Now & Then: Dan and Mary Larouche

Manitoulin Expositor photo of Prime Minister Lester Pearson giving Dan his wings for watching for planes while manning the bridge in the 1960s.

Dan and Mary Larouche

Dan grew up in the CPR town of Britt in an era when trains ruled. “We lived in the CPR boarding cars, while on the mobile construction crew, working on bridges and buildings. My mother did the cooking for the construction workers. My father supervised bridge and building maintenance. My dad also did some work on the swing bridge in Little Current in the mid-1930s. After two years, we moved back to Britt, but returned to Little Current in 1943.”

Dan started his own working life with the Department of Highways the spring he turned 16. By summer, he was working for the CPR, first as a labourer then as a Bridgeman for four years. In 1952, he would follow the footsteps of his father, maintaining and operating the Little Current swing bridge. As a sideline, he taught himself upholstering and sign painting. In 1986, he became an Ordained Deacon for St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Parish.

“Distant ancestor, Charles Langlade, married an Anishinaabe woman and reportedly led a group of native warriors against the Americans in the War of 1812.” Maternal grandfather Jacob Longlade (changed from Langlade), a farmer, born in 1865, died before Dan was born. Grandmother Adelie sold the farm and lived with Dan’s parents until she died in 1942. Paternal grandfather Ernest Larouche had five boys. He did B&B, (bridge building) and maintenance for 50 years for the CPR in Northern Ontario, eventually becoming a foreman. After his wife, Catherine (nee McKenna) died of ‘yellow fever’ in 1909, at age 30, the children were placed in neighbouring homes so dad could earn money for his family.

Dan was born on March 17, 1931 to Louis and Florence Larouche. There would be eight siblings: Veronica, Bernice, Stanley, Geraldine, Daniel, Damien (his twin), Joseph and Vernon. Only Joseph and Stanley are still alive. After the children were older, Mother Florence did housekeeping in the Parry Sound hospital. She never learned to read or write because she had to work while her brothers were off at war. Dan adds, “My grandmother would smile and call me ‘Mary’ after a young girl she knew who was bowlegged like me. Despite the teasing, I knew she loved me.”

Early school photo of Mary.

“Getting Christmas gifts from my godparents was an annual event. One year, when I was about three, I asked them kindly, ‘Why didn’t you bring a gift for my twin brother Damien?’ They didn’t have an answer for their god-child. From then on, they always brought a gift for both twins. “Another memory was picking up free coal from the train tracks. Money was scarce in the hard years of the 1930s. When work was being done on the coal docks, we could salvage some of the old fir timbers. Damien and I used a cross-cut saw to make firewood. Unfortunately, we left the old saw in the snow one winter and the points rusted off.”

School in Britt, and later in Little Current, turned out to be something young Dan didn’t latch onto well. “I tended to fight with the teacher over various issues,” he confesses. “One day in Grade 1, I had gone home for lunch and I was playing with my friend and didn’t hear the bell. After I realized my error, I began to run. Mother saw me going by and called me. ‘If you are late for school, I am sending you to your bedroom’.”

Dan left with his ‘curved’ legs and his twin Damien.

“The next day, the teacher asked me in class why I had missed school the day before. I heard from the back, ‘He was playing hooky.’ I got angry and said, ‘none of your business.’ Apparently, she made it her business and I got the strap, but I resisted the best I could and got a few little punches in myself.”

Something similar happened in Grade 3, when Dan closed the storm door of the main entrance, after school. If you didn’t have a pencil, you couldn’t open the main door from the inside because the thumb latch was broken. The kids just went to the other door, but the teachers were annoyed. The next day, the same teacher called me into her classroom. When I didn’t come, she pulled me in. I got the strap again but resisted in the same manner. I cried but went back to my own classroom. The strap was pretty common those days.”

Dan lost a couple of years and wound up in Grade 7 at 15 years of age. “I moved from Britt in Grade 5, doing well, in May. Nobody registered me in Little Current and I didn’t have my last report so when I started in the fall, they put me back in Grade 5. The following spring, dad had to leave for work so Damien and I had to clean up the huge garden which meant we missed two weeks of instructions. On our final day of school, all I heard was ‘there was no homework’. When I got back in the fall, I was still two weeks behind and Grade 6 was a big class. The teacher got tired of trying to help me get caught up so I was back in Grade 5 again. I did eventually finish Grade 6.”

“That first day back after New Years, in Grade 7, however, I walked into school at 9 AM in the new year and walked back out again at 9:15 AM. I was close to 16 and the oldest in the class. I was happy to be free.” After Dan left school, he did a short stint with the Department of Highways in 1947, for 40 cents an hour, before he joined his dad at the CPR yards later that year. Dan helped his dad repair the piers for the swing bridge in Little Current and for other bridges in the Sudbury Division. He recalls one time they had just finished lunch in Sudbury and were sitting on a side track when they were hit by another train. Everything went flying including the cook’s stove but nobody was seriously hurt.

Mr. and Mrs Larouche on their wedding day May 5, 1952.

Mary was one of 13 siblings, born to John and Delena (Cousineau) Black, starting life on May 24, 1933, in MacTier: Marie, Celina, Marie, Olive, Evelyn, Bill, Theresa, Mary, Joe, Bernard, Veronica, John and Betty. Another sibling died as a baby. “My dad arrived in Canada, as a young man, alone, in the early 1900s. He was joined later, by his brother who died in a traffic accident in Toronto. His poor hearing likely contributed to his demise.”

“My first memory is walking in knee-deep snow two miles to school and back to the farm,” Mary recalls. “One day a fine lady stopped me and gave me a beautiful doll. She had a big house and maybe extra dolls, so she kindly gave me one. I was so surprised and so happy, I wanted to keep her all for myself and not share her with my sisters. I hid the doll under my clothes and went up to the attic. I placed her on what I thought was a shelf, only to hear her tumble down inside the wall. My mother tried to fish her out but without success. Years later the house was torn down and I always wondered if someone found my doll.”

Mary (closest to door) and two of her siblings in the mid 1930s.

Another memory etched in stone, at five, is being chased by a ferocious pig. “I liked little pigs but their mother didn’t like me. I made it to safety but I had to be careful. Another time I played a trick on my sister and then ran and hid behind a big rock. Somehow, I was spotted and I got a spanking. I couldn’t figure out how they found me. Years later when I went back to the house and looked at that rock, I realized how small it really is. No wonder I was found.”

Victoria Harbour and the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland were favourite visiting places for Mary’s family. “We would take the train to see our aunts and uncles and visit the shrine.” she explains. “I loved to play ball at home too.” Dan grins as he adds that Mary’s team was called the ‘Beaverettes’. “Yes, that was our name. It was a different time; people were friendly. We had no bullies and girls were safe. It was a great time to grow up.” In 1947 Mary was voted ‘Miss Popularity’ for MacTier. “I was given a watch. I still have it but it no longer works.”

“We delivered papers every morning, and telegrams for the CPR,” Mary continues. “I picked telegrams up after school and walked the two and a half miles from one end of the town to the other to deliver them. The paper delivery was a family enterprise.” As a late teen, Mary began work with the CPR, making sandwiches and meals at the canteen. “I had to get up whenever the train came in, which included three in the morning. I wanted to help my family.”

Dan with his kerosene lantern from the early days of the bridge. He has donated it to the Sheguaindah museum.

Mary met Dan in MacTier when he came in to the restaurant and asked for a Coke. For some reason, the young lass was a little nervous and asked him, ‘What kind?’ Dan noted her ‘straight face’ so wasn’t sure if he heard right. ‘There is only one kind,’ he responded. Mary finally smiled in acknowledgement. “We still laugh about that,” Mary adds. “I knew his older brother and his dad, both of whom had worked for CPR, but I also had heard about some bad habits,” she joked. “Best of all, he was good looking.”

Mary soon cooked breakfast, lunch and supper at the CPR boarding house and cleaned up afterwards, seven days a week. Most of the money went to the family but occasionally, some went for a movie ticket or a treat. Some time later, Mary got assembly line work at Orient Perfumes in Toronto.  “A small group of four would fill the perfume bottles, then cap them and label them. I liked that job.” Mary stayed for a year and then came back home to Dan who was waiting for her.

Mary and Dan wed on Monday May 5, 1952 in MacTier. Dan usually had Tuesday and Wednesday off but he traded with a buddy to get Monday and Tuesday off from working on the swing bridge. The wedding was held at eight in the morning. A choir from town serenaded the couple. The town folk knew Mary and Dan; Mary from her days as a paper girl and Dan because he had frequented the CPR boarding house. At ‘high noon’ the train left for Sudbury. The newlyweds had one night in a hotel. The next day it was back on the train to Little Current and back to work for Dan. Later that year, Dan became ‘bridgeman’ in Little Current, learning carpentry and sign painting in his spare time. “I was one of five bridge operators. Cars had been sharing the bridge since 1945.”

Dan also became an active member of St. Bernard’s Parish in Little Current. Many years later, in 1986, he became a Deacon holding services in Little Current, Birch Island, Gore Bay and Mindemoya. He joined the Manitoulin School Board, and when the three boards amalgamated, the new high school was built in 1969. The contentious issue of where the school would be located was solved when M’Chigeeng, close to the center of the Island, was chosen.

The couple had four children of their own: Linda, Dan, Bernie and Colleen and they took in Mary’s youngest two siblings when her parents died within five months of each other. “Dad died in 1955 and mother shortly afterwards. Five young children were orphaned, ranging in age from nine to 15. We took the two youngest girls, Veronica and Betty. We had to take girls because we had one daughter already and no more bedrooms for boys. I was pregnant with Dan Jr. at the time. We kept in touch with the other children.”

Mary became a curler first and then Dan. Often the kids were brought to the rink in their snowsuits for a two o’clock match, so they were well known. In fact, they claimed they grew up in their snowsuits. The girls also loved to visit dad at the swing bridge on weekends and sleep over in the little room at the top of the bridge for special occasions. Dan spent many days in that small room, opening and closing the bridge, eating meals there, essentially living there during his shift.

Dan recalls the day an empty oil tanker rolled off the track and into the lake in the late ‘50s. “The bridge was just opening and if it hadn’t stopped, the train would have run into the bridge. Another incident occurred later, when the oil was shipped by boat. An empty tanker ship was heading back to the bridge, taking a shortcut from the side, when he should have been closer to the center of the channel. The current caught him and ran him into the bridge. Sometimes cars would flip right over on the train tracks when crossing the bridge. Motorcycles had even more problems if they hit the tracks from the wrong angle.”

“Generally, the wind made opening and closing the bridge more challenging. There was a locking device in the center of the bridge along with wedges to anchor the bridge on both sides, when open. The strong winds would blow the bridge closed again and re-latch. One morning shift, I had the Norgoma do an extra circle in the Strawberry Channel because we couldn’t open the bridge. By the time, she got back to us, we had it open.” When Dan retired in 1970, he salvaged one of the old bridge marine lights and donated it to the Centennial Museum of Sheguiandah.

After the children were all in school, Mary was hired at Christmas, at the Fairway Department Store owned by Elmer and Vi Vincent. “I earned a dollar an hour in 1958. After the lay-off, I spent a year at the Manor but my shifts often didn’t coincide with Dan’s so we didn’t see much of each other. I left a year later and returned to Fairway after the Turners took it over and spent two summers there.”

When Newson’s Pharmacy in Little Current was looking for help, Mary worked there until it closed. She went on to become a dietary aide at the hospital. Part-time cooking was also included in her job description until she retired at 65. Dan loved his work as a Deacon. He was also proud to be a charter member of the Little Current Community Credit Union organized in the late 1950s.

Re-upholstering furniture and building signs added to his achievements. In 1963, he became the contractor for his own home. In 1967 and 1968 he upgraded his education to grade 12. In 1974, he built a sign shop followed by a garage in 1975. The garage was renovated for Mardan Glass. The name Mardan is a blend of Mary and Dan. “I worked there until 2000 when I retired and my son-in-law took over.”

Their four children remain busy. Bernie owns the flower shop in Little Current and her husband took over Mardan Glass. Daniel lives in Prescott where he worked for a cable company setting up cables and television systems. He has also installed fields of solar panels. Linda is semi-retired. She was a soldier in the armed forces and later had her own business teaching health and safety to government and private organizations. She also taught business law at college level and had transported prisoners in Winnipeg. Lastly, Daughter Colleen lives in Ajax where she is a nutritionist. She also works at Shopper’s Drug Mart in the ‘handicap’ section.

“We now have eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. We have been married for almost 65 years,” Mary muses, smiling at this landmark. “None of my family are left in MacTier; not even a cousin, niece or nephew.”

March 2017 at home.

Mary’s strengths are ‘understanding’ older adults. “I like working with seniors.” She arrives at the Manor at breakfast time armed with a bright smile and offers a cheery ‘good morning.’ “I visit both floors and often get a smile or a hug back.” She assists the hairdresser. Mary has also helped raise a huge $37,000 over 10 years, for their church with the ‘Treasure Table.’ The table is set up in the lobby, boasting gifts, many of which Mary had purchased herself. She also canvassed for cancer for 15 years and got her pin.

“I am happy,” Dan offers. “There’s not much I haven’t tried, but I would like to learn more about computers. Our recipe for happiness? Be quick to say I’m sorry. Sometimes, walking away helps to end a ‘discussion.’ If you are happy with the each other and your family, then you are happy,” Dan confirms. “I have no regrets apart from accidentally releasing the spring-loaded lead for our poodle, who got blasted in the rear with it and has hated me ever since.”

Mary adds, “at one time, I wanted to be a nurse, but it all worked out. We hope to stay in our own home as long as possible. We raised six kids here, four of our own and my two youngest siblings. We were also legal guardians of Danny’s niece Marlene and her son who stayed here for a time.”

“As for Manitoulin, I don’t think there is any other place. I have lived here long enough to be a Haweater,” Dan concludes, smiling. “People are good neighbours, friendly and helpful. I have no desire to live anyplace else. We hope that the town will continue to encourage the Assisted Living project because there are many of us who might need it soon. Then we can get the help we need and still live on Manitoulin, among our friends and family.”