Heritage story: Opeongo Serenaders

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)

Father Bill died in the mid-1960s. In 1969 my Dad retired, and he and my stepmom, Doris Leblanc from Dacre, moved permanently to Barry’s Bay. Dad volunteered on the Board of St. Francis Memorial Hospital, working with fellow SFMH Board member Maxie Mintha to get Valley Manor built, and occasionally entertained local audiences playing his banjo and bones. He died in 2005 at the age of 98.

Above: Leo Bonnah performing at St. Lawrence O’Toole Church with the late Gwen Woermke.

Photos Bonnah collection


  1. Mary Lee Eno

    Thank you for the reply and for the swap of family artifacts! Talk about coincidence and serendipity! I’m glad that I read “The Current” as my family and I would have known nothing about this wonderful story!

  2. Danielle Paul

    In reply to Mary Lee Eno: Thank you for reading The Current and for taking the time to post a comment. The coincidences continue … that review of the show in Renfrew ends with the words: “The artists were: Thomas Collins of Pembroke; Michael Collins of Madawaska; George Dwyer, of Eganville; Leo Bonah of Eganville; Mary Costello, Helen Costello and Irene Collins, of Madawaska.” So you see from this 1932 newspaper clipping that Fr. Bill Dwyer had prevailed upon Irene, friends and family members (George was his youngest brother), to become Opeongo Serenaders. I will email you and we can swap photo for clipping!

    By the way, I remember your great aunt and uncle, Irene and Ralph, very well indeed from my childhood summers and weekends in the Valley. They were the witnesses when Fr. Bill officiated at my Dad and my StepMom’s wedding on May 18, 1959 in Madawaska. And of course, Irene played the church organ for Fr. Bill for many years.

    • Leslie White

      My father knew all these people. He grew up in Madawaska during the depression. I have a painting by Ralph Carswell. He made carvings etc and brought them to my parents’ store on Aylen Lake to sell in the early 60’s.

  3. Mary Lee Eno

    What a wonderful story and for me, a huge coincidence. My Grandmother’s parents (James and Elizabeth Collins) raised their family in Madawaska and Father Dwyer was a close family friend right up until his death. The Collins family was very musical so Father Dwyer continued to visit my Great Aunt Irene and Uncle Ralph Carswell there for many years after the original family had all gone their own way. Just recently I came across a photo of my great grandfather James Collins and an unknown gentleman in their Madawaska yard. A few months ago, my 90+ year old uncle identified the unknown gent as your father, Leo Bonnah! If you are interested in a copy of the photo, please email me and I would be happy to forward you a digital copy!

  4. Bob Corrigan

    I never met Fr. Dwyer in person but I certainly bought a copy of his excellent “Highways of Destiny” when it came out in 1964. Curiously, he called himself Fr. O’Dwyer in the publication.
    I feel as though I have always known Leo Bonnah and remember him being a reader during Mass at St. Lawrence O’Toole’s Church. Leo’s parents were Thomas Bonnah and Anne Dwyer, Fr. Dwyer’s sister.
    Unfortunately, I never heard the Opeongo Serenaders because that was well before my time, but they sure sounded interesting and exciting. Thanks for this story which I knew nothing about.

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