MHC Heritage Diary - Episode 15 - North Bay's Faces & Places

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In this episode, MHC Chair, Peter Handley speaks with Colin Vezina, former reporter and City Editor of the North Bay Nugget. Handley and Vezina discuss North Bay’s most infamous faces and places including Billy Booth’s. Demarco’s Restaurant and the Golf Street Crossing.

Peter Handley:
Welcome to North Bay’s Heritage Diary. Listen up and we shall weave for you tales of days and times gone by, which can inform today and show the way to tomorrow. This Municipal Heritage Committee podcast looks at our town, our people and our stories.
This time we open the diary of our shared past and have a conversation again with Colin Vezina – North Bay native, 30 years with The Nugget in various key roles, longtime volunteer and Rotary Club member and still doing it all. Town characters - people that – whether they were business men or whatever. Now, I didn’t know this man but, Billy Booth?

Colin Vezina:
Bill Booth. My word. Bill Booth had that little tore for the confectionery store on the Demarco property on the block across from the Cathedral and Bill Booth in 1937 was struck with Polio. That's when polio was very bad and mothers were washing all their fruit and everything before the Salt Vaccine in 1949. Billy got this little store going and he made the best hotdogs north of Toronto. The hotdogs were a nickel and years went by and he apologized for having to take them up to a dime and a coke was a nickel. But it was a hangout. was only room for maybe four or five people in there and there were these rickety chairs and a wood stove and this is where you went to visit. There wasn't any coffee or anything, but you bought what you needed. You bought your cigarettes and pipe tobacco and kids went in for candies. He started comic books – comic books were great when I was a kid and if you brought him two funny books or two comic books you got one back. It was 2-for-1 so Bill was way ahead of the game – he had 100% return on investment You know, but he was very much a town character and people and politicians would pop in there after they went into Demarco's and ask Bill what he thought about things. His whole left side was affected and he learned to play golf using one arm and he could hit a ball a couple hundred to 150 yards and straight as a die. He was a good fisherman or fly fisherman and he just – he wouldn't let adversity overcome him. He fought it and he always had a smile, but very much a town character.

Peter Handley:
You mentioned Demarcos.

Colin Vezina:
Oh, my word.

Peter Handley:
That was a town hangout for years. Did Tony always run that?

Colin Vezina:
No, Carmen DeMarco his father, as I recall reading, established that store with his wife, Mrs. DeMarco, in 1931. His brother, across the street where the Academy used to be –

Peter Handley:
What academy?

Colin Vezina:
St. Mary's Academy. Where Good2Go is right now. So, he and his brother were part of the Italian thousands who came to Canada after the Second World War and very industrious. Anyway, they established it was primarily tobacco shop.

Peter Handley:
After the First World War.

Colin Vezina:
After the First World War, yeah. Well, not to be confused with the 1950s and 60s influx of Italians and Germans and others who did so much to build here in North Bay alone. But it started out to be where you got your tobacco, and then Mrs. Demarco started to bake and they’d get coffee going and Elvie, their daughter, and Frank and Tony - Tony was the oldest and when they come home from Scollard they’d be in behind the bar and they’d be serving cokes and all this kind of stuff. It was a confectionery store. Then they got into dealing with fresh fruit and you couldn't buy better fruit because they’d go down and pick it themselves and pick what they wanted at Gamble Robinson where my grandpa used to drive the truck - Grandpa Hughey. So, you know, there wasn’t much money in the depression and so for a nickel you could go into Demarcos. I think they made it work. But then of course, the war came and Demarcos just became the hangout. I mean, after mass at the Cathedral. It would now disgorge all its people and they’d just wander over to Demarcos for coffee and whatever. I mean this is the 8 o'clock mass.

Peter Handley:
They took polls to bolster the polls on elections and that kind of thing?

Colin Vezina:
Well, yes. Like the war was over and then the Korean War and then Tony and Frank and Elvie, but mainly Tony and Frank – I mean they’re both memrable sports guys. Both were great hockey players. Frank was a goalie and we know about Tony being a superb ball player and just simply, the place grew and if you wanted to meet somebody you went to Demarco's. Neil Morris bought an old car and it was black and he painted on the side in white “Demarco's or bust” and that's the way it was. If we were going somewhere, and I mean we were out of school and working in our careers, and we’d say ‘oh, I’ll meet you at Demarcos at 7 o'clock’. ‘I’ll meet you at Demarcos’. ‘I’ll meet you at Demarcos’. So yeah, these pools came. When would the ice go out? Who was going to catch the biggest fish? Oh and the politics… Jack Garland would go in there with a worried look on his face and say of course they’re very, very liberal the Demarcos are. Oh and those polls, whether it was politically or the ice or whatever it was, that was just the bible.

Peter Handley:
The Nugget always quoted it.

Colin Vezina:
Colin Vezina:
We did, Pete. You beat me to it. We use the phone over there just before we put out the second edition and we’d say ‘what's the word?’ ‘well…’ ‘thanks very much’ and we’d print it as a bulletin on page one – “the poll at Demarco’s says … at 11:20am”. But they used to call it. I mean Dr. Gravelle went in there and he’d be involved - Dr. Roly Gravelle got involved in all of the contests and I mean he'd study them. Everybody got involved – there were sheets and sheets and sheets of people.

Peter Handley:
What were your feelings when the store closed?

Colin Vezina:
Oh, like so many others, Peter. It was the end of an era. Tony just, you know. Tony is about 97 – 95-97 and he couldn’t work it anymore and Lisa his daughter ran it with him for years and years and years and then finally I think they just got to the point where they were tired of it. To my knowledge, nobody showed any interest in it after Lisa and she I think she wanted to live a little bit too. I mean the hours that they put in there like 10, 12, 18 hour days, seven days a week. So, it was truly the end of an era. Even now from time to time I drive by there and I think of the good old days when you simply congregated at Demarcos.

Peter Handley:
I remember a gentleman who used to walk the streets of North Bay when I first got here and for years afterwards. He had a coat with buttons on it.

Colin Vezina:
Oh, the General. Oh yes, he was a refugee, if you will, from the First World War. He was a Serbian. Obviously with Serbia and its role in the founding of the First World War and so he was, in those days, referred to as battleshocked. Today there is a different term for it. He came to North Bay and I'm not too sure how, but he became a resident/patient at Cassellholme. Anyways, we found out at The Nugget that he had served apparently in the Serbian Army or the Croatian Army or Army of Croatia I should say. He accumulated, as you recall, what almost looked like an Air Force overcoat – that blue one. But he had every button on there from you know, ‘save the cats’ to ‘vote for Bill’ and whatnot and when he'd walk down Main Street and the police officers used to patrol Main Street, Bill Witherspoon’s unofficial word as the Chief was when you see this old gentleman, as the Chief called him, you salute him. So, the men and women on point duty would see him and snap a salute to him.

Peter Handley:
Oh really?

Colin Vezina:
Yes. And being very much an Air Force town and to a degree, Army, when he lived out there and Fort Chippewa was going strongly and the Troy Armouries – it still is for that matter, but when anyone in uniform would see him most of them would snap a salute to him and he would return the salute. I think he was a bit of a holy terror at Cassellholme too. I don't know if he had a rank. If he was a Major or a Corporal or maybe worse, a Regimental Sergeant Major. They’re the ones you want to avoid, they’re like the captains of the ship. But he was a pleasant old guy, but didn't talk. He didn't talk, he just nodded his head. He was always clean shaven and shoes shined. So there was definite military history there somewhere.

Peter Handley:
Okay, not the character part of, but the value to the community. George W. Lee – ONR, Lee Park.

Colin Vezina:
Oh yeah, George Lee. One of the original Presidents of the then Temiskaming & Northern Ontario Railway or T&NO which became later in 1949, the Ontario Northland. George W. Lee very much a city founder, former mayor and you talk about establishment. Consider, this is the turn-of-the-century and prior to the First World War, and this was the T&NO and he was the General Manager. I mean a very, very powerful guy. As I remember him, a delightful man because my uncle Paul ended up in management at the ONR and he worked indirectly for Mr. Lee and they spoke very highly of him. But as you know they named Lee Park after him. He was a real mover and shaker and it was he who had this vision of parks for North Bay and it was he who was instrumental in the establishment of the elm trees that were planted all along Memorial Drive, which as you recall before the bypass was Highway's 17 and Highway 11 or Highway 17, I'm sorry, on the way to Toronto. That’s why it took eight hours to drive to Toronto going through Burks Falls and waiting for somebody to come back and move his car who’d just be a few minutes in the drugstore. But yeah, George W Lee he was very well, as I recall from what I read, very well-liked and very well respected, but feared. I mean these were very powerful guys and railroaders are sort of a breed unto themselves.

Peter Handley:
And he started at the bottom didn’t he?

Colin Vezina:
Started from the bottom and worked his way up. But railroaders, I remember when my dad was a locomotive foreman for the Canadian Pacific and everybody was ‘Mister’. The five of us were taught to address anything that moved as Mister. That was prevalent within the railway system.

Peter Handley:
So tying in with Lee, we’re tying in with a recent Heritage Site Plaque that our Heritage Committee is putting up concerning George W. Lee & Lee Park and the highway to Toronto that you mentioned, the Toronto highway, and the Golf Street Crossing.

Colin Vezina:
Oh, the Golf Street Crossing. What a disaster. I have a personal story. When our third guy came along, Colin Jr., Noreen and I lived down on Premier Road. I had this old beat up Austin 840 and I kept it going with tape and wire and I used to get it blessed every now and again. So at about 5:10, Noreen said ‘we have to go’.

Peter Handley:
The baby is coming.

Colin Vezina:
Yeah. So, I loaded her into the car. It was spring, so I prayed that it would start and the other two guys, Stephen and Randy in the back seat and I thought, oh my God, if there is a train – and Noreen said you better hurry, so I am hammering down Lakeshore Drive, which was then Kennedy Avenue and I’m flying and I thought, if there's a train, there is no way – we’re in real trouble because it used to block the crossing. As luck would have it, I saw the smoke backing and up and I'm must have been doing 50 miles an hour when I hit the Golf Street Crossing because that little car just took off. Then, a minute later, the train came by. the goal Street crossing because a little card. This kind of took off, and then a minute later, the trainer came puffing along. No, I beat the train, thank God. But there are so many stories told about that. Andy and Tony Poeta’s dad Frank was part of the signal organization. You remember there used to be a little hut up on and they used to put the wig wag on to make sure that nobody would, well they’d run it anyways but the railroad was protected because the wig wag was going, but Frank would sit up there and make this thing work. I used to pick him up in the morning and bring him into town. He got off at seven and I had to be at The Nugget in those days before seven. I’d say ‘Frank, what do you think of?’ and he said, ‘hockey’ and that’s really what he’d think about – his boys, Tony and Andy.

Peter Handley:
It was the only way to get to Ferris and the only way to get from North Bay to Ferris and it was the only way if you were going to Toronto – you had to cross there.

Colin Vezina:
It was the highway. Traffic would be backed up on Main Street and nobody got too worked about it. It would clear.

Peter Handley:
What was the point?

Colin Vezina:
Yeah, what was the point. Like, the CPR said ‘oh, we won’t hold people up for more than five minutes’ – yeah, sure. But, when I was young, I got a job in the summer – I tormented my father and he made me fireman firing steam locomotives so U ysed to be part of it and I’d sit there and look at guys shaking their fists and I’d think well why are you shaking your fist at me, I’m just a fireman trying to keep this old boiler warm. But they used to have to break the train sometimes for the fire department. Guys like Frank Poeta had a telephone up there and they would telephone the yard office and told him this. They would communicate somehow, I don't know how, but they'd run down and told him break the train. You know, because some place was on fire. The irony for me was all the years Noreen and I lived in Ferris and like everybody else, we put up with the Golf Street Crossing. But, when the overpass came in October 1967, we moved to Windsor in September 1967.

Peter Handley:
So you didn’t get the benefit of it.

Colin Vezina:
No and I came back five years later, but the irony was, in Windsor, we lived in West Windsor and to drive to the Chrysler Centre it used to take me about 1/2 an hour on Allette Avenue and there were five railroad crossings. I thought, My God, I only had one back in North Bay.

Peter Handley:
From one hell to the other. Let's wrap up with you mentioned a number of The Nugget and the value the sole, for many years, the sole provider of basic information to a community. You mentioned Mort and you mentioned Britt and their effect on the community of the time and the future if you have any thoughts on that.

Colin Vezina:
So yeah, Mort Fellman and Jack Granger, who was publisher, realized that The Nugget was the only real voice, if you will. I alluded earlier to Major Troy who was the liberal MPP who sat down with Mort and argued that there could have been more support here and there. It was a balancing act and JF and Mort did their best to list the paper as an independent, because in those days you were listed as a liberal paper, listed as a PC paper and there were very, very few NDP papers - generally liberal or PC. I didn’t envy them. I was still pretty young anyway, but it was that it was a balancing act and yet down deep and JF a very strong conservative and so they didn't hesitate to take a position – The Nugget did, the Nugget was the publishes and editor. After consultation and speaking with a number of people they adopted the position editorially, not to be confused with the news columns. The news columns are sacred they are strictly objective material and no opinion, just the facts – the five w’s: who, what, where, when, why. But, subjectively the position that The Nugget took on a given issue or candidateor whatever the case was municipally, provincially, federally they would stand by it. But, it wasn’t a sure thing which way The Nugget would go. Mort once said, I wish there was another newspaper in town and then we could we could have some fun. And even when I was editor I thought: ‘Holy Toledo’. You know, we had the TV station and the radio station or a couple and so it made it easier, but even then were still pretty strong. Back when I was Editor.

Peter Handley:
But what made you strong was that, for many years, news wasn't that important to the radio stations.

Colin Vezina:
This is true.

Peter Handley:
It was all music and the commercials you could get across.

Colin Vezina:
Well, but you made sport important on the radio, Peter. You did.

Peter Handley:
Well, it was part of my job. But, then The Nugget would have four or five or so reporters and the radio station generally had one.

Colin Vezina:
Yeah we had a staff of 40.

Peter Handley:
40! You could cover, yeah, you could basically blanket the city whereas the radio couldn’t until Clancy became the news editor and he managed to get a couple guys in the news department. Then they could go and spread themselves out and do different things. But at least one guy quite often when I first got here was a newsreader – we would get the news from the bloody Nugget used.

Colin Vezina:
CFCH used to wait for the news to come out because in those days we had two editions. We’d turn the radio on when we were having our lunch because we'd gone to bed with the second edition, and we listen the stories word for word for word and say ‘hey that is my story’. That's the way it was.

Peter Handley:
That really wasn’t kosher was it?

Colin Vezina:
Well, no it wasn’t but sometimes they’d say ‘according to The Nugget…’ and we’d say ‘Hey! They gave us some credit!’

Peter Handley:
Mort was more was more than just a newspaperman. I mean, he just seemed to dominate the community and on the recreation and athletic side, especially as an athlete and then as a coach.

Colin Vezina:
Mort, in many ways is one of my heroes and he was just a remarkable…

Peter Handley:
And he was just a little guy too?

Colin Vezina:
Yeah. Mort was only about 5 foot 6 and but My God what he lacked in height he made up for with his directives and his and his management style. You didn't cross him. My nickname for him was the kingfish, but not to his face, Mort...

Peter Handley:
He was tough wasn’t he?

Colin Vezina:
Mort was tough, fair but tough. He reminded me a little of James Cagney. Very briefly,. Mort's father was a music teacher, and they came to North Bay from Toronto when Mort was two or three, and so Mort used to say, ‘I can't say I was born in North Bay, but I've been here a long time.’ I think it used to bother him that he wasn’t born here because Britt Jessup was born in North Bay and Jack Granger was born in North Bay and I was born in North Bay. So he went to the collegiate and he was outstanding, in spite his size or lack thereof, he was deadly as a shooter in basketball because he could duck under guys like Fergie Dowdle and Biff Gigg and those guys.

Peter Handley:
And they were both athletes.

Colin Vezina:
And big! But, here was Mort who came up to their armpit and he was looping the baskets and when it came to hardball and softball man he could hit a ball. He didn't play hockey because he wasn't big enough. Plain and simple. But basketball and then he got into baseball and fastball. Then he got into managing and then he got into coaching. Mort was a marvelous organizer. He knew the sport that he worked inside out, frontwards and backwards. The rules - sometimes he’d get into aheated discussion with the umpire and generally you know Buck Kyle or whomever would give him the benefit of the doubt.

Peter Handley:
There’s another community person – Buck Kyle.

Colin Vezina:
Buck did a lot for this community with his wrestling, boxing and football and heavens, all the things he did. But, Mort was just because he was such a good organizer and he was very, very quiet, Mort could be at a meeting and you would know he was there. You’d be at a meeting of 20 different people and he’d just sit there and listen. But, at The Nugget, Mort was very, very fair, as editor, but if you made the mistake of crossing him or challenging him… oh man. I didn't. I mean I had too much respect for him and like I mean I wouldn't do it. But to answer your question. Yeah, he was tough. That and he was smart as a whip and he had great respect in this community. Mort could phone someone, and not unlike a guy like Jack Burrows, ask for information, but at the same time getting the message out – ‘I really think we should think this way’ and that often went that way. But don't forget too that he put the paper out and he’d no sooner get the paper out because he was the City Editor in those days and then have to turn around and start writing the editorials for the next day’s paper. He worked very, very hard. It was a tough job. It is a tough job being Editor or at least it was then, I don’t know how it is now. .

Peter Handley:
And then Britt Jessup was no athlete at all.

Colin Vezina:
Well, Mort was his hero too. Brit was a year behind Mort in school at the collegiate and so Britt always looked up to Mort. Mort was the editor of the Northland Echo which was the collegiate magazine.

Peter Handley:
He started early in newspaper.

Colin Vezina:
Well, yeah. When I was at the Collegiate I wrote for each edition too.

Peter Handley:
Really?

Colin Vezina:
Yeah, well I loved to write and Mr. Hawkins would encourage me. I’m sure it meant that I would do much better in the final mark so that helped. You know, four years in grade 8 sort of thing. But seriously, I asked Britt once I said ‘Beej, why don’t you…’ and he said ‘well I golf’. He said ‘I was never interested’ and then said ‘I was always afraid of breaking a bone or something’. So you talk about an organizer, I mean, Britt could organize a pond full of leapfrogs and get them doing something. You think of what he has done, but what he took on - He was a very good golfer, but anything he would organize or institute I mean look at the role he played in NORFU, the football union
and get the original football established here and what he did for kids hockey. He was my predecessor of course as Editor. I followed Britt as Editor. But yeah, they used to tease Britt about not being an athlete and he'd fire right back with ‘no, no, no, I golf.’ So he was covered.

Peter Handley:
There was a big shift in the paper was because it became employee owned. Do you remember that?

Colin Vezina:
Yes, well I remember. I was collecting bills of for George Justice on Saturdays at the time and get 20%. So I worked very hard. These are all overdue classified bills – someone would owe him $10 so I made $2 and I just loved George so he gave me a lot of money. But back to the original question - it was?

Peter Handley:
Well, it became employee owned and I was here when it happened.

Colin Vezina:
No you weren’t. Jack Granger was Advertising Manager here and then WE Mason from Sudbury owned the radio station, the Sudbury Star and the North Bay Nugget and he he thought a great deal of Jack Granger and so he brought him to Sudbury and then he sent him back to North Bay as a General Manager. In those days, The Nugget was three times a week. It was a tabloid and so in 1947, Mr. Mason realized that he wasn’t going to be around forever, so he made a deal with Jack Granger that upon his death of Mr. Mason that the estate would sell the nugget to ‘JF and the employees.’ Mr. Mason died in 1948 and so Jack Granger and the employees had to pay off the loan, which they did, but they owned the paper so it was employee owned. When I started there as a cub reporter in February 1956, it was employee owned and my brother Bob, later Managing Editor of the Toronto Telegraph, had shares in the company. So JF was the main shareholder plus there were four other majors and the rest of the employees. JF had to move out of the St. Regis Hotel which is where The Nugget was published and he had Buck Kyle build the current building on Worthington Street – the two story building. Howard O’Gorman was the architect or as Buck used to call him – the artichoke. You know Buck, he used to muddle the language so much, you really had to listen to what he was saying to understand him sometimes. But and so JF had this beautiful building that we moved into in February 1955 and in January 1955, sorry, but he needed a press because we had a 24-page rotary, but he had to end up buying a 48 page colour crabtree rotary press which was a quarter of a million dollars. So, everybody wanted to buy it and then Thompson, Roy Thompson wanted to buy The Nugget in the worst way because, as you know, he started with CFCH. But, JF wouldn’t sell to him because he knew that all the work that we put into building The Nugget into what it was, would be reduced to another Thompson Carnac type of newspaper – just nothing to it. So, the Southam Newspaper Group - Sinclair Balfour was the president and he was a former commander and in the Navy, and that's another story and he and I got along well. They offered to buy The Nugget with the promise that JF would stay on as publisher and Mort as Editor saw, but they were a newspaper family and JF knew that if he sold to, he’d get his new press, but he’d also be able to keep The Nugget up where it belonged and it wouldn’t be reduced to Thompson Advertising sheep and so that's what happened. June 1956 is when the when the Southam Newspaper Group bought The Nugget and we got the new press and the rest is history.


Peter Handley:
Fascinating story. Colin, again, thank you for allowing us to mine your memories in so many different areas. You came up with a few nuggets there don’t you think?

Colin Vezina:
Well, yeah. I mean, you know, you turn me on and then I just start to chatter.

Peter Handley:
Like a spigget.

Colin Vezina:
Yeah.

Peter Handley:
North Bay Nugget – 30 years Nugget Employee, North Bay Native, various key roles at The Nugget, longtime volunteer, the Police Board Boardroom is named after Colin Vezina as a matter of fact, Rotary Club member and so on and so forth. Anyway, thank you for spending some time with us and listening to our stories. These productions put together by the North Bay Municipal Heritage Committee not only to retell old tales, but hopefully to kindle interest in area history. Local lore is important to any community. We shouldn't let it go unremarked and unremembered. Views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of the Corporation of the City of North Bay or its employees. Join us next time when we flip another page of the diary of our shared past. You can reach us at Peter.Carello@cityofnorthbay.ca. Production Kealey Ducharme. Pete Handley speaking.