When people complain about this Covid Christmas and the inconveniences presented by lockdown, I think of what the old timers went through — two World Wars, the 1918 influenza, polio, and much more. So here’s a Valley reminiscence from the time of the Great Depression inspired by a recent Spareboard from StationKeepers MV that included a mention of two Valley men who inspired me: my father, Leo Bonnah, and Father Bill Dwyer, parish priest in Madawaska. The Ottawa Journal article was a review of a 1932 vaudeville show performed by the Opeongo Serenaders held in Renfrew. A search of Dad’s albums produced a photo of both men taken during that period. Above: Rev. William C. Dwyer (left) and T. Leo Bonnah, author’s father. Father Bill was Leo’s uncle though only 10 years older.
Here are more details of the Opeongo Serenaders that Dad gave to members of his family in his personal memoirs entitled “The Road Back.”
In the “Dirty Thirties” men rode the rails from Halifax to Vancouver in the hope of finding work. But for the first time since early pioneer days man found it possible to work side by side with his neighbour in complete harmony and without exchanging or finding the need for money. In most communities the cultural aspects of life were a disaster. Cities that once boasted of a symphony orchestra found themselves unable to pay their musicians. The theatre fared no better.
In the Madawaska and Ottawa Valleys an optimism born of faith saved the day. Father Bill, who always had a bit of showmanship in him, soon got a bunch of us together and after a few rehearsals we went on the road to give the people of the Valley a taste of real homespun song and dance entertainment. Being well versed in the local scene we knew in advance just what the local ethnic group would expect and cherish as entertainment and the programme reflected that theme.
The Eganville Leader of Jan. 6, 1982 in reflecting on events of “Fifty years ago” recorded:
“Would you like to hear again the melodies, the folk songs, the popular strains that consoled the pioneers of our land or enlivened their festive gatherings, the tunes, the reels, the polkas, the sprightly waltzes, to which you, in the heyday of youth, and your father and mother tripped the light fantastic in the happy days and nights of long ago…. To those who live in the county of Renfrew, where the time mellowed custom of other days still linger among the simple folk in the village or down on the farm, the coming of the Opeongo Serenaders is a real treat. Hailing from the western extremity of the once-famous lumberman’s highway, these musicians, singers, dancers and comedians are literally galloping down the Old Opeongo Trail, cheered by a happy crowd at every stopping place.
Besides the scenes from the Opeongo Trail, the Opeongo Serenaders give us a glimpse of far-off Hawaii and we hear the strains of an eight-piece Hawaiian orchestra. This along with the magic violin, Irish songs and jigs and huffles, cowboy ditties and ‘the Arkansas Traveller’ in a musical skit, climaxed with fun and music of the Madawaska Broadcasting station, afford an evening of music, laughter and song, that will long be remembered by the people of your locality.”
While not too many of that era are still alive, every once in a while I meet someone who wants to know if I still play the banjo or have I still got the “bones.” The latter, of course, was a part of the musical end of the show and brought back many nostalgic memories of by-gone days. Little did I know that the bones, first introduced to me by my grandfather [Cornelius Dwyer] to use for herding cattle on the farm near Eganville, would later become a popular way of entertaining with the Opeongo Serenaders.
Extract from “The Road Back” by T. Leo Bonnah (written 1987)
Above: Leo Bonnah performing at St. Lawrence O’Toole Church with the late Gwen Woermke.
Photos Bonnah collection