Porch Views: The house that Jack built

Marcie McNamara and Mark Woermke on the porch. (Photo submitted)

Barry’s Bay has some historic homes such as the August Biernacki home on Dunn Street built by the parents of St. Hedwig’s founder Monsignor Biernacki and which now serves as a college residence; the Opeongo Line home of Barry’s Bay’s first reeve Henry Chapeski which served as the Yantha & Yantha law office; the Hanora Murray house on Inglis, now the location of The Barbershop; and the Thomas P. Jordan home at intersection of Kelly Street and Opeongo which is a private home. Each of these homes — and others in the village — have histories that are worth recording. Thankfully, members of the Barry’s Bay Heritage Society have an interest in doing just that.

This, however, is the story of my own home because I recently had a very special visitor who helped me appreciate how the history of a home can help us understand our community’s history and reveal what local life was like in the past. So this instalment of Porch Views is about the house attached to my porch – the house that Jack built.

I was delighted when Toni Lavigne-Conway arranged a visit with Marcie McNamara who lived in this house from 1938 to 1944 and her niece Joanne. It was a wonderful opportunity to verify stories I heard about the house. I hope it was an opportunity for pleasant memories for Marcie and Joanne. It was 74 years since Marcie and Joanne’s father Len had left the house, and the visit provided surprising information for their family tree.


Deeds from 1922 and 1944 showing the sale of land from John and Ellen Dooner to John P. Etmanskie and the sale of house and land from John P. and Veronica Etmanskie to George Woermke. (Collection: Mark Woermke)

My Woermke grandparents bought the house from Jack Etmanskie in 1944 when they moved to Barry’s Bay from Madawaska. Old deeds show that Jack bought the lot in 1922 for $170 from John and Ellen Dooner who lived in the house that is now Pantry Savings. Twenty-two years later, my grandparents paid $2400 for the house and property. The house-story says something about local property value back then and one might wonder how prices fluctuated through the Roaring Twenties, Great Depression and World War II.

My mother recalled watching the construction of an addition as she walked to and from St. Joseph’s School. She said that Mr. Etmanksie built the front section and then several years later added the back. My father told me that the house had been divided and two families were living in it when his parents bought it. My mother often talked about attending the wake for Jack Etmanskie’s first wife. Mrs. Etmanskie was laid out in the front room with her child beside her in the casket. According to my parents, Jack Etmanskie remarried and moved to Northern Ontario.

Marcie was able to confirm all of this and add some details as well. She told me that Jack built this house before he was married. After the wedding, he and his bride, Catherine Yeretch, settled into their brand-new home. Sadly, Catherine died in childbirth in 1935 and Jack was left a single-parent to care for three-year-old Rita and an infant son Leonard. I told Marcie and Joanne about the baby in the casket, but they thought my mother had been mistaken. However, several hours after their visit, and following their visit to the graveyard, I received a message from Joanne to let me know that a careful translation of the tombstone’s Polish inscription revealed that an infant daughter named Teresa was buried with Mrs. Etmanskie. Joanne learned that her father had a twin sister who died at birth. This house’s story reminds us how fortunate we are today — higher infant and mother mortality rates were a fact of life in the past.

Marcie’s father Felix Recoskie died when she was young, and she and her widowed mother Veronica (Chippior) lived in a house on Dunn Street. When her mother married widower Jack Etmanskie in 1938, Marcella, as she was called then, became part of a blended family and moved into this house. Marcie’s first memory of the house was being told to quiet down while playing with her stepsiblings in the kitchen. It was right after the wedding and while the adult guests were celebrating in the front rooms, she and her new stepsiblings were getting to know each other.

Marcie spoke of her stepfather fondly:

He was very loving and good to us, and I always called him dad. I remember once someone, referring to us children, asked him which ones were his. ‘I don’t know why you would ask that, they’re all mine’ was his response.

Blended families aren’t new. They existed in the past, but perhaps for different reasons. Other homes in Barry’s Bay could tell stories about this too.

Sometime after they moved in, perhaps after Jack took a job in Northern Ontario, the house was divided to accommodate two families. “We lived in the back part of the house and an Irish family, Nixie Conway, lived in the front. It was not too long, though, until we all moved to Temagami.” Marcie explained that Jack was a millwright and sawmill foreman and he had to go to Northern Ontario to set up sawmills for the war effort. “So we had to sell the house and move up North.” Many homes in Barry’s Bay saw families make serious sacrifices and adjust to big changes during World War II.

Marcie told me,

I remember meeting your grandparents when they came to see the house. We were told to be good by mother. They had to leave their home in Madawaska because it was flooded when the Bark Lake Dam was built.

Marcie’s memory was bang-on.


George and Alvina Woermke on the porch about 1945 (Collection: Mark Woermke)

My grandparents owned a home on several acres just east of the railway bridge for 25 years, until, like some other families in Madawaska, they learned their property was to be expropriated as a result of the flooding from the construction of the hydroelectric dam at the foot of Bark Lake. Homes, churches and schools were moved to higher ground or demolished and rebuilt, but my grandparents decided to move to Barry’s Bay where my grandfather became CNR section foreman. They were compensated for their land, but they sold the house to Barry’s Bay builder Johnny Glofcheskie who tore it down, shipped the lumber to the Bay by rail, and used it to build the old rectory at St. Lawrence O’Toole.  Our house-stories are part of the larger history of the geographic Madawaska Valley from the very lumber of which they are constructed and the re-use of materials, to the occupations of their inhabitants, and to the socio-economic reasons that prompted their sale or purchase.

When I took the ladies on a tour of the house, Marcie made a number of observations which revealed how different life was in the past – privacy and possessions were in short supply and there were no amenities like municipal water.

When we lived here there were no cupboards in the kitchen, just a big cabinet in the corner…. We had three beds in this room, two doubles and a single. One for mother and father, one for the girls, and the single for Len…. We slept in the upstairs porch on hot summer nights…. There were cisterns to collect rain water in the bathroom and the basement. When it rained, my mother had to divert the water from the eavestroughs to the tank and cistern, and then shut them off when they were full.


Marcie McNamara having tea in the kitchen during her first visit in 74 years.

Sitting in the kitchen where Marcie had spent so much time, we had a chance to have a cup of tea and talk more. She told me about her life: childhood in Temagami, teenage years in North Bay, and a happy married life with her late husband Vince McNamara in Toronto. I also learned that after years in Northern Ontario, Jack and Veronica Etmanskie retired to Barry’s Bay and lived on Kelly Street.

It was a great privilege to host Marcie and Joanne and share stories about the house and the people who have made it a home. We parted with good memories, new information, and a greater appreciation for how the story of a house can connect us to events and people in the history of our families, village and broader community.


About the author: Descended from railroaders and hotel keepers, Mark Woermke has deep roots in the Madawaska Valley. A high school teacher in Ottawa, Mark spends as much time as he can in the Madawaska Valley gardening, writing and enjoying its cultural wealth and natural beauty. Mark also blogs at https://prussianhillsblog.wordpress.com and manages the group Renfrew County Germans on Facebook

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