Reflections from My Life in the North Country

I was born in Montreal over 70 years ago in a little bungalow nestled between two, three story tenement houses on Chateaubriand Street. When I was six weeks old my parents moved to northern Ontario and it is a recollection from those years in the north country that I will reflect upon in this note. The silver mining boom was in full blast in Cobalt and North Cobalt where I grew up, although I remember our community as being mostly residential. It was divided into two parts by what I believe was the Canadian and Northern Ontario Railway. As for history, in the early 1900’s a group of immigrants from Sweden settled on one side of the tracks and it was here that my father and mother rented a large house. For the most part, the settlement seemed to be one large family of Petersons, Jacobsons, Westburgs, Bybergs, Graces – along with a few of us whose parentage was English and French thrown in for good measure.

I have many memories of life in Swedetown, as it was known. Here is one that immediately comes to mind. Mrs. Short, a neighbor, had a brood hen which sat on a nest of eggs that didn’t hatch. She told her son, Harry, to take the eggs and bury them. Instead, he brought them to the railway tracks where a group of youngsters had gathered – among them, yours truly. I was a tomboy and would rather climb a tree, play ball with the boys and engage in other fun behavior than sit at home playing with dolls. The railway ran along a top of a small incline with the road from Haileybury to Cobalt on the far side. Always ready for fun, each one of us took a rotten egg in hand and let it fly at the first car coming along the road below. We scored a couple of direct hits. As the car stopped, the doors opened and, to our dismay, outstepped two, blue-clad policemen. Needless to say, we scattered in all directions – some to our homes to hide under beds; others to seek refuge among the woods. A couple of the boys hid inside the old, deserted, ramshackle, grey shepherd house not far from the tracks. Two of the kids, whom we called “Goody Goodies” told the police where to look. While most of us escaped punishment, the boys who were found hiding in the shepherd house received a severe dressing down. Oh my!

I remember too, the forest fires which forever menaced our lives. Every summer, resident adults and children would labour together building huge barricades made of tree limbs and whatever materials were available; also, ditches would be dug to help in case a fire became close. Many a night we waited fearfully, watching reflections of flames from a forest fire as it spread, coming closer to us with each gust of wind. Dry weather was a strong factor and a forest fire could be started from sunlight reflecting a certain way though a broken bottle. Likewise, a carelessly discarded match or cigarette could cause much destruction. On one occasion a fire was started by a barrel of inflammable liquid which was on the railway station platform at the top of a hill in Haileybury. The barrel was accidently knocked over and began rolling down the hill. It caught fire and caused much damage. Then, there was the great fire in October of 1922 which caused death to more than forty people. A fire or fires had been burning north of Haileybury for some days and strong winds caused flames to spread throughout much of the 18 townships in the north country. These fires burned out of control between the towns of Englehart and Cobalt and caused massive destruction. Haileybury was burned to the ground other than for a few buildings on the lake shore which were spared. I recall an oddity. In those days we cut a tree limb. stripped it and used the forked end as a pole to hold a line of clothes. The home of a friend, Isabel Duggan, was located in the bush and was completely destroyed. Strangely, the clothesline pole resting against the house as well as a ladder, was untouched.

Well, my reminiscing for today must end. Perhaps another time the spirit will move me to write more of my recollection from the north country.


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