(or, “you were wrong, Thomas Wolfe...”)
....you can go back home again. And that is what I did a couple of weeks ago.
New Liskeard is a pleasant town of about 4,000 in Northern Ontario at the head of Lake Temiskaming that I left in 1952 when I was 14 and had only revisited briefly twice - the last time almost 40 years ago. Not that I had anything against returning, it’s just that studies, life overseas, jobs, family and all that made the 500 km drive from Ottawa something to be constantly set aside for another year (or decade).
A few weeks ago my 14-year old grandson, Thomas, decided that our annual end-of-summer road trip together should be the occasion to see the town I grew up in. My daughter in Toronto then decided that her 6-year old, Lazarus, should also share the experience - and herself along with him. So, I rolled down Highway 401 to Toronto, picked them up and off we all went.
Google Maps told me that it would take only five and a half hours to do the 515 km up Highway 11 from Toronto. Google Maps hadn’t factored in summer traffic, heavy rain, two energetic kids in the back seat and an 80-year old driver. We stopped off at the Fern Resort in Orillia for some R&R until the sun came out: a pleasant family-oriented venue with an interesting history and lots of things to keep kids busy.
Northern Ontarians say that everywhere south of North Bay is Southern Ontario, but to my mind once you push past Gravenhurst or Huntsville you are definitely into the north country. Signs every 5 or 10 km point to narrow roads that lead off through the spruce, pine and birch to campsites, cottages and the occasional village. Once you have passed through the metropolitan area of North Bay (pop. 70,000) there is only Temagami (pop. 800), Latchford (pop. 400) and Cobalt (pop. 1200) for 150 km.until you reach Temiskaming Shores.
Temiskaming Shores? When I was a kid, there was only New Liskeard, Haileybury and Cobalt in what was known as the Tri-Town region. It seems that in 2004 the first two amalgamated - why Cobalt opted out I don’t know, but even back then Cobalt had a look, a flavour and a history that was unique in Ontario, and probably in Canada. Books have been written about Cobalt, the great silver boom during the first decades of the 20th century when its population reached 20,000 (it was for a while the 4th largest silver producer in the world). Cobalt was the birthplace of hard-rock mining in Canada; it was also the home of the Cobalt Silver Kings hockey team that played in the first year of the National Hockey Association (later renamed NHL).
The silver mines are all closed now, but several of the headframes remain and there are tours through some of the tunnels. Even after it was written off as a ghost town, the rugged Cobalt spirit kept it going and now there is renewed interest in its namesake, the mineral cobalt. Cobalt was considered a nuisance when they were mining silver, but now that it is a critical element in lithium batteries there are plans to open some new mines. They could start by re-processing the millions of tons of waste rock and tailing that surround the town.
The millionaires who owned those mines built their mansions a few miles up the road in the picturesque town of Haileybury (pop 3,000), so that their homes could look out across the Lake to Quebec. Haileybury is the administrative seat for Temiskaming district: the courthouse and jail are there (which is why we sometimes called it ‘Jaileybury’ as kids). The first streetcar line in Ontario north of Toronto ran through Haileybury from Cobalt to New Liskeard.During the great Haileybury forest fire of 1922 in which 43 people died, the town burnt down except for the majestic homes on Millionaire’s Row which are still there (go figure...). Haileybury had a hockey team in the NHA too, and it was later taken over and moved to Montreal to become Les Canadiens. The first game the Montreal/Haileybury Canadiens played was against the Cobalt Silver Kings; Montreal won 7-6 in overtime.
New Liskeard has a much more prosaic history. it sits at the southern edge of the Little Clay Belt, a geographical anomaly of fertile soil amidst the rock and hills of the Canadian Shield, straddling the Quebec-Ontario border north of Lake Temiskaming. As French Canadian settlers and English-speaking World War I veterans cleared the land for their farms, ‘Liskeard’ grew as an agricultural market town where the Wabi River emptied into the Lake. Farming wasn’t easy, as the growing season that far north is pretty short, but persistent farmers survived and those who didn’t drifted into the mining and logging industries farther up in places like Kirkland Lake, Timmins, Cochrane and the Abitibi. Farming seems to be doing better now - perhaps new technologies and climate change are helping. There wasn’t much industry then to speak of except for the iron works and the canning factory; several promising ventures opened up in recent decades, but it’s a long way to those southern markets and few have survived. New Liskeard has no dramatic history like its two neighbours to the south, it has nice houses but nothing spectacular: it was just a comfortable, quiet and reasonably prosperous place to live and grow up in. One can’t ask for more.
The town’s major hotel and the two chain motels on the northern outskirts were full, so we had to settle for the Edgewater Motel and Campground, halfway between New Liskeard and Haileybury. It looks like a thousand other strip motels: a dozen or 15 rooms laid out along the highway, and I had my misgivings as we drove in. I could not have been more mistaken: clean rooms, fresh linen, beautifully tiled and well-equipped bathrooms, comfortable beds, reasonably priced ... and wi-fi for Thomas’s cellphone and iPad! John, the owner, is friendly and helpful, and a well-kept lawn stretches behind the building down to the Lake.
New Liskeard is now a mix of new and old: a ring of new bungalows around the older town that I remembered, lots of new stores in the ‘downtown’ but mostly housed in the same buildings that were there 60-70 years ago. It was good to see that the gracious old 1911 Carnegie library that I spent so much time in as a boy is still there, along with the 1905 Grand Union Hotel - the place that our parents would tell us to stay out of. The downtown looked a bit tired, though - I gather that the big shopping mall on the outskirts has sucked a lot of life out of the local businesses. We visited the house that I grew up in (it seemed so much smaller than the castle I recalled) and I was pleased at how many of the other homes in our neighbourhood were still there and at how many names came back to me.
I had a long, enjoyable chat over coffee at the Meteor Cafe in Haileybury (more about that later) with one of my old friends and classmates whom I had not seen in 40 years. It’s strange how some school friendships endure: it felt as relaxed and natural as though we had last met the previous summer. The next morning we drove out to visit another high school contemporary at his cottage on Twin Lakes, where my father had built our cottage after World War II. He has done some impressive historical research on Northern Ontario in general, including several books, and is presently engaged in a history of the George Taylor Hardware, his family’s old firm that once was a chain of a dozen branches across Northern Ontario and Northern Quebec. My father had been the comptroller for the company and he had kindly put together a number of texts and pictures about my father for my own genealogical efforts.
Now, the Meteor Cafe. Northern Ontario is known for many things, but fine dining has generally not been one of them. All that changed in 2016 when the Meteor Café opened in Haileybury. John, the motel owner, suggested that I go there for my coffee on our first afternoon; after I had seen the setting and the menu, I brought my daughter and grandsons there for supper that evening, and for breakfast and lunch the next day as well! I would rate it as one of the best restaurants I have eaten in for years, in terms of the quality of the food, the preparation and service, the décor, and the personality of its owners, Nicole Guertin and her partner, Jocelyn Blais.
Nicole can only be described as a ‘force de la nature’. Back in 2002, she was driving along Highway 11 and turned off to take a look at the Tri-Towns and Lake Temiskaming. She fell in love with the beauty and history of the region, with Lake Temiskaming, and in particular with a magnificent old Cobalt millionaire’s mansion in Haileybury that was up for sale. She returned the following year to buy it and, after overcoming some initial resistance from the neighbours, renovated it as a B&B. Over the next ten years she and Jocelyn acquired five more homes as B&Bs and another one to live in themselves.You can check the B&Bs out at www.presidentssuites.com.
One of the first questions her guests asked was, “What is there to see around here?” So Nicole and Jocelyn pulled together a team of local history buffs and web designers and, with the help of some community organizations, developed a smartphone/tablet app called ‘TiC - Temiskaming Interactive Circuit’ with self-guided walking and driving tours that introduce you to fascinating but little-known people and places in the Tri-Town region. Not just the Cobalt silver boom and the Great Haileybury Fire of 1922, but people like:
• Charles Paradis, the Oblate priest who explored the north by canoe and snowshoe, and who brought the first French-Canadian settlers up to the Little Clay Belt. Along the way, he fought with politicians, lumber barons and his own superiors, and was eventually kicked out of the Oblates.
• Chevalier Pierre de Troyes, who camped at the mouth of the Blanche River just east of New Liskeard, on his way up to capture three English forts on James Bay in 1686;
• Leslie McFarlane, better known to generations of young boys as Franklin Dixon, who wrote many of his Hardy Boys books while living in Haileybury;
• Peter Grant Jr., a new Liskeard boy and prominent philanthropist who was named as one of the 100 richest Canadians in 2004 and whose new jaw-dropping 65,000 sq.ft. home in Haileybury is said to be the largest in Canada.
• Father Les Costello, whose name is on the Stanley Cup as one of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1948 and who later as a a parish priest in Cobalt, Kirkland Lake and Timmins helped raise over $4,000,000 for good causes playing with other priests across Canada and the US on the legendary Flying Fathers team;
• Sir Henry William Pellatt, who was said at one point to control 25% of the Canadian economy and who built the Casa Loma in Toronto with the profits from his Cobalt silver mines;
• Wilfrid Paiement, who started life as a logger on the Montreal River and was reputed to be the strongest man in Canada. He raised 250 horses on his farm near Earlton, some of which were national champions, and two sons - Rosaire and Wilfrid jr. who played in the NHL;
• and, not least, the ‘Meteor’, the majestic steamboat that sailed on Lake Temiskaming picking up passengers who had come up the Ottawa River and around the rapids. At one point there were five steamboats operating on the Lake, but the construction of the T&NO railway (Temiskaming and Northern Ontario - now the Ontario Northland Railway) from North Bay to James Bay put the boats out of business; the Meteor burned and sank in 1926.
Which brings us to the second question Nicole Guertin’s B&B guests asked her: “Where is a good place to eat around here?” Nicole did not want to disappoint her guests, but she didn’t want to lie to them either. So in 2016 she and Jocelyn opened the Cafe Meteor Bistro in a 100-year old building on Ferguson St., Haileybury’s main street. The restaurant seats 44 comfortably; farms on both sides of the Lake (as well as an old-order Mennonite colony in Matheson that was not there when I was young) provide the vegetables, grains, dairy products, as well as the meat (beef, lamb, elk, bison, pork, etc.) which is butchered in a local abbatoir; and yes, there is good beer from a local craft brewery.
The menu is not pretentious but it is delicious and the quality and service is uncompromising. For Sunday morning breakfast and brunch, the Meteor turns into a creperie but, unfortunately, we couldn’t stay for the weekend. You can see the menus on Facebook (Café Meteor Bistro) or on Calameo, but to fully appreciate it you might want to invest in a trip up to Haileybury over a long weekend: you won’t regret it and you’ll have a chance to get to know one of the most interesting corners of the province.
The Meteor is a tremendous booster for the history, culture, talent and activities of the Temiskaming region: the décor includes lots of memorabilia (including a beam salvaged from the SS Meteor) and background literature; local musicians and storytellers come in on Fridays and Saturdays for ‘Unplugged Evenings’; and Nicole and Jocelyn promote and even organize tours and events featuring local attractions. They are a great example of what committed entrepreneurs can do for their community.
The drive back to Ottawa was anticlimactic: the alternator died and the van rolled to a stop 300 m before the Canadian Tire garage, the only one open late Friday evening in North Bay. Our luck held and we bagged the last room in the Hampton Inn next door. By Saturday afternoon we were back home again - proving Thomas Wolfe wrong for the second time.
I never actually finished reading Wolfe’s classic, ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’, but the the phrase has always stuck in my mind. He was not particularly complimentary about his home town in the book, and apparently he even received death threats from some of the citizens afterwards. I hope that won’t be my experience with this review, but if it is, I would like to have my last meal in the Cafe Meteor Bistro.