True tall tales of Manitoulin – Jack McQuarrie spins colourful Island yarns for the ages

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Manitoulin Island has been the favoured subject of many historians and raconteurs over the years, none perhaps quite so prolific in getting the stories down for posterity as Willis John McQuarrie of Gore Bay, known to everyone as Jack.

The former publisher of the Recorder in Gore Bay from the late 1960s until the early ‘90s went on to publish about a dozen books on the history of the Island, including the immensely popular ‘Through the Years’ series from 1983 until 1997. Subtitled ‘Manitoulin History and Genealogy,’ these little booklets would sell for $2 and regale readers with reprints of historical reports of weddings and family reunions, obituaries, poems, cartoons, advertisements and many old articles and photos; together they established the annals of the Island firmly in residents’ proud awareness of their roots, struggles, misfortunes and achievements of the early days of settlement.

As folks willingly supplied Mr. McQuarrie with personal accounts of their ‘happenings,’ so his books became repositories of the histories of local families, of community traditions, newsworthy and homespun events and of politics near and far; the series can be found in almost all Island libraries. Many other books, such as ‘The Early Years of Gore Bay,’ replete with 38 chapters of reminiscences, newspaper clippings and photos also bore testimony to the joys and upheavals common in those days. In 2014, on the 125th anniversary of Gore Bay’s incorporation, Jack McQuarrie was given the town’s special honour of one of three inaugural lifetime achievement awards.  

But mostly Jack McQuarrie just loved a good human interest story – he revelled in the role of chronicler, listening, recording, compiling and revealing the found narratives to scores of eager readers. His ‘True Tall Tales of Algoma-Manitoulin’ is a classic McQuarrie compilation of fact and fiction, spun into a collection of ‘400 Fascinating Stories of Happenings’ on the Island and around the North Shore region.

In the introduction, the author lays the foundation on which the book rests: The stories, he writes, are “true happenings,” but, he cautions, “… in the telling of a story the version can vary according to the individual telling it.” And a kind of disclaimer, couched in lofty language to cement its import: “If there is a story that might be somewhat separated from the absolute truth, you will certainly recognize it as simply a tall tale too good to not publish.” 

Some stories have been told and re-told so many times, folklore has passed into local legend; there’s certainly not many who could tell you for sure whether one or the other is true or not. 

Folksy and conversational, the stories are written with humour and with tongue firmly in cheek, or in the grave tones of a serious incident, murder, death or ghost story. There’s an index to the 23 chapters entitled Accidents, Animals, Courts, Farmers, Hunting, Mail, Phones, Schools and so on, to suit every curiosity-seeker.

The newspaper cartoon on the cover of Jack McQuarrie’s ‘True Tall Tales of Algoma-Manitoulin’ conveys the delight taken in the telling and hearing of a good yarn in the early days of settlement.

The mysterious forces at play in human lives are never far from Mr. McQuarrie’s mind, whether relating boyhood pranks with the glee of a young man who cherishes those bygone days, or everyday occurrences gone somehow a little or a lot wrong. Much is keen observation – watching as an inept driver rolls backwards down a hill into the bush, capturing the near-accident, the bystanders’ muffled merriment, the funny side of an averted disaster  – and making light of problems, using humour to defuse tension, calm nerves and hopefully survive potentially dangerous situations. 

Gruesome stories of the hardships of winter or of hazardous travel by ship or horse and buggy or of a perilous job that could result in death were reminders of “Nature’s Wrath,” for which no humour was adequate. A return trip from Burnt Island to Gore Bay by horse and sleigh to see the dentist for a bad tooth could take three days in winter. Seventeen feet of snow fell on the Island one year; trucks and horses and sleighs often went through the lake ice; men and women went missing in massive snowstorms and were never heard of again; marine disasters were frequent and often fatal.

Writes Mr. McQuarrie, “Given the right circumstances, life released an intrepid individual ready to meet the challenge of most anything that came along. While ready and willing, the result might well cause their demise.”

Much is the amusement at the re-telling of a punchline: when a Manitoulin passenger arrives in Toronto on the train, a young tout, calling out “King Edward! King Edward!” to disembarking guests of the hotel on the train platform, bumps into him. The Manitoulin man proceeds to admonish the boy with “No, no, boy, I’m Red Neil McColeman from Spring Bay!” Jokes about the foibles of rural people unaccustomed to the newfangled ways of the ‘modern world’ touched a chord as the pace of life quickened around them.

There is often some element of amazement that elevates a story to the level of “That was a good one!”– the escaped British fraudster who flees to Northern Ontario, builds a cabin and “became known as an artist and poet;” the boys who heard spooky knocking coming from an abandoned house, entered the dark, haunted place to find, locked in an upstairs bedroom, an angry goat; the big black dog in harness that mysteriously appeared on an ice-covered lake just as a woman began miscarrying and her husband doubted his ability to pull her home on their toboggan (the dog was hitched to the toboggan, saving the day); the crow that led a lost captain and his ship to dry land. 

These stories have become the legends of their localities and the characters that people them their folk heroes. Now timeless, they still resonate with good humour, ingenuity, resilience and often, divine intervention. The ‘True Tall Tales’ involve real men, women, children and animals in sometimes hair-raising situations, sometime lighthearted or tragic, conveying a message about the hopes of humanity for a fair shake, with some sly winks along the way to lighten the load. 

Some of Jack McQuarrie’s books on Island history are available at the Expositor Bookstore and at many Manitoulin Island libraries.