Highways and Holidays

By David Turner in Community, People, Places, Events, & History

With the 2013 summer holiday season behind us, I was reminded how vacations of any degree were a rare event for our parents. From 1943-1953, when Dad worked as herdsmen for a large dairy operation at Bond Head, Ontario, he received one week’s paid holiday per year. Extensive travel was impossible during the war, but in 1947 Mom and Dad motored to Quebec City, the first trip for just the two of them since their honeymoon eight years earlier.
Two years later, in 1949 when I was just a few months old, Dad and Mom rented a cottage for one week on Lake Erie near Dunnville Ontario. By booking the last week of June before the tourist crush, they were able to get the cottage for $20.00. “Basic” I guess would be the most honest description, featuring neither bathroom nor running water. Dad especially enjoyed the week. Each morning following breakfast he’d take my sister and two brothers down to the beach, spending the day savouring the sun and sand. Meanwhile, Mom enjoyed herself… cooking, cleaning and washing diapers, after she’d hauled water from the community pump a quarter mile away.
When we purchased our own dairy farm in 1953, even week-long vacations became but a memory. Any free time was relegated to “day trips” at best. In the pre-MacDonald’s-Tim Horton’s era, family’s would pack a lunch, often heading nowhere in particular but eventually stopping at one of the numerous roadside parks that dotted the highways of Ontario a half century ago. With a plastic table cloth spread over a wooden table beneath the inviting shade of a maple we’d enjoy our hard-boiled eggs, ham sandwiches and “Kool Aid”.
Although our parents may have been deprived of holidays themselves, there was never any shortage of friends and relatives wishing to spend their leisure time with us. These visits could invariably last several hours or several days. There were the regulars such as our city and country cousins, but there were always a few of whom I had no idea who they were and never felt it important enough to ask. Maybe they were second or third cousins… maybe their parents were simply old friends or neighbours of our parents… who would know?
Once somebody’s kid… Lannie I think his name was, visited, and after becoming acquainted we took him on a farm tour. Urban kids were always fascinated with the barn, particularly upstairs where the hay was stored, so we started there. Stretched across the upper level of the hayloft in a crosswise direction were a series of steel cables. Originally designed for containing loose hay, these cables had lost their importance with the evolution to baled hay. They remained nevertheless, probably holding the barn together to a certain extent.
We were racing back and forth across the bales of hay when Lannie smacked into one of these cables, catching him squarely in the throat. It’s a wonder he wasn’t decapitated; you should have heard the bawling! I guess that was a good sign meaning he was still alive. I recall he had one nasty scrape on his throat but no rushing to the nearest hospital emergency ward in those days; a liberal application of Rawleigh’s salve, a half hour’s recuperation and “you’ll be fine”.
Dad did give us hell for playing so roughly and strongly advised we find a gentler means of entertainment. “We could pick some apples in the orchard,” someone suggested. That appeared to be a relatively safe venture. With the exception of falling out of a tree or choking to death… what could go wrong? Numerous apples littered the ground beneath the trees but because the cows utilized them for shade, most of the fruit was either squashed or covered with various degrees of manure. Lannie elected to sit on the fence and observe while we retrieved some ripened apples from the lower branches.
Perhaps he was still dizzy or maybe he simply overbalanced, but whatever the reason Lannie toppled from his perch backwards, his head squarely coming to rest in…you guessed it… a nice fresh one too! There was another round of bawling although this time Lannie received no serious physical damage. Emotionally however he was a wreck. Even his parents couldn’t resist a bit of fun over this episode. “With all that fertilizer we’ll have to cut your hair every day!” and “Well at least you hit something soft this time!” By now Lannie was past caring and spent the duration of his visit indoors. I don’t recall him ever visiting again.
The best feature, we had to entertain our company, whoever they were and from wherever they came, was that super-highway that cut through our farm from north to south. If one single development symbolized the great post-war recreational invasion of Simcoe County, it was the construction of Highway “400” from Toronto to Barrie, sometimes known as “Ontario’s Vacationland Freeway.”
With an increasing need to lessen some of the heavy traffic off Highway’s 11 and 27 which were the only routes from Toronto to Barrie and points northward, construction on the proposed highway began immediately after the war in 1946. My brother Bill recalls when he was a youngster riding with Dad on the new highway when it still featured several gravelled sections. By December 1951 the “400” was open but limited to one paved lane on either side of the thirty foot grassy median. By July of the next year with all the paving completed, the “400” officially became a four-lane super highway.
Beginning late Friday afternoon, the “cottage goers” would begin their migration northward and my brothers and I would be out in the pasture field that ran alongside the highway, deliberating and debating about the steady stream of Buicks, Packards, Pontiacs, Hudsons, Studebakers, Mercurys, Desotos, Dodges, Vauxhalls and Austins passing before us…and even that new odd looking little car…what was it called?…oh yes…the Volkswagen.
Along with whoever might be with us, we’d become involved in animated discussions of the car we would someday own. Both “dual tone” and “triple tone” colour configurations were becoming fashionable in the mid-fifties, and my favourite ride at that time was a Chevrolet Belair trimmed in turquoise and white. Richard’s dream car was practically any model of Cadillac.
Once when some cousins or whatever were visiting, we got into a discussion of…what else? That particular day Richard and I were extolling the virtues of Chevrolet and Cadillac and running Fords and most everything else into the ground when one lad who hadn’t much to say until this point, indicated his Dad drove a Dodge…Silence prevailed for a moment, as the statement seemed to just hang in the air…a Dodge?
I turned to Richard who at this point would be about eight or nine and asked, “Do you like Dodge’s?” Richard plucked a piece of timothy grass from the pasture field…stuck it in his mouth…sucked on it momentarily…then answered carefully while we waited with bated breath. “They’re okay.”…Alright!…if Richard says Dodge’s are okay, then Dodge’s are okay! Case closed. We’d always asked and accepted Richard’s opinion regardless of subject or thought. Six decades later we still were.
Not just Friday afternoons, but long into the night a steady stream of headlights would be providing a constant light show through the south window glass of the bedroom I shared with my brothers. Sunday evening, the tide would reverse as bumper to bumper traffic winded its way back to Ontario’s capital. The “401” was only nicely under construction in the Toronto area at this point and no other major routes existed. With limited excess to siphon incoming traffic, the flow from the “400” naturally slowed to a crawl when it hit the city.
Add an accident or two into the mix and the back-up would be tremendous…all the way to our farm some thirty miles north. On hot summer nights the heavy air would carry the voices of stranded motorists easily to our front yard where our family we would be sitting. It almost felt as though we were eavesdropping. Because we lived in such close proximity, never a week went by that someone didn’t come walking across the pasture field in search of a gallon of gas for a dry tank, some water for a boiling radiator, or if more serious, the use of our telephone. One thing the “400” wasn’t…was dull or monotonous.
A few years ago while on a day trip with my brothers, we found ourselves in the vicinity of our old Simcoe County farm. The current owners were very receptive, giving us free reign to indulge in our memories from long ago.
One of the cement pillars that marked the entrance way lay neglected in the long grass beside the driveway, but its mate stood firmly anchored. Time hadn’t been kind to the old windmill as only the frame remained, and the wooden silo that had guarded the northwest corner of the barn had been replaced by a cement structure. There was little familiar about the stable itself as it had been completely gutted. A couple of chickens were walking around what used to be the milking area, and the cow stalls that Dad used as maternity pens were being utilized by rabbits the day we were there.
Upstairs, the barn was empty and silent except for pigeons and sparrow tenants. The hay fork remained suspended from the ceiling as it had for decades, and it wasn’t difficult to envision our old Pontiac, rope attached to its sturdy bumper shuttling up and down the steep slope of the gangway as it operated the giant fork, lifting loose hay from the wagon into the hayloft.
…And what about that wonderful highway?… well, over the years it had expanded to six lanes with more noise and more and faster traffic with the model selection now seemingly dominated by Asian and European built automobiles. Interestingly, the hill we climbed as kids to the highway’s boundary didn’t seem as steep as remembered, despite our advancing years.
As I watched the traffic race by, my mind returned to that Saturday in March 1957, sitting in the passenger seat of the truck beside my father. I recalled vividly the sadness I felt as we drove beneath the “400” overpass and both the highway and our farm gradually disappeared from view. We were on our way to a new farm in a new county and I figured I’d never see that highway again… a highway that had been instrumental in both entertainment and education and an integral part of childhood.
As I stood lost in my own thoughts, little imagination was needed to envision myself in the exact same place a half century earlier. A much simpler time when youthful dreams consisted of Hudsons, Desotos and turquoise and white Chevrolet Belair’s…