CHARLES DOBIE : LOCAL HISTORY
KEARNS & VIRGINIATOWN, ONTARIO

Virginiatown, 1948-1953 :
Personal Childhood Memories

By

Johnny, Michael, Norine Jewell & Dinny Nelson, Virginiatown Ontario, 1948

Virginiatown, summer of 1948.
Back, L to R: Johnny Jewell, Dinny (Ross) Nelson.
Front: Norine Jewell, Michael Jewell.

Kathleen Palmer's enchanting account of her six years in Virginiatown captured the excitement of a growing mining town in the late 1940's and the adventures children with freedom to explore enjoyed. Her indelible memories of people, places, and times surely brought Virginiatown back to life for anyone who lived there. That has inspired me to describe a few of my memories from 1948 when Kathleen and her family left, to five years later when my family left in 1953. Our family, the Jewells, moved in 1946 from Waite Avenue into a small house at 10 Coville Street, across from the Lalondes/Dobies and across the back alley from the Wilkies. During the same period that I might have been in the backyard playing in Boyd and Sharon Wilkie's sandbox, Kathleen was conducting her "sit-in" on the front steps, until Mr. Wilkie acceded to her demand that she begin school a year early. I am 13 months older than Katy, so was already in school.

The Jewell Family : My father, John Jewell and his new bride Harriet Kanouse Jewell, came from "The States" to Wood Cadillac, one of the mining camps near Noranda, Quebec, in 1936. He had just graduated from the University of Michigan and the Michigan School of Mines, with degrees in geology and mining engineering. Mom had completed a couple years at Michigan. Earlier, dad spent summers during college working with his older brother Howard, a mining engineer at Noranda Mines. Dad was the youngest of 8 children in Calumet, Michigan, a copper mining town on the very northern tip of the upper peninsula of Michigan. His family scraped by in the depression years, and dad grew accustomed to hard work and long cold winters, graduating from Sacred Heart High to attend Michigan on an athletic scholarship. He finished as co-captain and goalie of the ice hockey team, and received a contract offer from the Detroit Red Wings upon graduation, a rare opportunity for an American in those days. But he chose mining.

Mom was one of three sisters from a well-to-do family in Manistee, Michigan, and welcomed, as a challenge, the move from a life of servants and comfort, to the northern wilds. Older brother Johnny was born in the mining camp (late 1938), I was born in Noranda (1941), while Norine (1943) and Brian (1947) were born in Virginiatown, Dr. Pollock presiding.

Virginiatown; Kerr-Addison bunkhouses & cafeteria, c.1947
Bunkhouses and Cafeteria,
Virginiatown, Ontario.

Virginiatown 1948-1953 : The boom years continued after the Palmers' departure. The rapid growth complete with hot tar barrels and the sounds of saws and hammers accelerated, with some new houses arriving by truck down Route 66, pre-assembled, or moved from mining towns where they were no longer needed. Kerr-Addison became the largest producing gold mine in Canada and the second largest in the world. The population grew from about 500 in the mid to late forties to about 1200 by 1952. Fueled by employment needs at Kerr-Addison and an eager supply of immigrants from war-devastated Europe, four bunk houses sprung up across highway 66 from McGarry School in 1947 next to the Parochial school. Newly arrived men from Poland, Germany, the Balkans and the Ukraine to name a few, came first, living in the bunk houses until they were joined by their families later.

We obtained a covered ice rink from Noranda after they built a new Forum. It was re-assembled in the "new town" neighborhood that sprung up between Virginiatown and Kearns. The Mayor of Noranda, Claire Charlebois, was a friend and business associate, so dad became the manager of the new rink. By 1950 there were two drug stores, two hardware stores, two grocery stores, two hotels, two restaurants, two barbers, three churches and two elementary schools serving Virginiatown, Kearns and Cheminis. Highway 66 and many streets were now paved and Santa Claus touched down every December into the empty lot next to Lockes Hardware Store. He emerged from the back of a stage after dark to greet screaming kids, the frosty cold eased by a roaring fire in a nearby barrel.

Though Virginiatown had two of many things, there was only one doctor until Dr. Hagerman joined Dr. Pollock sometime around 1950. Perhaps that was a purposeful transition as the Pollocks left, probably in 1952. Their son Barry and his pre-school friendship with Kathleen Palmer is delightfully re-told in her account. Barry was somewhat of a rarity in town being an only child. He was brash, self-assured, and seemed used to getting his way. He somehow became exempt from the usual deference younger children paid to older siblings and their friends lest they be verbally or physically cuffed for some impertinent act or another. At about age ten, Barry's confident swagger earned him temporary hanging around rights with a group of bemused 12- and 13-year-olds that included my brother Johnny, Jimmy Turner, Jackie Scott, Denny Nelson, and Kenny Webb.

Jewell house in Virginiatown, c.1945
Jewell's house in Virginiatown, c. 1945-46.

Coville Street : Our house in 1946 or '47 was tiny -- two bedrooms a living room, kitchen and a small cellar under the kitchen reached by an outdoor entrance. I remember preserve jars and lids left behind in that cellar and a rhubarb and vegetable garden in the back yard when we moved in. Dad left Kerr-Addison to strike out on his own, left the house rented to us by the mine up on Waite Avenue, and bought this one which he and mom expanded adding a bedroom, front porch, additional kitchen space and a full basement with an inside entrance. The wood stove in the kitchen was replaced by an electric one and an oil heater in the living room replaced the coal furnace in the basement. All that was probably completed by 1948, or 1949, as I remember a houseful of adults at the remodeled house for a New Years Eve party to welcome in 1950.

Life in Virginiatown in early grade school years was full. Hanging out at the lake, despite swarms of black flies, mosquitoes and horseflies, ice hockey, fastball leagues, digging tunnels through snow piles that almost reached the top of the lamp post on the corner next to the Turners' house across from McCall's Drugstore. But the cheering as the Saturday afternoon matinees at the Strand Theatre began, exceeded noise from any other gathering in town.

By about grade 7 the town began to shrink for those reaching early teen years. We had 7th and 8th grade hockey teams that played Larder Lake counterparts and met other new kids during the annual spring track and field meet with teams from Larder lake, King Kirkland and Kirkland Lake. I remember a bus full of McGarry School kids returning from the annual meet in Kirkland Lake in about 1951, all cheering and screaming out of the bus windows because we had won the trophy for most wins based on student body size, an award to recognize the disparity in size between the large Kirkland Lake schools and smaller schools like McGarry. Adult league fast ball contests brought teams and young fans from nearby towns as well. I met the Carter family kids when their uncle, with his distinctive windmill pitching style, came to play dad's McGarry Hotel team. Betty Lou Carter was my first crush, and her family in Larder Lake was very kind to me when I would hitch-hike over to Larder -- sometimes unannounced -- to visit.

Bruins: Boys Hockey Team, Virginiatown Ontario, 1951-52

Mike Jewell is front row, far right.
Click here to see the full version of this photo with the players' names.

Late August sights and sounds always included Scott's saw-truck, an old half-ton truck with a large circular power saw attached to the back flap of the truck. Piles of logs behind most houses blocked off one side of the back alleys. Kids gathered to watch Mr. Scott, and neighborhood men lift logs onto the saw-board pulling them up and into the screaming saw. The mine provided free wood to employees, however anyone wanting something other than green poplar wood like birch or maple, had to buy their own. Every winter the volunteer firemen rushed off to extinguish at least one chimney fire.

Becoming a newspaper tycoon : When I was five or six, my brother Johnny started selling the Northern Daily News. I became his occasional apprentice. We picked up the newspapers in front of Lamoureux's barbershop, went door-to-door, selling single copies at a nickel apiece with Johnny trying to sign households up for subscriptions. He soon had 11 regulars and extras to sell afterwards at the beer parlors, the street corner in front of the McGarry Hotel and at the gate up at the mine when the shift changed at 5 pm. I went once with Edward Lamoureux on his route and he took me to the bunkhouses at dinnertime so he could sell papers to the Germans, Poles, Ukrainians and other newcomers in the dining hall. I asked why men who couldn't read or speak English would buy the newspaper, and he said they did it to learn. He was right as some produced a nickel for a copy. Edward gave old Bill Joyce a free paper because Edward said he didn't have money. Bill lived in a self-built shack out in the woods some distance behind the bunkhouses and sometimes ate in the cafeteria. Bill was a scary, cranky, ill-tempered presence to younger kids, with his white beard and big old hat. He had two horses and a wagon with wheels or sleigh runners depending on the season. He hauled firewood, hunted and trapped; basically living off the land.

When Johnny was ten or 11, he retired from the newspaper business and at eight, I became a proud carrier for the Northern Daily News. Eventually, after taking over other routes, I had the largest route in town with 52 subscriptions. Each week day at 3 pm after school, I would pick up my bundle of papers in front of the barber shop then head for the McGarry and Windsor Hotels, hawk my papers in the men's beer parlors, then head next door to the pool room which had the best array of candy and sodas in town. I'd watch the pool games for awhile, say hi to Henri, the other barber in town with a room off the pool-hall. Henri, a gregarious French Canadian, loved to quiz me about who my girl-friend was at the moment. I was very shy, never had a girl-friend, but one day disclosed that I liked Patsy Spencer, which I did at the moment. I was sure that Henri didn't know who she was, but darned if within the hour I didn't encounter Patsy as I passed back by the poolroom, red-faced, embarrassed, but smiling, as she swung at me with her bag of school-books. Henri had spotted her earlier in front of the candy counter and announced loudly to everyone in the poolroom that I liked her. So much for Michael and Patsy as "an item".

Fortified with licorice and twizzlers, I would head up Connell towards Locke's Hardware store to continue delivering my newspapers. My first stop was at the Simpson's outlet just past the Chinese family's small restaurant. One winter Saturday, I came in the front door of Simpson's and walked through the narrow, single aisle to the check-out desk at the back. After giving them (I called them Mr. and Mrs. Simpson) their newspaper, I turned toward the front door just as Mrs. Bouchard entered. A few days earlier she had stormed out her kitchen door to stop some of us from overpowering her outnumbered son and his friends in a snowball fight. We had cornered them inside the side shed entrance to the kitchen and were firing snowballs from close range when she chased us up the street. Mrs. Bouchard was a substantial, fierce-looking woman, so we ran as fast as we could toward McCall's Drugstore. She stopped in the middle of the street, shook her fist cursing in French and yelling what she would do if she caught us. I launched a snowball with all my might from well beyond my normal range and was mortified when the longest shot of my life splattered squarely in the middle of her forehead! She resumed the chase but her angry screams faded as I established a new personal best in the 440 yard dash!

But now, in Simpson's she had me trapped, waiting by the front door until I tired of pretending to look at show-room furniture. I gave up hoping that a confrontation would embarrass her and marched to the front door straight into her firm grasp. She demanded to know why I had thrown snowballs at her, and after a fiercely whispered lecture let me go with the warning that if she ever, ever, caught me near her house, she would drag me home to my parents. I stayed a safe distance from her house thereafter.

I was the most easily distracted newspaper boy in Northern Ontario on my deliveries -- stopping to watch street hockey games, talk with kids along Connell street, past the Little's house, past the Drapers and Arthurs where the steep hill went up to the mine. Turning right, my next delivery was to a young family named Cox living in the second house on the left heading up the much smaller hill toward Waite Avenue. It might be 4:30 going on 5 when I delivered their newspaper and Mr. Cox often missed reading it when he worked the 5 o'clock shift, which necessitated an early supper and departure to be up the hill to the mine on time. A stern lecture from Mrs. Cox would improve service for a couple of days before I relapsed into slow motion habits.

I delivered the last paper at the end of Waite Avenue then came through the woods to the small granite cliff overlooking the back alley separating Dorfman and Coville. In winter I would pause at the top of the cliff facing west at sunset, and watch the smoke from all the chimneys all the way up Coville and Dorfman to the far end of town near the school. I imagined that the town would grow to be the size of Kirkland Lake, reasoning that Kerr-Addison was larger than any of their mines. Of course, I didn't understand the extent to which Larder already supplied workers to Kerr-Addison, nor that the supply of gold was finite.

Influx of newcomers : By 1951 we had lots of new friends who spoke little, sometimes no English. Regardless, they would be placed in their age-appropriate grade and learn very quickly. I befriended a German boy my age who promised to teach me German in exchange for help with English. After a few days that gave way to some other interesting idea. Poles and Germans seemed most numerous, but Ukrainians, Belgians and Lithuanians among others came as well. Post World War II tensions within the newcomer groups were still high, leading to occasional fist-fights. I came across the end of one fight in which a short German seemed to get the better of a larger Pole with the aid of a children's small tricycle. The Northern Daily News recounted this event under a headline "The Kiddy-Car Fight", the next day. For the most part, the newcomers and current residents got along fine, an exception being a brief, four-to-six-man brawl on the baseball field at the school during the township celebration of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in June 1953. Overall, the newcomers enriched town life, bringing volleyball and soccer to the beach and music we had never heard before. Mom and a couple of Eastern European musicians gathered at the house a number of times to play music. We learned to recognize if not understand German, and various Slavic languages as well.

Leaving Virginiatown : We left Virginiatown in late June, not long after the Coronation, in 1953. Unlike Katy's family we were uncertain where and for how long we were going. Dad increasingly worked further and further away, Kenora, Chicoutimi, or Mattawa and other new names. Mom went with Brian to Ann Arbor to join her mother, and a couple weeks later dad returned from the bush to bring the other three of us to join them. By the end of the summer we entered school in the States and never returned to Canada on a permanent basis. But the town that was, lives on in my heart.


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