A “city kid’s” recollections

BY DEBBIE (SMEED) MACLEOD
Special to the Voice

I was born in October 1954, in the bustling little city of St. Catharines. When I was seven, our family moved to the slightly smaller town of Thorold. As young kids we thought of ourselves more as city kids than country kids. Our days were spent playing outdoor games such as hide-and-seek, Nicky Nicky Nine Doors, as well as building forts, playing dodge ball, Mother May I, and the list goes on. But our favorite activity was riding our bikes.

Everyone owned a bike as it was our main mode of transportation. Our parents were much too busy making a living, working, cooking, cleaning, budgeting and planning to drive us anywhere.

Off we would go on our bikes venturing all over Thorold. We would hit up the local corner stores for one-cent candies, ride to parks to take in a ball game, or play on the swings and teeter-totters. In the summer we would ride to the only pool in town, an outdoor pool, and it was always packed with kids trying to cool off from the summer’s heat. We would jump off our bikes, leaving them laying on the ground where we dropped them, only to come out an hour or two later, finding them in exactly the same spot. Imagine that.

Up until 12 years of age, I think the farthest anyone in my group of friends had ever travelled on their bikes was to Beaverdams at the end of Collier Road, or DeCou House, further down on Decew Road. Now that was quite the adventure. With our lunches packed in brown paper bags and streamers flowing from our handlebars, off we would go for the day. Riding to visit friends in Thorold south, and spending days upon days swimming in parts of the old Welland Canal over by the old Ontario paper mill was another adventure full of fond memories.

There is so much incredible history in that area, and yet at 12 years old, we were oblivious to the past.

Almost all of our spare time was spent outside. We were not allowed to waste the days away inside watching TV or bothering our parents. Those inside days were strictly for rainy days and snowstorms. Even during some of those we were forced outdoor to play, when we would make mud pies in the rain or build igloos and mazes of tunnels in the snowbanks.

There was no internet, no cellphones or iPads to entertain us. Those were the days of one telephone per family, attached to the wall and usually with a party line; one black-and-white TV with rabbit ears to keep us entertained (color, if you had the money) and some of us kids owned our own transistor radio.

Between my year-round paper route, through windy rain and snowstorms, picking fruit in the heat of the summers, singing Christmas carols door-to-door in the winter, and now, at the ripe age of 12, being allowed to take on some babysitting jobs, I was not only able to buy my own transistor radio, but expected to start buying some of my own clothes and other wants and needs of a 12-year-old girl as well. That would include such things as 45 rpm records and teen magazines containing huge posters with the likes of Bobby Sherman, Michael Landon, and the Beatles. Oh, be still my beating heart.

This is the age at which I also remember my parents stopping my allowance as they felt I no longer needed one. Of course, if I had known that would happen, maybe I would not have worked so hard.

But back then you did not have that choice. At 12 years old you either earned your own money or did without. A lesson that has fared me well through the years.

At 12 years old you either earned your own money or did without

So even though we thought of ourselves as city kids, our worlds were actually quite small. Having had such a forced outdoor social life would come to serve us well in our next adventure in life.

Our regular school at Richmond Elementary was undergoing some renovations, so the Grade 7 class, my class, was chosen as the one to be uprooted and shipped out for the next school year. This was September 1966 to June 1967. We would be bused each day to spend the entire year in a tiny two-room country schoolhouse on Holland Road in Fonthill. This came as a bit of a shock and a little scary for myself and some of my fellow classmates.

A shock because most of us had never had the opportunity to venture that far from home before, especially unchaperoned by parents or other adults. What would normally be a 20-minute drive became about an hour, since we had to stop to pick up classmates along the way. The school was only about 20 km away, but to us it seemed like the other end of the world— and having to get up an hour or more earlier each morning to catch a school bus? Well, we were not looking forward to that.

Yes, it was a little scary. We were leaving our friends in other classes and wouldn’t be seeing them for a whole year, a daunting amount of time at that age, and whatever would us city kids have in common with these country farm kids? While most of us looked forward to the adventure and meeting new friends, it was still quite overwhelming at first.

Grade 7 class at St. Johns West School, 1966. The author is in the second row, centre, in a plaid skirt. SUPPLIED

As it turned out, I have to say, my Grade 7 school year was the best year ever. Being in a two-room schoolhouse has a lot of advantages. It was so much more relaxed than our bigger school, and learning was actually fun. Our teacher, Mr. Whelan, was teacher, principal, nurse and friend…he had to wear many hats. That following summer some of us even ended up working at a nearby farm picking fruit. The bond created between us “city” kids on the school bus lasted for years, and some of those friendships still survive today. The experience of being in such a small school was more fun than we could ever have imagined and the experience would be dearly missed far more than we realized at the time.

But above all, the best thing I learned is that kids are kids, no matter where you are from. These “country” kids were the best, most fun, cool kids that I had ever met. I’m sure at first we probably seemed a bit snooty, as we felt like the outsiders, but they accepted us with open arms and some really good friends were made that year, and a boyfriend crush to boot. I only hope they felt the same way about us.

I kept in touch with a few of my classmates, writing back and forth for a few years until eventually life drifted us apart. One of the girls that I became friends with lived in Pelham. We would take turns visiting each other on occasional weekends, and I always looked forward to going to her place as we would ride our bikes past my crush’s house and often he would join us when we were out of sight of his parents place.

Her sister had a horse that we would ride and of course there was always miles and miles of bush to play in. I look back and realize that makeup and clothes were not a concern for me in those days, not like the 12-year-old girls of today. I’m not sure if it was just a sign of the times or whether it was the fact that I had four older brothers and was always a bit of a tomboy.

Either way, none of the girlie stuff mattered, thank goodness. It was all about getting together with friends and having fun.

Spending time in Pelham was like a whole new world for me. I remember riding our bikes to parks, and we would also bike to a particular watering hole in Pelham, though for the life of me I can’t remember where it was. I do remember there was the biggest maple tree I had ever seen, where we would dump our bikes and then walk in through the bush until we came to this really cool watering hole where we would swim for hours. I don’t think it was well known at the time because there was never anyone else there, and it very well could have been on a farmer’s property, but nevertheless we swam oblivious to the world around us.

Another adventurous ride was to Pelham Road over the Western Hill. Again my memory is vague, but it was probably the Decew Falls Generating Station. We would again dump our bikes, swim across the stream or creek, climb up the hillside where someone had attached a rope swing to a tree branch, and off we would jump, squealing until we plummeted down into a hole— for the life of me, to this day I do not know how we never missed that hole and broke our necks.

About three years later, at 15, I had cause to spend some time at Bissell’s Hideaway. In those days it was not a resort as it is now, but a small place with a great pool and a really cool barn where we would eat our lunch and imagine all the barn dances they had there at night. Sadly I moved away to BC before I could experience any of those dances.

Over the years I had come back often to visit family and friends in Thorold and St. Catharines, but in 2015 I was back home and the circumstances caused me to reminisce about days gone by. I contacted an old school friend and she and I set out on an adventure to retrace some of our youth. This time we left the bikes at home.

We traveled through Thorold, Beaverdams, Decew Falls, DeCou House, Fonthill, St. Johns West, the Western Hill, and North Pelham, all the while telling each other our stories and laughing until we cried. We saw how things had changed and yet we could still see a semblance of the past.

We drove by houses of long lost friends, stopping in and surprising a few. Seeing these friends from our past, varying from 45 to 49 years ago, was exciting, fun and very good for the soul.

At the end of the day, we realized what an amazing childhood we had both had, growing up in the Niagara-Pelham area, and how very lucky and grateful we were to have been able to do so.

Memories of a beautiful area with some amazing people, that will never be forgotten.