The Fab Fort: What do newbies think?

By Gord Mackintosh
Special to the Times

My wife, Margie, and I live in Winnipeg, but we still carry “packsacks,” not “backpacks.” We ride snowmobiles we call “machines” and go “up the lake.”

That’s because we’re privileged to come from fabulous Fort Frances. We miss “the Fort” and that got us reminiscing.

In the 1960’s, some things were straightforward. The Fort’s mill was run by, of course, Mr. Woodman, the Horticultural Society by Rose Busch, and the high school by Mr. Book.

But some local lingo must confuse visitors.

Do newbies really think the “Five-Mile Dock” is five miles long? Do they still believe Shevlin Towers are skyscrapers? Do they expect that Lakeview Trailer Park has lake views? Do they believe we drive to Finland? Do they get it when we say, “I’m going to Dance?” Do they believe there’s a place called “The Place?”

Do they think Friday night smear is a pap test? Of course, it’s the town’s contribution to the world of sports. The Fort is Canada’s cradle of this addictive card game. Players rave hearing “high, low, jack, game.” I’ve witnessed a contact sport.

Residents still speak of the “Electric Bakery” – as if other bakeries used wood, coal, hot stones. Beloved Louie Cousineau sold us, yes, “Persians” (and the best Long Johns). It became The Bonnie Blue – leaving us wondering who or what was bonnie and blue.

Hey, why did Mr. Doman run the lumber store, not a bakery?

A little of the town’s cultural history might help newcomers.

The Fort had enchanting-sounding businesses like The Huddle, The Curly Top, The Dew Drop In, plus five boisterous hotel bars within three blocks. To confuse tourists with bags of peanuts, one was “The Zoo.” Another was the Rainy Lake Hotel, simply “the RL”.

For nice dinners, the RL also housed the Causeway Room with a mural for a lakeview. Equally scenic was The Gourmet House with windows for a lakeview. It’s now La Place Rendez-Vous, packed Thursdays for Wing Night – eighty cents each. Staff told me, “Here’s what’s great: have all you want!”

Nostagia remains for Mary Franko’s perogies at the Twin Pines Café. The New Lunch Cafe thrived because old lunches suck.

Teens cruised several hours between the DQ that for years was in the east-end with its push-up Jet and Mr. Misty, and the “Dubs” in the west-end with its Whistle Dog and chatty car hops. A pal suggested the town install a circular mechanical cable so cruisers could hook on – to save gas and keep a better lookout.

Grandpa Polenske relentlessly patrolled the Royal Theatre’s aisles to bust the talkers and smoochers. On Friday nights, he beamed his flashlight across the back row of startled pubescent faces. And maybe a glistening mickey. But what would I know?

Newcomers might hear that locals miss familiar Fort sounds.

Under the surface of an orderly town, the Fort once got hooked on a WDSM-TV polka group, “The Chmielewski Funtime Band” with ditties like “La Dee Dah” and “Whoop Dee Doo.” I saw them play the Polish Hall: mayhem. Somewhere, I have an autograph.

Marty and the Masters played every wedding for fifteen years. Ahh, Marty Tibb’s sax. Where’s an app for that sound?

Fishing parties boarded planes called “Beavers” to fly off the lake with a resonating roar. Where’s an app for that sound?

The mill’s steam whistle sounded three times daily. Did any kid get arrested lurking out past 9:30? Or was the whistle just for the sound? And who else re-set their clock after hearing that recurring radio ad, recorded at CFOB’s open window as noon’s whistle blew?

A local Saturday sound remains; newlyweds honk and get lovingly honked at through town.

Some miss the town’s elm canopy. Margie is one and I might know why. To celebrate her birth, Margie’s dad planted a spruce seedling on their Phair Avenue property. With so many trees gone, Margie’s appears among the town’s tallest, and oldest.

Yay, Hallett Brewing! Arrivals to the Fort won’t know of Fort Frances Brewing Company’s long-ago local beer: Pine Top. The label showed snow-capped mountains. And of a local pop: High Top. The label showed tree-capped mountains. I’m guessing it’s those mountains west of town…called the Rockies.

Royal Beverages made that pop. Newcomers will get jealous hearing how the Fort also got bestowed the Royal Theatre, Royal Restaurant, Royal Taxi, Royal Shoe Repair, Royal Barbershop, and the hockey team, The Royals. Plus, The King’s Highway.

That Highway becomes Yonge Street – “down east” in the faraway provincial capital of “Trawna.” Many will question this capital because residents can sooner drive to Winnipeg, Regina, or Edmonton. But after the 1880’s, and despite ongoing murmurs of secession, Winnipeg no longer governs the Fort – so packsacks stay.

And residents can sooner drive to St. Paul or Madison, and a half-dozen other US capitals, but the Fort is proudly Canadian. Locals prefer the “bush,” not the “woods,” “Ah-men,” not “Eh-men,” and the small parts in a Kinder Surprise – although the Fort abuts International Falls, or “the Falls.”

Hey, when visitors hear, “I live in the Falls,” do they think, “Must be awfully wet?”

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