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Strong women and Nipissing Junction history highlighted

by | May 11, 2024

Just in time for Mother’s Day, the Small Town Times interview with Lori Laporte focusses on the strong women in her family. It dove tails well with the Back in the Bay Magazine’s Spring 2024 feature on Nipissing Junction history (republished in full below with some additional photos).

Article below in Vol. 4, Issue 1 – Spring 2024 edition of Back in the Bay Magazine (available at Allisson the Bookman, Darkhorse Comics, Callander Museum, and East End Variety)

There was an Irish Setter named Hunter that was a big part of school life in Nipissing Junction during the 1940s and early 50s.

“Hunter was going to school when I started and he was still going to school when I left,” Ross Sawyer, 86, says during a Small Town Times interview about Nipissing Junction and the school building that provides the foundation for the West Ferris Legion Br. 599.

“And he never got out of Grade 1 … he laid by the teacher’s desk, about every 20 minutes or so he’d go around and visit every kid in class,” Ross adds, describing how the students would give him a pat on the head before he moved on to the next student. The dog also provided school-yard security, keeping away the hobos who would be walking by on the nearby tracks.

Nipissing Junction West Ferris Elementary Class of 1947: Backrow, from left: Audrey Hazzard, Elaine Yurki, Joan Yurki, ?? McCourt, Frank Scott, Raymond Paquette, Emmet Decaire, Denver McLeod, Ross Sawyer, James Laporte and teacher Sheila Skirton. Middle row, from left: Christine Decaire, Judy McLeod, Donna Yurki, Cecelia Decaire, Joanne Foster, Joyce Riopelle, Cameron Cooper, Gary Alexander, Billy Bale, Cecil Campbell and Barry Townsend. Front row, from left: Darwin Cooper, Armand Decaire, Gary Dyck, Dennis Laporte, Douglas Bell, Margaret Sawyer, Alma Hazzard, Frank Bale, Billy Kerr and Marvin Sparling.

Ross said his birth certificate says he was born in Nipissing Junction, but he said it actually happened in the former Grand Trunk Railroad Station his grandfather rented after it was decommissioned. It was a foretelling arrival considering he became a Canadian Pacific brakeman and locomotive engineer during a 40-year railroad career.

For most of the 1880s, the Grand Trunk Railway served Lake Nipissing through Callander but the east-west CPR route through North Bay changed the destiny for Nipissing Junction. Joining him for the interview was Lea Bale (nee Laporte), 81, who attended the school, which was built in 1934. She married Sawyer’s childhood friend, William ‘Billy’ Bale, who passed away in 2017. Ross and Bill became business partners later in life, operating tourist outfits in the north.

Ross Sawyer, Hunter, and Jimmy Laporte

“I lived on the other side of the tracks,” Lea said, explaining how her dad and mom grew vegetables they sold to the stores in town. Eventually, the decided it was a better business to sell the plants and she ended up working at their Laporte’s Nursery until she was 72 years old.

Built in 1934, it was still a one-room school at the time they attended with 25 to 30 students from Grade 1 to Grade 8. Eventually, it became crowded and Ross said the older students had to attend Tweedsmuir for a couple months until they added another room right before his graduation in 1949.

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A North Bay Nugget article in 1952, featuring Hunter, states the school population swelled to 75 pupils as the Baby Boomers entered the world.
Among the teachers he remembered: Miss Burnside, Mrs. Daly (nee Fisk), Betty Holmes, Mr. Nicholson and Bill Taylor, who was a World War II fighter pilot, railroader, teacher and principal who passed away in 2018 at 94 years old.

Blessed with a strong memory, most of the names came to him on sight. He left school to work at 14 years old and returned to this area later in life.
Lea said a lot of their life revolved around the school and the Nipissing Junction area.

Ross Sawyer’s aunts and uncles outside the former Grand Trunk Railway station, Jack, Helen and James Sawyer.

“We played hockey in the ditch in the winter time, slid on the hill and went ice fishing with our parents,” she said, noting they were definitely not city kids. “They never went to the theatre, never went to the mall, everything they did was in Nipissing Junction.”

After elementary school, she went to Algonquin Composite in North Bay and she said the other students called them the ‘Kids from the Sticks’ and didn’t associate with them much.
Lea said her parents grew vegetables and sold them in town until they realized they could make more consistent money buy selling the plants themselves. Laporte’s Nursery was started by her parents Aldege (Alec) and Christina (Tina) in 1950, her brother James (Jimmy) took it over in 1972 and Lea said she worked at the nursery until she was 72 years old, including after her niece Lori Laporte took over the day-to-today operations when it moved from Nipissing Junction to the Lakeshore Drive location in 1998. Lori became the owner when her father passed away in 2016.

The Junction school continued operations until 1967, when West Ferris and Widdifield amalgamated with the City of North Bay.

Teacher Marilyn Graff with one of the her last classes at the Nipissing Junction school. Back row, left to right: Willy Rose, Wayne Finch, Lorraine Stewart, Mark Rogerson, Debbie Hazzard, Mike Gifford, Mary Cook, Cathy Spack, Heather Esch, Cathy Saari, Petty Stewart, Holly Finch, Jessie Depencier and Dawn Humphrey. Middle row, from left: Howie Gifford, Billy Caley, Bobbie Jones, Bart Claridge, Darryl Pit, Karen Lebar, Laura Anderson. Bottom row, from left: Mark Claridge, Donny Rose, Randy Stewart, Bev Hazzard, Chris Pucher, Cindy Townson, and Beth Hughes. Mrs. Graff started teaching in 1946 at the Chisholm school built in 1928.


Mrs. Marilyn Graff started teaching in 1946 at the Chisholm school built in 1928.

Dave Dale
Dave Dale

Writer, photographer and proud father. My mom’s family is from the Soo with its Algoma Highlands, dad hailed from Cobden in the Ottawa Valley and I spent my teen years in Capreol. Summers were at the beach on the Vermillion River and winters at ‘The Rink.’ Born in East York but Toronto never was my thing. Ever since a kid looking out the window on long trips, I imagined living on the highway in a little house with a big yard and trees growing all around me.

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