Now & Then: Roy and Mary Anne Robertson

Roy and Mary Anne are wed.

Roy Robertson is a man of many talents. He has had a busy life trying his hand with many opportunities ranging from farm work to construction helper, to making donuts, to raising chicks, to picking apples, to bottling and delivering milk, to hauling whisky and sailing the Great Lakes. Today, Roy is enjoying his well-deserved retirement, but he still plays the accordion and is a popular addition when friends and family gather. He and Mary Anne live in a cozy seniors’ apartment, just off Yonge St. in Mindemoya. Snow drifts were 12 feet high at the back of the parking lot when this writer pulled up to their home to speak to them for this feature during the winter months just past. The walkways were well-shovelled, and a warm welcome awaited me. 

“Starting with some history: My grandfather, Andrew Robertson, his first wife Acha died at the birth of her second child. Andrew’s second wife Charlotte Baker hailed from Mills Township. Her first husband Tom Bouser had died at Julia Bay when a boiler in a sawmill blew up two weeks after their wedding.” Andrew and Charlotte became mixed farmers in the Ice Lake area.

“Grandfather built a water-powered sawmill on a stream coming from Ice Lake. Farmers brought in logs in the winter with horses and sleighs, but it was spring when the sawmill was in use. The stream was dry in summer. Grandmother packed shingles into bundles. Extra helpers in the spring were often paid with wood products. Sharpening the saw was a regular task for grandad in the spring. I remember him walking along the planer one day, with his hands on the machine when he accidentally put his hand into the gears. He lost a couple of fingers that day.” 

Roy was born to John and Elizabeth (Pickard) Robertson on January 7, 1939. Younger siblings are: Zelda, Eva, Leslie, Russ and Cathy. Only Cathy and Leslie remain today. “Mum was a farm girl from neighbouring Pleasant Valley, which was a horse and cutter ride from us, over the ice, in winter.” As a young lad, Roy learned about running a sawmill and tending to the animals: cows, pigs, sheep and some laying hens. “We sold cream and eggs along with the wood products. Hydro was always around as long as I recall; before that, grandfather had a Delco system that would produce energy for lighting.”

“I was just a young lad when our father got the first tractor in 1950. I quickly learned how to drive it and help with the work.” Grandfather was one of the first to bring in alfalfa cattle feed, that was higher in protein and calcium than the Timothy hay. One day, Roy and two friends approached the agricultural representative, Bill Abraham in Gore Bay, and asked to start a 4-H Beef Club for youth in the area. “To our surprise, he agreed. The club was a lot of fun. When I was 13, I won a 4-H showmanship trophy donated by the T Eaton Company.”

From left, Roy, Leslie and Russel at the farm in the early 1940s.

Spring was a time for gathering and producing maple syrup for sale. Winters were spent gathering and chopping wood for warmth and cooking. “I learned to skate on the pond where the sawmill was and later played hockey against the other Island teams.”

School was at Ice Lake. “I got my winter shoes and walked that one-and-a-quarter miles to school. On the way to school and to church, I learned to play my grandfather’s mouth organ. Music and math were my favourite subjects. Our music teacher would rotate through all the schools and we would sing for her. Mr. Cockburn was the only regular teacher I had in public school. He was nice, but I don’t remember ever writing an exam. I failed Grade 9, in part because I lacked the skill of exam writing.” 

Roy passed Grade 9 and Grade 10 before he left home at 17 to work in Sudbury. “I was a joe-boy, a helper for Acme Construction for two months. I spent a lot of time pulling nails out of old boards so they could be reused.” In the fall Roy came back to the Island to milk cows and clean stables for a neighbouring farmer, Bobby Dearing, who was logging for the winter. His next job was at Russell Munro’s in Billings. Mr. Munro ran a hatchery, raised chickens and produced eggs. 

Roy and his prize calf, September 1955.

Mac’s Bakery in Gore Bay was next. “I made donuts, cleaned the premises and delivered bread when the driver was on holidays.” At 19, Roy headed back to Sudbury to Palm Dairies. “I ran the capping machine for the glass bottles, which then had to be placed into wooden cases. The blisters from the wet bottles were worth it because I was able to buy my first car, a 1951 Ford, a deep blue, four-door sedan. I loved to drive it.” Sault Ste. Marie was where Roy delivered milk for Model Dairies for a time. “I wanted to get home again to play hockey for the Ice Lake Muskrats on Manitoulin.”

Harry Witty’s garage got him home again. He repaired cars and pumped gas for a few months. Next, Roy was lured to sailing the Great Lakes. “My sister accused me of thinking the grass was always greener on the other side of the fence, but I wanted to find the work I enjoyed most. We sailed all five Great Lakes on freighters from September to December. The most popular run was from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. We also brought coal to Little Current from Lorrain, Ohio. Thunder Bay grain and coal went to Midland. It was interesting but I missed driving my car.”

Roy helped his Uncle Charlie raise turkeys, hatching chicks for sale and running a Purina dealership. “The feed would come by boat to Kagawong dock and I would pick it up with a flat-bed truck. We had to feed 150 breeder turkeys in the winter and 1,000 artificially inseminated chicks in the summer.” 

Roy and Mary Anne are wed.

Roy met Mary Anne at a local dance when he was about 20. Her parents were Helen (McCulligh) and Cliff White. She was named after her grandmother Mary Anne White. Mary Anne (White) Robertson, born on March 4, 1944, had 16 siblings: Don, Jean, Betty, Terry, Donna, who were older, and Pete, Carolyn, Tom, Freda, Linda, Gary, Bev, Susan, Henry, Christine and Barb, who were younger. “My family did general farming and all of us worked on the farm in Green Bay. We milked cows and helped with the housework. I never felt hard-done by. I always felt I was contributing to help the family. Hydro, for us, came in the later 1950s.”

Mary Anne recalls a barn fire at their home. It was traumatic, but no animals were lost and the barn was rebuilt with the help of neighbours. “Christmas was a fun time. We got games, skating socks, oranges and Christmas candy. I don’t remember a lot of fighting, we all seemed to get along. When I started school my sister Betty put me on the cross-bars of her bike and drove me to school.”

“I liked spelling and the day we played a trick on one of our teachers. We arrived early to school and locked the door, which she would expect to be open. When she arrived with three other children, we hid. She tried both doors, but they were locked. She started to drive away but turned back one more time to see us all celebrating with our arms in the air. She turned around and came back, a little annoyed, but not angry. Punishment meant no recess for us that day.”

“Winter skating was double the fun. It meant a ride in the back of dad’s half-ton truck from Green Bay to the Sheguiandah ice rink. I shared my skates with two sisters.” Dances were always enjoyable. Roy came to the dances where he saw Mary Anne. “I enjoyed the music and I liked to call square dances and other pattern dances,” he shares. “I also watched Cecil Lloyd on drums often enough that I could take over when he went for a break. The band we saw most included Doug Smith and Doug Hore.”

Mary Anne with her brother in the 1950s.

“A friend of mine went with Mary Anne’s older sister. I saw her again at her sister’s wedding reception. She knew how to dance. She taught me what my sister had tried to show me earlier.” Mary Anne was attracted by his passion to learn dancing. Roy was one of a few who owned their own car, so while at home, he would arrive at Mary Anne’s with a carful of riders. One time, there was no room for his lady, so she had to stay home. By this time Roy had begun working for INCO in the smelter.

Mary Anne and Roy were married on a snowy December 28, 1961 in the Church of Christ in Ice Lake. “We had a lot of friends and family and later, there was a reception in Gore Bay. The minister was a family friend and the Junior Farmers’ group made sandwiches and a cake for the dance. We stayed in the family home that night but required a heavy trunk to keep our door closed. The next day it was off to the Sault for a weekend honeymoon.”

Roy left INCO at the time of the layoffs in 1962 and came home. The couple soon bought Grandfather Pickard’s farm in Pleasant Valley. By then, two children had been born. The Robertsons found they were away from home too much. Roy went back to working at the turkey plant and at McDougal Construction of Gore Bay. He also made Island deliveries for Manitoulin Transport, with a few trips to Toronto. 

“I started shearing sheep with Ken Baker,” Roy continues. “Over the years, I must have sheared about 30,000 sheep. It was hard work because you are bent over a lot, but I liked the work. Ken and I would travel to farms to do custom shearing. Not many farmers had shearing equipment or could do expert shearing. We travelled as far as Meaford in the spring.” 

In 1976, the family moved south to work with a sheep farmer and veterinarian for a few months before moving on to an apple orchard where Roy picked the fruit and delivered apples for Binkley Apple Company. Deliveries went to Dominion stores in Parry Sound, Sudbury and North Bay as well as Zehr’s stores in Kitchener that fall. In Meaford, Meldon Construction had him laying water and sewer pipes underground for a few months.

Roy in his trucking years.

Ken and Roy entered a shearing contest in the Royal Winter Fair in the 1970s. “The Canadian Wool Growers Association gave me a prize as the Champion Shearer one year. It seems speed is only 15 percent of the grade. Neatness counted for 25 percent; 10 percent for how you handled the sheep and 50 percent was for the preparation of the fleece after shearing. I had to shear two sheep. It seems that the black-faced sheep were easier to work with and I had been lucky to have been assigned two black-faced sheep.”

Roy bought an accordion to add to his drum set and learned how to play it. His neighbour played the fiddle and Roy learned to cord from the fiddle music. In 1979 the family moved to the Redwing Sheep Farm, where Roy became the manager and stayed for 13 years. In his spare time, he delivered apples, sheared sheep for other farmers, or unloaded grain at the Collingwood elevators. Mary Anne looked after the family and enjoyed bowling with her friends. In 1982, it was off to Thornbury where Tri-Mac Trucks had Roy haul whiskey in tanker trucks from Collingwood to Louisville, Kentucky. He also delivered base product to Boston. The trucks were numbered to identify ‘edible alcohol’ being hauled. The trucks are specially sealed at departure and custom sealed again at the border.

“I recall jackknifing the tanker truck once on a slippery hill. I wound up in a snowbank with a punctured diesel tank. Another time I was stopped at the border coming from Louisville on September 11, 2001. We didn’t realize that the attack on New York had happened, the Twin Towers attack of 9/11. I wound up staying overnight at a truck stop in Ohio because the borders were closed.” At age 65, Roy retired from driving transports and went back to part-time basic, trucking for Randy Gibbons in Thornbury.

Roy ready to play today

Roy and Mary Anne bought a home in Thornbury. Mary Anne worked at a seat-belt factory in Collingwood and later at a furniture company for a while. She also graded and packed apples in the Beaver Valley area. Roy played broomball and hockey once a week. The couple attended special events like the Huron County Thrashers and Steam Engine Show in Blythe. “I ran the threshing machine and operated the hay press with wire ties to show the public how it’s done,” Roy adds. “In 2004, we worked at the International Plowing Match in Meaford. We operated the people movers (tractors and bale wagons) to get folks from the parking areas to the venue and back.”

The family had three children, Andy, Margaret Anne and Suzanne. Andy, born in Sudbury, lives in Markdale today. He works at the ski hill at Osler Bluff in the Collingwood area in the winter and does road maintenance off-season. He has two children, our only grandchildren, Zane, a structural engineer who lives in Kitchener and Kirsten, who works for the town of Milford in the office. Margaret Anne was born in Gore Bay. She still lives there and has retired from working in the kitchen in at the Nursing Home. Suzanne was born in Meaford. She lives in Milton today. She managed a drug store in Thornbury and now is a secretary for a medical equipment office. 

“Looking back, we have done some travelling. We’ve been to Scotland, Cuba, enjoyed an Alaskan cruise and have seen much of Canada and the USA. I’ve been in 44 States in the US and driven in 42 of them,” Roy adds. “The Panama Canal trip is still on our bucket list. We took the kids to the Agawa Canyon train ride in Sault Ste. Marie. We also took them on a train trip from Cochrane to Moosenee and on to Moose Factory by boat. The kids saw polar bears at Cochrane and a replica of the old town. More recently, we have also gone to The Barn Dance Historical Society in Blythe for music and entertainment.”  

“We always came back to the Island when we were living down south. As Haweaters, it was still home for us. Our cemetery plots are here too. We moved back to the Island four years ago when a knee injury from a car accident made stair-climbing too much of a challenge for me,” Roy explains. “We chose this apartment in Mindemoya built by Jeremy Gordon. All rooms are on one level.”

“I like to play the accordion and my most recent outing was for a house party for Morley Runnalls two weeks ago. We play for residents in nursing homes in Gore Bay and Espanola. I play the accordion and Carol Gilmore plays guitar and sings, Kay Addison and our daughter Margaret Ann Robertson are on the keyboard. Bruce Gibson is on mouth organ; his wife Donna, Mary Anne’s sister, plays the rhythm box.”

“I spent 13 years managing a sheep farm, 18 years as a trucker and several years doing many jobs for a short time. What did I enjoy most? “I think the musical get-togethers that we both appreciate now. Making maple syrup was another fond memory. These days, I help my nephew Lee Hayden with the syrup when I can. I still enjoy driving locally. We are also members of the Providence Bay Twilight Seniors’ Club.” Roy has recently become the president of this club.

Mary Anne and Roy on the occasion of Roy’s retirement.

For Mary Anne, that special memory was the birth of her babies. “Roy and I enjoyed playing with our grandchildren, too, when they were young. Roy would play his mouth organ. Pets? “Our dogs were working farm dogs that helped bring the cattle in from grazing. They weren’t pets as we think of pets today.” Favourite season? “Both of us like summer the best because we can go camping and swimming.” Mary Anne was surprised with a birthday party in March. “Our band played music for 35 people at GG’s Restaurant in Evansville. Family and friends gathered from near and far. It was so much fun.”

Collections? Mary Anne collected spoons from all the places they visited while she was in Thornbury. Strengths? “Mary Anne,” says her husband,” is a good cook and dancer.”

“Roy,” adds Mary Anne, “is good story-teller, musician and he was good at shearing sheep. He enjoys camaraderie, get-togethers with friends and family, as I do.” 

What am I most afraid of? Mary Anne says it’s mice. Roy says, “losing Mary Anne would by my greatest fear.” 

Regrets? “Not really, maybe I could have stayed longer on the big boats, then I would have a pension now.” A person I admire? “Ken Baker, who patiently taught me a lot about shearing sheep.” Recipe for happiness? “Don’t sit at home, get out and have fun, be active and listen to each other.” Mary Anne adds, “We hope we will live long enough to see our great-grandchildren.” 

The family gathering, back row from left, Mike, Andy, Kirsten and her husband Chad, Zane, middle row, Suzanne, Wanda and Erin, front row, Margaret Ann, Mary Anne and Roy makes for quite a full photo.

“Manitoulin has always been home and even felt like home when we lived elsewhere.” Mary Anne shares that Thornbury felt comfortable for her. “We met new people and made friends.” Roy adds, “Its always been easy to make friends here on the Island, for sure. There is no hustle and bustle and lots of retirees are coming home again to Manitoulin. Some of them live right here in these houses. We all appreciate the beauty of this Island and it continues to impress us when we share it with our friends and family. Manitoulin is truly our home and refuge.”