Now and Then – By Petra Wall

Bill and his brother Ralph in Elk Lake.

Bill Cunningham

Bill Cunningham has always been proud to live in Little Current. Cunningham Motors, started by his dad, was known to many in the Manitoulin community. This Northern gateway town was also the place where he met and married his sweetheart, Jean Fraser. He considers himself lucky to have inherited two loving children, Debby and Danny, and he has been a good father to them.

“My father Ralph “Curly” Cunningham, who was originally from England, came to Canada from the States during the depression years. He met and later married Catherine Gron of Elk Lake when he was up visiting that community.” Bill was born on November 20, 1929 while the couple lived in Elk Lake. His sister Jean and brother Ralph were born later. “One of my early memories is getting my hind kicked. I was in Elk Lake with my grandmother, a fine lady I admired. She had just put the milk out to settle in the barn. I thought nobody was looking when I stuck my finger in that delicious cream layer floating on top,” he shared. “I was wrong. Treats were hard to come by in those days, but I immediately regretted my action.”

Their wedding day August 3, 1975.
Their wedding day August 3, 1975.

“We had chores to do of course, but when we were done, we could listen to the radio. I liked the Lone Ranger. The dog was fun to play with too. He was dad’s dog but we all shared him.” When Bill was growing up, his mother had a great way to keep him in the yard. “She would put short pants on me because she knew I would stay put. I didn’t want anyone to see me like that. There is a photo of me in shorts to prove the point. I was at home. I also happen to look like a girl in that photo. I guess my mother wanted a girl for her second child so she didn’t mind letting my golden curls get longer,” he adds, grinning.

Bill went to school in a one-room school in Elk Lake until he was in Grade 3 or 4. “I didn’t really like school that much. The fancy math was not easy to understand. I remember getting so frustrated at home one day that I threw my math book into the fire. The teacher asked me what happened to the book and I told her I lost it at the playground. She didn’t believe me and I had to go to the cloakroom to get the strap. You pretty well got the strap for any infraction in those days.”

The young student was about 11 when the family moved to Sudbury where dad Ralph worked in at McLeods Motors. Ralph took some time off to go to Ryerson in Toronto to get his mechanic’s licence. Catherine found work with Belle Cleaners and son Bill attended school on Regent Street. When he was 12, Bill delivered papers to 25 customers in the west end of Sudbury. “Sometimes it was real hard to get people to pay for their papers, but I persevered and got my money eventually.” Bill spent his extra time playing hockey on an outdoor rink. “That was a lot more fun.”

Later, Ralph Sr. got work as a mechanic at INCO and continued to work there until he was able to buy his own service station on Manitoulin Island in 1945. This business was expanded to include a garage and became Cunningham Motors (where the Keatley Surveying office is located today). The business also began to sell Ford cars. The old car ferry, the Jacqueline, landed every 30 minutes at the dock across from the shop. “The boat brought in business and parts on a regular basis.” The family lived up the hill not far from the dealership.

Bill getting the championship trophy for his team.
Bill getting the championship trophy for his team.

Bill was 16-years-old. He loved playing baseball in the summer. “We won two championships that I recall. In the winter we played hockey. At one time I was so passionate about that game, I’d sooner fight than eat.” As the captain of his team, Bill felt he had a responsibility to defend his players. It seems that his nickname ‘Jersey Joe’ stuck, reflecting his fighting prowess. Jersey Joe Walcott was a famous heavyweight American boxer at the time.

Baseball was different. “If you broke the baseball rules, you would get thrown out of the game but in hockey a fight got you two minutes in the penalty box, time to think about your next strategy or get even more heated up, especially if you weren’t to blame. Then you were back on the ice and had a chance to even things out.” The old arena, where RONA Little Current Building Centre on Worthington Street is now located, still had natural ice. Wally Ainsley, and Walter Glanville played on his Little Current team. “We won the Lester B. Pearson trophy in 1953-1954. I recall that Wally Harasym was the best player on the Manitowaning team.”

When he wasn’t playing sports, Bill enjoyed watching the boats come and go in the harbour. “The big crane that filled and emptied boats ran on a trolley and blew its horn when it was operating. It was fun just to hang around and watch. You could see lots of boats too. Many Americans visited Little Current on their way to camps or just passing through while sailing the North Channel.”

The train came regularly bringing passengers and car parts for the garage. “It had to back into the station at Little Current. There was no room on the tracks to turn around. There were only a few trucks on the Island at that time, so most of the parts that arrived at Cunningham Motors were for cars.” Bill worked with his father at the dealership and the garage, earning confidence in his abilities to fix cars. “Cars were simpler then and dad was a good mechanic so I learned a lot. I remember one old farmer coming in for a new 1959 Ford. He took a good look at the front of the car and then asked, ‘where do you put the crank?’ We thought that was pretty funny at the time.”

When Bill was 19, in 1950, he took his first solo train trip to Toronto. He was heading to Ryerson for three months of training for his Automotive Mechanic Certificate. After the educational stint was over, Bill took the train home again. “I remember vividly the sound and smell of the coal-driven engine and of course I can’t forget the hard bench seats,” he adds, smiling.

Jean as a nursing grad.
Jean as a nursing grad.
Bill in July 1945.
Bill in July 1945.

Bill met Jean officially through his eventual sister-in-law, Lena, at the Anchor Inn after work one day. Lena asked Bill to take Jean home after she finished work at the hospital. Jean, a nurse, was nervous about walking home in the dark. Someone had chased her on her way to the hospital for the night shift. Bill gallantly offered to drive her home. He enjoyed this task and offered to continue escorting her. Being with Jean made him feel happy. He remembers Dr. Bailey joked with him one day, suggesting he put some kind of metal bar on her wrist so she could fight back if it happened again.

Jean’s parents Daniel and Florence (nee McEachern) Fraser hailed from Nova Scotia originally. Jean was born in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia on September 8, 1930. She was still a baby when the family moved to the town of Schumaker, near Timmins. She trained in Parry Sound for her nursing career and then found work on Manitoulin at the hospital in Little Current. By the time Bill met Jean, she had two children, Debby and Danny, from a previous marriage.

The couple started to go on picnics bringing Debby and Danny. After four years of dating, Bill and Jean were married on August 3, 1975, during Haweater Weekend. Debby explains, “mum had left her purse at the hairdresser’s in Espanola, the day of the wedding, so we rushed back to get it. Luckily we made it to the United Church in time so the 30 people waiting there were not held up. Our uncle Jim, mother’s brother, played a prank on them. Jean doesn’t recall what it was now, but otherwise, she insists that all went well. The groom now had to deal with two Jean Cunninghams: his wife and his sister.

The reception was at the senior Cunningham’s home. “That was a wonderful occasion and we have been happy ever since,” Jean shares. The honeymoon took them to traditional Niagara Falls. Bill adds, “I forgot to bring my razor so had to borrow one so I could look presentable.” He brings out a photo of himself and Jean. They are in a barrel and it looks like they are about to go over Niagara Falls. “Of course, we went down in that barrel and that’s why I’m in here (in the Manitoulin Lodge) now,” he jokes.

The couple honeymooned in Niagara Falls.
The couple honeymooned in Niagara Falls.

When the newlyweds got home they moved into the house in Little Current on Meredith Street, the one they recently left for the Lodge.” Bill was very happy to be a new husband and a new father. “It was a life-changer for me. I was a little nervous about living with a ready-made family after being alone so long,” Bill allows. “Life changed for me, but it changed for the better.” Jean continued to work at the Manitoulin Health Centre. Debby attended school and Danny was a teenager. Later, Danny played hockey and Debby figure-skated. Bill did some coaching for the minor leagues and he enjoyed watching Danny and Debby skate.

Bill was still working with his dad at the garage, Cunningham Motors. Bill’s friends would visit him at the garage most afternoons. “We played cribbage and drank coffee during the break, when all was quiet.” It seems Bill had designed and then built an extra long cribbage board. “I found it was harder for us to cheat with the straight board that had no curve in it.” Later Danny inherited this new creation.

When Ralph Sr. and his partner Fred retired, Ralph sold the garage to Keith Ashley with the condition that his son Bill would stay on as mechanic. After some time, Keith found he didn’t need an extra hand and Bill began to work for Jiggs Elliot at his Shell Station. He stayed some time and in the late 1970s went to work with Ron Bowerman at the garage on Hwy. 6. Bill then applied to work at the big plant in Espanola, EB Eddy, where he hoped to get a job repairing machinery.

It seems that EB Eddy didn’t need a mechanic but they needed another millwright. “What does a millwright do?” he asked the supervisor. “Nothing much,” he joked. “Ok, sign me on,” Bill countered. He worked at the mill in Espanola for about 15 years packaging boards and doing maintenance. “They also paid good overtime.” Bill was hurt once when he fell down some steep steps heading up to the top of a building. He damaged his knee but recovered and returned to work. He retired in 1995 and was presented with the traditional watch. 

Bill and Jean with Debby and Danny at Danny's house in  Little Current, 2011.
Bill and Jean with Debby and Danny at Danny’s house in
Little Current, 2011.

“After that, I stayed home and made some long-awaited repairs. We put on new siding and a deck at the back. I planted a garden on some empty land a few lots away. I grew potatoes, carrots, beans and other vegetables. It was too much for us so the neighbours often got a share of the produce.”

“We trekked back to Niagara Falls yearly for quite a while. We loved the place. It was a familiar to us and we felt safe there. It was so beautiful.” Jean quips, “It was our version of the Love Boat.” They would visit the wax museum and the Maid of the Mist outfitted with rain slickers so they could enjoy the falls from below without getting wet.

Jean retired from the Manitoulin Health Centre after 39 years and 10 months as a registered nurse. She had given a lot of her time to help others regain their health. She proceeded to do some volunteer work for the hospital auxiliary and at the doctor’s clinic. Bill joined the senior hockey team, the Starlights, and played with his buddies, Wally Ainsley and Walter Granville. He also coached the senior teams. Bill continued to enjoy curling also. Jean joined him one year. “I was always cold on the ice so I lasted only one season.” she adds.

The Cunninghams have four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Son Danny is working at Nairn Centre where he is a machine operator for EACOM. Debbie is married to Jib Turner and they run the successful family store Turners in downtown Little Current.

We are sitting at a table in the lounge of the Manitoulin Lodge where the couple resides. Both Bill and Jean go over some of the photos of their early years and their married life. Bill chuckles as he sees the youth in hockey gear ready to roar. “I had all my teeth back then,” he points out in a wistful tone. “I loved playing hockey. I also like to think I was also a pretty fair mechanic in my time and of course, I was good at chasing girls.” He bursts out with a big smile. “Sometimes my temper got me in trouble over the years,” he admits, “but I always managed to settle the issues.” One can’t help assume that if Bill or another was stressed by his temper, Bill’s timely and superb sense of humour would have kicked in and dulled the edge of that sword.

“What am I most proud of? I am most proud of Jean. She is too kind and sometimes too generous but I love her very much. It’s hard for us to look after ourselves now, to cook the food, maintain a house and take our medications on time. That is why we have just moved to the Manitoulin Lodge. We are on a waiting list for the Centennial Manor in Little Current, the town where we have spent so much of our life.”

Bill and Jean with their grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Bill and Jean with their grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Bill is proud of his grandchildren too. When Debby’s Natasha, his first grandchild, was born, he and Jean drove to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the family lived. Bill bought a red velvet pram for Natasha. Later, when Natasha was figure skating, he ‘scoured the country’ and found her the red figure skates with white fur trim that she had her heart set on. Great ‘Gramma’ provided a red knitted one-piece suit to go with them. Natasha figure-skated until she was 16 using many more skates that Bill and Jean helped provide.

Angie, Matthew and later Bettina also used the pram. Bill would visit most days. If he found Debby trying to sleep, he would play with Bettina. Bill and Jean also encouraged Angie and Matt to play ice sports. Angie figure-skated and Matt played hockey. When the kids couldn’t get to the arena because Danny was working a late shift, Bill would pick them up and get them to the rink on time. Both Jean and Bill got to all 10 ballet recitals for Bettina.

When the great-grandchildren arrived, they were cherished too. Both Hunter and Carter, Natasha’s boys, followed in their Papa’s footsteps, and play hockey. They love to fish also. Angie’s two, Piper and Daniel, named after Jean’s dad and her brother Danny, are special as well. Bill and Jean love to see all their family visit. This is a real highlight in their lives.

Bill and Jean in a recent photograph.
Bill and Jean in a recent photograph.

“At first, when I moved to Manitoulin from Sudbury at 16, I thought Manitoulin was just too quiet. I missed the movie theatres and all the activities that go with city life in Sudbury. But after a while the quiet grew on me and I began to love it here. I felt safer on the Island. It’s a beautiful place and the neighbours are so good,” he sums up. “If I had my way, I would live forever and I would wish that Jean would be there with me. For now, we will do our best here. We have been together for 40 years and we live in the Lodge on Manitoulin, so we can be together. That’s what is most important.”