Documenting Coboconk's missing memories
By Jenn Watt
Published Aug. 11, 2016
A finished quilt never quite looks like you imagine when you started, Ellie MacNeil says. It has a life of its own, taking its own shape and form as you work.
In that way, quilting is much like writing, the Miners Bay resident has discovered in her first book: Memories from Main Street Coboconk, an oral history of the village she grew up in.
“I belong to the genealogy society based in Minden and there was a display in the genealogy resource room. It was a map of main street Minden and just a brief list of the owners from the beginning until the modern time. I thought, wouldn’t that be a great place to start working on the history of Coboconk. It didn’t turn out that way,” laughs MacNeil, sitting on her back porch on a warm summer morning.
On the table sit two copies of the result of that project: a collection of memories about the town that she and Karin Mackie assembled over the last four years.
MacNeil was born Eleanor White and grew up on a century farm just outside of Coboconk, also referred to commonly as “Coby.” Although her family recently sold the property, MacNeil says the deed reads 1864.
MacNeil spent her whole life in the area, working as a teacher-librarian in Cameron and moving to Miners Bay in the 1990s. Now retired, she dedicates a sizeable amount of her time to documenting history. Aside from her most recent book, she has also worked on the annual calendar project, which publishes old photographs of the village, as well as her family genealogy work.
Very little else has been written about the village of 700 that sits on the northern end of the City of Kawartha Lakes. Other than a few mentions in other histories, Coboconk has gone almost undocumented.
MacNeil and Mackie sought to change that, conducting interviews with those who remember when the village used to be the last stop on the rail line, with an economy powered by limestone and lumber.
“It’s the memories of Coby, not cold facts. There are facts in there, but that isn’t my purpose of doing it,” says MacNeil.
Originally, the idea was to only profile businesses on the main street, but information offered up about other aspects of the community persuaded the women to change the focus from “memories of main street” to “memories from main street,” which allowed them to include other interesting parts of the town.
The word “memories” was also carefully selected to indicate that this isn’t a textbook – it’s what people remember.
To that end, she starts the book with a Jamaican proverb: “If it’s not the whole truth, it’s close.” Memories aren’t perfect recollections, but they paint a colourful picture.
The book has also required she do some detective work, something MacNeil clearly relishes.
“It’s a jigsaw puzzle that’s never done,” she says.
“When you stumble across something you didn’t know or you weren’t looking for, your adrenalin just skyrockets.”
Finding that history and documenting it is not only a thrill for the author, but a service to the community. Knowing the background of the village you are standing in is life-enriching, she says.
She gives an example: “There’s the Pattie House in Coby. Everybody knows what the Pattie House is, but do you know that the Patties came from Ireland in the 1850s? Do you know that it was built by the Keys family and was the Keys Hotel until the husband died and she had to remarry because she had young children?”
Included in the book are stories of merchants and community members with a chapter on health-care workers. Hockey players and the woefully short-lived arena are also included.
In 2013, Mackie came up with the idea of pulling together the remaining members of the town’s hockey team, which played in the 1960s. There were six members still alive, all in their 80s. Without exception, they told the women they didn’t think they had anything to contribute, but agreed to meet.
But get them together and the stories started to flow. “Their faces came alive. It was incredible,” says MacNeil. Today only one of those men is still alive.
“I think the thing that brought the most memories was the arena because it certainly was the centre of the community for the short time it lasted. It was only five or six years,” she says. The arena was condemned after its short life because one of the other arenas built by the same man had collapsed in western Ontario, she says. While there seemed to be little wrong with the Coboconk structure, it was decided it could no longer serve the community. There hasn’t been another indoor arena since.
Time is one of the greatest challenges she faces. Stories must be gathered and documented before people pass away, as several have who shared their memories for her book.
Unfortunately, because so little has been written about Coboconk, there are many important details that have been lost.
MacNeil says she would like to explore veterans’ histories in her next book, which she is already working on, but it can be difficult.
“So many of our veterans are gone. My dad served in the reserves because he was on a working farm and because it was a producing farm he wasn’t called up, but he and many of the men in the area were called into the reserves and they trained in Coby,” she says.
“I have some pictures of the reservists, but unless the families can give the information, I’m too late. That’s bad.”
But MacNeil is working hard to preserve what is still knowable about her hometown. Along with a section on the Legion, her second book will go into lumber, quarries, policing and education among other things.
There is certainly demand for it. She says sales of the book, which she self-published, have approximately recouped the cost of printing.
She launched the book in June at the village’s Fresh Water Summit at a table set up for local authors. She took 60 copies that day and sold them all.
Feedback has been plentiful and positive with the contents of the book reviving old memories amongst readers, who then funnel that knowledge back to MacNeil.
“Already memories have been shared with me that were sparked after having read the book, so it’s working,” she says.
You can pick up your copy of Memories from Main Street Coboconk at Souter’s Variety, Home Hardware and the municipal office in Coboconk. You can also get a copy directly from MacNeil – and if you have memories to share, she’d like to hear those, too – her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.