WWhile some of us have had our fill of winter, others are delighted with the crisp weather and fresh snow. Children are on local hills with all sorts of sliding devices – old-fashioned toboggans to high-tech snowboards. Backyard rinks are doing well and ski tracks crisscross parkland. Every evening is marked by the familiar drone of snowmobiles.
St. Marys and area people have always found lots to do outdoors in winter: sleigh rides, skating and, in the 1920s and ’30s, the thrilling municipal toboggan runs just east of Huron Street down to Trout Creek. In the 1880s, snowshoeing made a brief appearance as a club sport. In January 1884, the club organized a fancy ball in the Opera House. The event was successful but then perhaps the weather turned mild because the Snowshoe Club seems to have melted away.
Still, snowshoes were widely used. They were a necessity for access to the bush for the winter work of cutting wood or, in early March, tapping trees and collecting sap. For others, snowshoeing was an enjoyable leisure activity. This week’s photograph shows Donald McRae, probably in his 70s, with a pair of very long, very wide, traditional snowshoes. With his moccasins in hand, he is either just returning from – or embarking on – a trek in the snow. McRae was considered one of the “grand old men” of St. Marys and until a few weeks before he died in 1944 in his 98th year, he was a model of healthy, active living.
Born in 1847 in Ross Shire, Scotland, he apprenticed as a tailor, learning how to select material, cut, sew and fit garments. He came to Canada as a young man of 20 and worked for some time in the Markham area where he married Emma Colvin and where their three children were born. In 1883, he arrived in St. Marys to be head cutter in the men’s clothing department of Alexander Beattie’s store on Queen Street. He eventually opened his own tailor shop on Water Street. A proud Scot, every St. Andrew’s Day, he filled his shop window with wonderful wool fabric, a range of clan tartans.
His wife died in 1932 and about the same time, his two sons also died of health issues related to their service in World War I. His daughter, Mary, remained with her father who kept busy reading, working in his garden and checking his shop every day, walking from his Widder Street home downtown and back. Mary refused to let him to ride his bicycle after he was 95. There is no record of when he stopped snowshoeing.