Now & Then: Ivan and Joan Purvis

Ivan and Joan are wed on October 16, 2004.

Ivan and Joan Purvis

This writer met Ivan when he kindly took the time to thank her for sharing stories of Manitoulin folk. He was very gracious and appreciated the work done to capture these histories. Some time later, he asked about a story the writer had done for Pastor Erwin Thompson. At that time, it was fortunate that he cordially agreed to do his own story which follows.

Ivan’s roots join the well-established and successful Purvis fishing family business, strengthened and promoted for decades, initially by his grandfather Ivan Purvis and later by his cousin George Purvis. With early guidance and support from his Manitoulin family, Ivan grew up to be a caring and responsible person achieving many of his life’s goals. His unique contribution has been to the shipping industry on the Great Lakes waterways from 1973 to 2008. “I’m a boat nerd. From 1998 to 2008, I was the wheelsman on the Frontenac, part of Paul Martin’s Canada Steamship Lines.”

“We travelled to cities like Duluth, Thunder Bay, Detroit, Quebec City, Montreal and Chicago.” This experience initiated a keen interest in the past and future of the shipping industry which includes all the boats and ships that navigate the Great Lakes. This initiative, along with his own roots, also fueled the love of Manitoulin’s history, yielding a vast collection of memorabilia connected to the Purvis genealogy. Ivan enjoys reminiscing over these. 

He recalls his serendipitous chance to board the Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior one month before she sank on November 10, 1975. “My boat was in Cleveland. I was 21. I saw the Edmund Fitzgerald being unloaded. I had to check her out and see when she was departing. I met the mate, toured the boat and talked to some of the crew members at the time.” This incident was so aptly memorialized by the Gordon Lightfoot ballad, ‘Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.’

Maternal grandfather is John Eadie, born in 1880. His wife, Ivan’s grandmother, was born in 1900. She did much of the farming, just outside Little Current, and John cooked at the mansion House, now the Anchor Inn. They had nine children. John outlived his wife by 16 years. “She died of strep throat when my mother was just nine. I was a year older than my mother had been when my paternal grandfather, Ivan Purvis, asked me what I wanted to do in life. I told him, ‘no fishing and no farming.’ He said, ‘I’ll take you to Michipicoten Island and we’ll board the James D fish tug so you can see and smell what that industry is like.’ I was not dismayed. I saw that the harbour was really a safe place, and I didn’t get sea-sick on the fishing boat. All these aspects were part of my anticipated future.”

Paternal great-great grandparents are William and Annie Purvis. William was born in 1832 and lived to be 83. He hailed from Abroath, Scotland and he sailed around the world for 12 years, finally reaching Montreal where he worked on the railway, later settling in the Kinross area to farm and be the community’s police chief for seven years. Eventually, he fished on the Duck Islands and was the first Mississauga lighthouse keeper from 1877 to 1897. He had five daughters and five sons. “Two sons, Alex and Bill, went to the Klondike to find gold. It was Alex Purvis who started the Burnt Island fishing station and opened the Central Store (now Central Pharmacy) in Gore Bay. More docks, a company store and fishing tugs were added at the Burnt Island headquarters. Bill later established a fishing station on Lake Winnipeg at Selkirk, Manitoba.”

“Another of William’s sons, Jim, became my great-grandfather. He fished the Duck Islands before starting the Clover Hill farm and continuing to fish out of Gore Bay and do the mail run there. His son Ivan, my grandfather, officially started the family fishing business on a bigger scale. Jim married Irene Porter. Ivan and Irene had three sons, Jim (my father), Harry and Rene. “It was Ivan’s second wife, Nell, that I recall as my grandmother. They had two sons, Mort and Jack.” 

“My father Jim married Kay Eadie, who worked at the Edgewater Inn and came from a farm just outside of Little Current. Her family had nine children and not much money. Mother was a very thrifty person, and very strict. She could split a $10 bill, 50 ways. She loved to can a lot of food each year. Frugality was what I learned from her.” 

“I was born a preemie, weighing four-and-a-half pounds, in father’s house on January 1, 1954 with the help of my grandmother/midwife, Nell Purvis. I was named after my grandfather and uncle. A brother, Jimmy, was born three years later. My dad had been injured while in the navy during World War II. He came home and, in 1953, managed the fishing station owned by my grandfather, in Michipicoten Island on Lake Superior. In 1956, after the lamprey eel had devastated the fishing industry in the Great Lakes, we moved to Sault Ste. Marie where dad worked at Algoma Steel as a machinist.” 

“A year later, Dad died in a car accident at age 31. That is my very first memory going back. I was only three, but I was devastated. More poignantly, I remember looking up at the moon, trying to see if I could spot dad up in heaven,” Ivan shares. “He had been buried in Gore Bay. Just after the burial, I tried to dig him back up, or so I was told by my mother. I had been very close to my dad. We had done a lot together and I recall that he always bought me a pop whenever we went out. I regretted something I had said to him at that young age. I remember sitting in the back seat and chanting, ‘go faster daddy.’ I was 15 before we could openly talk about my dad. It was too painful for both me and my mother.” 

Father and son, Christmas 1956.

“A year later, I remember burning my hand on a hot grate. We were having a picnic at Shrigley Bay. Grandmother threw cold water on me and all was well.” 

During the summers, starting in 1960, Ivan came to stay with his grandparents at Michipicoten Island. He stayed for 29 years. “Grandfather Ivan took me under his wing. His tutoring helped nurture my love for the water and ships. He said, ‘never challenge the water, respect the lakes. I have lost several cousins to drowning.’ He taught me how to be safe around water. He was also very keen on punctuality and honesty. ‘Your name carries a lot of weight,’ he told me.”

“He was always a stickler with money too. I recall one time, when I was 14, he tested me. He had consumed a few extra beers at the local Soo St. Morris Tavern. He gave me $20 and asked me to call a taxi. I figured that, under the circumstances, I would get to keep the change because he wouldn’t remember all the details. I was wrong. He knew he had given me the twenty and knew what change was forthcoming. This reminded me that responsibility bound by ethics is important too.”

Ivan, 17, in a high school photo, 1971.

“My grandparents played Canasta and I learned to play too. I made my bed and cleared the table daily. At 10, I got my first and only bike. Normally, I tried to avoid trouble, but one day I got into a scuffle with my friend Greg on the way to the candy store. We both dropped our bikes and rolled around on the grass for a few minutes. I got a broken tooth, but my bike was okay.” 

Ivan learned to swim at the local YMCA. “That is a valuable skill when you intend to make your career on the Great Lakes.” In 1964, Ivan joined the Boy Scouts where his ideas about discipline and responsibility were reinforced. 

“My mother later married Doug Purvis, a distant cousin. Doug was a captain of a Great Lakes freighter. When he was away, I became the man of the house. I would cut the grass and paint whatever needed painting. Mother also taught me housekeeping skills. In 1963, a little girl, Kimberly, was added to the family. As the oldest, looking after my siblings was an added role. Kimberly now lives in Sault Ste. Marie. Favourite shows at the time were the cartoons the Roadrunner, the Flintstones and the Jetsons.”

At Greenwood Public School in the Soo, at recess, we played marbles. You had to hit the wall and deflect the marble into a nearby hole.” Outdoor hockey, which Ivan enjoyed, was also encouraged by his school. “I was one of the fastest skaters.” Ivan had also been part of organized hockey starting at age nine in 1963 to age 20 in 1973. “I realized later that I had gone to several NHL games with Joan’s cousin, well before I knew Joan.” 

Ivan graduated from public school in 1968. The Bawating High School in the Soo came next. “There was no drinking and no smoking allowed during those years. Chemistry and geography were my favourites. I never got into trouble. ‘If you have to answer to the principal, you have to answer to me too,’ mother assured me. I used to go down to the docks and observe all the ships in port. I was fascinated with them and anticipated that they would be important for my career after graduation.” Ivan graduated at age 18 from the five-year high-school program with B+.

Weekends I worked for Uncle Jack Purvis on his tugs and barges for two dollars a week. This is where my love for a mariner’s life began in earnest. The ships were so interesting to observe. The shipping industry in general, and pictures of vessels, old and new, have always been a magnetic draw for me.” In 1972, in his spare time, Ivan also began to explore the genealogy and the history of Manitoulin Island. 

“I was still a new driver when I had a small accident in 1973. It was a wet day and my lack of know-how got me into trouble. I had borrowed grandfather’s car and was heading for a dance in Gore Bay. I took a chance and passed another car going over a double solid line in Evansville. I met another car head-on but got partially off to the side of the road. Nobody was hurt, but it had been a shock for me, and grandfather’s car was out of commission. As luck would have it, I found another ride that night to the community hall in Gore Bay and made it to the dance. The next day, I was stiff and sore and had trouble walking. Youth comes with inexperience and lack of wisdom.”

“After graduation, I was anxious to fulfill my dream of being on the water. I wanted to see the world by working on the ships. I have always felt more comfortable on a boat than in a car. My first ship at 19 years of age was a tanker that carried fuel for Cove, the company that ran the boat. Sister company Halco Transportation delivered the products. We picked up heating fuel and cars in Sarnia and took them to the Soo.” 

Ivan on the East Bluff at Gore Bay, 1959.

His last career move was to Canada Steamship Line, as a wheelsman on the Frontenac, from 1998 to 2008. “We picked up grain from Thunder Bay and Duluth and took it to Bay Comeau, Midland, Quebec City, Montreal and Three Rivers. From Duluth, we took iron ore to Hamilton, Cleveland and Detroit. We had to take a 730 ft. ship fully loaded, carrying 25,000 tons, 75 ft wide through the locks which are 80 ft. wide. We had only two and a half feet on each side to negotiate this huge ship through without damaging her. This is where my skills as wheelsman were really put to the test.”

A recession hit in the 1980s and much of industry was shut down, but the boats were still running so Ivan could work. Any time off he had was spent working on his hobby, genealogy, which was materializing into a vast collection of memorabilia and information. Time was also spent on his beloved Michipicoten and Manitoulin Islands. “I considered Manitoulin as my second home.” Ivan also visited Australia, New Zealand, the lights of Hong Kong and Bangkok. “Dead chickens covered with flies were hanging in Bangkok, contrasting with the luxuries of Thailand beaches.”

As part of the ‘Sunshine Club’ Ivan enjoyed 25 trips. “In Texas I saw where President Kennedy was shot. There were cruises from Florida, Alaska, and the Caribbean. I saw where Napoleon was buried in Italy. Later, a two-week tour in Europe took us to many major cities, ranging from London, the beaches of Normandy, Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, to Switzerland.” 

In 1992, Ivan, 50, met Joan Grant at her cousin Jerry Baxter’s home in Sault Ste. Marie. Joan noticed he was well-dressed, very polite and courteous. “Not a ‘diamond in the rough’,” she adds, smiling. They wrote letters and would get together when Ivan was off the ship during winter. “We started out as friends and later married on October 16, 2004,” Ivan adds. “We honeymooned after I got off the boats, in 2005. We saw Disney World and toured Naples in Florida.” 

“Joan has graced the second chapter of my life. She is my Rock of Gibraltar and was my guiding light through raging storms.” Her family also included lighthouse keepers. “My grandfather, William Albert Grant,” Joan explains, “manned the Mississauga Lighthouse from 1913 to 1946. Dad was the lighthouse keeper in the Great Duck Islands from 1947 to 1951. The beacon on the lighthouse guided ships in safely for many years. They could follow the light beam straight in.”

“We rented an apartment in the Soo in 2002, the same year my brother Jimmy, in his 40s, died of heart disease,” Ivan continues. “After my mother died 12 years later, we moved into her Sault Ste. Marie house, my ancestral home.” In March 2008, Ivan retired. He had been convinced to stay the course and finish the home stretch for a while, but eventually the urge to travel with Joan took over. “Nevertheless, it was hard to let go of that sailing life I had enjoyed yearly from April to December for so long.” Upon his retirement, he and Joan enjoyed their free time seeing the world.

One trip was with cousin George and Irene Purvis to Scotland to see some of the family history there. They also saw Canada’s east coast and the Cabot trail, the red earth and Anne of Green Gables in Prince Edward Island. The west coast and the Rockies were seen by train. Jasper, Banff and Vancouver were discovered too. All was recorded, itemized and any history cherished and stored. 

“Strengths? Always a good listener. I tend to be highly organized and skilled at navigation after so many decades at sea. I have never feared the sea. Waves that crash and break have always intrigued and excited me. In November, you can get 25 ft. waves on Lake Superior, but I was never scared because we had good captains. Coming home from the boats, driving a car had me much more unsettled.”

Another strength is his love for history. “Being a historian has become an acquired skill which is still being developed. My wife, Joan, on the other hand, is very talented when it comes to working with flowers.” 

“Favourite time of the year? Fall, the onset of hockey, football, less humidity, clear cool days.” “Favourite activities? At home, in the early years, playing canasta while living with my grandparents, until grandfather died in 1983; Snakes and Ladders, Monopoly, and checkers with my Uncle Jack Purvis, had been popular. Collections? Coins and boat pictures, paintings like the ones at the old Ocean House in Gore Bay. Later, genealogy was a compelling adventure. Areas for growth? Impatience. I have to work on that.”

“What might I have done differently, looking back? Not much. The only other choice I might have made would be to find employment as a museum curator or a writer of books. I stayed in one job doing work I loved; I did not want to jump from job to job. Nevertheless, my legacy is the history I have accumulated in writing and in artifacts.” 

“I have been blessed with good health and being able to stay in line with the work I enjoyed, sailing. Mentors? Grandfather Ivan Purvis, Uncle Jack Purvis, and my mother. I have enjoyed the guidance and support of family and friends that allowed me to reach my goals and become a productive citizen. I have also had the opportunity to pass my experiences on to the next generation. I have been a member of the Legion in Gore Bay for close to 35 years. We are members of the Anglican Church. We both love to visit older residents in the nursing homes to get their stories which add to the history we have put together.”

“When I was young, I took advantage of any chance I had to visit Manitoulin. Now, we come back here yearly and become reacquainted with family and friends who live here. I grew up listening to the local stories. I found that you tend to be more accepted if you are originally an Islander. We love to revisit all the local sites that we know. We like the slow pace. I continue to add to the Purvis Family history each year. At home in the Sault, we get the Recorder and the Expositor, and their factual reporting keep us in the loop. Both of us feel at ease here and that makes it all so much more appealing. Manitoulin is where it all started for me. It is the place I will always come back to, and this couldn’t have been a better ending to this story.”