Now & Then: Merwyn Sheppard

The happy couple on their wedding day, September 14, 1968.

Merwyn Sheppard

The Sheppard family is well known to Manitouliners, partially for their economic successes and because, like many other families here, their lineage extends back several generations. Merwyn grew up in Rockville and Espanola, settling in this Northern mill community where he was the clerk-treasurer for many years and the town’s Chief Administrative Officer in his last year prior to retiring. He worked with his council to expand sidewalks and roadways and build an exceptional recreation centre. Merwyn worked with the council that, along with the hospital board, came up with the idea of a unique local, comprehensive health system for Espanola and the surrounding area. Council acquired the land and began the ten-year journey to create the ‘all-in-one’ health complex. The hospital continued to play a key role in this project which could serve as a template for all of Canada. It is unique because it includes two levels of long-term care (nursing home), independent senior’s housing and a drop-in centre, assisted living, a medical clinic with a family health team and a community hospital. A pharmacy is also part of this unique complex.

As the writer approached the house, Merwyn had just returned from building a path to hold the side-by-sides for the upcoming hunting week. “A train of these vehicles has been set up to haul the rocks so we can get to the deer stands. It’s challenging work getting the rocks and setting them into place,” he shared, smiling. “Our Rockville group of family and friends, 12-strong at one time, has been hunting on the Island for many decades. Back in the early days, when I was a boy, all hunting was at ground level. Now we use deer stands which restrict the range of the shot and make hunting a lot safer.”

Great-grandfather Albert Sheppard emigrated with his family from Summerside, England. He worked for Taylor Locksmith in Toronto where his work had him fixing locks for the Don Jail. In the 1880s, he and his family moved to the Rockville area of Manitoulin where Albert became a farmer and also a locksmith. At one time, he was asked to open the safe for the Wagg family of Mindemoya. It seems that the Waggs were amazed that a local farmer could open their safe. 

“Grandfather Harry was just a small boy when his family arrived at Rockville. As an adult, Harry married twice and farmed the land. Elizabeth (Crawford), his second wife, became my grandmother. Mervin, my father, was the second oldest of 12.” Elizabeth Sheppard died in 1948 when Merwyn was just one year old. Harry died in 1959. Maternal grandparents were Perry and Grace Campbell and Merwyn got to know this side of his family quite well. 

Merwyn Phillip was born on February 15, 1947 to Mervin and Phyllis (Campbell) Sheppard in Little Current. He was named after both his dad and his mother. “We lived across the street from the old Charlie Parkinson log home, in a house owned by my grandfather Harry Sheppard. When I was two, the family moved to Espanola. After we moved all our household goods from Little Current, we sold our car. We used the money to fix up the new home and rented a house until our home was finished. Dad was working at the Hill-Clark-Francis Lumber Yard, later bought by Beaver Lumber. Dad continued to work as a yard foreman for Beaver Lumber until he retired.”

A sledding trip in 1991. Sledding is one of the couple’s favourite activities.

One brother, Kevin, was born when Merwyn was nine. “An early memory was my baby brother arriving home. Another one was the electric train I always wanted but didn’t get. My cousin had examined the finely wrapped box under the Christmas tree and decided that it was the engine of the train I was getting. I was beside myself with anticipation. Sadly, my delight was shattered when we discovered it was just a steam iron for my aunt and there was no train.”

School for Merwyn was at A.B. Ellis Public School in Espanola. “I liked school and math was my favourite subject.” In the higher grades, Merwyn became a crossing-guard for the ‘Safety Patrol,’ the group that helped smaller children cross busy roadways. “As a reward at the end of the school term, all crossing-guards were to see a Disney film and we were looking forward to it. As fate would have it, the Disney film was replaced with a documentary about the culture and the people of the Amazon. It was all right but not what we were looking forward to.” 

“My dad was a hunter and he trained me to follow in his footsteps. I had received my first BB gun at age eight, and I went with the men when they headed for the West end of the Island for a weekend. I would fire my BB gun and be officially part of the hunt, but it was my job to do the ‘dogging.’ This was the art of running about erratically and spooking the deer out of their hiding places, all the while trying hard not to get shot. It was just the way things were done back then.” 

“Eventually I was included with the adult activities and someone else did the dogging. Each adult usually came home with a deer. The MNR, Ministry of Natural Resources, would only hear from us if we found a sick deer, suffering from parasitic chronic wasting disease. Moose hunting was also on the agenda, in Sulton, near Chapleau. In later years, tags were harder to get, and we restricted our hunting to deer only.”

“Jobs I had at an early age at home included loading in coal for the old stove. I also cut the grass and occasionally helped with the dishes. When I was in my teens, there wasn’t time for work at home because I had an outside job. My dad oversaw the installation of the sewer system in Espanola and I was part of the team. Dad held me responsible for a good portion of that work. We had to dig many tunnels along the street and under houses. Luckily, we had a conveyor belt to remove the dirt, making the job a lot easier.”

“I was attending the Espanola High School by then and I enjoyed the academic courses. I still liked math so I decided to take a special commercial course. For recreation, I joined the soccer and baseball house leagues. We weren’t the top team, but we won games.” After high school, Merwyn went to the Espanola Mill and got work in the financial sector of the administration department. Later he became the cost accountant clerk there, a position he held for the next nine years. He was also working part time at Yocom’s Texaco doing tire repairs and pumping gas. Jim Yocom was the mayor of Espanola at the time. 

Merwyn met Sandra Corbiere while at a camp on Newby’s Side Road, in the Rockville area of Manitoulin. She lived with foster parents, Albert, cousin of Mervin, and Irene Sheppard. The day they met, she was visiting a friend at the Spry home in Rockville. After a few dates, the two formed quite a bond. Sandra was happy that Merwyn was clean cut and did not use a lot of swear words. Merwyn met a kind, beautiful girl. Sandra worked at the Credit Union in Little Current. They decided to tie the knot on September 14, 1968, at the Mindemoya United Church. Sandra had organized the huge Sheppard reception held at the Mindemoya Community Hall. There were lots of tasty sandwiches, desserts and a lovely wedding cake. 

A family photo taken at Espanola United Church in the 1980s.

The honeymoon took them all the way to the east coast of Canada. “We saw all the provinces except Newfoundland and Labrador. In New Brunswick we saw the ‘reversing falls’ and went to a fancy restaurant where I ordered a pork sandwich because I didn’t like seafood at the time.” Merwyn recognized someone at the restaurant. “Here’s Liberace,” he offered enthusiastically. Sandra asked, “Who’s Liberace?” Merwyn just smiled and shared this famous pianist’s musical talents.

“We were the first car off on the PEI ferry. As fate would have it, our ’66 Dodge would not start. We had to move the car over enough to open the hood and jump the battery. It was embarrassing.” After two weeks exploring the beautiful east coast, the newlyweds headed back home to Espanola. Sandra resumed working for the credit union and Merwyn went back to his two jobs.

The couple rented a house on Meade Blvd, near the ski hill, before they bought an older home on Albert St. in 1970. Two years later they bought a lot on Bois St. and built a Beaver home there. In 1972, Merwyn ran for the local council, and he held that position for just under three years. During his mandate, sidewalks were built in strategic areas and a playground with kid-safe equipment was set up in Pine Grove Park. In 1975, Merwyn began to work for the Town of Espanola. During his 20-year mandate he moved from accountant to clerk-treasurer and finally to town administrator.

The health centre, with ‘optimized’ integration, was begun in 1975 and was built over the next 10 years or so. “I was told that it was the first of its kind in Canada because it included independent adult living, a seniors’ drop-in centre, assisted living, two levels of nursing home care, a fully staffed medical clinic and a first-rate hospital for Espanola and surroundings.”

The couple has two children, Cheryl and Jeffrey, both born in Espanola. Cheryl is a registered nurse in Wiikwemkoong. Her partner, Alex Daroczi, is a retired painter. Jeffrey’s wife is Tammy Leeson, and they have two children, Kate and Quinn. Kate attends Queen’s University in Kingston. Here, at home, she has charmed the senior members of the drop-in centre by playing her ukulele for them. Quinn is in Grade 12 at Espanola High School.”

“In 1975 we built the camp here on Manitoulin on what was the old Stevens’ homestead. It was less than one acre at the time. The original house was taken down before we bought the place, leaving just the apple trees and the rhubarb. Now this camp has become our home. Almost 400 acres have been accumulated since then. Cheryl and Jeffrey grew up here and they have fond connections with this place.”

“Twenty years ago, I found out I was part of the ‘60s scoop by the Children’s Aid Society,” Sandra shares. “I discovered this from the records shared by the Grey Nuns. I was born on October 10, 1950, and grew up with my foster parents, the Sheppards. My Anishinaabe family came from Aundek Omni Kaning (AOK) First Nation. I have met some of my relatives and found out more about my ancestry. Both of our children expressed interest in finding out more about my side of the family,” Sandra explains. “More was revealed about Merwyn’s ancestry as well, during a trip to Dodsland, Saskatchewan. A pharmacist there trusted us to mind his store while he went home and brought some information about Grandfather Campbell and the house Merwyn’s mother Phyllis grew up in.”

A family photo taken at Espanola United Church in the 1980s.

In recent years, the couple has retired, sold their home in Espanola and moved back to Manitoulin. 

“Associations I was involved in? The Ontario Good Roads Association (OGRA),” Merwyn holds. “I was president in 2003-2004. I helped set up training for employees, including truck driving and the running of equipment that would be used on the roads. Paul Martin, prime minister at the time, came to one of the combined conferences for OGRA and the Rural Ontario Municipal Association. I introduced him and I recall that he made some impressive promises at the time.”

The Kinsmen Club and the Legion in Espanola were associations Merwyn helped fundraise for. He also helped the Legion by encouraging other services to frequent the bar for various festivities. 

“On Manitoulin, we are working with the Rockville Hall Community Club, to try to keep the hall open. Carol Sheppard is on this committee too. We run weekly euchres, monthly potluck suppers and many other celebrations. Volunteers cut the grass and fix the building. All of us are working hard to save the community hall with all these commitments.” 

“When the kids were young, I managed and coached the Bantam hockey team my son was on,” Merwyn adds. “We took the team to a competition in Trenton. We came in second or third out of a dozen teams or so. Daughter Cheryl was into figure skating and Sandra volunteered for the figure skating club.”

Favourite pets? “Freddie, our poodle, was a memorable pet, also Misty the cat who lives with us now. She is 19 years old.” Favourite author? “John Grisham.” Sandra adds, “Romances and scary books and movies.” Collections? Sandra collects coins and tea pots and Merwyn likes Franklin mint cars, replicas about seven inches long and he has about 12 in an office cabinet.

Merwyn’s Espanola council colleagues in 1972: Back row, from left, Hugh McNenley, Ron Duplissy, Ron Hagan, Blake Jacklin, Frank Gillis, front row, left, Marcel Rancourt, Mayor Ken Buck, and Merwyn Sheppard.

Favourite television shows? “The news on CBC and CTV and the show ‘Friends’ for me. Sandra likes antique shows and documentaries.” First wage you recall? “Fifty cents to a dollar an hour working in the local lumber yards.” Strengths? “Cost-accounting and doing the administration for various projects.” What are you most afraid of? “Snakes. We were camping with Carol and Ron (Sheppard) one time and after we started the campfire, a fearsome ball of snakes appeared from the ground.”

What three material items would you take to a remote place if you could only take three? “A blanket, a pot and matches.” If you could go back in time, would you do anything differently? “Not a thing.” 

Did you realize the dream you had as a child, now as an adult? “I wanted to be a policeman at an early age, but I am happy with the work I did.” 

Is there anyone who inspired you? “Paul Foster, a councillor and friend in Espanola. He always had faith in me.”

Satisfying accomplishments? “The water tower and water treatment plant in Espanola, as well as the sewage treatment area, a new public works garage, the administrative roles to launch the recreation centre in 1995-96. I co-chaired a committee for the fundraising and later for working on the project. We also got the library attached to the recreation centre. Being part of the evolution of the health centre, which would serve Espanola, the North Shore and Manitoulin, was special too.” 

Eventful highlights? “Back in 1999, a group of Manitouliners, organized by Ron Sheppard, undertook quite an adventure. Members included Paul Sheppard, Denise and Drew Purvis, Paul Sheppard, Dick Alder, Bob Paquette and Ted Pearson. They all jumped on their snowmobiles on Manitoulin and set their sights for Campbellton, New Brunswick where Richard Foucault, who managed a pulp and paper mill there, would be waiting. Ages of the snowmobilers ranged from the late teens to the 80s. I met the sledders in Espanola.” 

Prime Minister Paul Martin, right, with Merwyn representing the Ontario Good Roads Association.

“We all had nicknames. For instance, Dick Alder was ‘Kamikaze Dick’ because he loved to reverse his car quickly without looking back. Bob Paquette of Providence Bay was called ‘Shortcut’ or the ‘French Connection.’ He knew how to get to places quickly and found all the local bars in Quebec that way. However, one time we had taken an ‘extended’ short-cut and after a couple of hours, arrived at a set of railway tracks. Below the tracks, we could clearly see where we had left two hours earlier.”

“We started off quite well, but at Penage Lake in the Sudbury area I blew the wishbone suspension on our machine. It was fixed the next day in a Sudbury parking lot. We had lots of snow until we left Ontario. In Quebec we found extraordinarily little snow, lots of ice and minimum traction for our sleds. We had to rent some transportation to take us further north to the snowy parts of the province.”

“When we reached Campbellton, New Brunswick, the snow was up to the rooftops. Richard and the mayor of this town welcomed us. He gave each of us a Campbellton pin. We had thought about reaching PEI but there was not enough snow for us to continue. On the way back, we made it to Quebec City when we realized our time was up. People had to get back to their jobs and other commitments. Manitoulin Transport agreed to get our machines home from Quebec, and we rented two long van-limousines to take all of us home. That was quite a trip, and it generated much discussion for a long time afterwards.”

Memorable family excursions? “In 1975, Sandra and I travelled with mother, father, Cheryl and Jeff on a trip that remains a highlight for us. We visited the Columbia Ice Fields in British Columbia. In 1985 we took an ocean cruise and noted that the following summer, the same giant ship, the ‘Oceanos,’ sank in the Mediterranean. Another time, my mother, Phyllis, wanted to show us her family home in Saskatchewan. We rented a motorhome, and our family joined my parents on that most interesting trip where we learned a bit more about our maternal grandparents.”

“Manitoulin is our special place. That’s why we moved back here after so many decades in Espanola. It is serene and quiet. During COVID we got a lot more traffic, but now we are back to normal. This is the place where we fish, hunt, boat, ski, both on the water and cross-country. This is the place the kids come home to. It’s our home. The scenery, the landscapes and the falls are splendid. Jeffrey has the camp next door, and he visits often. You can go back in time here, to an Island that hasn’t changed much in 100 years. The nostalgic moments and ambience are part of the attraction, not only for us, but I suspect for many others connected to Manitoulin as well.”