Shelldrake

My mother was raised in Shelldrake, a small mill town on the south shore of Lake Superior, west of what is now Paradise. Shelldrake doesn’t exist anymore, but in the early part of the 20th century, the mill supported a number of families. The mill burned twice, and after the second time, it was never rebuilt. At that time, my grandfather moved the family to Sault Ste. Marie.

My grandfather, Peter Arbic, was the engineer at the mill. He and my grandmother, Mary Jacques, were from Bracebridge in southern Ontario. Peter brought Mary and the two children, Thelma and my mother, Delena, across the border to live.

My mother told me many stories about their lives in Shelldrake. Gradually, more children came along, and they each had jobs to do. One of my mother’s chores was to scrub the unfinished boards of the kitchen floor. She also had to wring the necks of chickens and pluck them for cooking. She hated that job.
The mill was owned by the Bartlett family who also lived in Shelldrake. They had a generator, or gyro, as my mother called it. Most of the time, the houses didn’t have electricity, but on Mondays, the gyro was fired up, and everyone did their laundry.

My mother often told me stories about other families who lived in Shelldrake. One of these neighbors had a claw foot bathtub and several sets of dishes. During the week, the family stored their dirty dishes in the bathtub, and on Saturday, they washed the week’s worth of dishes, probably so they all could take baths.

There was a grade school at Shelldrake, and on nice spring and fall days, school was sometimes held on the beach. As a child, I thought that was a pretty nifty arrangement.

The kids, in my mother’s family at least, never swam in Whitefish Bay. My grandmother would never allow it, not just because the lake was cold but because she was afraid they would drown. My mother, growing up on the shores of the largest fresh water lake in the world, never learned to swim. I found it ironic.

One of the stories my mother told me was of a bitter cold December night when she and a friend were walking home from a community Christmas party. She was pre-pubescent at the time. As they walked quickly in the cold, an older Indian man met them on the path. He handed my mother a box of candy and wished her a Merry Christmas. I remember asking her why he gave her the candy. She said it was because he just liked her.

The incident frightened my mother. She ran the rest of the way home and tossed the box of candy in a snowbank. In the morning, she told me, she woke up and expected to find a baby next to her bed. In those days, no one was told the facts of life. My mother thought the man’s kindness had made her pregnant.

By the time my mother and aunt, as the oldest siblings, were ready for high school, they were shipped off on the train to board at Loretto Academy, a Catholic all-girls school in the Sault. When they went home for Christmas holidays, they took the Soo Line train to Eckerman, which was the end of the line. Someone would pick them up in a horse drawn sleigh, pile blankets on them, and take them the rest of the way to Shelldrake.

Every summer, my mother and her siblings went to the woods to pick wild blueberries to ship on the train to places like Detroit and Chicago. My mother picked so many blueberries that she came to hate them.
I never tired of hearing my mother’s stories of their nearly pioneer lives.

Cris Roll

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