Memories and motor trips: Get-away in a Model A

By Ian McKechnie

For the past two decades, an annual summertime tradition in the McKechnie household has been the Model A Owners of Canada annual “Get-Away In A Model A” tour, usually taking place during the third weekend of August.  Suitcases, lawn chairs, coolers, and umbrellas are packed into the back of our 1930 Model A Ford town sedan, which has been our family since my father purchased it from the late Doug Windrem, of Omemee, almost 30 years ago.

An hour or two of driving will bring us to some prearranged rendezvous spot, where we’ll meet other Model A enthusiasts; their cabriolets, coupes, hucksters, phaetons, roadsters, sedans, and the occasional truck all fuelled up and ready to go.  From here, we’ll motor along rural secondary roads, over quaint bridges, past ancient dairy farms, and through picturesque towns and villages en route to our destination, which in the last twenty years has included Bala; Belleville; Cambridge; Collingwood; Gananoque; Gravenhurst; Huntsville; Kingston; Orillia; Oshawa; Owen Sound; Penetanguishene; Peterborough; Picton; Port Dover; Port Hope; Port McNicoll; and St. Jacobs.

And those were only weekend jaunts. Our Bonnie-and-Clyde era car has also taken us on longer trips to Ottawa, Niagara Falls, and fifteen years ago, crossed the border into Michigan, where we spent a week in Henry Ford’s hometown of Dearborn. While the cynic might label them “staycations,” these tours have afforded us the opportunity to see much of Ontario; to explore the many galleries, historic sites, ice cream parlours, wineries, and places of natural beauty across this great province.

History comes to life when one is travelling in a convoy of vehicles built between 1928 and 1931. The sound and smell of the cars, the routes they take, and even the period clothing donned by some drivers and their families all combine to make ‘time travel’ possible. The closing years of the Roaring Twenties and the opening years of the Dirty Thirties are brought into the present when travelling through old Ontario in a car known then and now as “Henry’s Lady.”

Eight decades later, cars are faster, roads are busier, and August is hotter. Fortunately for the local tourism industry, though, the desire to “get away from it all” persists. This month, many local citizens will be packing up their SUVs, vans, and compact cars and making their way along congested highways en route to cottages, resorts, or airports for the August Civic Holiday weekend, sometimes called “Simcoe Day” in honour of Upper Canada’s first Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe.

How residents in Kawartha Lakes observed the Civic Holiday nearly 90 years ago, when our Model A was new and R.B. Bennett was settling into the Prime Minister’s Office, offers a glimpse into a past when people were not glued to their cell phones, oblivious to the joy of community spirit that such holidays facilitated.

In 1931, the Lindsay Rotary Club organized a town-wide trip to Haliburton on the first Monday in August.  “Choosing excellent weather,” intoned a Lindsay Daily Post staff reporter on August 4, “residents of Lindsay, and Victoria County – to the number of 235 by train and an estimated couple of hundred by car – invaded the village of Haliburton yesterday and enjoyed the justly-famous scenic beauty of the Highlands of Haliburton, the bountiful hospitality of the residents of that district and an enjoyable day of sports including everything from log-rolling contests to mountain climbing.”

This wasn’t merely an outing – it was an event. Picnickers making their way to the railway station in Lindsay were serenaded by the town’s senior band, and we can imagine the sight of men in their straw ‘boater’ hats and women with children in tow boarding the train, while those who prefer to travel by car tie their large picnic boxes to the running boards of their Buicks, Fords, Franklins, and Pontiacs. We can imagine the sounds of Klaxon horns and shrieking steam whistles competing for sensory attention with the smell of cinders and automotive exhaust.

Upon reaching Haliburton, the strains of the latter’s brass band, a refreshingly cool swim in the river, and the taste of a newly-opened bottle of Coca Cola ready to wash down potato salad, all combine to delight the senses; the line-up of athletic contests challenges one’s endurance; and the fellowship of local citizens young and young-at-heart is renewed over food, song, and sport.

In so many ways, the scene we have just experienced through the remarkably descriptive account of the anonymous Post reporter, is reminiscent of something out of Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, published almost 20 years earlier. As anyone who has read Leacock knows, he was a master at describing the sort of communal atmosphere that pervaded small towns across Ontario for a generation, a generation that is fading from public memory.

Of the teenagers present for the Rotary Club’s 1931 Civic Holiday excursion was one Hazel Mackey, with whom I used to visit at Victoria Manor prior to her death six and half years ago, aged 95. Hazel was always ready to share a story about her days at Lindsay Collegiate Institute, and her remembrances of that beautiful August day in Haliburton 87 years back would have made for a fascinating tale, had I thought to ask her about it.

As time marches on, first-hand accounts of summer holidays from days gone by will recede into obscurity.  Century-old cottages will change hands, and the traditions which grew up and were sustained in them will survive only in diaries and photographs. The spirit of Depression-era summer road trips, which once saw picnickers flock to places like Haliburton in cars sporting rumble seats and standard transmission, is kept alive in the sort of outings taken by organizations like the Model A Owners of Canada — re-creating a piece of our past that has otherwise vanished.

This Civic Holiday, take the time to document your summer vacation, whether it is experienced by car, boat, train, or plane. Share memories on social media. What’s here today may be gone tomorrow.

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