There's still a lot of Leacock in Orillia
This is the place our greatest humorist immortalized as Mariposa. It’s bigger now. hut the old Mariposa spirit still lingers. Take Stephen Leacock, for instance: he's their most famous export hut ha1f the folks today don’t know who he was and the rest don’t care
With pictures posed by the cast of Sunshine Town, Mavor Moore s musical based on Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, and photographed by Paul Rockett.
AS MOST Canadians know, the Town of Stephen Leacock’s immortal Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town is not the pleasant place Leacock called Mariposa, but the equally pleasant place called Orillia. The two towns, of course, were never quite identical, and they’re even less so now. But it remains one of the heartening facts of Canadian life and letters that if there was a lot of Orillia in the Mariposa of forty years ago, there’s still a lot of Mariposa in the Orillia of today.
Oh, physically Orillia is twice as large (well, almost twice as large) as it was in 1912. And, although it’s still seventy-five miles north of Toronto, the automobile has shortened the distance so much that in summer tourists t hreaten to crowd the natives right off the sidewalks. The people have grown too sophisticated to hurry down to the station when the transcontinental whooshes through, as they did in Mariposa. There are five banks within a single block on the main street, instead of two. Where there were once eight public drinking houses there are now none. And if Josh Smith, the Mariposa saloonkeeper, John Henry Bagshaw, the MP, and Golgotha Gingham, the undertaker, have left direct descendants in Orillia,
they are pale aid of the orig-
inals. For all that, if LeReo^/mdl&idiéé ;pn March 28, 1944, at the age of sery^y-fCfiúMjíwer«xS()mehow able to return to Orillia he wonkisn»!. fibKltèéinself a stranger. He would find many of the Ähtögs: Removed and, to his even greater satisfactionp-at* JeíUBt Bn me of the things he loved to spoof. oveif smimi
There would be, for example, the Greái Lit«.v9g|( Shrine Undertaking, a chapter that wouid«4Ave èopjQ right out of Sunshine Sketches. Henry Jane#, a merstudent of Leacock’s at McGill University wlw» Leacock was a professor of economics, conoejt!©iife the idea in 1949. He wanted to turn the Leue$ß)g] home into a museum for original manuscripts, inÄ printings of about fifty books and other writings^ The home, on Old Brewery Bay on the south shore of Lake Couchiching just outside Orillia, is now occupied by Leacock’s only child, Stevie, who will be forty this year. It is located on forty-eight acres of beautiful woodland, has fourteen rooms and five bathrooms.
Janes’ idea lay dormant until last Oct. 28 when the Orillia Historical Society suggested that the home be purchased and turned into a literary shrine and museum. The next night at a town-council meeting Orillia’s big implacable mayor, John
Maclsaac, armed with a letter from Stevie Leacock’s lawyer which stated the house was for sale for fifty thousand dollars, read three letters to the council. These were from Louis Blake Duff of Welland, and William Arthur Deacon and Gladstone Murray of Toronto. They commended the Leacock plan and expressed (he hope the council would authorize a fifteen-thousand-dollar contribution over a three-year period “to assist in preserving the Leacock estate as a literary shrine and a tourist attraction.”
The council chamber began to rumble. There were snorts of laughter.
“Were any cheques attached to their letters?” called Deputy Reeve Thomas Lam brick.
‘'Wií’v^Ñ» worrying about raising a thousand
dollars to do some work on the Barrie road,” observed Alderman Gordon Hammond. “Where are we going to get five thousand a year for the next three years?”
“If it runs at a loss and becomes a public trust,” posed Alderman William Brown, “the citizens will have to look after it.”
“The tourist buáiness is an important one,” Alderman Ken Curtis demurred. “It benefits everyone.”
“The tourist business is overrated and gets all the publicity,” retorted Alderman Brown. “People forget that there are good stable industries that are the backbone of the town, and they don’t get any publicity.”
Mayor Maclsaac, pained by the uproar, called
for order. “I don’t often take issue with other members of the council, but in this case I feel I have to,” he admonished. “I consider it very unfortunate that the council as a whole takes the Leacock proposal as a laughing matter. I consider it a very serious matter.”
As recently as last January the issue had not been resolved. In the classic manner of town councils, a special committee was appointed to investigate the matter further and when this article went to press it had made no report.
Leacock might have found last December’s mayoralty campaign worthy of his attention. He wrote more than forty years ago: “ . . . the minister says that his sacred calling will not allow him to take part in politics and that his sacred calling pre-
vents him from breathing even a word of harshness against his fellow man, but that when it comes to the elevation of the ungodly into high places then he’s not going to allow his sacred calling to prevent him from saying just what he thinks of it.” The election issue last Dec. 6, when Mayor Maclsaac was returned, was, according to the mayor, a matter of religion. “I am a Roman Catholic,” he told a reporter. “My worthy opponent, ex-mayor Wilbur Cramp, is a Protestant. In his campaign speeches he claimed that this town couldn’t afford to be dominated by Catholics. Then a letter was sent out by the Baptist pastor, Robert Guthrie, stating that Catholicism was on the march in Orillia. It urged people to vote Protestant on
Dec. 6. The letter
Continued on page 80
There's Still a Lot of Leacock in Orillia
CONTINUED EROM PAGE 19
advised people seeking further information to call seven-three-eight-three. That was the phone number of Wilbur Cramp’s committee rooms.”
Maclsaac was returned by a narrow margin, 2,250 votes to Cramp’s 1,940.
But while it’s true Orillia has retained some of the flavor Leacock loved
to sample, there is less evidence that the people themselves have retained an interest in the creator of Mariposa. The big, rawboned editor of the Daily Packet and Times, Farmer Tissington, has given front-page headlines to the Leacock shrine undertaking, and has written editorially about the town council’s attitude toward it. But he doubts that more than fifty percent of the populace ever heard of Leacock. Mayor Maclsaac places the percentage even lower. Librarian Mary Sheridan, an effervescent girl who is the secretary of the Orillia Historical Society, says
that when the annual Stephen Leacock Award dinner (at which the Leacock Medal is presented to the Canadian humorist deemed most humorous by the Canadian Authors’ Association) is held in Orillia “out-of-towners are quite interested, but we have a job selling tickets in town.”
Similarly, out-of-towners visit Miss Sheridan more frequently than Orillians at the public library to enquire about the bronze bust of Leacock that stands in the downstairs reading room. Done by Elizabeth Wyn Wood, the largerthan-lifesize bust is mounted on a high
white-birch-and-glass stand that contains drawers and trays laden with Leacock pictures, letters, clippings, manuscripts and early editions.
It is the opinion of Griffith Bingham, an Orillia lawyer, that Leacock’s picture of the town attracted more attention after the writer’s death than during his lifetime. Bingham’s father, Horace E. Bingham, was an undertaker on whom Leacock modeled Golgotha Gingham, one of the more prominent characters in Sunshine Sketches. Older Orillia residents say the Bingham family was greatly annoyed by the Leacock caricature but Griffith Bingham, the lawyer, dissents. “I recall that my father may have been a little concerned by Gingham’s preoccupation with—ah—business,” he said recently, “but that was all.”
“I’m not sure that I’ve ever read the book,” Bingham continued. “It’s my impression that it became popular long after it was written.”
A man who is endeavoring to keep Sunshine Sketches high on the popularity lists is Eric (Bud) Bacon, who runs Bacon’s drugstore on Orillia’s main street, Mississaga Street. Each summer, when tourists swell Orillia’s official 12,796 population by another 15,000 as they pour into about 3,000 cottages that line neighboring lakes— Simcoe, Couchiching, Bass, Sparrow and St. George’s—the druggist gives over a window for two weeks to the book’s display.
“We’ve been averaging a sale of three hundred and fifty books for the past several summers,” says Bacon, a booming, bustling, friendly man. “I plug any Canadian books I can lay hand to. I refuse to stock that pulp stuff. It isn’t fit for our kids to read, those comic books and pulp magazines. Now that Leacock book’s wonderful stuff. Too much satire for kids, of course, but they’ll grow to it with decent stuff as long as I stock a book in this place.”
Bacon’s drugstore, like the rest of the business firms crowded tightly into three blocks on Mississaga Street, stays open until nine o’clock Friday night and all day Saturday. Those two are the big shopping days in Orillia. The sons and daughters of the people who used to watch Leacock’s trains roar through have apparently switched their allegiance to the brightly lighted main drag on Friday night, for they line both sides of the crowded streets— parked in their cars watching the pageant of shoppers. Mississaga Street is built on a hill that rises gently from Lake Couchiching and reaches a crown halfway up the street before gently dipping down again.
One of the town’s more remarkable buildings is the red-brick Opera House which is a combined movie theatre and town hall, housing the municipal offices and including the council chamber and the mayor’s office. Somewhat incongruously, the words Orillia Town Hall are etched in the ancient red-stone facing of the entrance over a painted placard. This announces that it is the Opera House, the Friendly Family Theatre. The movies, which run to double features, are shown on the building's second floor.
Because it’s a tourist centre in summer, with a trading area embracing thirty thousand people, Orillia has a number of large modern restaurants closely bunched on the main stem. There are twenty-two chain stores but none of suburbia’s ubiquitous giants— the supermarkets. Nor are there any drinking houses, which went out with local option in 1908.
Leacock wrote at length about Josh Smith’s hotel, which in real life was called the Daly House and was owned by Big Jim Smith. But that building
is gone, as are the other outlets of the era, the Orillia House, the American Hotel, the Simcoe House, the Grand Central Hotel, Fralick’s Hotel and the Queen’s Hotel. A hotel called the Orillia House stands today, but on a different location. Four years ago a government liquor store, for packaged goods, and a government brewers’ warehouse were legalized and established in Orillia.
Until then, Orillians with a thirst crossed the Narrows, a stream that joins Lake Simcoe and Lake Couchiching, on a three-mile drive to the little town of Atherley which, as one Orillia native observed dryly recently, “had the good sense to put down in Ontario County, which is wet.” There, two hotels serve licensed beer.
The method by which Orillians, living in Simcoe County, acquired spirituous liquors was considerably more inconvenient — it involved a round-trip drive of fifty miles to Barrie. A man with no car could usually find a taxi driver to help him out. The man gave the driver a signed government liquor slip, the price of the purchase and fifty cents for his trouble. When the driver had enough orders—and enough half dollars—to make the trip worthwhile, he’d take off for Barrie and return with a load of liquor.
The Belle Sails No More
Leacock, who enjoyed a convivial glass, found the whole process painful and once told a McGill friend it was one of the few things about returning to Orillia, where he spent his summers, that distressed him.
He loved fishing and used to go out alone in a sailboat on Couchiching, disdaining a motor boat “because they always get there,” to fish for lake trout. Neighboring Lake Simcoe, on the north shore of which Orillia is located, is well stocked with lake trout, black bass, pickerel and perch, and anglers find Couchiching fair to good for muskie fishing. Marine excursions, like that of Leacock’s fictitious Knights of Pythias, on which the Mariposa Belle sank in four feet of water, are no more. In fact, none of the three steamers that used to ply the lakes for Sunday school picnics and for sight-seers—the Sconscie, the Islay and the Enterprise (which was the Mariposa Belle)—are used on Simcoe or Couchiching these days. They’ve been replaced by privately owned motor boats and sailboats, and only the occasional motor launch serves for sight-seeing.
Similarly, there’s been a marked change in Orillia’s industrial complex. Its extent was a few lumber mills when Leacock was a young man; today the town employs about twenty-two hundred people in thirty-eight factories that turn out such products as baby carriages and wood-filter screens, mackinaw clothing and air-conditioning systems, mild steel castings and motor boats, fluorescent lighting reflectors and septic tanks. All of them are bumming in a manner that would draw the full approval of Leacock, the economist.
Leacock the humanitarian would also approve a facet of Orillia life with which thousands of people in Ontario immediately associate the town’s name —the Ontario Hospital School, a training centre for mentally retarded children that has twenty-four hundred patients and a long waiting list. Its sprawling red-brick buildings are on the town’s southern outskirts just off Highway No. 11, and its towering red chimney is one of the most familiar landmarks to people speeding north to Huntsville, Algonquin Park or North Bay.
As a local celebrity, however, Lea-
cock is still outranked by a man named Samuel de Champlain, just as he was during his lifetime. Orillia’s pride, then and now, is the $34,000 Champlain monument, thirty-six feet high topped by the twelve-foot figure of Champlain. It stands in beautiful Couchiching Beach Park, less than a mile from the centre of town, amid hundreds of big old maple trees overhanging a wide expanse of rolling lawns.
The idea for such a monument to the first white man to see the present site of Orillia (Champlain spent a winter there with a band of Hurons in 1615) was
presented to the Canadian Club in 1912 by C. H. Hale, now a spare, sparklingeyed, retired newspaper editor who was eighty last December. Because of World War I and subsequent soaring costs it wasn’t completed until 1925. It was designed by Vernon March of Famborough, England, who designed the national war memorial at Ottawa, and it weighs more than a hundred tons. Champlain, done in bronze, stands plumed hat in hand on a pedestal of Benedict stone on two sides of which are life-size figures in bronze, representing commerce and religion.
“It is one of the finest examples of bronze statuary in existence,” says white-haired Harold Hale, “and I regard it as a great credit to Orillia. This was a go-ahead little town long before we conceived the idea of a monument however; our Canadian Club, for example, was the first town Canadian Club on the continent when we formed it in 1905. One of our frequent speakers was Stephen Leacock. In 1908 we built the biggest town YMCA in the world, although we didn’t know it at the time. A year or so later one of our board members
was in Springfield, Mass., the American YMCA headquarters, and he saw a picture of our building. Under the picture was the notation, ‘The Biggest Town Y in the World.’ Why, in that era the Presbyterian Church wanted a Sunday school building. The merchants in this town, remarkably publicspirited men like John North way, Thomas Mulcahy, Hubert Cook, J. B. Tudhope, a prince among merchant princes, and T. A. Main, simply put their hands in their pockets and built a 8ixty-thousand-dollar building. Then they put in it the seventh largest organ in Canada, a magnificent affair with seventy-eight stops.”
Hale helped found the Orillia Board of Trade in 1898 and was an executive officer for fifty-one years. He recalls that his friend Leacock played virtually no part in the community life. “His public relations were largely cricket, which he loved to play and which we played often,” Hale smiles in recollection. “Of course, he was off at McGill for long stretches every year.”
“The Board of Trade had seventynine charter members,” he recalls, “and I am the lone survivor. Stephen was not a member, nor would he join that first year when we got up to a hundred members. There again, I am the only survivor. I was born the same year as Sir Winston Churchill, Arthur Meighen, Herbert Hoover and, I am proud to say, I am one day older than the late Mackenzie King would have been.”
Hale was editor of the Packet and Times, largely, he says, “because my father and uncle established it. Although we ran a Conservative paper, most of my friends were Liberals. I prevailed upon them, during the time of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, to invite a vigorous Conservative, George T. Dennison, for thirty years the chief magistrate of Toronto, to speak to the Canadian Club. In his speech Dennison excoriated Laurier’s reciprocity treaty, and his words carried to papers across the country. Right here in Orillia, George Dennison fired the shots that turned Laurier out.”
Hale recalls that Leacock participated in politics only once—in 1911 when he stumped East Simcoe on behalf of Conservative W. H. Bennett. “He spoke at every little crossroads and was magnificent,” Hale relates. “Whenever Stephen was making a political speech he was deadly earnest; he never cracked a joke. It was strange; in our little community here we had one of the country’s greatest orators, often speaking to a handful of people in a farmyard.”
Leacock’s eloquence must have helped; Bennett was elected in a traditional Liberal riding.
Leacock was always fascinated by Orillia’s history, if not by its politics, for this was the land of the Midland martyrs, dating back to Canada’s earliest records. It goes back to Champlain and his fifteen French companions who led a band of Huron Indians against the Iroquois nearly 350 years ago. The Iroquois retaliated with a series of raids which by 1649 had virtually wiped out the Hurons. The whole area, which stretches west to the shores of Georgian Bay and is called Huronia, was the land on which a tiny band of Jesuit missionaries brought Christianity to this country.
When the Jesuits were driven out by the Iroquois in 1649, the country returned to its wild state and gradually Ojibway Indians drifted in and stayed for a hundred years and more. Following Wolfe’s triumph on the Plains of Abraham, title to all of New France, including the Huronia wilderness, passed from the French to the English.
Alexander Henry was the first
Englishman to visit Huronia, in 1764. Thirty years later Governor John Graves Simcoe of Upper Canada paid a visit and recommended to the British government that a military post be established at Penetanguishene, thirty miles northwest of Orillia’s present site. Orillia was taken over by English immigrants during the next fifteen years, and they developed it into a lumbering centre. They called their town Newtown. Then the name was changed to Orillia, from the Spanish word orilla, meaning bank or shore, probably by a British town official who had been in the Spanish peninsula. This, at any rate, is the opinion of the former British ambassador to Spain, Sir Mortimer Duran. Orillia was incorporated as a village in 1867 and became a town eight years later when its population had grown to 2,000.
It was about then that the Leacocks arrived, when Stephen was six. His father emigrated from England in 1875 and settled on a farm where, as Stephen used to say, “by great diligence he was just able to pay the hired hands and raise enough grain to seed the next year’s crop.”
These were wild and roisterous times, according to editor Hale. “Lumbermen came down from the bush after months of hard work, got roaring drunk, fell in the gutters and were rolled in the bars for whatever pay they had left.”
Les Frost’s a Local Boy
This was an era in which Orillia won great distinction in international sports. It was the time of Jake Gaudaur, one of the world’s great oarsmen who whipped the famed Ned Hanlan for the American championship in 1887 at Pullman, 111., and then won from him again in 1890 at Duluth. In 1894, against the greatest scullers in the world, Gaudaur set a world’s record for three miles with one turn at Austin, Texas, winning by more than two hundred yards in nineteen minutes, one and a half seconds, a time that has never been bettered.
Another of Orillia’s immortal athletes was Walter Knox, a star in events from sprinting to shot-putting. In 1909 at San Francisco he equalled the world’s 100 yards record of 9 3/5 seconds. He won the all-round professional championship of the U. S. in 1913. The following year in London he won the championship of the British Isles.
In its production of men like Leacock and Gaudaur and Knox, Orillia has changed from the days in which the humorist wrote about it. But he’d still find it had native-born heroesone of them Leslie Frost, the Conservative premier of Ontario who was born in Orillia and now lives in Lindsay. It’s unlikely that the reserved and careful Frost would offer much material for Leacock but for today’s Orillia he offers a quiet source of pride.
“He’s the current local boy who made good and his popularity is incredible,” .sighs the mayor, John Maclsaac, who is also president of the East Simcoe Liberal Association. “This area always goes Liberal in a federal election, but Frost wins for the Conservatives every time provincially. Just the mention of his name automatically elects anybody the Conservatives choose to run around here. The old women love him, the businessmen admire him and, doggone it, I even like him. A shrine for Leacock! Say, you canvass for a shrine for Les Frost around here and you’d have all the money you’d need by tomorrow.” if
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