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Gail (Pearce) McFadden Remembers Wonderland

January 8, 2023

Wonderland

Nathan (Natie) Pearce grew up on a family farm at the French Settlement (named because there were five families from France who settled there), north of Balsam Lake and west of Coboconk in Bexley Township. Natie’s mother died in childbirth and his father fell ill, so he and his siblings were raised by his grandparents. One day, when he was a young adult, Natie had the job of taking the horses and wagon to Kinmount to meet the neighbourhood’s new teacher, who was going to board with his family. Gertie, soon became his friend, and before long they were married.

Natie and Gertie carried on the farm at the French Settlement, raising cows, sheep, chickens and banty hens. They had a large maple bush and made a lot of syrup each spring, and had enough that they could sell some to raise some income. In the 1930s, the self-sufficiency that came with farming meant that they were better off than many others. Nevertheless, farming the north shore of Balsam Lake has never been an easy occupation.

Once they had children, in keeping with the social expectations of the time, Gertie retired from teaching. Though their farm was a way to get by, it was by no means the road to riches, and Natie was looking for ways to supplement his family’s income. In the mid-1930s, he took a job working as a welder at General Motors’ Oshawa factory. In those days, cars were slower, prone to breakdown and the roads were much rougher than they are today, so Natie would stay with his uncle who lived in Oshawa, returning to see his family on weekends. Gertie got used to managing on her own much of the time.

Having a steady income made Natie far better off than many of his neighbours, and as many of them gave up on farming or had their lots sold for non-payment of taxes, he was in a position to purchase their holdings. He had keen business instincts, reselling many of the lots. It also gave him the money to invest in business ventures. Natie and Gertie had always enjoyed kitchen parties. Neighbours would gather on Saturday night to share music (fiddles, guitars, and maybe even a piano) and dance in the kitchen—being the largest room in the house. The host would typically serve a luncheon before their guests headed home.

One late summer while Natie and Gertie were visiting her family in London, Ontario, they stopped to visit Wonderland on the Thames River. “I think this was where he got the idea to build a dance hall.” This outdoor venue featured beautiful gardens, a band stand, and a striking outdoor dance floor. He had the chance to buy a lot on the south side of Carden Road (now Highway 48), which was an accessible location for many communities, and began to work towards building his own Wonderland. Natie loved going to dances, and loved seeing everyone have a good time. He didn’t have to be the one dancing to be happy. But at the same time, Wonderland was a practical business venture, a way to produce some income.

Natie was unusually hard working, very creative and had a great many trade skills. In his spare time, he loved to read Mechanix Illustrated, and loved to dream up his own inventions. Over the years he came up with many memorable ideas, like a motorized snow machine (kind of like a snowmobiles—they were not common for another generation), a dumbwaiter built into the bottom of a kitchen cupboard that allowed him to keep his milk and butter in the cooler air of the cellar (before refrigeration), a windmill that make electricity and an automatic mechanical gate opener. 

For someone with Natie’s creative mind, building Wonderland was an exciting project. With mature trees standing on the property, he had access to building material at minimal cost. Like the original Wonderland on the Thames River, his attraction was initially just an outdoor dance floor. He harvested maple trees off the property, and borrowed Sam Bryant’s truck to move them up to Norland. Sam machined them into 7/8 inch thick maple flooring, that was end matched—meaning that the ends of each board were tongue and groove, like the sides, they were carefully fit together. So at Wonderland, no one would catch a toe on the dance floor. At 40 feet by 80 feet, it was said to be the best dance floor in Ontario.

Wonderland officially opened on August 5, 1939. For opening night, he hired the Gordon Sharpe Orchestra, who played contemporary and Old Tyme selections. It became a tradition that at the end of the night the last song would be Smile Awhile AKA Till We Meet Again (1918):

Smile the while you kiss me sad adieu,

When the clouds roll by I’ll come to you,

Then the skies will seem more blue,

Down in lovers’ lane my dearie,

Wedding bells will ring so merrily,

Every tear will be a memory,

So wait and pray each night for me,

Till we meet again.

At one of the dances later that Fall, one of the band members went out to his car to have a cigarette and turned on the radio. He heard the news that Britain was now at war with Germany, beginning Canada’s involvement in the Second World War. When he came into the building and shared the news, the dancing stopped, and everyone went home—they were all apprehensive about what was going to happen next. In the years that followed, a lot of women had a find a way to cope with their sons or husbands leaving for overseas service—echoing the story that Till We Meet Again told of the Great War. It was the only night at Wonderland that did not conclude with this song. The Pearce family was spared from direct involvement, as Dick was a little too young to serve.

Wonderland immediately proved to be wildly successful. In the first year that it was open, there were so many visitors that Natie had to build a walkway around the outside because the onlookers were crowding the dance floor. It evolved into an enclosed dance hall, with a walkway around the exterior. As cars pulled in from the north, there were two entrances to the parking lot so they could pull right through. The ticket window was on the northeast corner. Initially, admission was 25 cents, by the end the price had reached a dollar. They would walk along the north side of the building, and entered at about the centre of the dance floor. The band shell was opposite the entrance, with a kitchen on the east end and washrooms to the west. Wonderland did not have running water, so gentlemen peed into a trough that drained through a hole in the wall. The ladies’ washroom was more neatly finished in comparison. They entered through a room that had a basin and a pitcher of water. Then in the next, there were two stalls, with seats perched over 45 gallon drums.

Wonderland operated from mid-April until Thanksgiving, the end of October or even New Years’ Eve, depending on the weather. In the shoulder seasons, four large pot-bellied stoves provided heat. The building was of post and beam construction. Many different colours of roll roofing were used to give it a vertically striped appearance. Sometimes the roof leaked at bit and dancers might have to step around the pails scattered about to catch the drips. To make a railing, Natie peeled cedar posts, and artfully arranged them with each section of spindles set on a 45-degree angle, aligned in alternating directions. Many guests would stand with one foot up on the shoe rail, watching the dancers on the floor. He also made his own floor polisher, which was kept under the shelf of the ticket window. Another of Natie’s occupations was drilling wells. He installed one for the dance hall, and kept his rig sitting beside the pavilion for many years.

In early years, dances were held every Wednesday and Saturday night, from 9 pm to midnight. Some years there were dances on Tuesday and Friday. In later years, the dances were only held on Saturdays and Sundays of Holiday Weekends. Of course, dancing on a Sunday would be unconscionable, so the Midnight Frolic began at 12:01 am and lasted until 2 am, Monday morning.

Initially Wonderland did not have electrical service. Natie lit the dance hall using an old generator and car batteries. Sometimes it would shut down and leaving the dance floor in darkness. He wouldn’t want everyone to go home disappointed, so the host scrambled to light coal oil lamps as he ran outside to make repairs.

Natie’s family chipped in to help operate Wonderland. Natie worked in the ticket booth. Both of his children, Annie (Robertson) and Dick helped out, as did their spouses and children. By the time she was ten, Gail was helping at the family business. Typically, Dick, Scott (Annie’s Husband), his son Murray and Gail took orders at the concession, while Gertie was busy in the back making hot dogs and hamburgers. The kitchen also served guests outside through a take-out window. Though they had to work, Natie always made sure that Annie & Scott and Dick & Ruby had the chance to dance to a few songs before the night was over.

In preparation for a dance, Gertie worked all day grinding beef and making patties. After stirring in spices, she would press each one onto a bed of biscuit crumbs. By the time the dance began, she had a great pan full of patties ready to go. While she cooked the hamburgers on a grill, Natie had made a large dish that was used to boil the hot dogs, with a linen suspended above to steam the buns. “She would never sell a hot dog or hamburg in a cold bun.” Each was served with a generous dollop of Gerties own condiment—green relish mixed with yellow mustard.

Wonderland never had a refrigerator, instead Natie cut ice on Balsam Lake in winter and kept it in an ice house on site. The back room at the concession was full of cases of pop—each Monday, Natie went to Webster Brothers wholesale (now Cornerstone Home Furniture) in Fenelon Falls to buy supplies. Natie had made a cooler (like a watering trough that stood on metal legs), that was filled with ice to keep the pop cold. They sold many bottles of Pure Spring Orange, Ginger Ale, Mandalay Grape, Coca Cola and 7-Up. Soda came with glass bottles, and Natie had welded a bottle opener to the edge of the trough. At the end of the night, Natie would go around and pick up all the empty bottles—many people left them sitting on the floor, under the bench.

The concession sold cigarettes, chocolate bars, aspirin, and breath mints (which were often used to mask the smell of alcohol). There were large tin signs, showing beautiful women and handsome cowboys smoking cigarettes, featuring brands like Pall Mall, Matinee, Sweet Caporal and Winchester. Back in those days, drinking was often seen as much more concerning than smoking, so lighting up was allowed, while Natie was doing his best to operate as a dry dance hall. Having witnessed how alcohol addiction could destroy people’s, he very seldom would accept a drink.  He believed that Wonderland should be about dancing, and that if people had been drinking they would be a danger to themselves and/or everyone else on the floor. Safety of the dancers was always his primary concern.  To this day, drinking is not socially acceptable until the dancing is done at square dance clubs.

Wonderland was just around the corner from the Pattie House, which closed at 11 pm. The bar was a local legend, having had quite the reputation for drunkenness and fights. At closing time, many of their patrons would then drive over to Wonderland, and Natie would do his best to turn them away if he thought they were drunk. Despite his best intentions, it was very difficult to police drinking on site, and people would drift off into the adjacent woods with their bottles of whiskey or beer. Many people loved to visit Wonderland, but others, having heard stories of drunkenness and unsavoury behaviour there, felt it was not a good place for their young people to be.

When the dance ended at midnight and the parking lot emptied, Natie and Gertie would go home and have tea and toast—his favourite treat was toast with ice cream on it. But Natie would not get much sleep as he would have to head over two or three times in the night to check up on what, if anything, was happening at Wonderland. He would spend much of the night making sure everyone had left the property, while picking up bottles—at least he could return them for the deposit. “When I was a child, he did not explain to me why he went back to search the property at night.”

Even after being up most of the night, Natie would be back at work in the morning. He was someone who worked practically all day every day. And if he wasn’t working, he was thinking of what he would build next. In 1951, Natie and Gertie retired from farming and bought the White Rose Service Station and convenience store, located on the north east corner of modern day Highways 35 and 48. The Pearces lived at the gas station. (Sunday nights the whole family would come for supper.  At 6 pm they would sit down for dinner and sure enough, “Ding Dong!” the door bell would ring and Natie would go out to serve gas. “We would all wait until he came back and sat at the head of the table before we would eat.”) He would work all week at the gas station, then stay up all night if there was a dance. He never went on vacation, except to visit London with Gertie, or to go once or twice to a Good Roads Convention in Toronto. For all the time he spent making sure that everyone else could enjoy themselves dancing, Gail never saw Natie and Gertie dance.

Wonderland’s visitors could enjoy waltzing, square dancing, round dancing and pattern dancing. In those days, the square dance was a set of three dances (today it is more commonly two) and there were often about 5 square dances per night. In the early days, Natie called the square dances, in later years his son Dick helped out, as did Jim Hopkins, and other local callers.  Most of the songs were for round dancing. Bands played swing, country & western and Old Time Fiddle Music. It did not enter the era of Rock and Roll, which would have been new as Wonderland was winding down.

One night a couple were doing the Grapevine Twist—a square dance which included a circle of dancers leading each around in a pattern—kind of like cracking the whip in skating. Typically it is done at a walking pace, but that night, the dancers were perhaps a bit to exuberant—or maybe the floor too slippery, but one of the guests fell and broke her arm—“it was the only accident that I knew about.”

One night, when Jim Hopkins was calling the square dance, it was a hot summer night, so the back door of the band stand was left open to allow a breeze to flow through. As he was being attentive to the dancers on the floor, Jim saw something moving out of the corner of his eye, and then noticed that there was a big snake crawling up the microphone stand that he was holding on to. Jim yelped and the microphone hurtled out onto the dance floor. The band stopped playing, everyone stood and stared, and once Jim explained, a search began for the snake. Though many people looked, no one but Jim ever saw the snake. Natie didn’t buy the snake story and assumed that the problem was that Jim had been drinking. But Jim swears to this day that he saw that snake.

Many farm couples from the area spent their Saturday nights at Wonderland. Most of the couples were in their 30s, 40s or 50s, and few took their children with them. As a teenager, Gail looked forward to working at Wonderland every Saturday night, though there would be no one else her age there, unless she brought a friend. Though she can’t remember ever dancing there, she would wear a dress and crinolines, and would wash her hair the night before and go to bed with it in curlers so it would be beautiful for the event. “It was wonderful, I loved listening to the music and seeing my dad call.” She often worked at the concessions, but her parents sometimes let her go to the band stand to enjoy the music up close. She fondly remembers Garnet Powell’s band playing swing music. But to make sure she was safe, they didn’t want her going to the far side of the pavilion, where they could not see her.

By the 1960s times were changing. More people were listening to recorded music, as teenagers took an interest in sensational new acts like Elvis Presley and the Beatles. It became harder for local performers to maintain a following as international media created worldwide celebrities. With better roads and better cars, people were able to travel, and nearby communities like Fenelon Falls and Lindsay had movie theatres. Instead of spending time with their neighbours, more and more families stayed at home and watched television—unheard of when Wonderland first opened. Dance halls all through the area were struggling. Though Wonderland had always attracted a good crowd, it was noticeable that as the years passed fewer people were coming out. In the first summer, some of the dances attracted 600 visitors, but by the 1960s, 200 was a good crowd. Natie tried to think of ways to bring back the magic of the early years.

In 1965, Natie had a heart attack at the age of 66. With him laid up, Wonderland did not open for the summer. Its devoted followers felt a real loss, but Natie and Gertie settled into semi-retirement, while operating their White Rose gas station and convenience store. Operating Wonderland was a lot of hard work, and if it was going to continue operating a money needed to be invested: a modern kitchen, a septic system, proper restrooms and a heating system to start. The family looked at options of how to keep it going. They considered switching to a disc jockey, rather than a live band or even applying for a liquor licence, but Natie did not see the merits of either proposal. Natie died suddenly of a heart attack in May 1971, and Gertie six years later. In 1980, when her estate was wound up, the building was still standing, but with the passage of time, it too disappeared. For many years only the old maple dance floor remained, and today there is just a tall pine tree that still stands on the east side of the parking lot.

Would you enjoy more memories of Wonderland? Gail has written a concise history of the dance hall. For more information, you can contact her at gail.mcfadden@sympatico.ca

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