This story was originally written by my eldest son, Lark, for Billy Pellow's Chapleau Trails book of local stories. I recently re-read it when Brian brought it by my new place in Hamilton to remind me of all the family and to re-live my experience through Lark's words and our old family pictures. Thanks Lark for documenting this story of my life with my own family and with Esher and our four boys.

I was originally nervous about Lark sending the story to Billy for his book but I am now very happy that we did. With Brian's help, I am putting it here so that my family will have it for many years to come.

Hilda Ritchie (Sonego)

By Lark Ritchie

Originally published in "Chapleau Trails" by Dr. William R. Pellow - 2008

Here’s how I see it. We’re all on a path trotting a slow relay race from somewhere, to somewhere. We’ve got a certain distance to go; it varies for each of us. Along the way, we get a chance to glimpse what’s happening as we trundle along. Hopefully, what we pick up as information is useful as we proceed. My own path started when I entered this world at Lady Minto Hospital on December 20, 1948. I soon found that the relay had been going on long before I arrived. It took me a little longer to understand that all that had happened before I arrived had a lot to do with where I was and where I was going. A pretty long time.

Growing up a grandson of Native Canadian Cree grandparents on one side, and Italian immigrants on the other, the contrast of cultures and values around me sometimes confused me.  My Italian grandparents were strong Catholics. 'Nona', (grandmother) was an overprotective and highly emotional woman. 'Nono', (grandfather) was a silent man. He didn’t laugh or smile much. I didn’t understand why that was. Not until I started this story.

My Native Canadian grandmother, 'Granny', was a English and Cree-speaking devout Anglican. Her husband, my 'Grampa', was a man holding a quiet Native philosophy based on nature and a hunting way of life carried with him from his birthplace in Moose Factory, on James Bay. Granny and Grampa raised two sons.

My own parents, William (Esher) and Elda (Hilda) Ritchie raised four sons of which I am the eldest. As a family, we grew up in what we still consider a unique environment. When I was nine, my father began a path towards a wilderness guiding business catering to American sportsmen. Coincidently, that path was opened by Bill Pellow, editor of this book. Bill provided the beginning to an adventure experience that lasted, for me, over forty-two years.

Bill, back then, owned ‘Pellow’s Cottages’ a fishing resort down the Chapleau River. In 1958, he talked my dad, an avid outdoorsman, into guiding a spring bearhunt for him. My mother took on the role of camp cook. My brothers and I tagged along, all of us spending nearly a month at Pellow’s Cottages on the hunt. We did this again the next year, and in 1960, dad started a hunt business with the Pilon brothers, Gerry and Lucien, founding Kanipahow Kamps, a name offered up by my grandfather, Allan Ritchie. In 1963, our family struck out on dad’s own part-time business. Esher Ritchie’s specialty service was based on hunting, a way of life he lived until his death in November 1986 at sixty-seven.  

Hilda Ritchie stands at the door

The artwork on the truck was created by Bill (Esher) Ritchie

The Cree Phrase, Kee Kanipahow Mischet” came from Allan Ritchie, originally from Moose Factory

The hunting business grew to a point that it became a full time occupation. Prairie Bee Camps, between Chapleau and Wawa, remains as a legacy to our family’s life in the tourist industry of Northern Ontario. Another landmark, the ‘Pot Holes’ nature reserve/park on the Kinniwabi River along Highway 101 east of Wawa, is on the map as a result of a Ritchie hunting excursion. Esher, leading a party of American hunters stumbled across the glacial formation while tracking a bear. He tried to acquire the land as a private site, however, its importance as a provincial asset superseded his request. As they say, the rest is history. Between Wawa and Foleyet, and the ground fifty miles north and south of the highway that joins those two towns, there are many a Ritchie wilderness story still untold. Someday, maybe they’ll be shared in another edition of this project.

All of that said as background, let’s get somewhat personal. In a way, you and I are on common ground. We have for one reason or another, an interest in the social fabric and history of Chapleau. We’re at a point in our relay, where some of us pass the baton (in the form of information) on to others, We’re the story tellers. Others, the readers, are those to whom we pass our history. Some readers will use this book to reminisce, finally, or for the first time finding and putting into place missing pieces and snippits of what we saw or heard as we trotted along our personal path. Still other readers, not having direct experience with life in the town, will seek to understand the community and the people who contributed to the microcosm of life in that little town in those early years. They’ll be learning the stories for the first time.

My objective is to provide you a single-thread story reaching two generations back, and so far, one generation forward. There are many side-links and glimpses that you might connect to other people’s memoirs and memories, and some that can only be inferred or quietly imagined. 

This particular story begins with two Italian immigrants, Carlo Sonego (November 27, 1897 - October. 13 1985) and Maria Cesa, (April 18, 1899 - July 13, 1997) who made Chapleau their home between 1924 and 1958.

In a way, it’s a tale that could be told by many who came to Chapleau from other countries in the first half of the 20th century. In some ways, even though it’s somewhat unique and specific, the experience is typical of the times. The reminiscences within theses pages are but a subset of the collective intermingled stories of a developing country, of a merging of cultures and the continual influence of technology.

Carlo and Maria’s story goes something like this….

Canada. The Port of Montreal, October 1923.. A long way from home.

On the deck of the vessel that had been their home for almost eleven days, Carlo and Maria Sonego shivered in the damp autumn air.

“Come on now! Hurry up!” coaxed a moustached man in uniform; “We don’t have all day!” Carlo didn’t know the words, but he did understand the man’s hand movements as he urged the couple into the parade of people shuffling toward the gangplank. Some were excited, animated and talkative; some were cautiously apprehensive. All took their first steps towards the immigration shed and life in this new country.  

Four hours later, the questioning and paperwork completed, they were free to leave the immigration area. It was late afternoon; the air was colder. Soon it would be dark. The couple, each carrying a suitcase, followed the others making their way towards the train station. Tomorrow they’d catch the train, continuing the journey. A new life was on its way; just beginning; one that would unfold for more than 85 years.

Several days’ train travel still lay ahead, to a place called ‘Fort William’. Their sponsors, the Piccinin family, Carlo’s cousins on his mother’s side, had come to Canada earlier, and had made it clear that immigrants who were willing work hard could find jobs.   

Carlo and Maria planned to settle in Fort William’s ethnic neighbourhood that had built up next to the CPR railyards and the James Murphy coal dock. Carlo was not afraid of hard work and in a few days he would be able to look for a job. With winter coming on and Maria expecting baby, he prayed he would find one quickly.

They had come from the farming community of Vistorta, outside Sacile - Pordenone, in north-eastern Italy, some 25 miles from Venice. Carlo’s family, peasants, had worked the vineyards of the wealthy Brandolini family who had owned the land since 1780. The Sonego’s had worked the fields and in return, were provided a home on the Estate. But recently, for Carlo and Maria, home had come to mean something different.

Carlo had served in the Italian 6th Reggimento Alpini, an elite Mountain Combat Infantry regiment during the First World War. By 1918, the awful experience of war had changed the way the young Carlo saw his future.

He had met a young, beautiful and vibrant woman, Maria Cesa, the fair-haired, grey-green-eyed 23 year old daughter of Pietro and Catarina Cesa, who worked a small but sustaining farm in neighbouring Sacile, a few kilometers away.

Maria was one of four girls and three boys. WW1 had taken one brother, and in 1923, Maria had told her mother she was leaving her home, her family and Italy to follow Carlo to Canada. The announcement caused a significant reaction and much sadness for the parents, but to Maria, the direction was clear; she had committed to Carlo and his plan to immigrate to Canada. In hindsight, his rationale was sound.

Italy was becoming unstable; in the four years between the end of the war and 1922 there were six short-lived, unstable coalition governments, each less able than its predecessor to deal with Italy’s serious problems. Italy had suffered a welling up of the working class; strikes, bread riots, violence of activists against political opponents and occupations of the land and factories. Confidence in government was at a low and many were fearful that a revolution was looming. Close by, in the countryside of northern and central Italy, battles between the large landowners and the peasant leagues and agricultural trade union, were becoming more acute. It was the beginnings of the Fascist movement and Mussolini’s rise to power.

While thousands joined the working class movement, Fascist fighting squads supported the landowners and middle-class elements, defeating the peasant opposition. Italy was not going to be a safe place for a new family.

As a soldier in the Great War, Carlo had heard the tales of North America and about the opportunities that it offered. In light of Italy’s unrest, these stories had become so much more a reality. People, equipment and food could travel the world in weeks or less. People he knew had begun traveling between Italy and America. Letters from relatives and friends describing the jobs and affordable land in Canada seemed an attractive alternative to the struggles that faced a family in post-WW1 Italy.

Working in wealthy landowners’ vineyards, it seemed, led only to a life of pointless hardship. It was pretty clear; if one was to make a better life, one needed land. From what Carlo understood, Canada was a place to make money, and money meant an ability to acquire land. The dream of owning a farm was a real possibility. The Canadian Pacific Railway was hiring men to work on the railroad. Jobs were plentiful. Carlo would go to Canada. He could ear the money for a farm.  Now that he had met Maria, the plan took on more meaning. 

Looking back at history, his timing (1923) was fortunate. The flow of Italian families to Canada in the 1920’s was massive. So great in fact, that soon after their arrival in Canada, Mussolini’s government had passed a law aimed at impeding Italian emigration between 1924-29. Furthermore, with the onset of the great depression in 1929, Canada virtually closed its doors to immigration. Carlo and Maria had narrowly avoided these restrictions. They had survived the boat trip, crossed the Atlantic, cleared the inspection of the immigration officials, and were now walking towards the train station and a new life. 

Days later, in Fort William (Thunder Bay) Carlo was hired on at the coal docks as a seasonal labourer. The couple rented a small East-end flat in the parish of St. Joseph’s Italian Roman Catholic Church (at the corner of McLaughlin & Connolly Streets, later renamed as St. Dominic’s in 1936).

Soon after, Carlo struck up a friendship with two brothers, Rino and Louis Bignucolo, recent immigrants themselves, who worked for the CPR as section men near Chapleau. They traveled regularly to Fort William to romance two local girls, Theresa Stependic and Cecilia Bellini, who would later become their wives and permanent residents of Chapleau. The brothers also took the train east to Sudbury, where they would meet another brother, Antonio, who had taken up residence in Coniston.  He had left his family in Italy, and was working to build a life for them. At some point, they would join him.

Carlo could see that the Bignucolo boys were enjoying life and doing well. Working for the CPR had its advantages; steady employment, decent money, with opportunities to travel inexpensively. The stories of Chapleau they told to both their girlfriends and to Carlo described a small but growing town, with good and pleasant people, including a healthy Italian community. Compared to the cold weeks on the docks, the approaching freeze up of the Port and eventual loss of work, it didn’t take long for Carlo to decide his next steps. He would find a job in Chapleau.

 Christmas that year was quiet for Carlo and Maria. Winter had set in with determination, the flat was cold, and work at the docks was slow. The couple looked forward to the move to Chapleau. Maria’s time was close; once the baby arrived and Maria was safe, he would go with the Bignucolo’s to be introduced to one of the CPR ‘bosses’ who Rino knew well. The brothers’ confidence assured him there would be no problem securing a place to live. With their help, he would get a steady job, much better than working the coal docks.

Carlo didn’t have to wait long. Less than three months after arriving in Canada, in the early morning of December 27 of 1923, Maria bore a daughter, Elda Regina, officially, a new Canadian.


Carlo, Elda and Maria, just days before moving to Chapleau 

Interestingly, the baby’s name didn’t quite make it into the official records. The person completing the baptismal record interpreted Maria’s heavily accented pronunciation of the baby’s name to be “Ilda Regina’, and with a few stokes of a pen, “Elda’ became ‘Ilda’. Understandable at the time, because Fort William and Port Arthur had a large Finnish population and Ilda was a common Finnish name. Such transpositions and phonetic transliterations often occurred in the early 1900’s when literacy and documentation was not what it is today.    

By February1924, the new family had moved to Chapleau. In a few busy days he had signed on with the CPR as a labourer on the four-to-twelve shift, and set up a meager home in a small apartment owned by George Bucciarelli, entrepreneur, and noted member of Chapleau’s Italian community. In a way, George was Chapleau’s local version of ‘the Godfather’. He owned a large house on Lorne Street South that housed his family and at times, friends and newly-arrived relatives who needed a temporary place to call home. George’s reputation has been noted in several books chronicling the development of Chapleau. (Much later, he was to become my Godfather.) 

In the ensuing months, Carlo focused on his job while Maria cared for little Elda, and did odd jobs as a seamstress. She worked without patterns starting with a bolt of cloth, and ending up with what some have said “was like it was just out of the catalog!”  Others, not able to buy new material, brought her older clothing to convert. Maria would disassemble, re-cut, combine and rebuild the pieces into an attractive new garment. Over the years, this work served to pass the time and provided opportunities for friendship. More importantly, the interaction with her customers allowed Maria to learn passable English. At he same time, it added a little extra money to their savings.

Both family and friends began to grow in numbers as time moved on. On St. Patrick’s day in 1925, in the home of Mrs. Oulette, a midwife who lived a few doors up from Bucciarelli’s apartments, the Sonegos welcomed the birth their first son, Cisto. (The Oullette house later became the home of Mrs. Moore, who so diligently raised funds for several years to finance a large part what is now Chapleau’s Moore Arena.)

As the children grew, so did Carlo’s circle of friends. Joe Bignucolo, had joined his older brothers Rino and Louis in 1927. The three men and Carlo had become close friends. Two other children followed the birth of Cisto; Jeana, three years later and two years after, in 1929, Reginald (Reggy). The Sonego family had outgrown their apartment, and moved into a backhouse on Landsdowne Street (Aberdeen Lane), just north of Oak Street in Chapleau’s ‘Lower Town’. Elda was now six years old, and attending school, where she was known, once again, by a name other than that given to her by her mother. Elda, who had been mistakenly registered under the name ‘Ilda’ had her baptismal certificate, ‘corrected’ by teachers who had noted that obvious error, adding an “H”. Elda, was now know to others as ‘Hilda’ Sonego. The name stuck.

1929 brought with it the Great Depression. Chapleau’s families were more fortunate than many families across Canada and the United States. Most Chapleau residents, including Sonegos were able to eke a living on meager sums of money. The surrounding area provided fish and game, and summer gardens could bring a healthy harvest. Living in a small community where sharing people looked out for each other had its advantages.

Carlo kept his job, and Maria continued her sewing, now with a second hand foot-operated Singer Treadle Sewing Machine. It was a prized and valuable possession; an investment that paid for itself many times over. The machine fascinated the children, and Elda, remembers playing around and under it, working the treadle, watching the wheel and gears turn, and flipping open the top to see the magic of the machine rising out of the table. In the quiet low light of the evening, the rhythmic clickity-clack sound of that machine working meant Momma was nearby. The sound helped the children drift into sleep. From a child’s perspective, life was good. Three years passed. Carlo and Maria were approaching a decade in Canada, and naturally, an assessment of life.

After almost 10 years, Maria openly questioned their sacrifice. Maria’s parents had never seen her children, and although she had made friends, she had no relatives nearby. The possibility that other members of the family might come to Canada was slim. In the years since their arrival, Mussolini had shut down emigration, and Canada, under the effects of the Depression, had severely restricted immigration. Even though the couple had managed to save a sum of money, they had quickly realized that buying a farm in the Chapleau area didn’t make sense, especially in bitter cold and dark of winter. Truly, they had been in Canada a very long time.

For Maria, the dream of a better life had faded, replaced by relentless lament and pleading; she wanted to return to the old country. The emotional tension between the couple begged a decision. It was January 1933 when Carlo quietly and painfully struggled with the choice he had made.

In the spring, a letter from home nudged a direction. An affordable farm was up for sale, not far from Vistorta. Carlo worked through the alternatives. Even though the world-wide depression had hit Italy hard, the crisis seemed to have peaked. Since 1931, the Italian government had intervened to save its economy, buying up all industrial shares from failing banks, and by providing loans to private companies. In 1933, to the outside world, there were faint signs that indicated Italy was recovering. 

Yet uprooting a family of five presented much more risk than that the couple had faced on leaving Italy. In general, Europe was not yet a stable place.

They settled on a mutually acceptable approach. Carlo would apply for a six month leave of absence. The arrangement would provide the safety cushion he needed for his family. It wasn’t a hard sell. Railway business was at a minimum, and jobs were drying up. A leave of absence was a win-win. That decided, he began travel arrangements.

In less than a month, he had been granted leave and had booked passage on the ‘Empress of Britain’, Canadian Pacific’s flagship, the largest and most luxurious ocean liner to sail between England and Canada. Six years later, the ship would be chosen by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth for their return to England after the first-ever visit to Canada by a ruling monarch.

The Sonegos would sail from Quebec, scheduled out of port in autumn, bound for Cherbourg, France. They would share a small third class economy cabin in the bowels of the ship, never seeing the lavishness of the upper decks. A second leg of the journey, by train, would take them through Paris, on to Milan, and finally, back to Sacile.   

Maria was enthused. They were going home. They would buy the farm. In the following months she busily prepared for the trip and that special day when she would introduce her family to her children.

In July they told the children. To a girl of nine, an ocean voyage was not necessarily exciting news. Hilda had heard the saga of the Titanic. Oceans were wide, ships could sink. Cisto, on the other hand took it lightly, and at 5 and 4, Gina and Reggie were unconcerned.

To Hilda’s relief, the voyage was short and uneventful, two days in the St. Lawrence, and just a bit over four days to Cherbourg, France. Another day’s travel by train brought them to Milano, where they met Carlo’s brother, also a veteran and severely wounded in WWI, who Hilda remembers as only able to get around with great difficulty. Three days later, in Sacile, they had feasted with family, met old friends and shed tears of joy and sadness as they shared ten years of stories.

Now came a flurry of activity. The farm purchase had to be settled, the house cleaned and prepared, church and school registrations completed and routine established. The family settled in, and Carlo took on the life of a farmer.

Perhaps it was the season. It was October. Summer was over, the weather was cooler and rain seemed an every day occurrence. Perhaps it was the effects the worldwide depression or Hitler’s rise to power and Germany’s move towards rearmament, or its intention to withdraw from the League of Nations. More likely, it was all of these, combined with the somber and pragmatic clarity that maturity brings.  Carlo was older; the conditions were different. He had left Italy at twenty-six. He had known only his home. Now, he had left a good paying job and dear friends in Chapleau. He had also grown accustomed to a different way of life. The ten years had made a difference.  As a man nearing forty, he recognized farming as the hard life it was. Italy had changed. Things would never be as he remembered. Europe was again heating up. Carlo had lived through war only some short years ago. Was this growing instability and uncertainty the reality he wanted for his family?

Within two months of his return to Italy, Carlo had decided. He would, finally, and most certainly, choose Canada. He would choose the little town of Chapleau, with all its snow and ice, its blackflies and mosquitoes, its remoteness from civilization, and his job with the CPR. Canada meant a more promising future for the couple and their children.

Maria, on the other hand was thriving in the warmth of her family, the familiar language, the community, and the friendly way of life that she had lost for so many years. The differences between husband and wife were sorely evident. Maria didn’t want to leave; Carlo was committed.

Carlo, with Cisto, Maria, with Elda and Gina - Italy, 1934

For a mother of four, who longed for family ties, it was a painful and heart-wrenching struggle. She and the children would stay as long as possible. There would be no coming back. The farm would be sold; the proceeds banked, and because her husband had chosen to leave, so must she and her children. 

In April of 1934, Maria and her children traveled back to Canada and Chapleau. Along with them, they brought Attilio Bignucolo, nephew to Rino and Louis Bignucolo and the son of their brother, Antonio.

The seven months spent in Italy remain in the memory of Hilda with the impressionable innocence of childhood. “My father give me a white chicken, that turned out to be a rooster who wasn’t very affectionate. I remember my chores before school, feeding the chickens bringing in wood and helping in the kitchen. I know my father talked of politics with the other men, but for myself, I can’t remember any awareness political tension. I do remember the [Italian Fascists’] Blackshirt Uniforms, the ‘Balilla’ (the Fascist youth organization for children from age 1 to age 18) and that I was a member of the girl's section, called the "Fascio Femminile" We wore white shirts, a blue or black skirt, a tam and white gloves. We were taught to salute ‘Il Duce’ and to march for parades. At the time, it was fun. I still have my Opera Nazionale Balilla membership card, which calls for support of the Facist revolution.”

On their return to Chapleau, the family set up home in an upstairs rental property at 77 Landsdowne South, owned by the Fiaschetti family. The building, at the time of this writing, is still the home of Chris and Beulah Fiaschetti. In a short time, the Sonegos had reacclimatized, just in time for summer.

From a child’s perspective, the location was excellent. The ground between the Landsdowne and the Chapleau [Back] River had not yet been cleared, but there were paths and trails to the water, and to the ‘Cay’, a large outcrop of rock at water’s edge, south of present day Oak Street where the kids of Lower Town swam. In the other direction (west), towards the stockyards (the area where the current Moose Hall stands) and on to Bucciarelli’s Farm, one could find patches of sweet blueberries and raspberries. 

In Hilda’s own words; “In the summer most of us in Lower Town here went down to Bucciarelli’s Beach,  at the time. a popular place to swim. We’d start at the stockyards, cross the CPR tracks, go down through a path by the red house and Tattler’s house and pick in the patches. It was a long way, down there, but it’s a lot of good memories. A few of us still talk about it now (Feb 2008). We’d bring a lunch with us and pick tons of berries from morning until night, and if the moon was out, we’d pick into the night. On the way back, we’d stop and eat our bologna sandwiches and have a great time. Then we’d sell berries to a firm in Toronto. We’d pack them in baskets cover them in cheesecloth, tag them and express them to Toronto.”  She pauses, and chuckles; “ … and by the time we got our money mailed back it was not as good as we thought,  but what fun it was!”

 “Some of us, Loretta Principe Mary Marchioni, Lina Mione, the Bignucolo families, with Lena and Emma would go as a big group. Our favourite place to pick was where the graveyard is now. At the farm, we also picked strawberries and got paid for our work; we also ate a lot of them.”

“At the beach, lots of people gathered on Sundays. It was packed with lots of picnic tables being used, lots of people swimming and having fun. There’s not much left to see there now. But it was the place to be.” 

 George Bucciarelli, Betty Serre (in car) Hilda Ritchie, sitting and Evelyn?.

At Buccuarelli Beach, 1936

Chapleau, the second time round, had become their ‘home’. Carlo resumed his old job, Maria, after a time of reflection had adjusted, and resumed her sewing, refined her English, made friends, and had taken on a housekeeping job for George Bucciarelli. The couple became friends with the Perfetto family who then lived on Lorne Street, and similarly Hilda, with Pino (Glorina) Perfetto, a girl close to her own age, who would later meet and marry Percy Encil. The two girls would sit in the back yard sharing and scanning magazines containing pictures of Richard Greene, Dick Powell, Robert Taylor and actresses of the day like Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell and Loretta Young. A favorite pastime for the girls was planning how they would write to these actresses, asking for fancy clothes, so that they too, could become famous movie stars.

During the following few years, the family moved from apartment to apartment, all of them small, cold and drafty. One in particular left an impression on Hilda; the house at 36 Landsdowne S. just north of Cedar, next to then William McLeod’s store. It contained a real bathroom, complete with toilet. The children considered themselves rich to have such a device and found any excuse to pull on the lever and watch the water disappear. The house still stands strong, and has housed several families since, and in the 1960’s the home of Mr. Bill Cormier, his wife, and sons Dennis and Billy Cormier and their sister.

Hilda and Gina became neighbours and friends of  neighbours Frances, Wanita and Olive Ennis, who lived in the next house up the street. (Chapleau residents of the fifties and sixties will remember that house as the home of Joe and Lucy Harris and children Joanne and ‘Jimmy’ Harris.

In 1936, the family moved to 69 Aberdeen, where Maria, assisted by midwife Mrs. Dillon welcomed the birth of daughter Rina. (The same house would later become the home of Mr. and Mrs. Pilon, and later, of Alan and Simone Murphy (nee Pilon) and at the time of this publication, is owned by Mark Pilon.)

Hilda was growing up. She had almost completed grade school, having built fond memories of teachers Marie Perpete and Miss {Arlene?/Orlene?} The next year, she would enter high school where she would become friends and schoolmates to Evelyn and Joe Sheahan (children of Doctor Sheahan, Patricia St. Amand, who lived on Beech Street. Near the present day Value Mart, and Rita Retty, who lived across from the Legion Hall on Young Street. She would share time with schoolmates Mary Eaton whose father worked for the CPR, and Marjorie Burns, big sister to twin siblings, Leo and Leona.

Cisto, eleven was beginning to take on the family chores that a boy could do. Jena, at ten shared housekeeping duties with Hilda and Maria. Reggie had taken an interest in hockey.

At the Sonego home life unfolded in the daily regularity of the times.

Once in a while, the kids were able to take part in a special activity; going to the movies at the YMCA on Lorne Street, just north of the CPR shops. At the ‘Y’, kids and adults enjoyed the newsreels of the day and the jerky animated silent-movie antics of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Keystone Cops, Laurel & Hardy, and cheered on Robin Hood, and the cowboys in the Westerns. Although Hollywood had graduated to the ‘talkies’ ten years earlier, they were a rarity that Chapleau. Eventually movies at the ‘Y’ were replaced with the introduction of the Regent Theatre, and later, the Fox Theatre on Birch Street.

In the summers both the Sonego parents and children, as well as all Chapleau residents looked forward to community picnics sponsored by George Bucciarelli, a businessman acutely aware of the effects of community support on business and profit. As well, the friendship between the Bucciarelli and Sonego families continued to grow.  

Carlo and Maria had become friends with Angelo and Carmello Armilotta, who lived at the top of Aberdeen, immediately south of the Sacred Heart School, at Pine and Aberdeen. The Sonego children, who passed the Armilotta house on the way to school, took on new friends in Mary, Mike, Joe Armilotta.

Christmas visits were a high point for many families in Chapleau, and among the Italians, no less. A regular tradition of Christmas for many years was undertaken by Sam Pisani, shoemaker, who provided services on main street near the drug store. Sam and his mandolin would travel hose to house like a troubadour, spreading good cheer, and in return, absorbing the spirit of Christmas in the form of fine home-made Italian wine. As he moved on, others would join, and finally end up at someone’s house where they sang, danced, and partied into the night.

The family had become more than passing acquaintances with the neighbours, Flora and Alice Swanson (and sons, Newman, and ‘Slack Dick’) and next to them, the Willie & Ester Swanson; the Green’s (Nellie and Jack) across the street; and the Turner’s (Bob and Rosie), just up from Jack and Nellie. Next door to the south of the Sonegos, at 73 Aberdeen, Allan and Bella Ritchie were raising two boys, Douglas and William.

The Sonego children came to know them by their nicknames ‘Ducko’ and ‘Esher’. Allan worked for the CPR as a telegraph operator, serving duty at several telegraph relay points along the CPR line. His stints included Ramsay, Rideout, Woman River east of Chapleau, and Esher, just up the line, and west of Chapleau. While at Esher, Chapleau was a central depot to the Ritchie’s for supplies and visits with friends and family who had migrated from Moose Factory and Moosonee. 


One of the posts covered by Allan Ritchie as a telegraph operator

Photo by Allan Ritchie ca.1920 - 1930

To the children of the town, beyond the circle of his family and friends, William became known as the ‘boy from Esher’. In time, the term was shortened to ‘Esher-boy’ for example, as used in the phrase “Hey! Esher-boy! Wanna play ball?”

Esher’s older brother, identified in the style of Chapleau residents, picked up the name ‘Ducko’ as a derivative of Douglas. In Chapleau, nicknames abounded. Kenneth Swanson was ‘Daddle’; Enerst Swanson was known as ‘Noony’; Henry Corston was ‘Chicken’; Percy Cachagee was ‘Muttsy’. Jack and Nellie Green’s daughter, across the street was known as ‘Toy’. A quick memory search through Chapleau’s residents in the 1930’s reveals a nickname for almost every boy and many a young girl.

Bella, had come to Chapleau as a young girl with her parents Isaiah and Mary (McLeod ) Saylors from Moose Factory and Moosenee via canoe in the late spring or early summer of 1898. They had traveled upriver to Missinabi and eventually to the Chapleau area.

Isaiah, a trapper, had also been working with survey parties for the railway at Moosonee and at times, guiding geologists doing some early exploration of the James Bay area for mining companies and others from the Hudson Bay Company.  Many of the people in the Moosonee area at the time, traveled back and forth to Chapleau and other points south to visit relatives, to trap and to hunt. Many had learned about the new CPR railway and the town of Chapleau, where jobs could be had quite readily. Several industrious families decided to leave Moose Factory, migrating south to Missinabi, Chapleau and the surrounding area.

Isaiah’s and Mary’s family consisted of eight children, Henry (B.1880),  Louisa (b. 1882, Married a Byce) was the second oldest at 16 years old.; then came Mariah (married Cade), Annabella (Bella, b 1882), Amon, Clara, (Kitti, Married Ken Drake), Charlie and a toddler, Joseph who was carried over the portages by Louisa.

They traveled in a freighter canoe, following the Cree trading route to the south established long before the European migrations.  Isaiah, Mary and Henry carried the large canoe over the portages followed by the rest of the family, each with their load of baggage.

A ninth child, Josephine, who was to later marry Robert (Bob) Mercier, was born after the family arrived in Chapleau.

At Chapleau, Bella met Allan Ritchie, who had also had traveled up from Moose Factory, where his dad, Walter, a store clerk for the Hudson’s Bay Company, had heard of Chapleau, and the opportunities for better employment. In 1904, Walter Ritchie with his wife Mary, son Allan, and two daughters made the trip, traveling the canoe routes of the day. Walter took up work as a store clerk for William McLeod, general merchant and fur buyer..

Walter Ritchie stands on the right ca.1930

With his Hudson Bay Company experience and the fact that he spoke Cree, he was a natural liaison to the store’s native customers. Walter and Mary were to later lose both daughters to illness. Allan, after completing school at Chapleau, would go on to graduate from the Dominion School of Telegraphy and Railroading in Toronto on June 10, 1914. On his return to Chapleau he joined the CPR to begin a lifelong a career in communications.

Allan and Bella would marry, and move repeatedly along the CPR line until Allan had the seniority to acquire a steady telegraphy job at the Chapleau Station. Soon after, they had built their home in Lower Town, at the bottom of Aberdeen, across the street from the waters edge. They were part of a family community, with Bella’s parents living up the street on the southwest corner of Cedar and Aberdeen; and Allan’s parents across Cedar, holding the two houses between Aberdeen Street and Aberdeen Lane. The families also maintained summer homes along the Back River, and Allan, following suit, built a camp on the point of land between the Back and Front Chapleau Rivers. (The building continued to be occupied by Doug Ritchie and later his son, Larry until the 1990’s. The structure still stands at the time of this publication.)

 Bella and Allan Ritchie - Chapleau  ca.1918

Chapleau continued to prosper as the 1940’s rolled into town. Railway jobs were plentiful and jobs in the forestry sector were on the increase. American tourists were beginning to explore the wilderness of Northern Ontario. And along with Chapleau, the neighbourhoods of Lower Town prospered. Overall, the town was doing well.

On Aberdeen Street it seemed that the integration of the different cultures was proceeding quite well. In fact, according to some, maybe too well. On the quiet, a romance had begun; Hilda and Esher had found eyes for each other.

The relationship had developed over several months, unbeknownst to Carlo and Maria. There was no question that had they known, there would be trouble.

The young couple would meet secretly ‘uptown’, usually with friends, at the restaurant on Main street (later, known as the ‘Model Grill’) owned by a mellow, pot-smoking entrepreneur from China, Soo Than. Soo Than’s restaurant was located next to the Pool Hall owned by the Brownlee family. The romance was not without its complications.  In time, of course, as happens in small towns, well meaning neighbours had carried the news of the relationship to Hilda’s parents.

Left to Right  Stewart Swanson, Charlie White, Unknown1, Unknown2

Life at the bottom of Aberdeen had taken on an excitement as the drama experienced by millions of immigrants to America and Canada took on personal meaning. The Sonegos were Catholic; the Ritchie’s were Anglican; the Sonego’s Italian; the Ritchie’s ‘Indian’. Blending these differences was easy enough for two young souls; however, for the Hilda’s parents, especially Maria, the idea was intolerable.

As the neighbourhood listened in, they witnessed the story of a boy and a girl in youthful love, and the pain of concerned parents, played out in a concert as old as if not older than Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Julliet’.

In Maria’s eyes, entertaining a relationship outside the Faith meant her daughter faced sure damnation. There were plenty of good boys in Chapleau; good looking Italians, who would make good husbands. Carlo supported her position and between them, they sought to redirect Hilda’s activities. Their persuasions were ineffective.

The situation eventually ignited in October, 1942, when the Hilda, then only months from her nineteenth birthday, refused to follow the direction of her parents and end the relationship. The confrontation became explosive and ended in an ultimatum. Later that day, Hilda and Esher, meeting at Soo Than’s decided that marriage, would, if not resolve the issue, bring an end to the arguing and allow their lives to begin.

Within a few days, the couple had obtained a marriage license, enlisted the aid of Louella Corston (Perfetto) as Maid of Honour, and Noony (Ernie) Swanson as best man. On October 28, in the home of the Reverend Henry Martin, accompanied by their chosen witnesses, William and Elda quietly married. The event was bittersweet. Afterwards, they celebrated briefly at the Perfetto house with a drink and some small gifts from friends. Mr. Perfetto, Pino and Louella’s dad and Chapleau taxi driver, topped the event with a free cab ride to Soo Than’s, where they enjoyed a Club House sandwich, compliments of Soo.

That evening, they moved next door to Hilda’s parents, into the home of Allan and Bella Ritchie. In the neighbourhood at the bottom of Aberdeen, the sound of a mother’s wailing continued deep into the night, while next door, a daughter’s tears flowed quietly and profusely, but no less painfully.

There was a silence between the houses that lasted for weeks, while each evaluated the future and suffered the consequences of the continued silence.

In the end, the silence itself was a healing factor and the love between parents and child endured.  The relationship resumed when Hilda entered her parents’ house to borrow a phonograph record. Carlo, in the kitchen, looked up quietly, and asked; “So…. How’s married life?”  The conversation was awkward, but the channel was open and the frequency of interaction increased. By Christmas, the reconciliation process was in full swing, with gifts exchanged between the newlyweds and the Sonego family and in diplomatic reciprocation, between each set of parents.


Esher and Hilda Ritchie - 1943 

In the six years between the marriage and my birth, the Sonegos moved from Aberdeen back to a Bucciarelli apartment. They eventually built their own house at the corner of Oak and Lansdowne Streets, where they remained until leaving Chapleau. Esher and Hilda bought a lot at 77 Aberdeen, next to Allan and Bella and with the help of both sets of parents, built their own house, largely out of recycled lumber from the deconstructed summer homes of the Walter Ritchie’s and Isaiah Saylors on the Back River.  Esher, who had worked at Pellow’s alongside his grandfather Walter, changed jobs driving truck along highway 129, and again to work for the Chapleau Hydro, under Clyde Fife. When the CPR decommissioned its steam engines in favour of diesel locomotives, his experience at the Hydro got him a job as an electrician until 1972, when he left to take on his own business.

Back: Douglas (Ducko) Ritchie, Joe Bignucolo, Allan Ritchie

Left, Seated: Mable Ritchie(Collings), Gina Sonego, Hilda (Elda) Ritchie, Carlo Sonego

Front Right: Lark Ritchie, Rina Sonego

Carlo would continue with the CPR, eventually becoming a boilermaker. He retired in 1958, and with Maria, moved to Mimico, a suburb of Toronto, and finally to Villa Columbo, an Italian retirement community and care complex on Dufferin Street. Rina, the youngest moved with them and married Rino Salvador in 1966, and lives in Thornhill, (Toronto). Cisto, second to Hilda, joined the CPR, became a conductor, married Alma, an Italian girl from Toronto. They lived in Chapleau until his death in 1978. Reggie who excelled at hockey and became a bit of a local legend, also joined the CPR as an electrician and eventually moved to Toronto. He passed away in 1968.  Gina married and eventually, with Louis Capellani, purchased the house at Cedar and Aberdeen that had once belonged to Isaiah Saylors. They raised four children, Bonnie, Glen, Tina, and Debra. Gina and Louis have since passed on.

Left Louis Capellani, Carlo Sonego, Bill (Esher) Ritchie, Hilda with son Allan Ritchie, Gina Capellani, Seated Maria Sonego, - 1963

In March of 2008, as I write this, there is still a Sonego presence in Chapleau. The Capellani house is now occupied by Jeana’s daughter Tina, and her husband, Doug Prusky. Down the street, at 77 Aberdeen, Hilda, still lives in her home and is blessed with the support of many friends and neighbours. The children and grand children of Joe Bignucolo operate businesses in town. The Armillota’s are no longer residents, but Mike, who lives in Sudbury occasionally returns to visit. Like many others, I return for visits to my roots.

I now live in Timmins with my wife Connie, and am presently working through the considerations for retirement. My daughter Laura, now lives in Hamilton, enduring the hardships of a cardiac surgery resident, and my son Allan, a corporate lawyer, makes his home in Toronto.

My brother Darryl already retired, who like me spent his career in Information Technology and now lives in Victoria B.C. with his wife Jane, a former Chapleau teacher and daughter of Leo Burns, who now lives at Chapleau’s Cedar Grove Apartments.  Their daughter, Megan, lives on the Island also and is a specialist in computer forensics technology, security and online intelligence.

My brother Allan lives in Sudbury with his wife Laura whom he met in Toronto, (first generation daughter of the Grygoryk family, Polish immigrants) and two sons, William, who enters university next term,  and Adam, still in high school, who seems to carry on the hockey skills shown by Reggy.

My youngest brother, Brian and his wife Loreen (daughter of Lorne and Jackie Riley, Chapleau) live in Maple, north of Toronto, with their three children, Kaitlin, who graduates U. of T. this year, and now considering graduate studies in Law or Business,   Zack who is completing his first year of university, and Jared, presently poised to enter the life of a high school student.

If Carlo and Maria, in their darkest hours of their journey could have seen the multitude of talent they set forth, I think they’d be tickled with the results of their lives. I hope they would see that the struggles they endured, the pain and the self questioning they put themselves through were, in the end worth their sacrifices.  I believe that Allan and Bella on the other side of the family, would also be happy with the outcome, and behind them, Walter and Isaiah would also call the game so far a win. I can only hope that now, with the running start they each provided us, we and our children can do as well as we move along our own paths in this relay through life.

So, that’s about it. Draw your own links, and connect the dots to other people and events presented in these pages Discover, infer, and intuit. We might say life is chance; or strange or divine destiny. If we’re the type that looks forward, we can amaze ourselves with the ‘fortune’ or ‘chance’ that brings us to where we are. If we’re part of the hindsight crew, we can argue ‘destiny’ or ‘synchronicity’ placed us at the right or wrong place and time to be nudged one way or another. Either way, somehow, we’re where we are today.

I’m continually amazed when I consider this little town and how it fits into so many lives. A little backwoods place, in the middle of nowhere. Yet it’s the ground for so many stories. It has been, and continues to be a hub of intersecting life-paths. It continues to be a place that generates dreams, joy and tragedy. It’s fostered love, and harboured pain and loneliness. It’s been the beginnings and the endings of all sorts of interesting people. Carlo and Maria were only two.

Maria and Carl Sonego, Villa Columbo,1982

He sports the ‘Alpini’ regiment hat worn by Italy's elite mountain troops with a distinctive eagle feather. At the beginning of the war the feathers were removed because they were considered too conspicuous, but were re-authorized in the late 1917. The Alpini keep their hats after they are discharged and even today veterans might be seen wearing their hats at reunions or on commemoration days.


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