It was just 45 short years ago I left the farm in Ontario. I drove by the old house on a recent visit to the East to discover the new owners — a young farm family — had installed an aboveground pool. Man, a pool would have been great during those hot humid, eastern Ontario summers of the 1950s and ’60s. But we children were deprived.
Actually that’s not completely true. We did have a couple of “pools” over the years. The closest and almost “natural” swimming hole option was a limestone quarry.
One area of the century-old farm where I was raised held a limestone deposit. Long before my dad bought the place in the early 1940’s, someone had mined limestone from an area about two acres in size. There was even the remnants of an old limestone kiln on the site.
The removal of the rock had left a hole about 30 feet square that graduated to a depth of about 10 feet. Most years “The Quarry” held some measure of water, and quite often was full to the top of the flat limestone shelf on two sides. That quarry is where our dad taught us kids to swim. I recalled he tied some twine around my waist before I jumped in the water. He held onto the twine making it easy to retrieve me until I mastered the fine art of flailing and buoyancy — I at least learned how to stay afloat.
A close escape
We didn’t often go swimming at The Quarry but my sister and I regularly played around the water’s edge… until that one fateful day. We had gone with our mother to Grandpa’s house. While she was working in the garden we decided to play by the quarry. There was a one-way route along the limestone shelf to get to the far side of the quarry and we had gone as far as we could. We heard Mom calling us, it was time to leave, and as we began to make our way back along the limestone, what did we encounter? It was the world’s largest garter snake that had crawled out on the sun-warmed limestone shelf. I’m sure the thing was like three inches in diameter and about 15 feet long — obviously quite capable of swallowing two six and seven year old children — at least that’s how we remember it.
My sister and I grabbed each other and began screaming. The snake was about to attack. Our mom came running, assuming we were in mortal peril. She was no fan of snakes either. She found us screaming and crying on the limestone ledge. I am not sure if the snake was still in the area. It probably had slithered off to find a Holstein calf to devour. Mom made her way to us, grabbed somebody’s hand and led us to safety. The life and death crisis had passed.
I don’t know if my sister and I ever played around the quarry together again. I eventually did go back quite often over the years, although I usually wore rubber boots and later was armed with my trusty BB gun just in case I encountered some threat. I even built a raft one year and plied the narrow waters of this quarry. But with snakes lurking around I never swam there again.
The next swimming pool option was much more civilized. It was probably the late 50s and the country was hard at work building the St. Lawrence Seaway. My mom took in several boarders working on the Seaway. Through them, my dad acquired a large round steel tank, about nine feet in diameter with walls about two feet high. It ended up in the farm yard with the idea it would make a great swimming pool. My dad filled the tank with a garden hose connected to an outside tap at the house and filled it with cold well water. It probably took a couple days for the water to warm enough in the sun that we could stand to get in it. But for a short time it was a fine swimming option. There were a couple sharp edges so a person had to be careful getting in and out but it was a great place to splash around… until that fateful day.
The water stayed at a comfortable temperature in the hot, humid Eastern Ontario climate, but then another guest showed up… algae. The sparkling clear well water soon began to cloud up with a slimy algae bloom. Changing the water meant, emptying the tank, which had no drain plug, by hand. That was no easy job. And water conservation was also an issue. Both the house and dairy barn each relied on hand dug wells, which produced enough water for regular demands but filling this large tank with precious well water for recreational purposes soon became a concern.
It wasn’t long before the pool idea was shut down and the tank was relocated to be used as an actual stock watering trough while milk cows were on pasture. My swimming career sustained a major setback.
My dad always loved to swim when the opportunity presented, and many more opportunities were to come through the 1960s. Those boarders and their co-workers had done a great job in building in the St. Lawrence Seaway. So when the project was completed and opened in 1959 it created a great many recreational opportunities in several water front parks incorporated in the $400 million development. Our family soon became quite regular Sunday afternoon picnic goers along the St. Lawrence. And each visit involved a trip to the beaches of the new Lake St. Lawrence. No algae and no snakes. I often thought they could have worked a little harder to warm up the water, but it didn’t take many dips for a kid to get past the initial cold-water shock. And how many kids today can say they could watch shipping freighters plying by on the Seaway as they played in their pool.