GENERAL ARTICLES

Wheatley Saturday Night

FREDERICK EDWARDS November 15 1938
GENERAL ARTICLES

Wheatley Saturday Night

FREDERICK EDWARDS November 15 1938

Wheatley Saturday Night

FREDERICK EDWARDS

Wheatley isn’t worrying about bigtown competition — It’s learned how to keep its customers at home

A FEW weeks ago this reporter travelled to a village in southwestern Ontario to track down rumors of an astonishing civic phenomenon. Where other villages of similar size in the same territory were waging losing battles against bankruptcy, this place, the rumors had it, was solvent, was paying off its debentures, had brought its $93,000 waterworks to a point where it was practically self-supporting. In this village, we had been told, there was no unemployment. No one was on relief. No stores were vacant.

Receipts of local merchants in this community, it was said, especially of those merchants dealing in necessities and the lesser luxuries, in individual cases, were from ten to forty per cent higher than they used to be. Bank deposits had been increasing for three or four years, were continuing to mount steadily. All summer long on fine Saturday evenings, this village was bringing together within its compact boundaries crowds of from 1,500 to 3.500 people, most of them cash customers for its shops. Here, these rumors ran, was one crossroads hamlet that knew nothing of a depression, which laughed at competition from larger towns near by, and maintained staunchly the community spirit of its founders. In defiance of tendencies toward decline, ruefully observed in similar villages elsewhere, and lacking any special natural advantages, this little settlement was not only holding its own population intact but luring visitors from surrounding rural areas, even from towns and cities as far as fifty miles away.

And how were these wonders brought about? Simply, we were told, through the enthusiastic efforts of half a dozen up-and-coming villagers, who, having figured that the reason traffic and trade were passing their hamlet by. was that their hamlet offered nothing to cause traffic and trade to linger, had set about to create conditions designed to cajole business back. A village band, a weekly amateur night in the Major Bowes tradition, an orator of substance for the profounder minds—all part of a weekly Saturday night jamboree— these were their lures, nothing more. Remarkable, if true. More remarkable still, it is true.

The Village That Fought the Trend

V\ TJIEATLEY, ONT., is a village incorporated in Kent ** County, although part of it is in Essex, and the county line, running north and south, bisects it neatly in the middle. The 1931 Dominion census records Wheatley’s population as 790 men, women and children, so the local claim for “about 800” cannot be called an exaggeration. The village has no industries of major importance. There is a planing mill, and a mile or two away on the shores of Lake Erie, fresh-water fisheries flourish in good seasons, and manage to get by when weather or water conditions cut down the size of the catch.

The flat fertile farm lands surrounding Wheatley provide its chief reason for being where it is. The farmers grow tobacco, corn, green vegetables, especially tomatoes, cucumbers, sugar beets and fruit. Situated as it is in the most southerly area of Canada, Wheatley likes to boast that its farmers are always two weeks ahead of the famed Niagara Peninsula with their fruit and vegetables. There is a moderate acreage of pasture land, and the beginnings of a dairy industry. That is about all.

Straight through Wheatley village, Ontario’s King’s Highway No. 3 flows broad and smooth and white. Here is the main route between Toronto and Windsor and Detroit. On the east are Blenheim, Brantford, Paris, London. Eight miles beyond Wheatley on the west is the bustling community of Leamington, dominated by the hugely sprawling Heinz canning plant, for which the claim is made that it is the largest of its type in the British Empire. Windsor is less than fifty miles away, and across the St. Clair River from Windsor the towers of glamorous, metropolitan Detroit beckon toward the automobile capital of the United States.

Keep it in mind that the highway goes through Wheatley. The Dominion-wide movement of the past twenty years toward the construction of such concrete - surfaced, straightly laid, carefully maintained motor roads, linking cities, crossing provinces, connecting each province with its neighbor and each with its bordering state, is of vital importance to the cause of rapid communication by automobile; but it has turned out to be a withering blight for many crossroads communities such as Wheatley. Before the automobile came, before those smooth ribbons of unending highway were demanded by motor-vehicle traffic, such villages were modestly prosperous, reasonably sure of a continuance of their modest prosperity. Over the dirt, or gravel, or macadamized country roads, the farmers and their families and their helpers drove into scores, hundreds, of Wheatleys throughout Canada every Saturday evening in buggies and light wagons, to shop for the week’s supplies and gossip on the plank sidewalks about crops, taxes, the weather, politics, religion, their neighbors and their relatives. The village store was a forum and a place of entertainment. Your crossroads storekeeper knew almost to a penny what his Saturday night’s receipts would be. Only the seasons and the weather regulated his calculations, and what he lost on a bad Saturday he would make up the Saturday after, or the Saturday after that.

For most such village communities, those days are now no more than pleasant memories. Over a paved highway, in even the most disreputable rattletrap of an automobile, the larger cities are, in elapsed time, no farther distant from the old homestead than were the Wheatleys of a quarter of a century ago. Bright lights, amusement and sport attractions, motion-picture theatres, big stores glittering attractively with neon signs, enticing with bargains, coax the farm trade over the broad smcxjth highways far beyond its former simple markets. Local merchants in such forgotten villages, standing in their empty doorways, idle hands in pockets sparsely lined, can do little more than watch dourly the stream of profitless traffic passing unceasingly by.

It used to be that way with Wheatley. Not any more. The highway to Leamington, to Windsor, to Detroit, still unrolls its flat length through Wheatley — and Wheatley doesn’t give a hang.

Saying It With Music

MOST OF the old-timers will tell you that the transformation of Saturday night in Wheatley from a time of gloomy yearning for the gcxxl old days to a gay period of profitable enjoyment for all, started back in the summer of 1932, with the Old Boys’ Reunion held that year. The brothers, Dick and Frank Epplett, who publish the Wheatley Journal every Thursday, trace the movement from that event. Even Jack Dean, who serves the cause as impresario, director, stage manager and master of ceremonies at the Wheatley Saturday Nights, is inclined to think that the idea sprouted from the Old Boys’ Reunion.

This reporter has a different notion. To us it seems more likely that the basic roots of this amazingly successful village enterprise lie deeper than that; probably in the time when Jack Dean and Clayte Wilson and Lyle Kennedy returned to their native village to settle down after many years of travel in foreign parts. Dean and Wilson were overseas with the C. E. F.. Kennedy left Wheatley as a youth for a long jxrricxi.

All three turned up in Wheatley at about j the same time “After we got the itch out of our feet, ” Jack Dean says having made up their minds that the home town was a pretty gcxxl place to be. ft wasn’t long j before this travel wise trio sensed some! thing amiss in their village, wondered what could be done about it. Perhaps it took the ; Old Boys’ Reunion to show them what there was that might be done; but had it ¡ not been for those things they had seen and experienced in remote places, they could very easily have missed the point entirely.

Business was pretty dull in Wheatley in 1932. The farmers from Romney and Mersea and Port Alma and Blytheswood and Staples and half a dozen other districts were driving right through Wheatley along that broad highway, going to Leamington, to Windsor, even to Detroit, where there were lights and laughter and music, as well as extractive stores and neighborhood gossip. But during the Old Boys’ Reunion business j>erked up. The Reunion Committee imported two bands. There was, literally, dancing in the streets, entertainment for young and old, speakers, singers, a carnival. Farmers and their families from miles around, who for months had been hurrying through Wheatley, leaving no more tangible evidence of their

presence than the faint odor of burned gasoline in the air, came back to the village, enjoyed the fun, spent their money in the stores they had for so long ignored.

Everyone in Wheatley agrees that it was Jack Dean who supplied the vitalizing spark which set the Saturday Night motor to turning over. “A live wire, if ever there was one,” is the term the admiring villagers use to describe Jack Dean, and it is a peculiarly apt one, since he owns an electrical appliance store in the village and also is manager of the Wheatley Hydro System. Of himself, in connection with the Saturday Night idea, Dean says only: “It was as plain as the nose on your face that if the Old Boys’ Reunion could bring the farm business back to Wheatley, some form of entertainment offered each week could hold it, or anyway a part of it.”

Jack Dean called in those other two globe-trotters, Clayte Wilson, his school chum, and Lyle Kennedy, his brother-inlaw. Between them they started a campaign to finance the organization of a village band and the movement was on.

It has grown enormously since that time, considering the size of the village. The Epplett brothers, with the assistance of Mike Gee, Wheatley Bell Telephone manager, and Bill Chute, who doubles as waterworks superintendent and village constable Wheatley has no crime wave that cannot be handled by a one-man police force — recited its history proudly in epic sequence.

The Wheatley Community Band was organized in the fall of 1932, soon after the Old Boys’ Reunion, and made its first public appearance in the summer of 1933, playing for a Twelfth of July Orange celebration. There was no bandstand or public park in Wheatley up to that time. The musicians—there were twenty of them by then were hauled around in a motor truck, and did their stuff wherever it seemed most convenient at the moment. Sometimes thev gave concerts in Oddfellows Hall.

Later in 1933 the village authorities agreed to permit the construction of a bandstand on a vacant lot about fifty yards off the highway a bit of land the village had taken over for delinquent

taxes and didn’t know what to do with. A year later a patriotic Wheatley woman turned over to the village the corner lot adjoining. The bandstand was moved back, and benches were made to fill in the open space in front of it. By 1935 the Wheatley Community Band and its Saturday night concerts were a recognized feature of life in the adjacent townships of Kent and Essex counties.

Entertainment For Everyone

TT WAS that summer when Jack Dean

got his grand idea. Amateur programs were on every radio station. Why not an amateur program in connection with the band concerts? All right, why not? Where will we get the amateurs? they asked Jack Dean. I’ll round up the amateurs, Jack Dean told them. So he did, and he has been doing it ever since. He scouts talent in Windsor and Leamington, even in Detroit, as well as in Wheatley and the country roundabout. When a member of the Five Mad Bairns develops tonsillitis at the last moment, or a sprightly young tap dancer sprains an ankle, Dean, or Wilson or Kennedy jumps into a car and dashes away for a substitute—and those boys don’t miss.

But, said the elder statesmen of Wheatley, we should offer something more serious than just popular music and tap dancers and quartets on our programs. Something the older people can carry away with them. Something that might even, maybe, give the lively younger generation fd for • thought. That idea brought into the picture the greatly admired and loved Dr. Leader, and his wife.

Dr. Leader is a physician, graduate of Toronto University, a cultured gentleman possessed of an evangelistic temperament. “Me, I’m just a roughneck,” Jack Dean says. “Dr. Leader and Mrs. Leader look after the speakers’ end of it. Everything is left entirely in their hands.”

The list of guest orators and their subjects covers a lot of intellectual territory. Among this year’s speakers were: Paul Martin, M.P.; Hon. N. Hipel; Joseph Unwin (on Social Credit); Hon. David Croll; Keith Laird. K.C.; Salvation Army Brigadier Bunton; Dr. Pengally, of Chicago; William Stockwell, of Detroit; Police Magistrate Brody, of Windsor; F.ccles Gott, former M.P.; Dr. Nicklin; Norman McLarty, M.P., and others of similar high standing.

The speakers don’t talk down to their audiences. Here are some of last summer’s subjects: World Peace; The Need for

Economic Reconstruction ; Security National and Individual; Some Things Canada Has Accomplished; Vocational Guidance; Foundations of the Present European Situation; American and Canadian Relationships; Making the Farm Pay; Advertising Your Community; Germany Today; The Menace of the Highway; and so on. By no means kindergarten stuff, any of them.

So. there is the simple organization behind the Wheatley Saturday Nights. Jack Dean to scout the talent and round them up with Clayte Wilson’s enthusiastic assistance; Lyle Kennedy to corral the finances; and Dr. Leader to handle the speakers.

“Strictly speaking.” Jack Dean explained. “there is no Wheatley Community Club, as such. When we call a meeting, everybody in town is welcome to attend, and most of them get there. We have no enrolled membership, no dues, no permanent committees. Isn’t that what a community club is supposed to be?”

Except that Jack Dean and his coworkers are always digging up new amateur talent the program for the twenty Saturday nights that make up the season runs along similar lines each week. Ten vaudeville acts, a twenty-minute discourse on some current topic by an informed speaker, selections by the band.

The show goes on from a stage, complete with footlights, built in front of the bandstand. Floodlights illuminate the square, which is located on a corner one block off the main highway, and other floodlights set at the corners of the square light up the audience. Performers and speakers talk into a microphone; and a public address system, installed by young Jack Kennedy, a radio enthusiast who is Jack Dean's nephew, carries the words and music to the far edges of the audience. Parking laws are suspended for the time being. The farmers begin to drift in around seven o'clock, and if they want to sit in their cars and listen, they just park any place they wish within hearing distance. The streets adjoining the park are jammed solid with automobiles while the show is on, and they make their own way out afterward. Nobody grumbles at this arrangement. It is just a natural part of the free and easy, friendly atmosphere. In front of Bruce Wright’s machinery agency and Lome Jackson’s gas station, just off the square, the rugged agriculturalists who have come in to talk as well as listen, sit on benches and gossip their heads off.

The Wheatley Hand

THAT Wheatley Community Band deserves special attention. Today, at full strength, it numbers forty-five musicians. The bandmaster is Ivan Coulter, a music teacher and choirmaster of Wheatley United Church. The bandsmen range in age from around six to close to sixty, and they come from all over the district, about half of them from Wheatley village and half from outside points. Ken Whittall, who plays the clarinet, and Bill Hodgins, one of the drummers, drive in from Staples, eight miles away; and although Bill Hodgins is a hard-working farmer, he hasn’t missed a night since he joined up. There is a red-headed youngster named Gross, whose father is a patent attorney in Detroit, tooting a mean sax for Wheatley all summer long. The Gross family have a summer cottage near by, and they all drove down for the final concert on the rather chilly evening of September 24. The kid wouldn’t have missed that last appearance for an engagement with Major Bowes.

The band is smartly uniformed in navy blue and crimson, with navy blue capes lined with crimson silk, white and navy caps. The adjoining townships of Romney and Mersea chipped in to help huv the uniforms. The trousers were ordered through the Wheatley agency of one of the biggest chain tailoring establishments. The capes were made right in Wheatley by local talent. Wheatley is like that.

It is a good band, too. Bandmaster Coulter has them thoroughly rehearsed, carefully disciplined. The band has won several trophies at fairs throughout the province, and among its proudest possessions is a miniature gilt harp the boys brought home from Michigan State Fair, a tough spot for any village band to compete in.

For the most part the enterprise h financed by the merchants and businessmen of Wheatley, who submit cheerfully to a five-dollar touch each year to keep the thing going. Walter Houston—not the cinema star, but just as good a man in his job supervises the taking of a collection from the Saturday night audiences, with results similar to those obtained everywhere from such appeals. Pennies, nickels, dimes, once in a while a folded bill from some wealthy and sympathetic outlander, and the expected handful of buttons, tobacco tags and lead slugs. Sometimes the collection reaches ten dollars. It has been as high as thirty, but that’s exceptional.

Bandmaster Ivan Coulter receives a fixed sum of $200 a year to maintain the band — certainly not an extravagant amount. All the musicians are amateurs, in there playing for the fun of it. They get no money. Some of them, with cars, receive a gasoline allowance when they provide transportation for other members to out-of-town engagements, but nothing more.

For the Show, Jack Dean acts as master

of ceremonies, wisecracking and ad libbing as gaily as Bob Burns or Groucho Marx might do it. Three prizes are given each week for the three most popular acts, the winners chosen by a majority vote of the audiences, who mark their selections on cards distributed by Walter Houston. Wheatley merchants donate the prizes. Bonbon dishes, safety razors, compacts, simple souvenirs of that sort.

The Wheatley Community Club has a surplus; at least it has this season. The extra money will this year be used to provide Christmas baskets for needy families in the district, for, although it is true that no one in Wheatley is on relief, there is sound Biblical substantiation for the sorrowful thought that the poor we have always with us.

At first the going was pretty tough, financially. The village has its average quota of hard-boiled citizens who shy away from newfangled notions, requiring to be shown, and then unwilling to believe their eyes. Jack Dean had plenty of trouble getting those diehards into line, but there is no more difficulty. The thing is a proved success, and as Jack Dean says; “Everybody just loves to ride on the bandwagon.’’

“I Get a Real Kick Out of That”

TN ONE special respect, Wheatley is

exceptionally fortunate. Along the shores of Lake Erie, only a mile or so from the village, are several cottage communities, bringing something like 300 summer residents into Wheatley’s orbit every year. Most of these folks come over from Detroit. Some of them are wealthy, all are moderately well-off. The Americans enjoy the novelty of Wheatley Saturday Nights, support them generously. When the newly fledged venture was still wobbling around on uncertain feet, existing only from week to week, S. C. Hadley, a Detroit real-estate man, dropped into Jack Dean’s electrical shop one Saturday afternoon and handed him a cheque for $300. “That,” Dean declares, “was the nicest money I ever did see. Even better than the dough I collected when they let me out of the army.”

No, the boys don’t have to worry any more about funds. There are fifty commercial hydro contracts in Wheatley, indicating fifty business places of one sort or another. Each contributes five dollars every summer. Walter Houston’s collection boxes provide any needed balance.

Wheatley shows its appreciation of the generosity of its American friends by turning over to them the Saturday night nearest the Fourth of July each summer, as their own show. That’s a real gala occasion. Amateur requirements for performers are suspended. Professional vaudeville acts hooked from Detroit fill most of the program. Given fine weather, that July Saturday draws the biggest crowd of the season.

Fine weather is essential, since the village has no hall large enough to accommodate the crowd, and in any event heavy rain keeps the farmers close to home. Mrs. Leader is sure that a special providence keeps an eye on the weather for Wheatley Saturday Nights. In two years they have had only two washouts. One last year, one this summer. Baseball clubs would like to know that secret.

Everywhere in Wheatley, evidence is freely offered to demonstrate the commercial advantage to Wheatley of these weekly jamborees. William Forshee. manager of the Wheatley branch of the Royal Bank— the only bank in the village—held to the banker’s privilege to refuse exact statistics, but stated without hesitation that his Monday morning deposits over a period of two summers had shown substantial increases, are still climbing. H. G. Hansen runs a general store, and tells you happily that his Saturday receipts are up from a quarter to a third over the figures of two years ago. Jim Lougheed. proprietor of the Wheatley Market, estimates an increase in his takings of close to forty per cent. Clayte Wilson, whose smart modern drugstore and soda fountain is a mecca for the youngsters, figures his Saturday business is about twenty-five per cent ahead of the seasons before the concerts were inaugurated. And so it goes. The merchants take on extra help to handle the Saturday night crowds. They have only one complaint: “We’re so darn busy in the store, we can’t get out to see our own show.”

Of the four most active workers in the cause, only Clayte Wilson, and in a lesser degree. Dr. Leader, who, in addition to his medical practice, operates a pharmacy, stand to profit directly from the rush of visitors the show attracts. Lyle Kennedy’s business is insurance, and Saturday is just one more evening for him. Jack Dean doesn’t expect to sell anything extra in the way of electrical appliances, although both he and Kennedy point out that their businesses prosper as the community is prosperous.

But it isn’t all self-interest, by any means.

“Don’t miss this point,” Jack Dean said earnestly. “When we started this thing, it was with the idea of bringing business into the village, instead of just watching it rush by our doors. But it has gone beyond that now. It is a sincere community

service. Dozens of the older folks on the farms, the mothers and the grandmothers especially, can get to Wheatley, although they could not conveniently go much farther afield. Our show is the only chance they have to enjoy a little innocent fun. Some of those grand old ladies have come to me with tears in their eyes to tell me

that Wheatley Saturday Nights have brought real pleasure into their lives, fresh interests, honest enjoyment. Boy, I get a real kick out of that. Life on a farm can be pretty drab sometimes for the womenfolk.”

Well, there’s the story. Wheatley, with 800 people, 250 telephones, 290 water services, seventy of them in the summer cottages, a volunteer fire department of twenty men, and one policeman—a typical Canadian village if ever there was one— Wheatley has done this thing, and done it in a big way.

Could other similar villages pull themselves out of their doldrums by the same means? Perhaps. It depends upon a lot of things. Most of all, it depends upon whether they have a Dr. Leader, a Clayte Wilson, a Lyle Kennedy and a Jack Dean in their midst, Especially a Jack Dean.