I have never seen the play The Iceman Cometh, and for readers who know that story, I was not that type of iceman. But the two summers I was a deliverer of the frozen refrigerant in the mid-1950s on Georgian Bay I wouldn’t have missed for anything.
Originally, when the cottages were built at Wahnuhke in 1936, each had its own icehouse. In the winter local men were hired to cut big blocks of ice from the bay and pack them in sawdust in the icehouses. Throughout the mild months smaller blocks would be cut from these and placed in iceboxes in each kitchen for refrigeration. In my youth that was my job at the With house.
When I became old enough to find a summer job, hauling ice and running boats were about the only experience that I could offer. So, having learned of a job requiring both at the Ojibway Hotel on an island near Pointe au Baril I applied and was accepted.
On arrival I learned there was more to it, however. Six days a week with a helper I would cut, clean and load ice into the Iceboat, a 23- or 24-foot inboard workboat. I would then deliver it to island cottages near the hotel.
Around 3 p.m. each work day I would return to the hotel, pick up my helper, load the boat with empties — milk and pop cases, maybe propane tanks, sometimes kitchen garbage for pigs on the mainland, and occasionally tradesmen doing maintenance at the hotel– and make the seven-mile run into Pointe au Baril Station. We would unload the empties at Evoys’ warehouse, then return to the island with fresh supplies of milk, pop, bread, etc. for the Ojibway and its grocery store on the main dock.
The Ojibway also had a refrigerated truck that it sent to Toronto twice a week for fresh meat and produce. The truck body was lifted off the vehicle and lowered into a scow, which I would then tow with the Iceboat to the hotel.
I worked like a galley-slave for those two summers but I loved it. Doing hard physical work, interacting with customers and other staff, being outdoors among the islands all day, and running a boat. It was tough, grimy, self-disciplined work, not a job for every teenager, but it suited me perfectly.
That first summer I arrived a day early so I was sent to the back of the island where caretaker Albert Desmasdon had his house and workshop. Nearby was a long boathouse, inside of which was 36 feet of gleaming mahogany. The RoyalEze was the Ojibway’s VIP transporter — a far cry from my lowly Iceboat — and she needed a coat of varnish before Albert lowered her into the Bay for another season’s activity with the more elite clientele.
I was varnishing helper that day to Paul Noganosh, one of the hotel guides from the Shawanaga First Nation on the mainland. When I began the ice run it was Paul who showed me the procedures and taught me the intricate channels to customers’ cottages.
Although I loved boats, especially well designed and purposeful motorboats, I had never heard of the RoyalEze. She was built in 1928 by Ditchburn Boats of Gravenhurst for the Toronto Harbour Commission. I have always assumed that, as her name implies, they used her to squire the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, and Prince George, later King George VI, around Toronto harbour in ceremonies opening the Princes’ Gates at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds. But that apparently took place a year earlier on Aug. 30, 1927, so who knows?
I don’t know her later post-Toronto history or how she joined the Ojibway’s fleet. More recently she was extensively rebuilt, and is now owned by a wealthy collector of antique watercraft in Wisconsin.
It might have been one Sunday in my second summer that the management asked me to put on my cleanest uniform and take the RoyalEze into the Station to pick up a party of guests. I had never run the boat before, or any boat that big, let alone with her history and her almost Admiralty spit-and-polish.
It was a very nervous iceman who piloted this work-of-art the seven miles to the Station, slowed her down well out from the dock, lowered all her bumpers, and gently eased her alongside where, if I remember correctly, the guests were already assembled and a couple of them took her docking lines. They then were comfortably seated in her wicker armchairs while I stowed their luggage aboard, cast off, reversed out from the dock, turned and headed for the Ojibway.
The scenery on that run is typical of the Bay’s iconic pine-covered islands, rocks and channels. Seen from a uniquely beautiful example of boatbuilding craftsmanship on a bright, sunny day like that Sunday, should leave a lasting impression. It did for me. Much removed from my daily routine of lugging ice, empties, and other freight in the scuffed and scarred old Iceboat.
While refreshing my memory about those Ojibway days over 65 years ago, I visited the history section of the Ojibway Club’s website (ojibwayclub.com) and viewed old photos in a book commemorating the hotel’s centennial. There were my old bosses the MacLennan family, and Albert Desmasdon. There was the red truck and its box sitting in the scow. There was a vintage photo of the RoyalEze and even a partial view of the every-day guest boat Ojibway. But nowhere is the humble, hardworking Iceboat visible. Pity.
In one photo of the dock in front of the grocery store can be seen a simple flat-bed wheelbarrow with a steel — not rubber tired — wheel. That wheel was the cause of my most embarrassing moment on that job.
After my ice run one day, and running a bit late, while loading cases of empties aboard the boat I was told there were a couple of garbage cans full of pig scraps to be picked up at the kitchen. Leaving my helper to load the empties, I took the wheelbarrow around the back of the hotel to the kitchen door. I put the first can on the flatbed and rolled it along the path then down a rocky slope to the dock. The barrow bounced nicely onto the dockboards and was wheeled across to the boat and the can put aboard.
Back I went for the second can, and tried hefting it onto the flatbed. Lord, it was heavy! A two-man job, so I got a kitchen staffer to take the other handle. “What on earth is in there?” I asked. “Just slops,” was the reply, “but careful you don’t spill it.”
With almost super-human effort I rolled it down the path then onto the sloping rocks leading to the dock. I struggled for control as gravity took over and pulled us downhill. Foolishly I calculated the momentum would push that steel wheel up and onto the dockboards where I could regain control. But I had lost it.
Instead the wheel stopped dead. The can tipped over and spilled its half-liquid contents across the dock, spreading foul smelling fish heads, guts and animal scraps towards dock strollers, tourists and staff, with the aromatic fluid draining under the dock and into the Bay.
As onlookers recoiled in disgust, helper and I, already late, borrowed a shovel from the hardware store beside where it had happened, and scooped up what we could back into the can. We then sheepishly took off for the Station, leaving the rest of the clean-up to others.
I believe swimming from the dock was cancelled for a few days.
Also, I vowed not to take any more garbage cans too heavy for one person to lift. The pigs could wait a day.
Singing in the rain
Before I left for my first summer at the Ojibway my father, being ex-navy, bought me a solid rubber raincoat and a sou’wester to match. Since I would be outside in an open boat all day, I thought it would be very useful. So the first rainy day I donned this garb and went to work. Inside of half an hour I was soaked in sweat and discarded the thick unventilated rubber coat in favour of a soaking from Mother Nature herself.
It didn’t rain that often but when it did on the freight run my helper would usually join me in grumbling about getting wet. One of these daily companions was often Ron Lewis of Parry Sound who worked in the grocery store. For some reason those wet days seemed to occur more often with Ron’s cheerful presence on the boat.
As we would make our way back to the Ojibway, clothes saturated, hair dripping and plastered to our skulls, he would delight in irritating me with the strains of “Singing In The Rain” above the noise of the engine and pelting raindrops. All with a mischievous grin on his face. Can’t help but love people like that, and just grin back.
That #?(*)% piano
It wasn’t raining that day so it probably wasn’t Ron helping me when we were told we would be bringing a piano out to the island. Surely not a regular upright piano, I thought. Those were heavy, very heavy, and there was no room in the boat so it would have to go on the boat. I was seriously worried that we might not get that thing all the way to the island.
But the Evoy brothers, in whose warehouse the piano was stored, used their freighting experience and led the loading. First, they put a pair of 2 by 8 planks across the Iceboat‘s gunwales. Then they summoned all the musclepower they could find and manhandled that wooden monster aboard the wobbling craft onto those planks until it was centred and amidships. They tightly wrapped a one-inch rope around the piano, fastened one end to the bollard on the bow deck and the other at the stern.
They stood back and studied their work. I did too, and concluded that was the best that could be done. I think one of us stood on the bow deck and gently rocked the boat to see how top heavy she might be if we hit any big waves. I was not optimistic that piano would stay on the boat or that the boat wouldn’t sink if the worst happened.
So gingerly I started the engine and turned into the channel, hoping that any passing boats would recognize our situation and slow down to reduce their wake. If they didn’t we would wave our arms in an up-and-down motion. Several didn’t slow, so we did, steering the extra heavy boat to slice directly into the waves rather than rolling with them.
After what seemed an eternity we safely reached the Ojibway just after suppertime. Another work party was organized and that /#?!$(@) piano was unloaded and manhandled up the stone steps and into the hotel where I hope it brought pleasure to many over the years. Maybe it still does.
For me, even though a music lover, I was happy to just have nothing to do with it ever again.
The case of beer
On my ice deliveries I worked alone, which meant that when I called at the cottage at the top of a very high staircase I had to calculate how much the ice-box might need against how heavy a block I could carry. I did pretty well at that, until one VERY hot and windless day I had to stop for a rest half way up. After the ice was in the box the cottage owner opened the fridge, took out a chilled bottle of lager and sat me down at the kitchen table to drink it, which I did gladly, and not slowly either.
And that was my first drink — not just taste (which I didn’t really like) — of beer. I was not a beer drinker (then, but I love it now). Over two summers, the only other beer I had was offered on my day off.
So it was that when other staff tried taking advantage of my daily trips to the Station, asking me to bring them forbidden shipments of “suds” from the mainland, I was able to decline with clear conscience (though selfishly, because I never wanted it personally so why should they?)
Then in my second summer an older staff member who had worked there much longer than I had, said he was expecting visitors over a weekend. He had arranged for a case of beer to be delivered to Pointe au Baril Station. How to get past the hotel’s staff rules and bring it to the island for his visitors? Maybe the iceman could smuggle it out, just this once?
He was a good fellow. Quiet, well behaved. A model employee whom I had known for nearly two full summers. Maybe I could if he didn’t let the other staff know how he got it. I didn’t want to be plagued with other requests or for the management to find out. He promised.
I forget the details, but the case of beer was surrepticiously delivered to the Iceboat and hidden under an upturned empty trashcan that I used as a seat while driving the boat. My helper looked the other way during this process.
It was arranged that as I passed a side channel near the hotel, the man would come out in a small boat and take the case off my hands. And that’s exactly what happened, making it his problem now. We then made our way to the hotel dock, unloaded our freight; I moored the boat for the night and then joined my helper in the staff dining room for supper.
We were the only two left in the room when the door opened and Mr, MacLennan, the general manager himself, came in and sat down beside me. Oh-oh. He was not smiling.
“I saw you transfer that case of beer on your way back tonight,” he said. “I was in the tower room and watched through the binoculars. I know you haven’t done that before, and you’d better not start now or you’ll be fired. You’re too damned decent to do that sort of thing, Ritchie.”
His words almost exactly. They were seared in my memory. I mumbled my gratitude and assured him it wouldn’t happen again.
I think the word must have got around because I never had to decline the request again, which was a big relief for me. The staffer who got the beer appeared to come out unscathed too, but neither of us ever mentioned it again.
I’ve often thought since what a clever manager Mr. MacLennan was, quietly keeping track of employees’ behaviour, and using strict but complimentary language to deal with any misdeeds. A boss to be respected.