SHEGUIANDAH—When families of customers stretch back for five generations do they become family? Overhearing the banter between the Strain family, proprietors of Whitehaven Cottages, and the Durbins of Ohio, who have been coming to the resort on the shores of Sheguiandah Bay, a listener would be hard put to deny it.
Sixty years ago, Bill Durbin’s daughter Sherrie was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder in which her body’s immune system was attacking her nerves. “It is a bit like polio,” she said.
The battle for Sherrie’s health took a heavy toll on the family, as it does with most families facing illness in a child.
“A group of men said to me that ‘when she gets out of hospital, you need to take a vacation’,” recalled Mr. Durbin, who will be 91 this coming September. “They talked us into coming up here for a week of fishing. That first year we stayed at Manitou Haven, with Jule and Edith Chisholm. We ended up bringing my brother up.”
That is a theme that was to repeat itself over and over, throughout the years, as the Durbin convoy to Manitoulin grew nearly each and every year. “So mother and I, a brother and aunt were soon coming along, so I called up Whitehaven,” recalled Mr. Durbin.
The Durbin clan soon made the move to the more numerous cottages of Whitehaven. “At one point we filled nine of the cottages,” laughed a now quite hale and happy daughter Sherrie. At that time the entire resort encampment consisted of 12 cottages. It was a real family affair.
“I even brought the mother-in-law up one year when the wife couldn’t make it,” laughed Bill Durbin. “She loved to fish. Been coming back every year, but one.”
Aside from the people, it is the fishing that largely acts as a draw, enticing the Durbins to travel the 580 miles from their home in Piketon, Ohio every summer to settle into the cabins on the shores of Sheguiandah Bay, although Bill Durbin quite often makes it up again in the fall for a bit of hunting.
“Bill (Strain) takes me out duck hunting,” said Mr. Durbin. “We go hunting too, Pop,” pipes up Tom Durbin. But all agree, the family that fishes together dishes it out together. The comfortable teasing would be familiar to most families that get along well together.
The Durbin family stays at Whitehaven Cottages range from a single week, to as much as five, and sometimes are repeated a couple of times a year.
“We don’t get together at Christmas or holidays,” said Sherrie. “So we try to all make it up here during the summer.” Sherrie has the longest trek of the Durbin siblings, hailing these days from Athens, Georgia.
“This was a really great place when Dave and Dorothy (Strain, Bill’s parents) had it,” said Mr. Durbin, shaking his head ruefully to a chorus of laughter. “That’s when things changed.”
“It changed so much we had to bring everybody,” chimed in Kelly Durbin, one of Bill’s sons. The other son on hand for the Expositor interview is older brother Tom.
Bill Durbin reaches into his pocket and pulls out a dog treat for Sam, the Strain’s camp dog, lying comfortably at his feet. Sadie, the other red Irish setter works security, explains Laurie Stillwaugh, Bill Strain’s daughter, who along with husband Matt are the new generation taking over the resort. “Sadie hides behind the tree and watches everyone who arrives, Sam just goes up to greet whoever is here.”
“There are five generations who have come to Whitehaven,” said Bill Durbin. “My mother has come with us and now my grandchildren come.” This year there were 14 Durbins at the resort.
Although Bill Durbin worked for Goodyear in a high security uranium enrichment plant (“I never knew what my dad did when I grew up,” notes Sherrie), most of the family works in the education field, a career they share with long-time Whitehaven proprietor Bill Strain. Mr. Strain was a teacher for 30 years. Matt and Laurie Stillwaugh are educators working in Sudbury.
Bill Strain, who is now well retired, was only 15 when the Durbins first began coming to resort. The families have literally grown up together.
So close have the families grown together over the past six decades that the Strains vacation home in Florida is across the street from that of the Durbins.
“We are really impressed with what they do with that walleye club (the Little Current Fish and Game Club (LCFGC) operates a fish hatchery on the Whitehaven property),” said Tom Durbin. “We are very impressed with what they are doing with the kids.” The LCFGC hold educational seminars each spring where students from local schools come to learn about conservation and the fish restocking program.
Bill Durbin recalls a story from when he first started coming to Whitehaven that illustrates why the family has returned every year.
It was a dark and stormy night, well, “a cold and drizzly day anyway,” he recalled. They were returning to a dark camp after a long cold day fishing when they discovered that their cabin was warm and inviting. “Dorothy came out and said ‘I hope you don’t mind, I built a fire in your fireplace.” Attention to their client’s comfort and well-being laid the foundation for a family dynasty that shows no sign of ending. Good thing Matt enjoys presiding over the Saturday fish fry.
Bill Strain brings out a display of camp brochures taped to a framed corkboard. The Durbins feature in nearly every one. “There’s Edith,” says Laurie, pointing to a picture of a somewhat younger Durbin matriarch taken sometime in the 1970s.
Whitehaven was established circa 1948 as an indirect result of the quarry operation across the bay. “The accountant from the quarry called and asked if my father could build him a camp for the summer,” said Bill Strain. One thing led to another and soon a small resort was in operation. “Dad decided to sell his trucking business and go into the camp business.”
Matt and Laurie Stillwaugh have the fishing resort business (and teaching) in their blood, as they set out as the third generation of the family to operate the resort.
“We really grew up looking forward to our friends coming each year,” said Ms. Stillwaugh. “We knew that when the second week of July was coming that this family would arrive, the next week it would be someone else.”
Whoever was arriving, there would always be a friendly smile and a warm welcome waiting for them.
“There aren’t that many left,” said Mr. Strain of the resort operations in the area. A combination of high taxes and operating costs have taken their toll through the years. But the Strains and their children have managed to buck the trend and a large part of that is the relationships they have built with their clientele over the years, a family tradition that the newest generation is determined to uphold.
As we prepare to part ways, Tom Durbin whispers with a grin “ask Dad how his fishing compares to his grandson’s.”
“I haven’t caught a single fish,” he growls. But there’s a twinkle that suggests he really doesn’t mind, all, that, much.