As Fort Frances celebrates the centennial of the town’s incorporation this weekend, residents won’t have to wait much longer before they can read all about the last 100 years of the town’s history.
Former resident Neil McQuarrie has spent the past 18 months researching and writing a book on the history of Fort Frances. Several years ago, he penned the story of the Fort Frances Canadians senior hockey team’s quest for the Allan Cup in 1952.
“I got interested in the town then,” he said.
“Somewhere along the line, I picked up that the centennial was coming,” he added. “I thought why not do a second book.”
McQuarrie worked out the details with Fort Frances Museum curator Pam Hawley and started writing.
“[The research] is very heavily based on what was in the [newspaper] over the years,” he noted, adding that information on Fort Frances was quite prominent in the archives of the Weekly Free Press in Winnipeg back to 1870 but stopped once the railroad went through and the water route wasn’t as important.
“I haven’t approached this on a totally local basis,” he said.
“What I’ve been trying to do is give people an idea of what living in Fort Frances was like at various times,” he explained. “I went back and tried to give an example of what the First Nations were like prior to contact.
“[Then] the fur trade and the life of the voyageur,” he continued. “From there, I tried to identify certain periods.
“I was surprised at the growth prior to 1903,” McQuarrie remarked. “The town went from a time when there was essentially just forest and forts to the town it is today.”
He added Fort Frances saw about 30 years of major growth with the lumber and paper industries.
McQuarrie said one thing that was quite different was travelling the “Dawson Road”—the water route between Fort Frances and Thunder Bay—which was the only way east out of town.
He noted the trip consisted of travel mostly by water on steam barges across lakes. “It could take something like two weeks to come from Thunder Bay,” he said.
McQuarrie also reflected on the effect the building of the Noden Causeway in the mid-1960s changed traffic patterns and opened up the areas east of town to summer and permanent homes.
Another timeframe that saw interesting development was in the 1890s when there was a mini gold rush here. “Places like Mine Centre blossomed and Fort Frances benefited,” McQuarrie said.
Another era he found interesting was prohibition.
“There are interesting stories around prohibition,” he remarked. “I found interesting the practice of taking your gas tank off of your car and having a mechanic weld a divider in one half for gas, the other half you filled with booze.
“You could drive across to the American side, syphon it out, and went back home again.
“And there’s still places in town with a secret room in the basement,” he added.
McQuarrie told another story of an American man who owned a hotel here and would only fly the U.S. flag. As the story goes, the town insisted the man fly the Union Jack—the flag of the Dominion back then—from his hotel.
A compromise was reached where both flags would be flown.
“The man’s compromise,” recounted McQuarrie, “was to find the smallest Union Jack he could find and the largest U.S. flag.
“I have found that there are more colourful people in the old days.
“There really is an awful lot of interesting stuff,” he added. “I found the whole thing far more interesting than I expected.”
Although McQuarrie has lived in Manitoba for more than 30 years (currently in Brandon with his wife, Sherry), he isn’t without a connection to the area.
“I was born in Fort Frances. I stayed there through high school,” he said.
McQuarrie also still has family here—a brother and his mother. “[Being from here], it’s always an element . . . a part of your heart,” he explained.
He said the launch of the book is planned in conjunction with the Homecoming Week and Fun in the Sun festivities at the end of June.
“I want to be done my part by the middle of April,” he said.