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Memories of Buckeye in Bobcaygeon

June 28, 2024

Buckeye Centre, 1954 - Tom Thompson Sr. foreground, with Tom Thompson Jr (store founder) behind

With Dave Adams, Carly, Dave & Taylor Poole

Buckeye Surf is celebrating its 75th Anniversary on June 29 with a Party on the Island & Sale 7-10 pm

In the mid-twentieth century, many tourists came to the Kawartha Lakes and fishing was one of the main attractions. “It was one of the closest locations to the northeastern United States where you could get world class walleye fishing,” Taylor explains. “At the north end of Pigeon Lake, you see the granite, and by the time you get to the opposite shore you can see the change in the lake. That transition zone made for excellent habitat and Big Bob was an ideal spawning ground.” Dave Adams continues: “The fishing was so much better in the 1960s and 1970s. After public school me and my cohorts would lay on the bank of the river and have a competition to see how many fish we could catch with our hands. When we did that, we might get 100 fish… that was when they were spawning. We would toss them up in the air, and they would land in the water and swim away.”

A lot of older fishing enthusiasts agree that the prospects much better in the mid twentieth century than today. Many can agree that sometime around the 1990s, populations noticeably dropped off and some believe that the type of dams employed on the Trent Severn Waterway are the cause. Whatever has changed, from the 1940s to 1960s, a lot of visitors came to Bobcaygeon, caught staggering numbers of fish, fell in love with the region, and returned summer after summer. Many photos were taken with catches that would be hard to believe today.

Fishing was a huge part of Bobcaygeon culture. “Dar Kimble was a local legend,” Dave Poole explains. “He was very involved in the community, and was a hockey coach. It seemed like everyone went to his bait shop to have a coffee in the morning, the coffee pot was always on.” Each day local fishing guides would pick up customers at accommodations like the Whyte House (now Sherwood Gardens) and Locust Lodge (Bobcaygeon Inn), Canal Boat Livery (which became Water’s Edge Restaurant, now gone) and later Fiesta Village on the Bobcaygeon River. “When the guides were coming in, Dar would share their information on the best places to fish. He would tell where the pickerel were biting or the lures that they were biting on. Dar was always recruiting kids. I caught minnows for him and was on his hockey team.”

“Dar Kimble was loud, and he was friendly,” Dave Adams says. “It was like the Tim Hortons of the time. It was where you met everybody and learned what was going on—all the local gossip. He always had a coffee pot on.” In summer, a lot of locals checked in at Dar’s every day. For many of the men of Bobcaygeon, the winter hangout was Anderson’s Pool Hall (Kitchen Design Studio). “Not many people then had a 12 month a year job. For those who had seasonal work, when they had time to kill, they went to the pool hall. Smoking was allowed, so you could cut the air with a knife. But it was where everyone went to socialize. There were other pool halls, but it was the main one.”

While many of Bobcaygeon’s men enjoyed shooting pool in the winter, the opening of fishing season was a much-anticipated event. It was, of course, boisterously opened by none other than Dar Kimble. On the second Saturday in May, “he fired a shot gun at midnight to signal that fishing season was beginning,” Dave Poole explains. “Everyone called it the cannon, though it was actually a shot gun. It was a huge day. People were lined up along the shore, and if you came too late, you couldn’t find a place to fish. It seemed like you could walk across the river on the pickerel. Once Tommy Thompson opened Buckeye, he would stay open 24 hours to be part of the event.” Gordon Oliver operated another bait shop across Big Bob Channel from Kimble’s. “His shop was much like Dar’s but it did not have the same local following. “As well, there was a Bait Shop on the Bobcaygeon River across from Case Manor operated by Paul Elsner.

When visitors came to Bobcaygeon, many of them would hire a guide to introduce them to local fishing. There were numerous guides that offered their services to the tourists. Percy and Ernie Nicholls were unforgettable characters. “Tourists would meet Percy down at the Boat Livery (later Water’s Edge Restaurant),” Dave Poole says. “In earlier years they would meet at Locust Lodge or the Whyte House. He often took out more than one group per day.”  Taylor adds: “Now you wouldn’t even think of going walleye fishing at 2 in the afternoon.” At day end when the guides returned, locals would go to Canal Boat Livery to observe their catches.

In 1949, Tommy Thompson moved from Toronto to Bobcaygeon with his wife Rosa, and founded Buckeye Tourist and Sporting Enterprises Limited, along with a business partner who soon left. “He chose such a long name because he thought the name determined what business you would be in,” Taylor explains. “He wanted to keep it as diverse as possible.” Despite the lengthy official name, in practice it was called Buckeye Centre. Coming to a community that had such deep traditions and loveable characters, Tommy and Rosa had a lot of work to do to build a place for themselves in Bobcaygeon. It was a challenging new beginning for them. Tom was originally from Scotland, and had been employed as a commercial painter in Toronto, beautifying many gas stations for Imperial Oil. One of his jobs had been helping to paint Maple Leaf Gardens.

At the time that the Thompsons moved to Bobcaygeon, a large proportion of Bobcaygeon’s tourists were from the United States. Harry Van Oudenaren (then a mechanic at Pogue’s Garage on Bolton Street) would later recall, looking down Bolton Street, many of the cars had Ohio license plates. Tom’s uncle lived in Cleveland, and explained that Ohio was the Buckeye State. “The name was chosen to attract Ohio tourists,” Taylor observes.

The Thompsons purchased what been the Bobcaygeon Independent Office, and the former residence of Dr. Charles Bonnell. In the late nineteenth century, the Boyd Family owned much of Bobcaygeon, and their family built residences in many of the most beautiful places in town. Mossom’s daughter Mary Boyd, married Dr. Bonnell, and they lived on Juniper Island, between Big Bob Channel and the Canal. It was beautiful location to appreciate the beauty of Big Bob and watch the steamers passing through the locks. After the Great War, the former’s doctor’s residence had served as an infirmary.

Decades later, when Tommy and Rosa moved to Bobcaygeon, it was still a beautiful location, and right at the centre of so much of the community’s culture—especially for visitors to town. As the Thompsons were starting out, the old newspaper office was repurposed to sell fishing tackle, while Dr. Bonnell’s house became their residence. It was challenging to be newcomers to the community, setting up shop in the bait business right beside a legend like Dar Kimble. As Tom had thought as he was giving the business a very broad name, it would not be long before the scope of business grew.

Before Tommy and Rosa moved to Bobcaygeon, their daughter Joyce had attended the Ontario College of Art. Joyce worked as a designer for A.V. Roe, the company that designed and built the Avro Arrow. Joyce was engaged, but tragically lost her fiancée. Shortly after Buckeye opened, she returned to Bobcaygeon, and as she was visiting with her parents met Frank Poole, a young mechanic, whose father Clarence owned and operated the Kawarthe Garage and Machine Shop (Now). Joyce’s younger sister Joan remained in Toronto, pursuing her nursing career.

In the 1950s, replacement automotive parts were not readily available, so mechanics had to be able to repair or manufacture the parts that they needed. “Clarence spent many hours standing behind his lathe making parts,” Dave Poole says. Having grown up in this business, Frank had a lot of mechanical skill, which he brought to Buckeye, as he became their mechanic. “For many years, when you brought your boat to Buckeye, Frank was the mechanic. Later on, he hired other mechanics like Bob Stinson (his father was surveyor Bruce Stinson). Joyce and Frank married in 1954, then Frank bought into the Buckeye business in 1958. His brother Ross would later take over Clarence’s business, and both brothers would have their own venture.

Tom was a cautious businessman, and bit by bit he expanded the enterprise. By 1950, he was renting space to guests in the former Bonnell house. Then, with several additions, the last in the 1970s, it was turned into a motel. In 1964 he replaced the old newspaper office with a much larger store. The lower floor of the new building serviced boats, with a dock on the river, and it was where the worm cooler was located. The upper floor was on the level of Bolton Street and was a retail space. They sold souvenirs like hats, Bobcaygeon T-shirts and Blue Mountain Pottery.

With Frank and Joyce helping out with the business and a larger showroom, Buckeye was able to distinguish itself from the other two bait shops in close proximity. “Tommy’s was different because there was a breakfast and snack bar at one end of it. You could go in there and order a hamburger, Kawartha Dairy ice cream, or a piece of pie. Dar’s business was a bait shop with boat rentals. Tom was catering to the people who would stay at his lodge, while Dar had a large local following. The two businesses sold different rods and reels and different bait. Tommy carried Mitchell rods and reels.”  The appearance of the businesses reflected their differences. In its second iteration Buckeye had red, high gloss siding that made it stand out to visitors and it was a modern building with glass show windows. On the other hand, it seemed like everyone in town knew Dar, so he didn’t need a beautiful new store. However, in the years that followed Dar rebuilt the building.

As a young couple, Joyce and Frank helped her parents with the business, then as Tom and Rosa aged, they needed to assume a larger role. When Rosa retired in 1966, Joyce looked after Buckeye Centre, the motel business, as she was raising their young family. Joyce also did drafting on the side. She took a job designing a building for the current Eganridge Golf Club and helped design brush and comb sets for Pete Austin’s Ausco Brush and Comb Factory. Three years later, Tom retired, as Frank and Joyce purchased Buckeye Tourist and Sporting Enterprises. Tommy and Rosa would enjoy a lengthy retirement together, both passed away in 2001, aged 93 and 92 respectively.

As with anyone starting a new business, there were challenges. One day, as Joyce and Rosa were picking up a load of night crawlers for the bait shop, they were involved in a car accident in their station wagon. Carly recounts “The worms slid forward and the ladies were covered in creepers. Not only was the car the pick-up and delivery vehicle for the business it was the only mode of transportation for the family!  It was quite the smelly, sticky mess.”

In 1959, one year after Frank joined the business, he arranged for Buckeye to become a Mercury outboard dealer.  He also began a long-standing relationship with Princecraft Boats. For thirty years, the Poole family sold boats on Big Bob Channel. Initially, they were selling aluminum fishing boats, and over time the business gradually expanded and they sold fiberglass boats.  They would line up the boats along the side of the building, and some were stored in the Murphy Barn (which later became part of Settler’s Village.)

By the 1980s, customers were looking to purchase bigger boats. Buckeye was having a hard time accommodating the watercraft downtown. “At the Bolton Street location we could sell up to 25-foot boats,” Dave Poole explains. “But 28-foot boats were too large. So, we bought a property on Duke Street as a shop, but later relocated to Highway #36.”

As had happened in the 1950s, a new generation brought new ideas. Frank and Joyce’s sons Gary (1979), David (1987) and Chris (1992), joined the business. While Gary was in high school, he went to pick up a load of ‘tinnies’—a stack of 14 foot aluminum fishing boats strapped together. “The stack was tall and was loaded in the back of the pick-up truck, but not well secured,” Carly narrates. “Consequently, the load tipped as he drove around the first corner, spilling all over the road. You can imagine that never happened to him again, and securing a load became a lesson everyone who ever worked for us learned day one!”

“Gary told his father that we need to sell larger boats or sell the business because it was not profitable,” Carly says. Dave continues: “Because there was not a showroom downtown, many brands would not sell us larger boats. As a result, it was necessary to expand and build a showroom. “

In 1990, Gary led the company to build the new 5-acre marina and showroom on Highway 36, just south of the village. “Before that we couldn’t get a mainline franchise. We had lost Wellcraft because we did not have a showroom. Once it was built, they were tripping over themselves to sell here. Soon we sold Chapparal , Cadorette, Campion and other popular brands. ” The business continued with Mercury and Yamaha outboards. “There was a considerable increase in volume, and we were employing 2 or 3 mechanics at the time.”

Joyce and Frank both took a deep interest in helping with their community. She volunteered for the Kinettes, Figure Skating and Kawartha Settlers Village. For many years, she played a huge role in turning Settlers Village into what it is today. Frank served on council, as Deputy Reeve (to retired fishing guide Percy Nicholls). Frank later became Reeve, then Warden of Victoria County. While Frank was on council, one of the big projects was to extend water and sewer service throughout the village. Today, many people would find it hard to imagine having to have your own well and septic in town.

In 1997, Frank retired and the two parts of the business separated, as Gary and Chris (the Marina), Joyce (Motel) and Dave (Sporting Goods) operated their own business. They could each focus on one part of Buckeye, while supporting each other. Though Frank was happy to see his capable sons looking after the business, he would still ride his bike to work each day to help in the fiberglass and welding shops. Joyce continued to operate the Buckeye Centre until 2017, when at age 87, she passed management to her son Dave. Beginning in 1982, Gary’s wife, Debbie, operated her own complimentary business of boat top design and repair, Lakeside Custom Works.

Since then, the businesses have continued to evolve: “In the 1990s, Buckeye Surf was predominately fishing,” Taylor notes. “But water sports—wake boards and water skiing—have become a bigger concern. We still carry fishing tackle, but today there are not as many fishing tourists. Clothing has always been a big part of our business.” Over the years, Buckeye has introduced many fashionable brands to the Bobcaygeon retail scene, including Quicksilver, Billabong and Roxy.

In 2002, Dave and Monica bought Getaway Gear from Mike and Leslie Wright (formerly Purdy’s Meats) operating it as a Buckeye Clearance Centre for one year, then Buckeye Outdoors. In 2006 they purchased the adjacent store (formerly known as The Wool Shop). The two stores were merged and renamed as Kawartha Lifestyle (a Buckeye Company). For five years they operated a second location in Fenelon Falls.

Buckeye Marine started a satellite location in Port Carling named Muskoka Boat Gallery, in 2011. Debbie’s business, Lakeside Custom Works merged with Buckeye Marine.  In 2013, Gary passed away at the age of 57, then Chris and family took over the Port Carling location. Buckeye Marine passed to Gary’s wife Debbie, and children Carly and Jay.  In 2019, sons Taylor and Craig, succeeded Dave to own and operate Buckeye Surf, Buckeye Rentals and recently added the Stonyhurst Motel, which provides additional docking for their rental company.  Dave and Monica continue to work within the company.

But much as things have changed, there are still 3rd or 4th generation customers, who come to Bobcaygeon, rent a boat and fish. “We do not get as many American tourists anymore. Today most of them are from the GTA, St. Catharines or Mississauga. For a lot of the people who keep coming back, it has become a family tradition.”

This story is a memory and nobody’s memory is perfect. Sometimes details get a little mixed up, things get forgotten or overlooked, and the perspective is inevitably subjective. If you notice something that not right, have something you would like to tell us, or a memory to share the museum would be happy to hear from you: curator@maryboro.ca

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