Now and Then – Dick Ahlers

Dick Ahlers first found Manitoulin in 1931 when his parents, from Pittsburgh, holidayed at the ‘cabin-in-the-woods’ of his father’s law partner in Rockville on Lake Manitou. “I have been drawn to the Island ever since; more so as my own family has lived in St. Louis, Pittsburgh again, Detroit, Houston, Cleveland, Detroit again and Cleveland again. It became a ‘home base’ for our family. We have just sold our Island cottage after 47 years of enjoyment,” Dick explains. “With our aging, property maintenance had become even harder and more time-consuming. To sell was a hard decision, but we still expect to spend a lot of time on the Island.”

Richard W. Ahlers Jr. was born to Richard W. Ahlers Sr. and Margaret (nee Hartley) on January 25, 1927 in Pittsburgh. “My mother was a school teacher and she retired after marrying my dad. Maternal grandparents were Beecher Hartley and Lara (Murray). Beecher was in the coal business in Pittsburgh. My maternal grandmother died in 1931 when I was four. My paternal grandfather William Ahlers owned a lumber business in Pittsburgh. He died in 1901. Grandmother Ahlers visited the Island once in 1936.”

Richard Ahlers Sr. practiced law at Pittsburgh in partnership with Lee C. Beatty, 20 years his senior. Beatty’s wife Gertrude Beatty was an English-born Welsh woman who loved Canada. In 1927, the couple’s annual excursion north brought them to Whitefish Falls, to the Stumpf and Spry Lodge in surroundings they much-admired. Mr. Spry persuaded Lee and Gertrude to visit his cousin Alf Spry at his new resort in Rockville on Green Bay of Lake Manitou, on Manitoulin Island. A year later, Beatty commissioned Alf Spry to build a cottage for him. Their first vacation there was in 1929 and the family returned every year until Lee’s death in 1943. The Beatty family still visits regularly.

In the bleak year of 1931, and for the next 10 years, the Beatty’s generously offered late-summer use of their cottage to the Ahlers. “That first summer,” Dick recalls, “we left Owen Sound in the afternoon, sailing on the S.S. Manitoulin. We spent the night at Killarney, which had no road access then. I still remember standing on the top deck of the ship with my dad in a dense morning fog, while my mother dressed. The steam whistle sounded above us, loud enough to lift a small child out of his sandals. The boat proceeded to Manitowaning and on to Little Current where Alf Spry met us in our 1928 Hudson. There were no road signs to Island locations in those days,” Dick continues. “As my parents unpacked at the Beatty cottage, I wandered away behind the building to an area of escarpment rock and fissures. Much distressed, mother found me placidly ensconced in the plentiful wild strawberries.”

The Ahlers enjoyed the Beatty cottage, taking their meals at the Spry resort, half a mile away. In the late 1950s the Spry Resort became Manitou Haven with Jule and Edith Chisholm as proprietors. Jule was the adopted son of Alf and Lily Spry. Lily lived to be 104.

In 1934, Dick was joined by brother Roger and the Beatty youngsters often stayed on the Island with the Ahlers after the Sr. Beattys returned home. “On September 3, 1939 I remember being at the Paul Foster cottage next door and listening, with a handful of others, to the Foster’s new Oldsmobile car radio as Canada declared war on Germany. Paul’s sister May wept. Their brother Ainsworth had been wounded in the Great War, World War One.”

“Travel from the States to Manitoulin was far more challenging in those years. It was a dirt road after Owen Sound and just a trail from Parry Sound to Pointe au Baril and beyond. The winding dirt road to Goat Island was a beautiful half-day experience. The small eight-car ferry, the Jaqueline, made the final passage to the Island because the bridge served only the train, known as the ‘Blueberry Special.’ It would stop for blueberry pickers along the way.”

One of the two Tobermory ferries was the SS Manitou, an elderly coal-fired boat, carrying 12 to 15 cars. Meals were prepared on the car deck on a coal-fired range and passed up by ladder to be served at six two-person tables in the fore-aft passageway. A one-armed bandit, a ‘five cent’ slot machine, was chained to a steel pipe supporting the wheelhouse above. “One year, with three nickels to invest, I hit the jackpot,” Dick allows. “The machine spewed a bonanza of three or four dollars of nickels everywhere.”

The steel-hulled diesel powered MS Normac had been retired from fire boat service at Detroit. It carried a few more cars than the Manitou and did not pitch and wallow as readily. She ran for several years in the 1960s between Meldrum Bay and Blind River before becoming Captain John’s Seafood Restaurant at the foot of Yonge St. in Toronto. Most recently, the MS Normac served as a floating cocktail lounge and restaurant in Port Dalhousie, but was gutted by fire in 2011.

Before the Second World War, only a few Island communities had hydro. Rockville got it in 1943-44. “Adults kept themselves busy fishing, hiking, swimming, reading, playing cards, doing jig saw puzzles, reading, visiting friends, or dancing at the Bidwell Community Centre. They gathered and chopped wood for the evening fire. They also wrote postcards, three for five cents, with one cent postage. Youngsters built rafts, played in barns, snagged ice from the ice house, picked berries under duress, or cranked the milk separator or the ice cream maker. Occasionally they succeeded in harnessing and saddling old ‘Pal’ the pony that ran with the pastured cattle. They hunted chipmunks with sling shots and stretched the hides over frames of wire coat hangers; they collected bull frog legs for cooking over small open fires.”

In the summer of 1942, Rockville farmer Harvey Spry took Dick and Davey Beatty in his Model A Ford to a Saturday dance at the Loyal Order of Orange Hall at Tehkummah. “I recall the oil lamps along the walls. We didn’t stay long; we climbed back into the Model A and headed to a small local house where alcohol was available. All spirits, including beer, were banned on Manitoulin until after World War II. There were two rooms downstairs, one for card playing and the other held a large wood fueled kitchen stove with a zinc sink and a ‘tap-less’ pipe spewing endless spring water into the sink. An oil cloth covered the table which held a small array of pint mason jars and some jelly glasses. A weighted chain was attached to a floor panel which covered stairs to a cellar. Beer was drawn from a couple of cases on the top step of those stairs leading to the cellar. A child sat at the top of the stairs leading to the second floor, ready to pass down the whiskey bottle when someone knocked on the wood.”

One guest was a non-commissioned officer for the RCAF. “He decided Davey and I needed to learn how to sing ‘God Save the King’ and ‘The Maple Leaf Forever.’ By the end of the evening we could sing both unique versions of the song with gusto,” Dick attests. “The next morning Mr. Beatty commented on our late return home. David told him the Model A had suffered a broken connecting rod. Mr. Beatty told us how sorry he was for this rod failure, but observed he had never heard of a broken connecting rod on a Model A.”

From 1943 until the 1950s, Dick worked summers in Pittsburgh in the steel mills. His fall seasons were spent working part-time for the postal service and as stock-boy at Joseph Horne Company, a department store, for 75 cents an hour. Dick also worked for The Pennsylvania State Guard, a replacement for the National Guard, which was serving abroad. The State Guard dealt with situations of civil disorder and required that Dick ‘overnight’ once a week at the local armory. There was a fortnight of weapons training each summer at a military base near Harrisburg, the state capital.

Dick was 17 in 1944 when he attended Wesleyan University in Middletown Connecticut where he majored in History in preparation for law school. At the end of his freshman year, the young 18-year-old was recruited into the army. Basic training in Florida was followed by parachute school at Fort Benning, Georgia. “In the chaos of war-end, general demobilization included orders for me to join a 519th parachute infantry battalion. Since this group had been hurriedly sent, in December 1944, to assist at the Battle of the Bulge, I was re-assigned to the Coast Artillery for an anti-aircraft mission.”

Dick became a veteran of World War II by virtue of having been drafted three months before the war ended. “After September of 1945 we got an ‘all-expense-paid’ trip to the Panama Canal Zone where we manned a gun position near the Gatun Locks, and vigorously defended it from ravenous mosquitoes and some really nasty snakes.”

Following these assignments, academia recalled the young man to Wesleyan for a “satisfactory but undistinguished” academic career. “It was a men’s school so in our spare time we would visit the ladies’ colleges,” Dick adds grinning. “I met Kathleen Stocking at Connecticut College for Women and we became a couple.”

One classmate and fraternity brother, Robert Ludlum the Luddite, did distinguish himself with a ‘shelf’ of popular espionage-flavoured adventure books, including the Rhineman Exchange, his first, and The Bourne Identity. Ludlum was aided in his writing by three of our fraternity brothers who were sought out by the CIA and had distinguished careers in it; Chuck Briggs became CIA Inspector General, Steve Rosbicki, deceased, was sent to middle Europe and Pete Dyke, also deceased, was stationed in Laos.”

In 1950 college ended and Dick went to work for Follansbee Steel Corporation in their sales department. That fall he entered law school at the University of Pittsburgh. “Two month of that was enough.” It was time to marry Kathleen and begin a new job at United States Steel in sales. Major accounts were General Motors and Lincoln Electric in Cleveland.

Kay and Dick would have four children: Rick, Walter, Fritz and Laura, all dearly-loved and all of whom loved Manitoulin. Rick was an electrician and deep sea fisherman in the Bering Sea. He died in 2011. Walter is a semi-retired CPA. Fritz is a VP and general manager of Washington Consular Services, providing support to American firms abroad and to foreign consulates and embassies. Laura is Director of Sales for Oracle Corporation, which includes services to the Department of Defense. Her husband Doug is a VP of general dynamics, a defense contractor.

Life has been interesting and compelling. “In 1955 Kay and I spent 28 days on the Hudson’s Bay Company supply ship, the 175 foot ‘Rupertland’ out of Montreal bound for Newfoundland and Labrador. We were the only passengers for much of the time and we were able to spend hours on the bridge with Captain Abraham Lloyd, a veteran of many harrowing wartime runs to Murmansk. Kay passed some of her time sewing on buttons and mending clothing for the crew. We stopped at Blanc Sablon, Cartwright, Rigolet, North West River and Happy Valley and were warmly welcomed. Once, while fishing, I thought I had caught a huge ‘twisting’ monster only to discover I had hooked the slowly-revolving propeller! Fishing was easy for the cook. He had only to jig up and down with a husky three-pronged gaff to pull up a fine cod for breakfast or lunch. The jowls of the fish were most prized.”

In 1964, Walt, Rick and Dick came to Manitoulin to persuade Tom and Alice Cosby of Green Bay to relinquish 300 feet of their west shore of Green Bay. This done, in 1967 Dick got Charlie Parkinson to build a comfortable 20’ by 40’ two-story cottage for the Ahlers. This would be a family retreat to escape the hot Houston summers. “We arrived to Charlie Parkinson’s flat bottom boat and his five HP engine. There was no road to the cottage at that time. We loaded our furniture on and headed to our own place,” Dick confirms. “I took to Charlie at once. I never knew a finer, more pleasant man.” Over the years Charlie helped with various cottage projects.

1971 the family returned to Newfoundland and Labrador for a challenging and memorable camping trip. In 1972 Dick took his three boys and their friend Mike Winston camping on Great Duck Island. George Purvis was taking groups to ‘the Ducks’ on weekends. “I think Irene Purvis persuaded George to take us and our 14 foot outboard skiff to Great Duck on a Sunday afternoon. George retrieved us four days later. In those days the lighthouse was manned by three men and some family members. Somehow my four charges were given access to a dune buggy, converted from a Volkswagen Bug. Riding the dunes is likely not allowed now, but those kids had several great days.”

Dick and Kathleen separated in 1976. In 1979 Dick married Lane Gail Utterback Dietz, a co-worker at US Steel. “LG as she is known in many quarters, is and has been, a devoted step-mother and she took to Manitoulin instantly, aided in this regard by having been reared on an Ohio dairy farm,” LG arguably has more friends on the Island than Dick, owing in part to her associations with the Manitoulin Light Horse club, the Red Hats, and the United Churches in Green Bay, Sheguiandah and Little Current. Her years of work with the Rockville Community Hall and as treasurer of the Cosby Subdivision Road Association, has endeared her to many.

“In 1999, 10 of us snowmobiled from Rockville to Tidewater, New Brunswick. The group included Ron Sheppard, who organized the tour, Bobbie Pacquet, and Denise Purvis, now Sheppard, the only female companion, who was accompanying her brother Drew.”

At home in Lakewood, USA, near Cleveland, Dick has also been active in the Lions Club, spending 10 years as treasurer. He was a both member and commander of the Power Squadron in his community. “One summer I brought a 47-foot sailboat to Manitoulin from Annapolis. I picked LG up in Tobermory and we explored the top of McGregor Bay, negotiating the passage between the two peninsulas, across from the Bay of Islands. It was a thrilling way to see the Canadian north. We passed by the anchorage where Frances Langford had her modest cottage. Her boat was bigger than the island it sat on, but then she spent much of her time on the boat.” When Carole Sheppard opened her bed and breakfast she hosted a party. She invited Frances and Frances came.”

For his 70th birthday, Dick experienced an exhilarating trip around the world. He travelled by rail from Beijing to Xian and to the Kazakhstan border in the Chinese Orient Express, parts of which were Chairman Mao’s private train. This was followed by the grand old Simplon Orient Express headed to Almaty, Kazak’s capital, across Uzbekistan to Tashkent, Samarkand, Kiva and other stops into Russia. The cities of Volgograd, Moscow, and St. Petersburg came next before the group returned home via Copenhagen. A Harvard University Faculty member accompanied them on the tour to provide relevant history and host discussions. “This tour hadn’t been available for years due to political strife, but our train only had one stone thrown through a window. Apparently one rail car carried a supply of extra windows.”

“I stopped working in December of 1985 and have been retired for 28 years now. I consider myself lucky. Much of those years have been spent on Manitoulin building stone walls and working on our cottage,” Dick attests. Gail adds, “That work has been very therapeutic for him. He really enjoyed it.”

“I would say my strengths are surviving—being on the cusp of my 87th year and still being active with a sound mind and memory,” Dick muses. “I get involved in church activities, maintain social contacts and continue to foster alumni connections. As mentioned, fixing all that can go wrong in a cottage is something else I have gotten good at over the years.”

“What am I most afraid of? I suppose I am most afraid of what all my doctors might tell me one day.” Despite this, Dick is negotiating the perils of aging quite admirably. He is also relatively pain-free from a recent knee surgery because of his continued physical activity.

Dick admits to having been much-blessed and yes, very lucky in his “long and not entirely uneventful life.” (Winston Churchill said on December 26, 1941) “A life undistinguished but greatly enjoyed. I read a lot, favouring histories, biographies, current events and poetry.” He has loved sailing, scuba diving, collecting art, snowmobiling, church activities and travel. I enjoy writing letters too, expressing myself in written form to friends and associates. I really don’t know how to stop,” he adds with a grin. Gail injects, “He writes very good letters on his ‘Royal’ typewriter.”

“Manitoulin has been a draw all of my life starting at age four. I remember the thrill of anticipation when I knew I was coming here. Later, I looked for excuses to come more often. Over the years we have made many friends here as part of the Rockville community. People are easy to get to know and like. Old Mrs. Snow from Snowville on the Manitou River near Tehkummah would come for visits. Lily Spry and her family of four children were regulars too. We got to know seven generations of Sprys,” Dick sums up. “That is what makes this place special for us. Even though we have sold our ‘Fortress’ to our son and his friend, we will continue to migrate back here each summer to enjoy the open space and the freedom. I can’t imagine not coming here anymore. Manitoulin is the best!”