KEARNEY – Two women, born and raised in Kearney, have enough local historical knowledge to pack a series of books.
Phyllis and Marilyn MacKay, nee Bice, pour over old books and photos.
If they had done so they would be following closely in the footsteps of another local historian, and local legend, their father Ralph Bice.
Marilyn and Phyllis MacKay were born with the surname Bice. They later married brothers Rod and Ross. The brothers worked at Thompson’s Lumber Company, a local mill.
Even the mill is history. The mill yard is long gone. It once stood in the same lot that’s now home to Lion’s Park. Another mill was located at Hazard Lake.
The girls grew up on Poplar Point with a vantage point that looked toward the Town of Kearney’s main thoroughfare across Mirror Bay – another piece of history.
Mirror Bay is still commonly referred to by its original name – Hunger Bay.
“When the log drives were going through they had a building down by where the fire hall now is. It used to be a hotel before it burned down,” said Phyllis. “They would camp there and stop there to eat. That’s why they called it Hunger Bay.”
Both Marilyn and Phyllis share warm memories of growing up in Kearney. There were dances at the Orangeman’s Hall, movie nights and baseball games where they often competed and danced with friends from Magnetawan.
And, there was the “moccasin dance.”
One of the Main Street storeowners would put a record player out front and the sound would carry out onto the bay.
“We’d dance out on the ice. Then we’d go up to the Orangeman’s Hall, which they’d let out to us for a dollar,” said Marilyn. “We’d have our hot chocolate… We’d have tobogganing parties and invite kids from all around.”
There is no doubt that Kearney was bustling in those days.
The two women remember Kearney as a thriving town with two hotels
“You only had to leave town for the dentist and the hair dresser,” said Phyllis.
“The train came through. Once they lifted the track it killed the town,” said Marilyn.
The lifting of the tracks began in 1959.
“In the fall of ‘58 we went in hunting. They left the gas cars to take the hunters in,” she said.
The railroad was built by J.R. Booth and later became the Grand Trunk Railroad before becoming CN.
It was that railway that would take the sisters to one of their favourite spots. The family retains a lease on Rain Lake that was owned by Ralph since about 1944.
“When they first saw Rain Lake it was in 1912. (Dad) was with my grandfather (Fred Bice). They stopped on this point where the camp was for lunch,” said Marilyn. “There had been a fire. It had been burned off and there was nothing left.”
The women remember taking the train out to the lake. They would enjoy walking back to the caboose.
“We had to sit in our seats but we’d wander back to the caboose,” said Phyllis.
Their father Ralph continues to be a rich part of Kearney’s history.
A tribute to the author, outfitter, trapper and guide is on display behind glass at the Kearney Community Centre, which doubles as the municipal offices, which seems well-suited considering Bice was mayor of the Town of Kearney from 1940 to 1970.
A former newspaper columnist for The Almaguin News, the author penned ‘Along the Trail in Algonquin Park’ as well as several other publications, which included several area history books and ‘The History of the Fur Trade’.
Ralph Bice was also the recipient of the Order of Canada. He received the honour the same year that former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau received his in 1985.
The love of nature and the out-of-doors seems to run thick in the Bice blood.
“Most of our days were spent fishing or thinking about it,” said Marilyn.
According to the women, their grandfather Fred was a trapper and ranger in Algonquin Park and great-grandfather Isaac Bice trapped in Algonquin Park before it was a provincial park.
Marilyn, Phyllis and friends would often work alongside Ralph at the Burk’s Falls Trappers Convention in North Bay with the readings, Bice was also a lay-minister, and provided the music.
“We got dubbed The Old Trapper’s Daughters,” said Marilyn.
The Old Trapper’s Daughters even pitched in with their talents to help with a fundraising variety show to raise money for the Lion’s Park.
“We did a page out of Loretta Lynn’s book and beg her forgiveness every time we’d do Old Trapper’s Daughter and we did it to Old Coalminer’s Daughter,” she said. “There was also a poem that dad did in a lot of his services so we found some music to fit it but that music was out of the hymn book.”
Marilyn is secretary for the Burk’s Falls Trappers’ Council and for a time possessed her trapper’s license.
In 1989 she took the trapper’s course and gave up her license in the early ‘90s.
“I used to get a lot of static because I sat on my watch, with my knitting,” she said.
In 1983 Rod took over Ralph’s trap line and worked alongside his father-in-law.
The Bice family came to Kearney between Christmas and New Year’s 1910/1911, when young Ralph was nearly 11.
“Other relatives came too and they travelled by canoe from Haliburton,” said Marilyn.
It was Fred Bice and his wife Emma that settled on Kearney.
“My grandmother said they had to be someplace close to a school and a church and so they moved to Kearney,” said Phyllis.
The family attended the United Church. Although the church no longer stands on that location, the graveyard remains on Rain Lake Road. The United Church eventually migrated into town.
Marilyn and Peggy were just two of seven children for Ralph and his wife Edna.
There was Peggy, the eldest; Fred, who died at the young age of 23; Doug, who became the longest-sitting judge in Ontario as well as youngest appointed magistrate to sit on the bench; Marilyn, Phyllis, Janet and Sharon.
The children attended Kearney Public School, a building that once stood in the same spot as the Kearney Community Centre now stands.
It was one of several schools, including a Catholic school and two schools at Sand Lake. One of the Sand Lake buildings still stands and can be visited during the summer months as an antique shop.
Marilyn recalls her uncle Frank Mason saying that he went to high school in Burk’s Falls from his Sand Lake home.
“Often he would walk to Burk’s Falls Sunday nights and walk back after school Friday on the back roads,” said Marilyn.
“When they first started going to school in Burk’s Falls they had to go to school in the back of a truck,” said Phyllis.
Marilyn still holds on to her passion for nature. There is no mistaking it, with her love for fishing spotted within her décor.
The two sisters now share their rich family history with their own ever-growing families.
Marilyn and Rod had four children and have nine grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. One of Marilyn’s grandsons is retired NHL hockey forward Mike Peca.
Phyllis and Ross share their lives with five children and now 17 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.