‘I would love to talk to him just one more time’ – Lines and Shadows (Part 7)
Stand on the corner of Wallace and Huron streets in Wallaceburg most any sunny summer day. You will hear tires crunching broken asphalt as vehicles pull into and out of the Wallaceburg public boat ramp. Listen carefully and you will hear the high-speed clicking of winches as people coax their boats off trailers, the spinning of wheels as cars or trucks extract the trailer off the slippery, river-muddy surface of the boat ramp (maybe even a bit of cursing as people rock stuck boats off trailers or try to get stubborn motors to start), then the slamming of car doors and people walking to their boats.
And then you’ll hear the whir of an outboard motor fade into the distance as a boat heads out for a day of cruising or waterskiing on the Snye or the St Clair River, or fishing at Mitchell’s Bay.
On those sunny summer days, once the whir of that motor fades to nothing, all goes pretty quiet at the corner of Wallace and Huron streets. Nothing much more than the buzz of cicadas.
Flash back 60 years to June 1960, and things would have looked and sounded very different. At the boat ramp you might have seen a ship – like the Ben E Tate or Coalfax – pouring a seemingly unending stream of coal from its unloading boom onto the coal pile on the east bank of the Sydenham. Just 400 feet to the north and across the Sydenham, the chimneys of the Dominion Glass Company (“the Glass”) would’ve been belching black smoke and you would have heard the low roar of sand, broken glass and soda ash being melted into new, molten glass.
Just a quarter-mile to the south, you would have seen the smokestack of the Canada and Dominion (C & D) Sugar Company (“the Sugar factory”) looming silent over the landscape. Waiting for the start of the annual “sugar beet campaign.”
And starting at the northeast corner of Wallace and Huron streets you would have seen five, neat-as-a-pin, company houses. The very first house at the corner was the home of Bill and Alma Vye and their three daughters, Judy, Janet, and Joyce. As Joyce Ritchie, Bill Vye’s daughter, recalls it, their neighbours from the corner, east towards the rail crossing, were the families of John and Mary Van Kerkhoven, Jim and Evelyn Andrews, John and Evelyn Van Geersdaele and Cy and Doris Austin.
Joyce describes those company houses as “a very nice size, but they weren’t very well insulated. Ice formed on the walls and windows in the winter months.”
And, during the summer months, turning on the air conditioning meant opening the windows and doors and hoping for a breeze.
Had you happened to be standing near the Vye home in the evening on a sweltering hot summer day in late June 1960, you might have overheard the strummings of Bill Vye on his ukulele or guitar drifting through the air conditioning. As Joyce describes it, her father “could make up a song as he went along”, even when his six-string guitar had been worn down to only four strings.
If you didn’t hear strummings, you might have heard a booming loud voice followed by five or 10 seconds of silence and then an outburst of laughter. That would have been Bill Vye telling another one of his tall tales, his wife and three daughters stunned to silence by the tallness of the tale and then the outbursts of laughter they could no longer contain. As Terry Hill (son of Stanley Hill Jr., Bill Vye’s best friend) put it, “Bill could tell tall tales with a poker face.”
And Joyce recalls some of those tall tales. Like the time her father walked into the house with the knees of his pants scraped up. When Joyce asked her father what had happened, he replied – with a straight face – that he had fallen out the door of a car that was going 50 miles an hour and had had to run to catch up with car.
Or the time he walked into the house and asked his daughter Janet if she had seen the submarine sailing up the Sydenham that had tied-up to the dock just 60 feet from their house.
Or the story from his childhood in Sombra. Of having to use little white goslings when there was no more catalogue paper in the outhouse. And then little brown goslings running all over the yard.
As Joyce puts it, “I was quite young then and soon realized that I had to confirm things with Mom, as to whether they were fact or fiction.”
Not only was Bill Vye a great storyteller, he was also a prankster.
Joyce can’t recall the exact date, but it may have been sometime in the late 60’s or early 70’s. As they did every now and then, Bill and Stanley walked to the Kent Hotel on Wallace Street for a cold beer with their friends and fellow workers. On the way there, they stopped in at Lauzon’s Meat Market and bought a coil of summer sausage and jar of horseradish. At the bar, Bill and Stanley gave out samples of the summer sausage to dip in the horseradish. It was a hit. Bar patrons gobbled-up the summer sausage and loved the fresh, “homemade,” flavour of their store-bought horseradish.
Seizing the opportunity, Bill got up from the bar and, fast as he could, scrambled the 400 feet down Wallace Street to buy up all the jars of “homemade” horseradish he could find at Lauzon’s. On his way back to the Kent, Bill rubbed the labels off all the jars and then sold it to unsuspecting bar patrons.
All the laughter of Bill’s tall tales and pranks that had ever drifted on the breeze through that neat-as-a-pin house came to a screeching-loud dead silence on Saturday, July 9, 1960.
That day, a sledge hammer slammed through Wallaceburg.
That was the day of the announcement of the closure of “the Sugar factory.” One of Wallaceburg’s “Big Three” – a landmark that had operated since its founding by the Smith family of Bay City, Michigan in 1901 – was done.
Bill Vye’s 22-year career as the engineer on steam engines C & D 303 and C & D 7470 was finished. Stanley Hill Jr.’s 13-year career – his entire working life – as the craneman at “the Sugar factory,” was over.
Shortly after the closure in Wallaceburg, Stanley was transferred to the C & D Sugar Company sugar refinery at Chatham. When the Chatham sugar refinery closed in 1968, Stanley started work at The Greenmelk Company, which had been in operation since 1939. “The Greenmelk” was in the business of dehydrating local grasses to produce animal feed and other products at its processing facilities in the area of Duke and Albert streets, close to the site of today’s Moose Lodge.
By the time Stanley retired in 1985, the Greenmelk Company had relocated to his old workplace, the former “Sugar factory” site on the banks of the Sydenham, and had been owned by – consecutively – the Maple Leaf Mills Company and Cargill.
The rest of Bill’s working life was not quite so straightforward. On Feb. 22, 1961, after about six months at the sugar refinery in Chatham, he headed north, to about as close as he could get to the North Pole. To work in the powerhouse of a United States Air Force Strategic Air Command base at Frobisher Bay in the Northwest Territories (what in 1987 became Iqaluit, Nunavut).
To this day – and even after consulting her sisters Judy and Janet – Joyce does not know why or how her father ended up working in the Arctic. It might have been for the money. Maybe it was for the adventure. But as Joyce puts it, “Dad was made of tough stuff. The money was better than anything he’d ever made before.”
For all that she does not know about the why and how of her father’s time in the Arctic, Joyce – who was 12 at the time – remembers the long, quiet period of her father’s absence. Gone were the tall tales and bellies full of laughter. Bill worked for one year straight, from February 1961 to February 1962, at what he called “the Frobe,” came home for six weeks, and then was gone for another six months – until August 1962.
Clear as crystal, Joyce remembers the joyous day her father came home from his year-long stint in the Arctic. In his best suit, tie and hat, Bill walked into the kitchen, plunked his hat on his daughter Judy’s head and had a quick drink. And then – surrounded by her sisters and mother and her aunts Edie and Blanche, her cousins Rick and Rob, and her very young nephew Michael – Joyce remembers her father telling a whole bunch of new tall tales. From the Arctic.
Joyce recalls another story from this day, a story about how story-telling gets passed down the line. Some years after her father returned from the Arctic, her nephew Michael was in a London, Ontario hospital. Michael started talking with a passer-by, a passer-by that, unbeknownst to Michael, was from Wallaceburg. As Joyce recalls it, Michael told the passer-by, “When I get out of the hospital, Grandpa Bill’s going to take me polar bear hunting at S—t Lake.”
And just as when Bill told his tall tales, the passer-by burst out laughing. (Just a note. That lake with a dirty brown name was, in fact, the extensive system of manmade ponds, sometimes also called “the Dikes” – located, approximately, north of the Baseline Road and between today’s Gillard Street and Lowe Avenue – that were used to treat the wastewater produced by sugar refining at “the Sugar factory.”)
Very shortly after his return to Wallaceburg, Bill went to work in the powerhouse at the “the Glass.” Joyce can’t recall when her father left “the Glass,” but she knows he was there until at least 1966. She knows that because she, herself, worked in the Packing Department of “the Glass” at the time.
For reasons Joyce doesn’t know, but probably for the better money, her father took his stationary engineering skills north again – about 30 miles – to the powerhouses of the refineries and petrochemical plants in Sarnia’s “Chemical Valley.”
Joyce remembers the day in May 1964 when her family closed the door of the first house on the northeast corner of Wallace and Huron streets for the last time, and moved to their new home on Duke Street. The first home her 56-year-old father and 55-year-old mother had ever owned. A house that stands to this day.
When I asked Joyce when her father retired, she told me that “he didn’t. He couldn’t sit around; he’d go crazy.”
Like it was yesterday, Joyce remembers the Friday, Jan. 14, 1977 her father died. He hadn’t been feeling well, but nonetheless was working overtime at Petrosar in Sarnia. He collapsed at work. By the time he arrived at the hospital in Sarnia, he had passed.
At that point, things went a bit quiet in our telephone conversation. And then Joyce said, “He loved to make people laugh. I would love to talk to him just one more time.”
This three-part story started with a young girl’s childhood adventures in the cab of the steam engines that her father drove in all the smoke and grit and industrial grind and hum of 1950’s Wallaceburg.
It became the story of two employees of “the Sugar factory”: Bill Vye, a steam locomotive engineer, and his best friend, Stanley Hill Jr., a craneman.
The story ends with what happened to the steam locomotives that Bill Vye drove, and the crane that Stanley Hill operated.
C & D 303 was probably built probably on the south shore of Lake Ontario at Dunkirk, New York, by Alco (American Locomotive Company) in 1905.
Although the information may be somewhere out there, I could not determine the fate of C & D 303. But Terry Hill (son of Stanley Hill Jr. and a self-described train-nerd) believes it was scrapped at either the C & D sugar factory in Wallaceburg or Chatham.
The other steam locomotive that Bill drove was C & D 7470.
C & D 7470 was built in June 1921 for the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) on the shores of the St. Lawrence River at the Pointe Sainte Charles shop in Montreal. Initially, C & D 7470 was designated as GT 1795.
In 1923, when the GTR was consolidated into the Canadian National Railway (CNR), GT 1795 was re-designated as CNR 7470.
On Sept. 16, 1959, when the CNR sold CNR 7470 to the C & D Sugar Company, CNR 7470 was re-re-designated as C & D 7470.
In an April 30, 1966 article in The Windsor Star, John Kastner wrote, “Old 7470’s been sitting there in her shabby majesty on her own 40 feet of track in a field by the Sydenham River for two years now.”
But 1966 was the start of a new life for C & D 7470. After a series of ownership changes – and by a route that went from the banks of the Sydenham River in Wallaceburg to Sarnia to Port Huron, Michigan, back to Sarnia, then to Portland, Maine – and the start of a new life in North Conway, New Hampshire.
Today, the old C & D 7470, the very same engine that Bill Vye proudly drove through all the smoke and coal and sugarbeet mountains of “the Sugar factory,” is a fully operational steam engine. Re-re-re-designated as CSRR 7470, Bill’s old ride is the centrepiece of the Conway Scenic Railroad’s fleet of diesel engines and rolling stock.
Terry Hill recalls that his father operated “the Sugar factory” crane until the day he retired from Cargill in 1985.
Terry Hill also recalls that the crane was scrapped, in place, about 10 or 15 years ago, along the banks of the Sydenham River.
But all was not lost. The nameplate riveted to the side of the crane – that heavy slab of cast iron that stood silent witness to all of Stanley Hill Jr.’s working life – survives to this day. At that unassuming treasure-trove of information, the Wallaceburg Museum.
And it is this nameplate that closes the circles of this story. It turns out that “the Sugar Factory” crane was built in 1919 at the Industrial Works factory (in 1931, the name was changed to Industrial Brownhoist) on the banks of the Saginaw River in Bay City, Michigan. The same Bay City that was home to Mr. Smith, the founder of what – at its founding in 1901 – was called The Wallaceburg Sugar Company.
Terry recalls one day, when he was about 14, sitting in a small, aluminum fishing boat on the mighty Sydenham just in front of his house. He watched as the metal chimney of “the Sugar factory” powerhouse was cut down and plummeted onto the coal piles. As Terry describes it, “when the chimney collapsed, it shot chunks of coal like shrapnel all over the river.”
Most all the central characters and places in this story are long gone. Bill Vye, Stanley Hill Jr., The Canada and Dominion Sugar Company, C & D 303, Stanley Hill Jr.’s crane, the Kent Hotel and those five neat-as-a-pin houses at the corner of Wallace and Huron streets tell no more tales.
But the mud-green murk of the mighty Sydenham keeps moving. Connecting us all to Bay City, Michigan and Dunkirk, New York and Pointe Sainte Claire, Quebec and all the other places and laughter and tall tales that are parts of Wallaceburg’s proud history.
Connecting us all to each others stories.