On occasion, sometimes after the sun has gone down, I have driven in Ladysmith only to realize the graveyard was busier in the fifties than First Avenue is today. Especially in the parking lot behind the cemetery.
The older people called it “sparking” in the day.
Loggers, like myself, called it something else. Whatever you called it, it resulted in many early weddings.
World War II ended in ‘45. As a result of blowing up half of Europe and most of Japan into little pieces, countries found themselves in great need of our lumber to rebuild.
Ladysmith stood surrounded by millions of hectares of merchantable timber. It wasn’t long before existing lumber mills and the logging industry tripled in size and production.
Ladysmith was flooded with people from Western Europe, the Canadian Prairies and the Lower Mainland. Lots of immigrants were young, and it wasn’t uncommon to have teenagers between 15 and 20 years of age applying for the many job openings.
The young loggers spread out in all the available hotels. At the bottom of Gatacre Street, there was a boarding house where older loggers and mill workers rented rooms. Married loggers rented houses and eventually bought throughout the town.
There were six beer parlours in town, including the Legion. When you get a hundred or more men full of, let’s call them “high-octane energy drinks,” well the downtown just got a whole lot livelier!
Fastball games were greatly supported in those days, with the grandstands holding 400 or 500 people. Television had not yet cast its spell in these parts. As that number grew and television become a new pastime, fastball fans gradually diminished.
The local Odeon Theatre had two showings, 7 p.m. and 9:15 p.m., and it held about 350 people.
The pool hall, located above the Wigwam restaurant, was always busy. Mainly younger people loitered in front of the place just to be part of the action.
Another popular entertainment was the bowling alley on High Street, which today is a Chinese restaurant. There were five leagues on six lanes running two shifts, week nights and weekends.
There were quite a few cars around. Still, a lot of people walked everywhere. When you combine the number of people walking up the street after a ball game, those coming out of a show or the bowling alley and the many people coming through town after a hot day at the beach, the beer parlour, the soda and coffee shops were the hot spots in town.
On Friday night starting around 8:30 p.m., we’d all park our cars on First Avenue from the Travellers to the Europe Hotel, sitting on hoods and leaning against fenders, holding court with each other. Then, a little after 9 p.m., with a simple nod, we’d all make our way over to the Travellers.
Drinking age was 21 then; however, if you were underage but working for a living, often a blind eye was turned your way.
In the late ‘40s, an organization called Teen Town began holding dances. They supported charities and put on functions for entertainment. Suffice it to say these dances were strictly monitored. There was no drinking, no smoking, no profanity, and I can’t remember the last rule. Perhaps it was no fun!
Many of the younger men had cars, and of course, the job situation could not have been better. We all had tailor-made clothes measured and made at the Trading Company.
A man named Tom Strang measured us up with admired perfection, tight around the ankles, wide around the knees. We had cross belt loops three inches down from the waist and penny loafers with diamond pattern socks.
We wore cord jackets that came down nine inches below the belt, and always the rat tail comb tucked in your back pocket. Often, a gold chain hung from a belt loop; on the other end, a small gold knife holstered neatly in a side pocket. (The blade was hardly long enough to clean your fingernails.)
Winter time could be a lot of fun. In the early ‘50s, we had some really cold winters we called the continental outflow. For many winter seasons, it was like the ice age, with any precipitation becoming snow. And boy, was it ever bobsleigh time! You even built your own sleigh, some which could hold six people and had shock absorbers. One even had a steering wheel.
The city crews would grade Buller Street, as well as other hills, holding back about an inch of snow which would melt in the afternoon sun. After sun down, it became ice.
We would start at the old English church between Third and Fourth. Wrapping your legs carefully around the waist of the person in front of you, you were off. Some were thrown aside by Second Avenue. Others sliced across First Avenue and set distance records by making it to the Comox log dump on the shoreline.
There was no traffic at night, and during the day, some of the older kids would stop cars if necessary.
One night, Vic “Cougar” Malli showed up with a pair of skis. No one had even seen skis, let alone tried strapping them on their feet. Quite a crowd had gathered at the bottom of the hill to witness Cougar and his odd contraptions.
Quickly he was off, a dark silhouette as he passed beneath each street light. It was noted that the distance between his skis was widening. By the time he passed Second Avenue, the width had become impossibly wide. Suddenly, he vanished into the dark night. Much to everyone’s surprise, a pair of skis suddenly shot past First Avenue without Cougar at the helm.
The crowd bellowed up the hill, “Hey Cougar, are ya all right?!” We made out a few moans and groans, then, “Yeah, I’m okay; I just can’t find my skis!”
Yeah, right Cougar.
We also used to skate at Hannington’s pool, located at today’s Coronation Mall. We usually got two weeks of skating in winter. At night, we’d build a huge bonfire and skate late into the evening. We were sure Jack Atkinson was going to the NHL because he could skate backwards, though not very well.
What I miss most about those earlier days were the neon lights that adorned every store, hotel, theatre and restaurant from Buller to Roberts streets. Today’s streets are nowhere near as bright as the downtown sidewalks of the 1950s.
There was another major cultural change in the second half of the the 50s. Up until then, the big bands were the kings of music, until one day when another “king” arrived on the scene. His name was Elvis Aaron Presley.
When he first appeared on television, cameramen were instructed to shoot him only above the waist. Religious groups declared he was the devil, and they sought to ban his records.
When he finally made it to the Ed Sullivan Show, where all big names appeared, my dad called Mother in from the kitchen. He said, “Ella”, pointing at the television, “what the heck is that?”
Mom didn’t know, so I snapped, “That’s the future, Dad.”
Over the years, Aggie Hall had many artists the likes of Buddy Knox, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis all grace the stage.
Dress codes soon changed with the times. Everyone wore tight blue jeans with the cuffs rolled up. The gals wore bobby socks and saddle shoes. They were all expressing their generation.
By now, television was having an effect on the downtown, and crowds were diminishing, even at the ball games and the theatre. People were starting to spread out. As people were making good money, they purchased runabouts with high-powered outboard engines, campers and trailers of all sorts.
It was “see ya later! Gone fishing!”
Ron Delcourt will be 83 next month and has spent his entire life in Ladysmith. Look for his take on the ‘40s in a future edition.