I Grew Up On The Wrong Side Of The Tracks

I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Iroquois Falls during the 1950s. Actually, it has been a running gag over the years between me and my friends that in fact we were fortunate to have been raised in Ansonville and Montrock. Iroquois falls proper back then was supposedly the right side of the track and more or less reserved for the upper class, tradesmen, engineers and company executives of the Abitibi company. They were mostly English.

Ansonville and Montrock developed haphazardly with second rate housing and tar paper shacks around the more affluent and engineered community of Iroquois Falls. The company town boasted a huge Hudson Bay store, mercantile building which housed shops, a police station, restaurant and gymnasium to cater to the more privileged workers at Abitibi. However, it was in Ansonville  that all the action really took place. We had a movie theatre, bowling alley, a few bars and hotels, grocery stores and all kinds of shops. You could get drunk, go bowling, watch a movie and have a hair cut all on the same day.

There was always a tension between the coming of age teens from either side of the tracks. We for the most part tolerated each other but often exciting fights broke out in front of the Silver Grill on Ambridge Drive. The English and French secondary schools both were located in Iroquois Falls and that meant that  no matter what,  we inhabitants of the far reaches of the Abitibi empire,  at some point,  had to swallow our pride and make the move to further education on the right side of the tracks. It was intimidating at times.

Ansonville and Montrock were little towns that did not see much development until the 1950s. Here we mingled in a curious and interesting mix of cultures that included Jewish, Irish, French, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Italian and Chinese. My friends and I felt we were lucky to have had the opportunity to mix with and learn about so many other cultures at the early stages of our lives. We were worldly in view without ever having to leave town.

There was a lot of bigotry and racism back in the 40s and 50s but for the most part people managed to get along. The hierarchy went something like this. If you were English and I mean proper English with roots to the old country you were at the top of the heap and probably looked down on everyone else. Now if you were an American and English you weren’t far off the mark.  We Irish were lucky in a way because we could fit in with the English if we had to and because of historic realities we were also at home with the French. We mixed easily with all the other cultures mostly out of our mild disdain for the English. For the most part sadly we have a history of pretty much banishing Native people from our little collection of towns. That didn’t change until the 1960s when people for a brief moment in time seemed to come to their senses.

We had a lot of fun in Ansonville and Montrock. There were dances and concerts at the old Ukrainian hall near the original Ansonville Public School. We shared special days with our Jewish neighbours and marvelled at the fantastic Easter egg decorations of the Ukrainians and Polish. Many a jig was danced with the French and Irish at the old Moose Hall on Third Avenue. We didn’t live in the English hamlet style houses of Iroquois Falls but as my grandmother pointed out many times, “We owned our own homes.” In those days most people who lived in Iroquois Falls proper rented their homes at a subsidized price from the company. They lived high on the hog until retirement day came and then it was out the door and off to find something to purchase on the other side of the tracks.

I was raised in the Dunn household. My grandfather Jack Dunn, came from the Alumette island area of Quebec near the border with Ontario in the Ottawa Valley. He married my grandmother Margaret (Mellon) Dunn in the early 1920s and promptly moved her up to the  bustling boom town of Ansonville. When they came to town granny brought along her family shamrock plant and installed herself in the community which already had a small gathering of Irish and French folk from Waltham, Quebec and Pembroke, Ontario area.

There’s a story to the shamrock. Family history handed down over a hundred years tell us that the plant came over on a ship with the Mellon family in the 1830s. It was a remembrance of Ireland to be cherished and passed on to others from the mother country. The Mellons managed all those years to keep that shamrock alive and they passed it on to family and friends. Granny Dunn, brought it to Ansonville and spread it around the Irish community. Today, you will find the lovely green weed alive and well in many homes around the community. The sharing of this plant has accounted for its survival. If one family or household loses the beauty they simply have to visit one of their clan or a friend to borrow a little starter. Soon, the resilient shamrock is well rooted and flourishing in a green glow which often pushes forth delicate little flowers. Granny Dunn often gazed at it and sighed, “Erin go bragh”  the only words she knew in Gaelic. It means, “Ireland Forever”.  So get your Danny Boy CD out and cry a tune to that one.

In the old days, if you were Irish, there was a pretty good chance that during a walk on main street, you would bump into somebody who had ties to the Emerald Isle.  There were the Devines, Harkins, O’Donnells, Spences, Russells, Corks, Wallaces, Watsons, Whelans, Turners, Stacks, Stewarts, Shallows, Sheas, Shields, Shirleys, Shannons, Purdys, Bigelows, Porters, Peevers, O’Shaughnessys, Dunns, Mellons, O’Connors, O’Maras, Murphys, Moores, McLeans, McMeekins, McEwans, McGraths, Maddens, Jones, Micks, Hopkins, Donovans, Cotnams, Corcorans, Chandlers, Carrolls, Burtons, Browns, Brandreths, Duffys, Doyles and Brindles, to name a few.

Jack and Margaret raised five incredible daughters at 463 Third Avenue in Ansonville including: Emily, Tessie, Sarah, Rita and Celia. They were true Irish colleens as pretty, kind, entertaining and curious as ever were created under the sun. Emily was my mom. She passed away in 2007.

In the late 1930s granny Dunn had to make a big decision. Jack put it before her. Did she want a proper wringer washer to make life easier for herself and the family or would she prefer a piano. Well, you know the Irish. The piano won out and one day the local delivery man big Normand Grenier appeared at the door with our upright grand piano. From that day on the house was filled with song, the wonderful acoustic sounds of the piano and much laughter.  My grandmother said many times, “If you have music in the house you will have love in the house.” She was right.

Lucky us. My sister Pat and I spent the earliest days of our lives being entertained by my grandparents, aunts and my mom. The aunts or sisters as I refer to them took us everywhere, taught us all the Irish songs, placed our fingers on the piano’s ivory keys and made our days happy. I watched them all marry and start families of their own. Tessie was betrothed to Harvey Ruddy, Sarah wedded Don Paquette, Rita became Mrs. Everett Elliot and Celia shared her life with Johnny Mercier. Although the sisters moved on we still managed to gather often around the piano to while away the day or night in song and dance. Jack died early of a heart attack most probably brought on by the steady diet of pork and beans from the time he was a boy. He was raised on a farm in the valley and then in his 20s he found work in the bush camps of Northern Ontario. He was a dapper man and never stepped out of the house without looking like he was going to a high society event or a funeral.  Granny Dunn, lived to be 100 years of age. She lived long enough to become everybody’s granny in our part of town and she could always be counted on for cookies, a cup of tea and a few kind words.

Ansonville and Montrock went the way of the dinosaurs in the 1960s when a feisty little Frenchman by the Name of Elmo Lefebvre joined with some other visionary people in the community to push for the amalgamation of the three towns into one. Iroquois Falls ended up being the name of choice in what was a hotly contested political mish mash that almost tore the communities apart. Many of the company people satisfied with the status quo of the good life in Iroquois Falls proper didn’t want anything to do with change. However, a small but vocal and dedicated group of more or less revolutionaries brought us fighting and kicking together. There were little thanks to Elmo and the forces of power made his life difficult. He left to live out most of his life in Kapuskasing although his heart no doubt remained in Iroquois Falls. It is said that the victorious and the powerful write the history books. Well, here’s one for Elmo Lefebvre another great founder of Iroquois Falls. Where is his monument in town?

Today the railway tracks that run through the heart of our town merely present a mild annoyance when a company train crosses a roadway. Gone are the days of this side and that side of the tracks. Iroquois Falls looks kind of comfortable and tidy. Thanks to the invention of aluminum and vinyl siding in the early 1960s the tar paper shacks of Ansonville and Montrock were magically transformed into shiny little homes with a disneyesque appeal to them. Our mammoth recreation/sports complex complete with hockey arena, curling rink, pool and what not facilities exists as proof of our ability to get along and do great things. The complex at one point was billed as the largest volunteer project in Canada.

We had the best neighbours in the world on old Third Avenue, which is D’Iberville Street today. There were the Poiriers, Mahers, Regimbals, Manders, Russels, McCarthys, Lavoies, Blacks (of the corner store), Larsons, Larivees, Denaults, Croatins (of Croatin’s wood yard), Brudenelles, Postivichs, Youngs, Gauthiers, Adamsons, Gervais, Berniers, Sarmientos, Pierinis, Flageoles, Charlebois, O’Donnells (writer Eddy O’Donnell), Soucys, Lachances, Bigelows, Lachapelles and Proulxs.  Many of them are gone now but in a way they are still here. That is one of the wonderful things about becoming a senior citizen as my memory banks are full of all those caring, colourful and hardworking neighbours and every time I take a drive or walk uptown I am reminded of them along my way. They all seem to be doing quite well thank you.

The End

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