My first 7 years – “Dole Days.”

Ron North
 

The end of the 1920’s ushered in the long years of the Great Depression and saw our family become dependent on government food relief for the unemployed. Like thousands of others my Dad made the regular pilgrimage to collect coupons entitling his family to exchange these for food.  The recipients were required to have no tangible assets. Meagre child endowment payments were our only regular cash flow.

I remember my Mother’s tears on one occasion when she had planned to send us on a rare trip to “the pictures” – sixpence each for a double feature with two cartoons and a chapter of a continuing “serial”, plus a free ice-block at Interval. Alas, she had somehow misplaced the endowment cheque! Luckily for us Grandma North lived not far away. We were often invited over for Sunday dinner, roast beef with all the trimmings. Who can forget her apple pie, and her cream cakes? She knew the way to a young boy’s heart.

It got to the stage, with no money to pay the rent; where it seemed inevitable that we leave Sunnyside and the little house where I was born. The only alternative was for Dad to take us back to live at Wangi in the waterfront home where our grandfather had lived during the road-building project of the 1929’s. With great trepidation Mum gathered the family together and so began the long trip to Wangi. We travelled first to Toronto by train then took a 1½ hour ferry ride to our destination. Dad had gone ahead by road with our few belongings about one week before.

For a small boy of four, being on the ferry was a wonderful new adventure. I could not comprehend the vastness of the Lake, with its changing shoreline and the bush extending to the hilltops on every side. It soon became obvious that the houses at Wangi were few; at least we thought so until we came ashore in the middle of the village. Stores of fresh food, meat, the mail and newspapers were unloaded, and a group of people were waiting to take them to nearby shops. Dad was there to meet us, to help carry the luggage and take us to our new home on the waterfront. Everything seemed very quiet except for the birds in the big gum trees on the wide grassy reserve in front of our house. “Darkie”, our Pomeranian ran out to greet us.

The house was small. The kitchen, with its fuel stove, extended for the width of the house. There was a front veranda that joined a side veranda. These, with their iron bedsteads, were to be the kids’ sleeping quarters.  There was a central bedroom for our parents. There was no bathroom and no laundry. A single water tank with one tap extending into the kitchen completed the plumbing arrangements. At the rear of the house and separate there was a large shed, with an external bench for washing clothes. The inevitable “dunny” with its wooden “thunder-box” was down near the side fence.

McLaughlin’s shop and Marshall’s shop were situated on opposite sides of the road that led down to the waterfront reserve where the ferries were moored at Terminal No. 2 wharf. Marshall’s shop boasted the only petrol bowser for miles around. At the rear of the shop there was a large hall built of corrugated iron. This served as the town’s social centre for most occasions. Mac’s shop on the other side of the road had the benefit of a substantial water supply from two underground wells which were close by. Displaced miners during these Depression years had taken advantage of these wells and established themselves in makeshift homes that they built from an amazing variety of material obtained from who knows where!

Claude “Tubby” Radnidge was the first friend of my own age I met in this small community of shanty dwellers. He was popular with children and adults alike, so I soon had lots of new pals, boys and girls. Our favourite place was the swimming baths on Wangi’s south side. Here we learned to swim with the help of the Newton brothers, “Digger” and “Ticka”, both unemployed young men. We took it for granted that even girls and young adult men could join in our games, be it “big-ring marbles” or rolling one another down the hill into the Lake at the Baths while clinging inside the rim of a car or truck tyre. Often my Dad would take me fishing in a small dinghy he managed to borrow. Even before we set out my teeth would be chattering as I stood chest deep in water holding the bait tin as he dug for worms. The whiting that we caught on the drift out in the bay were the ones we enjoyed eating the most – even “Darkie”, our dog.

We were reminded at regular intervals that there was still no money or the chance of a job for Dad and it was back to reality when the big black police launch from Toronto glided into the bay. The unemployed would line up at Marshall’s Hall to sign up with the sergeant for another couple of weeks’ food relief. But we could afford to feel just a little bit smug. Didn’t we enjoy at least three seafood meals each week?

The end of the 1920’s ushered in the long years of the Great Depression and saw our family become dependent on government food relief for the unemployed. Like thousands of others my Dad made the regular pilgrimage to collect coupons entitling his family to exchange these for food.  The recipients were required to have no tangible assets. Meagre child endowment payments were our only regular cash flow.

I remember my Mother’s tears on one occasion when she had planned to send us on a rare trip to “the pictures” – sixpence each for a double feature with two cartoons and a chapter of a continuing “serial”, plus a free ice-block at Interval. Alas, she had somehow misplaced the endowment cheque! Luckily for us Grandma North lived not far away. We were often invited over for Sunday dinner, roast beef with all the trimmings. Who can forget her apple pie, and her cream cakes? She knew the way to a young boy’s heart.

It got to the stage, with no money to pay the rent; where it seemed inevitable that we leave Sunnyside and the little house where I was born. The only alternative was for Dad to take us back to live at Wangi in the waterfront home where our grandfather had lived during the road-building project of the 1929’s. With great trepidation Mum gathered the family together and so began the long trip to Wangi. We travelled first to Toronto by train then took a 1½ hour ferry ride to our destination. Dad had gone ahead by road with our few belongings about one week before.

For a small boy of four, being on the ferry was a wonderful new adventure. I could not comprehend the vastness of the Lake, with its changing shoreline and the bush extending to the hilltops on every side. It soon became obvious that the houses at Wangi were few; at least we thought so until we came ashore in the middle of the village. Stores of fresh food, meat, the mail and newspapers were unloaded, and a group of people were waiting to take them to nearby shops. Dad was there to meet us, to help carry the luggage and take us to our new home on the waterfront. Everything seemed very quiet except for the birds in the big gum trees on the wide grassy reserve in front of our house. “Darkie”, our Pomeranian ran out to greet us.

The house was small. The kitchen, with its fuel stove, extended for the width of the house. There was a front veranda that joined a side veranda. These, with their iron bedsteads, were to be the kids’ sleeping quarters.  There was a central bedroom for our parents. There was no bathroom and no laundry. A single water tank with one tap extending into the kitchen completed the plumbing arrangements. At the rear of the house and separate there was a large shed, with an external bench for washing clothes. The inevitable “dunny” with its wooden “thunder-box” was down near the side fence.

McLaughlin’s shop and Marshall’s shop were situated on opposite sides of the road that led down to the waterfront reserve where the ferries were moored at Terminal No. 2 wharf. Marshall’s shop boasted the only petrol bowser for miles around. At the rear of the shop there was a large hall built of corrugated iron. This served as the town’s social centre for most occasions. Mac’s shop on the other side of the road had the benefit of a substantial water supply from two underground wells which were close by. Displaced miners during these Depression years had taken advantage of these wells and established themselves in makeshift homes that they built from an amazing variety of material obtained from who knows where!

Claude “Tubby” Radnidge was the first friend of my own age I met in this small community of shanty dwellers. He was popular with children and adults alike, so I soon had lots of new pals, boys and girls. Our favourite place was the swimming baths on Wangi’s south side. Here we learned to swim with the help of the Newton brothers, “Digger” and “Ticka”, both unemployed young men. We took it for granted that even girls and young adult men could join in our games, be it “big-ring marbles” or rolling one another down the hill into the Lake at the Baths while clinging inside the rim of a car or truck tyre. Often my Dad would take me fishing in a small dinghy he managed to borrow. Even before we set out my teeth would be chattering as I stood chest deep in water holding the bait tin as he dug for worms. The whiting that we caught on the drift out in the bay were the ones we enjoyed eating the most – even “Darkie”, our dog.

We were reminded at regular intervals that there was still no money or the chance of a job for Dad and it was back to reality when the big black police launch from Toronto glided into the bay. The unemployed would line up at Marshall’s Hall to sign up with the sergeant for another couple of weeks’ food relief. But we could afford to feel just a little bit smug. Didn’t we enjoy at least three seafood meals each week?

 

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