Posted by: As told by Bob Stoakes
Sunnyside Avenue near Bronson was a world with few rules back in the nineteen thirties. It was a wonderful place for children, where freedom with relative safety reigned. Bob Stoakes knew it well. He grew up in a house that has stood on Sunnyside near Seneca for more than a hundred years, and he lives there still (after seeing a great deal of the world).
The house itself has not changed greatly over the years. Shortly after Bob’s father bought it in 1915, he added a kitchen and built a back shed.
But the sturdy two-storey building has weathered well, with minor changes to the interior layout.
This was very much an Anglican neighbourhood back in the thirties. Trinity Church was a fixture, with a general Sunday morning parade to church and Sunday School for children. A few Irish Catholics made the trek to St. Margaret Mary’s, of course.
Everything you really needed was close to hand: Clothier’s general store and post office was on the corner (now occupied by Fida’s), complete with a memorable portrait of Queen Victoria on the wall. At the Sunnyside/Seneca intersection, there was a butcher stop, a shoemaker, a barbershop, a soda fountain, pharmacy and de Prato’s supermarket. Pat Donovan’s car repair shop was located in the back lane, and there was a gas pump at the corner of Hopewell. Only the barbershop remains. Delivery of bread and milk was the norm then, with horse-drawn carts. Summertime saw vegetables being hawked by farmers. “My mother would invite them in for tea…she was a country girl, too.”
Summer also meant swimming at Bathing Island, just opposite the tennis courts. It was a city beach, where each spring a bridge of 2x4s was built to provide access, then dismantled at summer’s end. It’s still there, though neither an island nor a beach today. Across the river was Cowan’s ice house (Cowans had a general store at Bank and Cameron), with ice cut from the river. As a boy, Bob explored it all.
Carleton University didn’t exist, but there was a road going along the canal to Hog’s Back and what is now Vincent Massey Park. Many people had summer cottages there — completely unserviced — to which they could easily walk. Even the lockmaster didn’t have power; it was simply the way things were.
The river would flood every spring, and the water came right up to the end of Sunnyside, covering the tennis courts up to Cameron. Kids would go walking in the water with their rubber boots, oblivious to the reality that it was an open sewer. For a while garbage was dumped into the landfill on the other side of Bronson (complete with accompanying odour) and all of this could be under water. “We were all warned to stay away, especially in early spring when the water would ice over, but kids are kids.”
Another irresistible draw was the White Horse trestle bridge for the CP freight line: we would gather our courage and walk across the trestle, never knowing when a train would come. It was a long way down, looking at that white water below …
Water often beckoned. The sound of a steam whistle from the Loretta and Agnes P. tugboats on the canal could always bring out kids to see boats and barges passing under the bridges as they carried coal, lumber and other supplies to industry along the canal.
There were other whistles as well: Eddy’s mill blew a five o’clock whistle that was recognized by everyone in the neighbourhood, and then there were the air raid sirens that were tested every morning at 8 a.m. during the war.
By Hartwells Locks there was a overflow stream to the river (overflow now goes back into the canal) that looked like a mountain brook. “We’d walk along there for picnics, and it was always an adventure because you never knew when they would open the overflow and transform the stream into a raging torrent !”
The whole area across from Bronson was rather wild and wonderful — officially outside the city limits, it was a “no man’s land” replete with cow pastures, squatters and even a hermit. Gypsies arrived each spring in big, black Packards and set up tents in the field where the university is now. It was a wonderful area for picnics, fishing expeditions and explorations, with just the right element of the unknown. A few people lived there winter and summer, in makeshift quarters, relying on trees (and there were plenty) for fuel.
In winter snow was cleared, though not the way it is now. Driving on hardpacked snow made chains standard equipment. The streetcars had sweeper brushes to clear the tracks, and a horsedrawn plow helped keep sidewalks accessible. Kids learned to ski at the Arboretum with those awful universal bindings before they discovered Camp Fortune (which was accessible by CP rail to Old Chelsea).
“Organized sports were few, especially during the Depression, and I was fortunate that my parents were very much do-it-yourselfers. I developed a interest in recreational sports early, inspired in part by my father, who would bike to Manotick on Sunday mornings on his one-speed CCM. Because there were few cars, biking was a joy, although you soon learned a healthy respect for streetcar tracks!”
The Mayfair theatre on Bank Street (open from noon to midnight) was a beacon for everyone. Especially in the winter, kids thronged to the Saturday afternoon serials and westerns. And not only kids. Housewives could slip up there in the afternoon to see Jeanette MacDonald, Marlene Dietrich, Maurice Chevalier …
Billings Bridge, though not far away, was another world — a separate community. “I do remember wooden sidewalks there. In an early grade at Hopewell, our teacher brought the class to visit the functioning blacksmith shop at Billings — as a small boy, I was suitably impressed by the burly blacksmith and the open forge and bellows.”
Bob lives today in the same house on Sunnyside to which he returned after that school trip so many years ago, but the world he sees from his porch is more than a little changed.
OSHP would like to thank Maura Giuliani for her help in preparing this and another profile of long time residents of Old Ottawa South.
Originally published in the OSCAR October 2009.