By Barry Penhale
The host on a recent CBC radio broadcast encouraged listeners to submit their favourite roadside attractions in Ontario. Audience reaction was swift and more than one response singled out the Big Apple, a site familiar to countless motorists travelling Highway 401 in the vicinity of Brighton and Colborne. Having trekked across the trillium province on major highways and countless lesser-known roads, I quickly found that the CBC show prompted my old noggin to be suddenly flooded with past travel experiences. It also led to the realization that though it had never occurred to me before, I can now categorically state publicly that my personal favourite among Ontario’s highways is old Highway 7, officially proclaimed a provincial highway in 1933.
Thanks to my parents, Cliff and Bea Penhale, I was included in their many explorations by car, usually a Chevy of the time. My introduction to Hwy. 7 took place while a youngster way back in the 1940s. Our destination was Sharbot Lake where Dad was anxious to fish.
The still new-like road surface was a testament to that always potent combination of engineering and bull work. The mind boggles at what the contractors undoubtedly faced to build a major artery linking Actinolite to Kaladar and eastward to Perth. Blasting through Shield country during the 1930s would not have been any picnic.
Rental cottage accommodation at Sharbot Lake filled the bill nicely and we took an immediate liking to our genial host, a retired railway man who rented out wooden fishing boats, sold live bait, and generously shared his considerable knowledge of local waters. Many years later, in a book titled A Stringerful of Memories, I was to recall some quite unexpected experiences while fishing Sharbot Lake in a chapter labelled “Oddities.”
Over the years Hwy. 7 was to serve as our scenic route leading to a multitude of adventures, one of which involved a stay at Buckshot Lake not too far from Arden. By now I was a testosterone-fuelled fellow — 17 years of age and with a driver’s licence. Fishing quickly took second best when I discovered a dream of a girl in my age bracket at our camp. Using the family car, without chaperones, we made our way along #7 to a well-publicized dance at Sharbot Lake. It was a wonderful evening that added further to a burgeoning summer romance. Truly a memory linked to Sharbot Lake that has survived to this day.
For years, an imposing store at Kaladar on Hwy. 7 was a favourite stopping spot for travellers. The emporium, owned and operated by Mr. and Mrs. Arnold York, carried just about everything and was a magnet for many motorists. A pit-stop here usually resulted in gasoline purchases, groceries, and snacks, not always in that order. The Yorks operated the store and a snack bar from 1934 to the late 1960s. In the delightful published account of pioneer life within the Land O’ Lakes region, The Oxen and the Axe, published by The Pioneers of Cloyne, Ont., Mrs. York recalled that in 1934 she and her husband believed if they cleared $1.00 a day they could make a living.
Simply put, a mention of old Hwy. 7 to anyone up in years leads to a mountain of memories involving mind-staggering sections of Precambrian Shield, colourful jerry-built blueberry stands, simply awesome sunsets, and moons bigger than any in Texas. However, the real avalanche of nostalgia for many is prompted by the foremost attraction Hwy. 7 has ever boasted along its storied route — bigger by far than the well-known Sharbot Lake Hotel or the successful York operation. Nothing in its time could generate public interest quite like The Log Cabin Service Station and Restaurant near Actinolite, owned and operated by brothers Bruce and Lloyd H. “Bud” Price. The Supertest gas (an All-Canadian company) probably wasn’t superior to any other petrol, but thousands of travellers in their own vehicles or travelling by bus simply would not pass up the establishment.
Ask anyone with a lengthy acquaintance with Hwy. 7 and you will instantly be inundated with Canadian bear stories. Undoubtedly the major attraction for visitors to the area, beginning in the summer of 1933, was a bulky brown bear known as Teddy who became famous and was greatly mourned when he died in the fall of 1964 at just over 31 years of age. Though the original bear tenant at The Log Cabin, Teddy had company during his later years when joined by Buster and Bandy in 1950. That the trio attracted record-breaking throngs has been well-documented over time. Though all would be viewed with justifiable horror in today’s world, their pulling power at the time was phenomenal!
A brief history of the Price Brothers’ Log Cabin can be gleaned from handwritten but undated recollections of Bud Price. The original property was purchased in 1932 by his father, the Reverend Major Merritt Price, a major in the machine gun corps in the First World War, who had returned to Canada with his English war bride, Dorothy. At the time Reverend Price preached in Actinolite at the massive marble church that has long figured prominently in the history of the Tweed district. The original Log Cabin was built in 1933, constructed from logs that previously served the Lutheran church on the “old Flinton Road” and others came from a pioneer home in the nearby Potter Settlement. Additional timber and a sizeable amount of new lumber was required for a 44 x 30 foot building and the added kitchen area (24 x16). Completing the initial layout were four 12 x 8 overnight cabins, each equipped with a double bed, sink, and coat hooks. Primitive as this may now seem, such modest accommodation was acceptable prior to the Second World War.
Bud Price remembered those early days when a Delco generator (before local hydroelectric power) met the lighting needs, and water was pumped into a reservoir by a one-cylinder gas engine that, coupled with gravity, allowed a modest flow to sinks and toilets. Custom-built well-insulated ice boxes contained blocks of ice to “refrigerate” food, beverages, and ice cream. A “yummy made-on-the-spot” ice cream was a daily treat, thanks to a Delco-powered mixer. Ingredients, among others, consisted of 50% separated cream and 50% milk.
A notice in The Tweed News, dated August 14, 1985, announced a change of ownership with the sale of the establishment to Norman and Violet Shorey. For many people this represented the end of an era whose kind was not likely to come around again. During their 40 years at the helm Bruce and Bud Price had both witnessed and participated in a unique period of remarkable economic growth. Tourism expanded significantly as travellers now journeyed further and faster, craved new comforts, and it would appear in some cases also lost the ability to linger and experience simple, often everyday things — such things as a stop at Prices’, savouring their homemade ice cream, and having one’s picture taken by an old box camera with Teddy, Buster, and Bandy in the background. Such memories are priceless.
My friend, Cindy Dymond recently shared her memories from the 1970s when, while studying law at the University of Ottawa, she would either by car or bus travel Hwy. 7 en route to Toronto where her family lived. Like so many others, she always stopped at Price Brothers. In her memory, the place was so surrounded by bush that the weather during such pit stops always seemed to be either extremely hot or bitterly cold! She further recalled just how many people she knew in Ottawa that would speak of their own Hwy. 7 experience and the unusual phenomenon of bear cages in the middle of nowhere, or so it seemed to city-slickers. There was, as Cindy so neatly summed up, “a kind of Appalachian feel to it!”
Perhaps the sultry French actress of the recent past, Simone Signoret, said it best when she titled her own exceptional life story Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.* There is a time in one’s own existence when we should all wax nostalgic over the past — wistfully bringing to mind landmarks and bears long gone and a familiar highway that fortunately is still with us.
Research support provided by Evan Morton at the Tweed Heritage Centre.
Simone Signoret. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1978.