Emery O’Rourke: a man of the shore

He was not a hard-nosed businessman but he was competitive in his own way without being aggressive. He seemed to live by the Golden Rule and would go to great lengths to help friends and customers. He was a physical strongman despite being seriously ill as a child. He knew the waterways among the islands intimately, from the southern mainland north to Parry Sound and beyond.

That’s how I remember Emery O’Rourke.

I knew Emery and his family from the early 1950s until I moved away from Georgian Bay more than twenty years later. To me he was a mentor, employer, and good friend who went out of his way to help someone over life’s rough spots.

He has been gone now for many years, but he deserves a tribute on this Sweetwaters blog, and who better than his niece Bonnie Rourke to provide it. The following are excerpts from one she wrote for the Midland Free Press after Emery died in October, 2006.

Emery O’Rourke was born on October 18, 1912, in a house his father built on the isolated shores of Blackstone Harbour (now in Massassauga Provincial Park). His folks, Edward and Mary, moved their family up the shore from Penetanguishene in 1911 and they lived in Blackstone Harbour for several years until Edward took a job as caretaker at Somerset Island.

Emery was stricken with scarlet fever at age eight, taking months to recover. He was left with a damaged heart. A year later in the winter his father Edward became gravely ill. Wrapping him as warmly as possible, the family took him by horse and sleigh the long distance over ice and snow to hospital in Parry Sound, but he did not survive the trip.

As a family, Mary and her children (Gladys, Sarah, Zita, Mabel, Frank, Louis, Grant, M.J. and Emery) pulled together to continue Edward’s work at Somerset Island. While still a boy, Emery got his first job guiding fishermen at the Pennsylvania Club, rowing them to favourite fishing spots, preparing their hooks, and filleting their catch for dinner. He got a wage but no tips.

When he was 12 Emery got work in a lumber camp, and for several years spent winters driving a team of horses hauling logs out of the bush.

Other winters, other years he worked part time for Judson Arnold in Moon River who operated a post office. Once a week Emery and Judson walked the 16 miles to MacTier and 16 back, sometimes carrying 100 pounds of mail on their backs. He was glad of the cash he earned and, along with hunting and fishing, helped support his mother and was able to take care of himself.

Emery and his brothers were musically inclined. Emery taught himself to play the guitar, and with his beautiful singing voice was accompanied by brothers Frank on the violin and M.J. (Morse James) who played the banjo. They loved country music and Celtic tunes influenced by their father’s Irish roots. Many times they and some friends walked the long miles to MacTier to play and sing at parties and dances.

Sometimes, through their younger years, the O’Rourke boys got together at their sister Gladys’ home at Moose Deer Point where their mother now lived, playing what they enjoyed most: a game of hockey on the ice and their music in the evenings. Those early years left Emery with a life-long passion for hockey.

At the age of 26 he met a Toronto girl, Margaret (Peggy) Watkins, a budding artist, who was working for some tourists that summer. They fell in love and eventually married. For a couple of years Emery and Peggy took up caretaking for the Minnicog Yacht Club at Minnicognashene Island north of Beausoleil Island.

When the club was sold in the 1930s he bought property at Cognashene and built a house. He continued to guide fishermen and hunters, and in the winters cut ice and filled ice houses for cottagers and the Sea Cadet camps on Minnicog and Beausoleil.

By 1949 with the war ended, Georgian Bay was changing. More people were building cottages on its rocky shores and needed places to dock their boats in the summer and store them in the winter.

Emery bought property in Honey Harbour and, starting out small, built a few docks and rented them out. He built a boat and ran a water taxi service, and put up winter storage sheds for boats. The business grew and prospered. He built more taxi boats and named them after his three children: Judy, John and Jane. Over the years those red boats not only delivered people and supplies to the islands, but also propane, refrigerators, furniture, and even pianos.

Some people wouild ride only with Emery knowing that, if the wind was blowing a big nor’wester or the fog was so thick you couldn’t see a boat length ahead, or the night so dark there were no shadows, Emery O’Rourke would get them there safely. Everyone knew that if the weather was so bad that Emery would not go out in his boat, they had better not be out there either.

Emery as I remember him in the 1960s. (photo courtesy of Rourke family)

He hired local folks. Cadeaus, Tobeys, Cousineaus, Corbieres and Lizottes all found work at his marina. He hired summer students too, including nieces and nephews, and sons of his customers. He looked out for his crew, and was firm but fair in his treatment of his people.

The years went by. He bought a former resort from the Schlegel family in 1961 right in the centre of Honey Harbour and converted it into a larger marina. His children grew up. So did the families he had known for decades. They maintained a close friendship with this man of the shore.

One day, feeling unwell, Emery drove to Toronto to see one of his doctor friends at a hospital. He was admitted immediately, with his friend telling him, “Death had his hand on your shoulder, Emery”. That was many years ago and the beginning of many pacemakers to keep him going. He mentioned recently about one time several years ago, as he stepped out of his car, another car clipped his door so it slammed back and hit him hard in the chest, knocking him to the ground. It tore the pacemaker out. Although stunned, he got up, and stuffed the pacemaker back into his chest. Then he rummaged in his glove compartment, found some duct tape, and used it to keep the pacemaker in its place until getting medical attention.

In 1981, 32 years after he started his business, Emery sold it. At 69 he was still a young man. He found a piece of property he liked up on a hill in a forest. He cut some of his trees, milled them there and, with the help of a friend or two, built his own log house.

Emery had a multitude of friends, young, old and in-between. He offered trusted advice, was committed to those close to him, inspiring affection and loyalty. He was a man of quiet strength.

In October, 2006, he celebrated his 94th birthday with family and friends around him. He had his favourite Tim Horton’s coffee, a cake with plenty of candles, ice cream, and many birthday cards telling him how loved he was. That evening as the coyotes moved through his forest and owls kept watch, a light shone from his log house into the woods, and laughter of people happy to be together filled the night air.

A few days later, feeling tired, Emery pulled back the covers on the wooden bed he had made years before, crawled in, and went to sleep forever.

Emery in later years, carrying his guitar. (Rourke family photo)

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