November 1993

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How We

Rediscovered Canada

in 1928


Robert F. McNamara

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV

Part I

In the early 1920s, when touring by auto became popular, many people who had homes along the American and Canadian highways posted front-yard signs, "Rooms for Tourists." After crossing the Peace Bridge, on July 2, 1928, we headed for Niagara Falls, Canada, and selected one of these local tourist homes in which to spend the night. The accommodations were very good. When night fell, we went down to the tidy park along the Niagara gorge to take in the color floodlighting of the great double Falls. We went to bed fairly early, however; it had been an exciting but tiring day.

Tuesday, July 3. We rounded the snout of Lake Ontario and swung thence eastward toward Toronto.

Coming upon St. Catharines, Ontario, we decided to stop for lunch. On its main street we parked in front of a small restaurant operated by Chinese. The menu was more generic than oriental. All that I recall is the dessert. "What kind of pie do you have?" I asked. Our Chinese waiter replied, Apple, peach, and laisin." I ordered apple. I knew it couldn't match Mom's apple pie, but I was not, you might say, "leady for laisin."

The drive along Lake Ontario's north shore was uneventful but pleasing. We intended to give Toronto at least a "once-over." In 1928 that city's population was only one quarter of today's two million, and the atmosphere of the present cosmopolitan metropolis was still "veddy Brit." Unfortunately for our plans, as we drew near Toronto a frightful cloudburst broke out, lashing the city with torrents of rain and hail. As we later learned, the storm uprooted many trees and killed five persons. So we simply bypassed Toronto and headed for Oshawa.

I suppose that we had paused at the first raindrop to hang up our isinglass side curtains. The main problem with putting up rain curtains was that by the time one had snapped them all on, one was already drenched. Nor did they add to the comfort of the riders. Inside the canvas "box" it was sweltering. Visibility ahead was poor because the windshield wiper was hand-operated. Visibility behind was even worse. Whether we had an outside rear-view mirror I have forgotten, but the two little rear windows permitted us to see almost nothing in that direction.

Before long, however, the sky cleared. Bill and Norm now decided that we would begin to camp out that very night. We stopped short of Oshawa, at Bowmanville, at the "Cream of Barley Camp Grounds." The title was a plug for "Cream of Barley," a cereal manufactured at a local mill. A paunchy, pipe-smoking, sixtysome gent was proprietor, and his wife was the staff. They managed a few unassuming tourist cabins and a camping lot carpeted not with grass but with rolled cinders. My companions pitched the tent anyhow, brought out the cooking gear, and asked the boss about rustling up some food for our evening meal. "The wife" was able to provide a few staples. But as we started to eat, the tail end of the Toronto tempest overtook us and quickly soused our grub.

There was a sudden change of plans. The tent was struck and we ran over to rent a tourist cabin for the night.

Tourist cabins, an outgrowth of tourist rooms, were becoming popular in both Canada and the States by the late 1920s. They were, of course, the ancestors of the motel. We found this first cabin experience at Bowmanville quite satisfactory. In fact, we elected to stay at tourist cabins thereafter wherever we could find them.

The turn of events did not displease me one bit. To date I remain blissfully untutored in the arts of camping out.

We three explorers arrived in Gananoque, Ontario, on July 4. Gananoque is located across the St. Lawrence from Clayton, New York, and looks out on the Thousand Islands. Naturally, we took a boat tour around the pretty isles and islets.

The little town offered us other diversions, too. On arriving at the tourist grounds, we had been greeted by none other than the local mayor. Mayor Willson was an outgoing, cordial, rural politician. (When he pumped my hand vigorously in welcome, he also squeezed my upper arm, which happened to be badly sunburned!) Norm and Bill asked about the possibility of a game of tennis. Willson straightway introduced us to Stanley Perry. Stan, who had the summer job of managing the tourist facilities, was a student at McGill University in Montreal, and, as it happened, a star on the varsity tennis team. He was happy to arrange for a match or two on an adjacent tennis court, so B. and N. dug the racquets out of our "baggage car" and hurried off to play. I may have looked on for a spell, but then I wandered off to window-shop at some nearby antique shops.

(Big of foot and uncoordinated of muscle, I was never much of a dancer or athlete. How, then, did I win that athletic "letter" on the sweater that I wore so proudly throughout Canada? As manager of the C. F. A. track team! "One of the best managers," Coach Ernie Craumer had declared when awarding the letter. Ernie was a diplomat.)

As we said goodnight to Stan Perry, he told our two chauffeurs of some excellent tennis facilities in the Montreal area, and gave them the name and address of a man who could get them entree.

After dark we sat on the riverbank watching fireworks light up the sky on the American side of the St. Lawrence. It seemed strange to be spending the Fourth of July in a country that not only did not observe the holiday but, as subject to the king of England, was technically opposed to our Declaration of Independence. That night we felt a little lonesome for our homeland, so close yet so distant.

On Thursday, July 5, we pushed on as far as Lancaster, a village very near to the boundary between the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. On the outskirts of Lancaster we found Trickey's Tourist Inn, an excellent little hostel. It had a restaurant and gathering place on floor one, and several rooms for travelers on floor two.

Mr. Trickey's name sounded English, but his family spoke only French among themselves. Mr. and Mrs. Trickey had a cute little sixteen-year-old daughter named Hazel. They also had a large black dog. The dog must have been a Newfoundland, for it bore the name of an explorer famous in the annals of the northeast Atlantic, John Cabot. Hazel had charge of "Cabot" (pronounced, of course, CaBOH). "Viens ici, Cabot," she would call out when he started to wander, and the big Francophone canine would come quickly to heel.

That night the Trickeys had a dance on the first floor. Bill and Norm, both graceful rug-cutters, looked in on the festivities but for some reason decided not to participate. I went early to bed, although the din downstairs kept me awake a good while.

On the 6th we set out for Montreal. Now, when we entered the Province of Ontario over the Peace Bridge, we found the country much like the United States, except for the many billboards advertising whiskey and beer. At home, in the bone-dry days of Prohibition, this sort of advertisment was of course illegal. But the Province of Quebec, which we reached shortly after leaving Lancaster, was truly and strikingly "foreign," culturally and linguistically. Bill and I had both studied French at Corning Free Academy under perky Miss Mary Wells. We resolved to find an opportunity to engage in a French conversation somewhere along the line. Meanwhile we practiced our vocabulary and intonation by translating the street signs.

The tennis address that Stan Perry had given us was in Verdun, a fairly large city within Montreal's metropolitan cluster. Verdun therefore became our first goal, and we stopped in front of the given address. It happened to be the city's police headquarters, for our reference was none other than Verdun's chief of police, Monsieur DuBeau. DuBeau had us ushered into his office. There he sat at his desk, a distinguished-looking man of middle age, wiry of build and wearing, as I recall, a toothbrush mustache and pince-nez spectacles. Despite his dignified bearing, the Chief was genuinely pleased to meet us and ready to oblige. "Come with me," he said in English.

DuBeau went outdoors, climbed into his official sedan, and signaled us to follow him in our car. When he pulled out into the city traffic he activated his siren, and ran interference for us all the way to the tennis courts. As we zipped along behind him in our jitney, people on the sidewalks gave us puzzled looks. They were probably wondering who the three characters were in this mini-cavalcade. Perhaps we were tempted to bow left and right, but we refrained from any such regal gestures. Yet at no time in our short lives had we been the objects of such public attention.

Chief DuBeau arranged for us to be admitted to the courts. It was a fine sports locale, and before he left us we thanked our host for his extraordinary courtesy. Today we remember little or nothing of that day's tennis. What we will never forget is our triumphant trip to the playground.

For some reason, we decided not to overnight in Montreal, but to push on a bit to the east, and return on the 7th to take in the sights. Luck was not with us. The only nearby housing we could find was at a ramshackle tourist camp: a cabin with one double bed and a cot improvised out of an old automobile seat. I nobly volunteered to take the little cot, but spent most of the night battling slope and overhang.

Back in Montreal the next morning, we bought tickets in front of the ancient Windsor Hotel for a two-hour rubberneck circuit. The bus took us, of course, to a number of notable churches, including the huge Notre Dame Church with its polychrome, Neo-Gothic interior, and St. James Cathedral, a replica of Rome's Basilica of St. Peter but only one-fifth its size. We also chugged up Mount Royal to visit the unfinished Shrine of St. Joseph. This was the lifetime project of a humble little miracle-worker, Brother Andre Bessette. (We didn't meet him then, but in 1982 Pope John Paul II declared him "blessed." He died in 1937.) The many pilgrims showed a strong spirit of devotion. While we were there, for instance, a bridal couple, newly wedded in another church, stopped off to seek a special blessing. The bride left her bouquet as a tender offering.

Our driver also pointed out the city's secular landmarks. He took us into the largest local fur store, which we found interesting as browsers but not as purchasers. We likewise halted at the "palace" of two midgets who bore the impressive titles "Count and Countess Nicole." The tiny couple welcomed us cordially into their home, where the furnishings had been deftly scaled down to the size of its occupants.

July 8, the following day, was a Sunday. We were now moving through the country-side towards Quebec. Notable along these highways were the signs of religious piety. Little shrines stood at many places beside the road: now a cross, now a crucifix or statue, often sheltered by a sort of gazebo. Erected, perhaps, in fulfillment of some vow, these shrines were neatly maintained.

Each country village also had a substantial stone church, usually ornamented with a silvered metal spire and silvered statues. We had spent the night of Saturday/Sunday outside one of these small communities. On Sunday, Norm went with me to Mass in the local church. It was intriguing to watch the populous farming families drive up in their carriages, dressed in their holiday best. The boys wore long trousers and high celluloid collars. Taking up the collection were two little girls with beribboned church badges pinned on their Sunday dresses. Sermon and announcements were, of course, in French. After the service the parishioners dallied awhile in the church square to catch up on the week's news.

Around noon, we resumed our journey to Quebec, passing through Three Rivers.

© 1993, Robert F. McNamara
Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV
Index to articles by Robert F. McNamara
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