Maryann and Fletcher and Tom, Elva and Peggy and the others, are walking westward down the tracks, taking their city friends to the Ophir Dance.
They spend the whole summer at the lake. They take the train down on the last day of school and don’t go back to the city until Labour Day. There is no road, there is no phone, there is no electricity. All along the CN line east of Winnipeg, out the train window you will see lake-forest-lake-forest-station house-forest –lake. The little station houses go by so fast you can think you’re seeing things, because why would there be a station house out here in the middle of nowhere? The sign on this one says “Winnitoba.” We forget, in these modern times, with our once-proud rail service almost completely decimated by people who don’t seem to be qualified to run a lemonade stand, that the train used to be the way things were done. Hundreds of these little station houses were built, every seven miles or so, to serve lake communities like ours, or settlements that weren’t even big enough to be called hamlets. There was at least one train every day, and they would pick up mail and drop off lumber and friends and newspapers. You could call the dispatcher on the little call box in the station and he would stop the train for you if you needed to go home. You could send a letter to Eaton’s in Winnipeg, where you had a charge account, of course, and enclose your grocery order. They would box it up and send it down to you on the train a couple of days later.
If you walk from the Winnitoba station about three miles to the east, you get to Ontario, and if you walk about three miles west, you get to another station house, and the sign on this one says “Ophir.” Ophir isn’t a town but it was always, in some hard-to-define way, bigger or “more” than Winnitoba. There was more “there” there. There were a couple of year-round residences maybe, and there used to be a couple of sheds in addition to the station. Ophir had a certain air of permanence, and gave the impression that it didn’t simply disappear when the cottagers closed up for winter.
Incidentally, the place-name “Ophir” (pronounced as in “Ophir goodness’ sake”) is an interesting one. Most of the station names along the line were pulled randomly off of a list of suggested names by some guy in an office in the 1920s. Many of them are not laden with meaning, but Ophir is Old Testament biblical. Way back when, before the cottages, when it was loggers and trappers and a few deeply optimistic homesteaders in the area , there was a rumour that gold was to be found in the vicinity. Ophir was named after an exotic far-off port, whence King Solomon was supposed to have gotten shipments of gold, silver, peacocks and apes. What King Solomon needed apes for I’ve no idea.
Speaking of place names. Most of the lakes in the area were named, charmingly, after the wives of the men who worked on the rails in the early days: Florence and Nora, Evelyn and Anne, Madge and Peggy and Doreen.
Ghosts are a condition of eyesight. It is more developed in some people than in others I suppose. We have a kind of double vision that, when engaged, can knit something that isn’t there anymore with something that is. We can consciously shift our focus, or wait for an event (or a song or a smell) to shift it for us, and we can see what was. When my kids were little, we’d take them over to the station to squish pennies on the tracks. I’d watch my children balance on rails that I walked, and that my mother walked, and to me these things are happening simultaneously and I am pretty sure it’s a condition of my eyes.
One of the trains they used to have was the Camper’s Special. It left Union Station in Winnipeg just before 6:00PM on Friday evenings all summer, and would get you to Winnitoba by 8. Sunday night you got back on the train at 8, and were in the city by 10. The Dads would all come for the weekends, and you could have a friend come and visit you too. It was fun to have a friend come down. Take them fishing, teach them how to pull off leeches, pick some blueberries, find out if they were scared of outhouses. But the really fine thing to do was to take them to the Ophir Dance.
The Ophir Dance has been going on since at least the 40’s when my mother and her friends were teenagers. As soon as any guests came down on the Friday train the stories would start. The Saturday night dances at Ophir were legendary. The band consisted of a shifting roster of local talents, the most famous among them being the fiddle player, Three-fingered Jimmy. People would come from all up and down the tracks, from Decimal and Charette’s Portage and sometimes all the way from Rice Lake. Everybody had an Ophir Dance story to tell, and the city friends would be eager for Saturday night to come. The girls (back in the 40’s at least) would curl their hair and put on their city shoes and off they’d all start walking; Tom and Bob, Shirley and Olive Marion and Fletcher and Maryann, taking their friends to the Ophir dance.
Walking on train tracks is hard. The ties are not the right distance apart for most strides. Balancing on the rails is fun, but not for three miles. Probably the guests were not expecting quite such a long walk, and they’d be tired and perhaps a little disgruntled when the Ophir station house finally came into view. Whereupon they would be taken to the remains of a burned out shed and someone would say “oh, I guess it burned down,” and watch to see how long it took the guests to figure out there wasn’t any such thing as an Ophir Dance and there never had been. And they hoped their friends would be good sports about it, because otherwise that three mile walk home might get long.
You have to remember that there weren’t any movie theatres out there in the bush and people had to make their own fun.
In my generation, the sons and daughters of the original Winnitobans, the Ophir Dance tradition was upheld, though I myself never went so far as to walk a city friend three miles down the tracks. I can’t say with certainty that any of my cohort did. But we all talked about it like it was still something that we did, winking knowingly like the small town insiders we loved to be. I don’t know if our kids “go to the Ophir Dance,” or even talk about it, but they have heard the legend.
I don’t know if it was right to tell this story. I should have at least put “spoiler alert” at the top in big letters. I’ve kind of ruined it for anyone who was planning to take their friends this summer. So I’ll point out the obvious: I could be making this whole thing up. Maybe making you believe that we used to pull an elaborate prank about a dance at my lake is my idea of a really good, elaborate prank. That’s what fiction is, after all.
The Winnitoba station house, icon of a bygone era, burned to the ground in a forest fire in May 2016. We got off pretty easy. The wind shifted at the right time, or there’d be no cottages left in that neck of the woods at all. So I suspect someone may have made a little bargain while the fire was blazing, a deal with the gods of cottaging to the effect that if we had to, we’d give up the station house if we could keep everything else.
The station house was, back in the day, the very heart and centre of the place. It was where you arrived and left and waited and greeted the neighbours. Waiting for the Camper’s Special on Friday nights was like church to me. Almost everyone who ever went to Winnitoba since the station house was built in the 20’s carved their initials in it at some point. We haven’t been using it so much since we built the road. We are still sad that it’s gone. But I believe that the more fully, the more entirely something can be said to have existed, the better its chances of continuing to exist after it’s gone, if we can agree that there is more than one level of existence going on at any one time. To us, the station was more real, more “there” than anything else for miles and miles. It was so solidly real that I can still see it.
If something never happened, can it still have a ghost? The Ophir Dance was only ever the ghost of a dance, a shadow of something that was never there. When I walk on the tracks by our station house, it’s easy to make a shift in my focus and see them all walking along the tracks ahead of me in their city shoes, people that aren’t there anymore going to someplace that never was.
What I wish is that there really had been an Ophir Dance. I picture some lights strung up around the station platform, and the band, Three-fingered Jimmy and His Orchestra, setting up in the grass. The old-timers keeping time. Someone passing a bottle around. A boy putting his arm around a girl for the very first time, the grandmothers watching and remembering being the girl, just yesterday. Fireflies. Wishing you’d brought a sweater. Once in a while they’d have to stop the music while an east-bound freight thundered by. King Solomon’s apes watching from the trees. Remember the time Jimmy had a few too many and walked right off the end of the dock? When the band played “Goodnight, Irene” it was time to go, and everyone would be calling farewells to each other as they started the long walk down the tracks, heading home.
©2016 by Ellen Peterson. Photos by Carly Peters, Brenda Boughton, and Lloyd Peterson. And yes, for those of you small-town insiders who may wonder, that is Paul Sparling and Kizzy waiting on the pile of lumber, and Graham lighting his pipe.