the Kicking Mule Ranch would soon be established. A horse and buggy was the mode of transportation to buy food, do laundry or move the logs they cut to augment the family income. Willie has had considerable success over the years with her Kicking Mule Ranch which has included glamping (glamour camping), trail rides, entertainment and riding lessons. Winters were spent in Arizona at the exclusive Wikenburg Ranch where Willie volunteered to look after the children of some of the families that visited here. She also had the opportunity to enjoy some of the attributes ranch life could offer.

Willie was the third child of six, born in Holland on October 18, 1948, with the help of a doctor who made house calls. “I arrived on my mother’s 30th birthday and I was named after her. We were members of the Christian (formerly Dutch) Reformed Church.” Siblings are Arthur, Theo, John, Jack and Anne. The first four, including Willie, were born in Holland. The devastation of war had encouraged many Europeans to find a new life overseas. “In Holland, my parents and other members of their extended family, were market gardeners who produced salad vegetables in numerous greenhouses. However, a large family of siblings made it difficult for dad to inherit a significant parcel of land and begin his own enterprise, so Canada seemed like a good option.”

“In 1952, we came to Halifax by ship and to Hamilton by train. I was only three, but I can still remember my father and I getting up early, before the rest of the family. He opened a can of Vienna sausages for just the two of us to enjoy which was an adventure by itself, before our first-ever train trip. Two of mother’s brothers had immigrated to Canada, one to Hamilton and one to Blenheim (in southwestern Ontario). Knowing that family was there for us, made leaving Holland easier.”

“For the first two years, dad worked for the owners of a large greenhouse in Leamington, but it was not long before 25 acres and a farmhouse were purchased in the Ancaster area and farming life began in earnest. The market gardening here was on a smaller scale compared to Holland, but it worked for us. Mother loved the old stone farmhouse. Soon a few greenhouses were set up. They didn’t last long, though, because the plants that grew in them were more fragile than those that had been planted outside. Soon all plants went outside at the onset.”

The crops of cucumbers, tomatoes, green beans, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts in fall were sold in Hamilton, Toronto and Kitchener. “We helped plant, weed, harvest and sell at the market. I went to the market every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday with my dad to sell our vegetables. The children also helped by bending back the cauliflower leaves to keep the vegetable white. Mother would bring coffee and cookies to the field in the morning. Lunch was the big hot meal back at the house, followed by a one-hour siesta for dad before we all went back to work in the fields. My parents eventually retired there, and my brother still owns 24 acres of this land. He built his house and raised his four children there.”

“I never really got to know dad’s side of the family because they stayed in Holland. My maternal grandfather came to Canada for a wonderful visit when I was eight. That year, dad bought John and me a pony. I called him Blackie and I took care of him. He had his own pasture, and we could ride him whenever we had time. Those were great memories, a simpler time in my life.”

“There were other Dutch immigrants in the Hamilton area and schooling had been set up and paid for by these early immigrants. Today, Redeemer College in Ancaster grew from this Dutch heritage. I attended the Dutch school until Grade 6 when I had to go to a regular school for a year due to budgetary restraints from a crop failure. Our parents were pretty strict about our education, so I was back at the Dutch school the following year.”

“The summer I was 12, I chose to assist a hairdresser, a friend of my mom’s. For five days a week, I was the shampoo girl. On Fridays I came home with $7.50 of which I kept 50 cents and the rest was paid to mother. As a member of the Dutch church in our area, I could not go to local activities or date community boys. It was alright to interact with other teens, but I couldn’t date them. We did have a church youth group that met weekly. After Grade 8, I went to Ancaster High School and I recognized some of the kids from Grade 6, making this transition a little easier. Also, becoming a hairdresser didn’t necessitate taking many academic courses.”

Willie, front row, left, with her siblings, back row, left, Art, Jack, John and Ted with sister Anne, seated, front right.

At 18, Willie spent a summer in Holland helping in the greenhouses, visiting family and exploring landmarks. That same year, she officially became a hairdresser after attending the Marvelle Hairdressing School. The following summer, Willie had the chance to spend two exciting weeks in Vancouver with one of her brothers and his wife. She returned by train, in her own sleeper section.

Back home, Willie worked in Ancaster until she was 21. “In 1969, Dad and I paid $1,700 for a 1968 purple Volkswagen. It was my first vehicle. I was 21 and moving out on my own. I paid for half of the car up front and paid dad back for the other half over time.” Two years later, Willie and a friend took the Volkswagen on a camping trip to the east coast for five fabulous weeks, before homesickness drove them back home.

“Siblings Art, Ted, John, Jack and Anne have made their own paths in life after attending Calvin College. Art got his degree in social work. He lives in Kitchener with his wife Nancy and five children. Theo, ‘Ted,’ got his degree in economics and sociology and became a businessman. He has written two books. One was on finance, encouraging young couples not to go into debt. The other was about his time in Haiti with his wife Jan, trying to encourage better conditions for local orphanages. Ted and Jan have three children. John is retired from his work at a publishing house in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he lives with his wife Diane and two offspring. Jack bought the family farm and became a landscaper but lives in his own house on the property. Jack has four kids. Anne is a hairdresser and lives with her husband in Ancaster. She has three boys.”

Willie and a beloved donkey.

At age 26, Willie met and married her first husband, in Indiana. A year later, July 21, 1976, they became parents. As a strong Christian and with a strong belief in Christ and the bible, they felt protected and felt they didn’t need a doctor to attend the birth. Willie had been participating in a bible study with other couples when she went into labour and the ladies stayed to help. “Jon was born, and I was waiting for the afterbirth, but Ben ‘our little miracle’ arrived 90 minutes later. The boys were six and five and a half pounds and healthy. There were no complications but if I had known about the twins, I would have gone to the hospital.”

For a while, the family moved around to various jobs in the USA. “The boys were home-schooled after Kindergarten and Grade 1 with support from the school board. Each boy was given a young mule when they were nine years old. Millard and Merel became their animal husbandry class for their home-schooling, and it was the best investment in their education and their entertainment. When the boys were 15, they wanted some fast horses for the Manitoulin Island horse shows. The mules were sold but 20 years later, returned when their owners were too frail to take care of them. The mules lived to be over 30 years old and are both buried on my son’s property in Tehkummah.”

The family spent summer of 1986 in Dashwood, near London, Ontario, in a big 20-foot tipi sitting on 20 acres beside a peaceful river. “We had a queen bed, couch and chairs in the tipi. The boys stayed in an old school bus beside the tipi. There was no television, so we played cards with the boys each night. We grew a big garden and cooked all our food outside over a fire. That summer’s activities inspired the tipi rental business, and it was one of our best summers we had with the boys.”

“That fall of 1986, we moved to Manitoulin. After one winter we moved to a hunt camp on Pine Lake, off Big Lake. For 16 months, we cut firewood and used our horse and buggy to move the wood. Laundry was done in West Bay (M’Chigeeng). After two years of travelling great distances by horse and buggy and dealing with cold weather, which was hard on the kids too, we got our driver’s licences. Immediately, life became easier.”

“We began with our dream of starting the Kicking Mule Ranch (first on the Government Road near Providence Bay) when the boys were 16. However, we encouraged them to work outside the home and get a more varied experience. John went to the Farrow farm in Wingham, where he learned to shear sheep and enjoyed the company of four teenage girls. Ben went to Ancaster to work for Uncle Jack in his landscaping business. He stayed with his grandmother next door. She had just lost her husband. Ben was kept busy. Lots of new houses were being built in Ancaster and landscaping services were in high demand.”

Although Jon and Ben didn’t work on the ranch, they helped when needed. As soon as the grandchildren were old enough, they were employed on the ranch. Willie enjoyed having the grandchildren there and spent many hours horseback riding with them. The riding stable went well from day one. “We put out a lot of signs in many locations, directing people to the ranch. We lived off the grid for a total of 25 years and our guests seemed to like that.”

“One of our best times included a visit from 70 Toronto girl guides, who stayed for four days. They set up their own tents and did all their own cooking. They went horseback riding, had campfires, did lots of crafts and enjoyed a music night with dancing. It was an amazing four days.” Jamborees were held on one or two Fridays each month. These were fun for the locals and the tourists. Gordie Greenough and his country band would kick off the summer every June.”

Wedding day for Rick and Willie.

Starting in late fall of 1998, for five months a year for more than the next 20 years, there was a family exodus south to the Arizona Wikenburg Ranch. Willie’s ex-husband took guests out into the desert for trail rides and Willie volunteered in the kitchen and babysitting the children of visiting families. “I loved meeting the kids, their parents and their grandparents and they often asked for me when they returned each year.” Willie enjoyed horseback riding too. Each spring, they returned to Manitoulin.

The Kicking Mule Ranch slowly emerged with all the needed buildings and fencing. A barn went up. Trail rides, jamborees boasting local bands, and birthday parties were featured. “We rented out two teepees and two sleep cabins. A central bathroom was established, and the ranch was listed with AirBnB. People brought their own bedding. The money was coming in automatically as the location was extremely popular and many guests became regulars. By then, we were renting out four tipis daily in the summer. Each had a queen size bed, a stove, and rugs on the floor. We charged $100 a night. Horses were acquired and a horseback-riding business was begun. All energy to run electronics came from the sun.”

After her divorce in 2003, Willie continued her November to April sojourns to Arizona. She ran her relocated Kicking Mule Ranch (off Highway 6 in Tehkummah on Gauthier Road) as a single mom for four years, living in a 16’ x 20’ cabin with a kitchen in one corner, a television in another corner and a bed in a third corner. “It was small, but it was paid for and it was mine.”

Willie first met Rick Pegalo of Manitoulin when he came to the Arizona ranch while on a business trip to check out some antique cars. He was a lot of fun and Willie was immediately attracted to him. “He has a good work ethic, starting his working career at 16. Rick’s nickname ‘Trader Rick’ relates to his business acumen. He also has a great sense of humour. When Rick’s dad died in January of 2007, the family got together for the funeral in Little Current. It was a chance to meet them all. In February 2008, during a visit to the Grand Canyon, Rick and I got engaged and our wedding took place on September 27, 2008 on Manitoulin.”

Rick helped on the ranch by adding bunkies, one converted from an old ice hut he had. He also added a summer kitchen and a beautiful, covered wagon. More teepees were erected for the B&B business. After several profitable years, the Kicking Mule part of the ranch was sold and moved to the neighbouring property just to the north. Willie kept the B&B business going on her land until she retired in 2020 when she and Rick built a beautiful new home in Manitowaning, right on the shore of the bay.

“A warm memory from my childhood? Dad and mom taking us to the beach at Lake Erie. Most important event in my life? Having my twin boys. Favourite pets? We always had horses, dogs, and cats. Rick had a Rottweiler named Diesel and we both loved him. He scared folks at the ranch, so we put up a sign to alert people, but he was a very mild, loveable dog and didn’t hurt anyone. I also have a Toy Aussie Shepherd named Bella who won our hearts.”

“Favourite season? Winters in Arizona and summers on Manitoulin. Favourite holiday? As an avid biker, I went to Holland twice in the last three years to do a week-long ‘bike and boat’ trip on the Lina Maria, a fancy tour boat. We had our own chef for 21 people who came from all over the world. We had several guided tours, and I spent some good times with a few of our Dutch cousins.”

“A goal I had as a young girl? Becoming a hairdresser. I knew this from the start, and it was an easy subject for me to learn. Favourite sport? Baseball. I loved being the pitcher at school. My strengths? I believe that I am good with people and I believe when you are good to those around you, you will be blessed. I love being with kids, family, friends and animals. I appreciated both groups at school, the people with more resources and those with less. They are all equal and both sectors deserve respect and kindness.”

“Things I still want to do? Travel some more, especially to Mexico, Arizona and back to Holland with my grandchildren. I would love to do a mission trip in a foreign country. What did I enjoy most as a parent? Being a stay-at-home mum and home-schooling the boys after Grade 1. That was hard, but very rewarding. What am I proud of? My parents and my sons and daughters-in-law. My sons never gave me problems or stress. Today Jon is married to Jennifer. Both work in Mindemoya. He works for the township and she drives a school bus. They have two children, Joe, 17 and Jordan, 14, and the family lives in Tehkummah. Ben lives in Massey with Jody. They have Avery, 17 and Carter, 14. I am also proud of my parents who raised all their children with high Christian standards.”

“Greatest fear going forward? Not being healthy. I hope we all stay well and off medications as we continue to age. We can enjoy the memories and stories which will be our legacy. Recipe for happiness? Be grateful every day for your health and strength and always be mindful of someone else’s needs. Put others first and God will always meet our needs. We are members of the Manitoulin Community Church in Tehkummah. I am on the board there and currently most of our decisions deal with COVID.”

“Our first visit to Manitoulin was a recommendation from friends of ours. We moved here in September 1986 and our last year at the ranch was 2019. As a family, we have moved many times in the USA and in Ontario, especially as the kids got a bit older. However, since we have had the opportunity to step on Manitoulin, we have never looked back and didn’t want to live anyplace else. Rick and I have been married 12 years. Rick still has his excavating business, and we have this beautiful new home he helped build for us. Being confined with COVID-19 is not stressful. We love living here, in town and (apart from a holiday trip), we don’t ever want to leave. This is our home.”