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A Journey Down Three Memory Lanes
Bill Russell, David Chamberlain, & Marilyn Frank
Interviewed by K. Ball & A. Murkovic
How long have you been in Oakville?
DAVID: I came in 1952. I was here for four years and that’s when I met Bill because I was a newspaper reporter for the Toronto Telegram. I used to go to crashes on the QEW and Bill was driving an ambulance so we would often show up at the same accident. Bill’s family owned a funeral home and in those days the ambulance and the funeral home went together. Bill worked at the funeral home and drove the ambulance. After four years, I moved back to Toronto, got married, went out West, then to Montreal, and returned to Oakville in 1968. Things haven’t changed a great deal since then. It’s gotten bigger.
BILL: Still a great place to live!
How did you come to settle in Oakville?
BILL: My mother and father came with my two older brothers in 1922, from Erin. My dad had a funeral home up there and he came down here and he opened a funeral home in the old Chisholm home on the southwest corner of Trafalgar Rd. and Dunn St. I was born while he was in that house. I’ve been here most of my life, except for the War, and when I went to school. I went to the University of Toronto and studied passive arts. Ex-service men could get a BA in two years. After the War, I had tried to get into medicine, but there were thousands of applications for the medical school and they only took 250 ex-servicemen and 250 kids straight from high school, so unless you had a really good senior matriculation, you didn’t have a chance. I wasn’t even close. I spent the summer of 1947 with the Canadian Officer’s Training Corp. I had the choice to stay in the army and get a commission, which I think I probably would have preferred, but before I left, my dad [expressed a wish for me to join] the business, so I did that for the next 30 years, from 1947 to 1976, when I sold it.
MARILYN: Whatever happened to Frid & Russell, Bill? It was a big stationary store on Lakeshore Rd. You would go there for all your stationary needs. I still see the truck around town.
BILL: My brother started that. He took in Carl Frid as a partner and later sold his part of the business to Carl and went to work at Mohawk College in Hamilton. They had a lovely store.
DAVID: I think it used to be where Murron’s Cabinetree is now.
Can you describe what Oakville looked like when you were growing up?
BILL: I’m going back to the 1930s here. Lakeshore Rd. was called Colbourne St. Lakeshore Rd. was paved in my day. That was a big deal when it was paved. It was also called the Number 2 Highway. The commercial zone ran from the river to Reynolds St. on both sides of Lakeshore Rd. Trafalgar Rd. was known as Dundas, or Station Road, in those days. There was the Grey Coach bus service that went along Number 2 Highway and then the CNR railroad that went to Toronto. We had a lot of commuters into Toronto even then. We had many independent grocers and butchers. We also got a Loblaw’s. I remember them coming to town. We used to go to Hewson’s Store, which is now a wine bar [Maluca]. It was a beautiful old fashioned grocery store with oak and glass cabinets and a big old coffee grinder. We used to play out in the back in the sugar sacks. People used to do preserving then, their own pears and peaches and crab apples, so they’d buy sugar in bags. When I worked at Loblaw’s, many bags of sugar were carried out of that store. Hewsen was highly respected and he had a gorgeous store until it closed up.
DAVID: You went in and would tell the person behind the counter what you wanted and they would go and get it.
BILL: At that time [also], Kerr St. didn’t run straight down to Lakeshore Rd. There was a creek that ran through it. Kerr St. went to the QEW, which was then called Lower Middle Rd. There were two little stores up there. Penmens and Bembers. They sold groceries. Kerr St. came south to the creek, and then picked up after it and went down to the lake. I remember Kerr St. as a dirt road.
DAVID: Kerr St. ran into Speers Rd. That’s where the bootlegger was.
Do you have any stories about how historical events (such as The Great Depression, WWII) affected your family and the Oakville community as a whole?
DAVID: There used to be a lot of farming in Oakville and I can remember by Maple Grove there was a big poultry farm. During the War, old hen houses were turned into a residence with bunk beds, and girls would come from [the surrounding areas] to plant victory gardens and vegetables. In the 1950s it was still going on. That was really the only hangover from the War that I can remember.
BILL: I remember during the War, my mother would go to Toronto on the bus and there were three of us overseas and she said she wouldn’t worry about us until she started to walk down Dunn St. towards our house. Heartbreaking time for a lot of people in Oakville. I [also] remember the Depression really well. There were many families in Oakville on relief. They couldn’t get jobs. It was a serious time. Everybody felt the pinch. Even my father, he wouldn’t be paid for funerals. Doctors would be lucky if they got a chicken for a house call. We heard so much about the Depression and suffered in our own house because there just wasn’t a lot of money floating around. I know it had a lasting effect on me and my contemporaries. I am still conscious of spending money.
MARILYN: Most people who lived during the depression are still very careful with their money. They don’t buy things they can’t pay for. My mother talked about my dad getting paid by the day and how every day she had to wait until he got home to buy milk for me. My dad worked in reforestation. They were on relief. It affected me. I am sure it was the same thing all over.
BILL: A lot of people had big vegetable gardens during the depression.
MARILYN: We had an icebox. The iceman came every couple of days. I can tell you that the recession of 2008 was nothing like the recession we had in 1929. People didn’t suffer the same way they did in the Great Recession. I can remember people coming to my grandmother’s store and if they would cut the lawn she would give them a plate of food. They would do anything for food. People were starving. It was a bad time.
What was school like when you were growing up?
DAVID: Tell us about Miss Lightbourn, Bill.
DAVID: She started out in a Howard Ave. house and took in about 2 kids. Then she moved up across from old Victoria Hall. You know where the Curling Club is? To the west of it was Victoria Hall, which was an old building, a musical hall I guess you’d call it. It had a stage. Movies also used to be shown there. Miss Lightbourn did everything from Kindergarten to Grade 8.
DAVID: The headmaster at Appleby College had two daughters and he asked Miss Lightbourn to teach them. She did a good job so other people brought their kids to her, and that went on until about 1975, until St. Mildred’s school united with her and became one of the fanciest girls schools in the country: St. Mildred’s Lightbourn School.
What was your first job?
BILL: I delivered the Toronto Telegram. [A friend and I] would deliver them 6 days a week. It was 15 cents per week. When I was 16, I worked at Loblaw’s. I was the head Saturday boy and I got the job for the summer. Six days a week. My take home pay was $14.99 a week. Loblaw’s used to be in the building where the Roots is now. That was an experience.
What did you do for fun?
BILL: It was a big deal if you got a cent to take to the candy store and you’d stand there for twenty minutes deciding what you wanted to buy.
MARILYN: You would stand there and think should I have some gum balls or a sucker?.
BILL: Jaw Breakers! We would [also] get the iceman to chip off a piece of ice for us to suck on.
MARLYN: I remember when they were paving the road we would chew the tar like gum.
DAVID: We used to make gum out of wheat.
BILL: When I was a kid, we would swim in the lake everyday. Near the end of June, after school, we’d go down and swim. It was warm and clean. We used to play “round-the-bases” out on the street. Some kid would have a bat, another would have a ball, and we would get a game going. My father had also been involved with lacrosse and we were the only kids in town that played lacrosse. We would throw the ball back and forth on the street, but never on Sunday. On Sundays we had to go into the backyard and play there. And no shouting either. You had to be quiet on Sundays. In the wintertime we used to go skating to music on Friday or Saturday night at the arena. You paid a nickel or a dime, something like that. It was natural ice so [its condition] was always uncertain. There was [also] an industrial hockey team.
How did people get around when you were growing up?
BILL: Rebecca St., named so for the wife of Oakville’s founder, was always called the Radial Road because that was where the electric street car would run from Oakville to Hamilton. For years, you could still see tracks in the Trafalgar Rd. and Randall St. intersection.
DAVID: The station is still there at Randall St. and Thomas St.
MARILYN: It was the depot for Oakville.
BILL: It’s been a lot of things since.The bridge that goes across Randall St. wasn’t there until about 20 years ago. It was just a regular bridge – the Radial Bridge – and all that was there in my day was a walkway across, and the track.
DAVID: It was called the Radial Railway and was only one car long.
BILL: In my day, the Grey Coach was how you went to Toronto. People did a lot of their shopping in Toronto. If you wanted a suit or a sofa, you went to Toronto. Oakville had an Eaton’s order office so you could have stuff sent from the store and left at the office. The Eaton’s truck was an icon.
MARILYN: Eaton’s had an Eaton Beauty doll that I wanted so badly. They were in all the catalogues.
BILL: We used to call the Eaton’s catalogue the Wish Book.
Were you involved in any community organizations or clubs?
BILL: I was a Rotarian (Member of Oakville Rotary). John Black, [an Oakville resident] who severed his spinal cord in a football accident, had a permanent room at Oakville Trafalgar Hospital. After he was hurt, Oakville Rotary bought an old Eaton’s van and put a ramp on it so he could have some mobility and for years he ran a ticket shop in one of the photography stores. Every day two Rotarians would go to the hospital and pick him up with this truck, take him to work, and then take him home.
DAVID: Later, the truck got replaced by a proper van, and I drove it for 10 years, picking people up, mostly from March of Dimes. If anyone needed to go to Credit Valley Hospital or Hamilton, they used to call me and I would trundle them around. I was never [actually] in anything. As a newspaper reporter I was discouraged from belonging to anything because if you got involved you couldn’t report properly.
BILL: I joined the Oakville Club when I was about 15 and used to play badminton endlessly, all year round.
DAVID: I used to do lights at the Oakville Club's Cabaret.
What was your favourite place in Oakville?
BILL: After school we’d go to Len Hope’s soda fountain, located in a drug store. Down at the pier for swimming. Hanging out around the main street. There just weren’t a lot of recreational activities back then, not like today where it’s so highly organized. You pretty well had to make your own fun.
MARILYN: I remember growing up in the summer and your mother would give you your breakfast and say “see you at suppertime.”
DAVID: I came to Oakville when I was twenty. I spent a lot of time hanging out at the Cushion and Cue, which was a pool hall right down on Lakeshore Rd. on the north side, maybe three premises west of Trafalgar Rd. There is a restaurant there now. It started out as a pool hall with a sandwich bar and the sandwich bar did very well, so they took out some of the pool tables and put in dining room tables and that lasted for many, many years. It was a regular kids hang out in those days. The [operator] went on to open another restaurant up where Canadian Tire (Kerr St. & QEW) is now, called The Country Squire.
BILL: Very good restaurant. Successful!
MARILYN: It was so well known. A landmark.
Can you think of any memorable community festivals or gatherings?
DAVID: Midnight madness has gone on a long time. My wife and I used to sit with another couple in a restaurant on the street and have a competition to see who knew the most people walking by.
MARILYN: I was once a Trog in the Santa Claus Parade. A Trog was a symbol of Oakville. They had a Trog suit and the lady in charge asked me, “would you be a Trog?” That was when the parade started at Kerr St. and they used to dress you up there. As I was being dressed in [the Trog costume], I said “something’s hurting my back.” She said “you have to suffer to be a Trog.” It seems they didn’t take out the wooden hanger. So I get on the wagon and every time you’d turn you were looking into the Trog suit. It was so cold, but I was sitting right by the motor of whatever was pulling the wagon. [The parade] was two hours. I never did it again. Maureen Taylor developed Trogs. At one point, my friend was even selling them at Disneyland.
BILL: When I was a kid, there used to be garden parties: the Fire Department, the Legion, the Catholics, the Anglicans, in various places. I can remember the firemen would have their garden party on Church St. between George St. and Thomas St. The basket factory had a big truck and would park the trailer across Church St. and would have a little orchestra out there and then along the curb on Church St. there would be snow fencing and they would have dancing on the street. They’d usually have Norm Gill’s orchestra playing. Around that, they would have some gambling games, and you could throw balls at wooden milk bottles, and they would have hotdogs and hamburgers. The Firemen would have a garden party. The legion would have a garden party. The Rotarians would have their carnival at Old Central school grounds. The Lion’s club the same. This would be the early 40s. They kind of petered out after the War. Legion Hall was an old house on the northwest corner of George St. and Church St. and they built a new one after the War where the Irish pub is now.
DAVID: The hospital used to have a strawberry festival over at Edgemere estate on the south side of town in the 1950s.