Ghosts and Ghost Towns

Written by: John Smith

Some fall colour in the hardwood trees, great friends, nice weather, smooth running cars, lightly travelled roads, and lots of TLC on the part of our hosts, Wendy and Alan Johnston, all led to a most enjoyable weekend. Our headquarters for the event was the Quality Inn, just south of Parry Sound, and it featured the requisite abundant parking, comfortable rooms and a gargantuan breakfast buffet. Most people arrived on Friday afternoon and evening, with almost everyone driving their trailering rigs. The exceptions were Paul Dodington and Tom Wood, who drove Paul’s venerable T from nearby Port Carling. I can’t resist a comment about Paul’s car: it always looks terrific, and seen close up, it has the wonderful patina of a very well loved older restoration. It’s one of my all time favourite Model T’s.

Most of the other cars were Fords, although Hugo and Linda Vermuelen brought along their beautiful 1903 Cadillac with which they puttered around locally after the Saturday tour. They are good sports to be driving this car at all, as it is a multiple prize winner at both Hershey and the Old Car Festival. Like their T, the Cadillac runs as well as it looks. Peter and Lise Fawcett, kidless on tour for the first time in the memorable past, also drove their one cylinder Cadillac on the Sunday route, making it up and down some long hills in very fine style.

Another non-Ford was Mike Hoegl’s gigantic LaFrance speedster. I think Mike said the six cylinder engine displaces 800 cubic inches, and gets single digit miles per gallon. With its straight-through exhaust system, the LaFrance didn’t sneak up on anyone. What a beast (the LaFrance, not Mike)!

Friday evening featured a reception in the hospitality room, with bountiful tasty snacks and thirst-quenching libations. It was a great spread that the Johnstons, assisted by their friends Doug and Jane Whitman, put on for us. For several hours, there was a lot of happy chatter as people exchanged news and stories with their friends, old and new.

Next morning we awoke to clear, crisp, weather. Well, it was extremely crisp for a while, at minus one Celsius. My car was stiff to crank, then I slipped on the somewhat oily floor of my trailer and my face had a close encounter with the edge of my T’s radiator. The bleeding, though dramatic at first, was easily stopped, but by the end of the weekend I had a noticeable shiner. I could have concocted a more glamorous story about how it happened, like fighting a bear that came out of the woods, but missed that opportunity.

It must have been a cold morning: Andrew Smith actually consented to raising the windshield on his T, so that he and Jessica didn’t suffer from frostbite. However, we were all undaunted by the weather and headed off on the tour. The first leg took us onto Parry Island where we had a coffee stop at a quaint, rural church in the First Nations community. Then we looped in and around Parry Sound, with a stop at the museum and fire tower atop a very steep hill. Some of us climbed the steps to the top of the tower, where we were treated to a world class view. What a beautiful part of the country!

I’m not sure how we thought about eating lunch after such a big breakfast, but everyone sought out restaurants while in town. We had a delightful meal on a veranda overlooking the harbour.  Then we headed out again, in pursuit of more ghost towns. We had already passed one on Parry Island which even included the ruins of a railroad roundhouse.

The various abandoned or almost deserted settlements were all once thriving villages, with stores, houses, hotels, and, most importantly, sawmills. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, lumber barons such as J. R. Booth and W.J. Sheppard, cleared almost every tree from the landscape in this area, and because facilities were needed to house, feed, and even sometimes entertain the big crews of men who did the work of harvesting the lumber, numerous communities were established. After the boom was over, the importance of these villages declined dramatically, and now they are reduced to a few scattered houses and other buildings, and a lot of ruins. Around them, for the most part, forest has reclaimed the land, although here and there you can see a pioneer farm.

Back at the hotel in the evening, there was a special treat: Terry Boyle, a writer-historian, spoke to us about ghosts and other strange apparitions. It was a fascinating topic, and his presentation style was most engaging, as he told us about all kinds of weird and wonderful happenings.  The really neat part about it was that all the venues he described were in Ontario, some of them quite nearby. He entertained questions throughout his presentation, and it was easy to see, when looking around the room, that he had everyone’s attention. It was fun to read the eyes of his audience: people either found him credible or incredible. There wasn’t much middle ground. It was a great idea to have him speak, and it gave us lots to think about.

Around all this, our hosts had to deal with a fairly significant complication. One of the roads for Sunday’s route had been torn up and reduced to a track covered with potato-sized stones. Undaunted, they went out and devised an alternate route which may have been even lovelier than what they had originally planned.
Actually, it was a mix and match kind of day anyway, with longer and shorter routes. The first part of the day was common to all the possibilities, and it took us on some marvellous old car roads that boasted great scenery, long hills up and down, and virtually no traffic. This was especially true of the Tally-Ho Swords Road, which had been repaved literally two days previously.

Speaking of complications, it should be mentioned that, in the leadup to the tour, Alan was feverishly working on his ’09 T at the end of a really major renovation. He bought this car at Hershey a few years ago, and has been constantly improving it in the interim. Last fall, he started into just a few more little changes, but this quickly evolved into a huge project that including completely reconfiguring the body, changing the frame, front and rear axles, hood, headlight brackets…. With all new paint in authentic colours, and some lovely leatherwork by John Fawcett, this T has been completely transformed. Recently I looked at pictures of it when Alan and Ray Hayhurst brought it home from Pennsylvania, and marvelled at how it has changed. It’s kind of a caterpillar to butterfly story, with it being in the chrysalis stage for almost a year.

Getting back to Sunday, almost everyone ended up in the village of Rousseau at the same time, where there were two or three antique shops, a general store, and other places in which to browse. Paul Dodington, who lives nearby, was a font of knowledge about the area, and even took some of us on an informal walking tour of the neighbourhood.

From this point, there were several choices. Our family opted to take the short route as our granddaughter, Cecilia, was not feeling well. It was a very nice run back to the hotel on wonderful old car roads. For a while, we were following Larry and Carol Lautenschlager in their 1914 T touring. This fine old car, which has most of the characteristics of a Canadian ’13, has been in Larry’s family virtually since new. It has a number of period accessories, including a tubular brass front bumper and a unique spare tire carrier. It is great to see Larry and Carol enjoying this car, keeping it in the family for future generations to treasure.

Almost everyone else took the long route, which took them to Port Carling, where lunch was enjoyed in the local restaurants. Even with the extra mileage, people were back to the hotel in good time to prepare for the trip home. I think there was a unanimous feeling that it had been a great weekend. It all seemed to go so smoothly, and of course it was a pleasure to be out in the cars in glorious fall weather travelling on roads that were tailor made for HCCA touring.   A big vote of appreciation goes to Wendy and Alan, and also their good friends Jane and Doug, for all the hard work that went into making the weekend such a great success.

Copyright ©2009 John Smith