| Jun 08, 2006

Feature Article - June 8, 2006

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Feature Article - June 8, 2006

Just Plain Bill is anything but

Book review by JeffGreen

The portrait that emerges from Just Plain Bill, the highly readable autobiography of Bill Robertson, a 78-year-old resident of 13 Island Lake, is of an ambitious, hard working man, prone to schemes and a bit of mischief; a man who has led anything but an ordinary life. The book also illustrates the remarkable changes that have taken place in the past 75 years in this part of the world.

In describing life during the depression, which was the decade of Bill Robertson’s youth, he paints a picture of the impoverished environment in rural Ontario at that time. For example, schoolchildren did not customarily wear shoes in those days, until the weather became too cold to go without.


“I remember one day going to school,” Robertson writes, “there was a light frost on the pasture. We were still barefoot, as were all the other kids in the school. We walked on the warmer gravel but still got cold feet. There were pastures along the way and most had cattle grazing along the road just over the fence. Someone got the bright idea that if we wanted to warm our feet, we should just watch where the cattle are, and, when we saw a fresh cow flop with the steam coming off it, we should take advantage of the heat. After that, whenever we saw a fresh cow flop, we would race to see who could get into it first. Believe me it sure did warm the feet for a little while. By the time we got to school, all the mess was gone from our feet from walking in the wet grass.”

Bill Robertson started working in the telegraph office in Lindsay when he was 13, and this led him to a career as a railroad dispatcher. Although he was too young to fight in World War II, it nonetheless had an impact on his family. Bill’s older brother Frank spent five years overseas, and returned a changed man. (Frank Robertson eventually died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 48).

Bill was transferred by the railroad throughout Eastern Ontario during the 1950’s, and brought his wife Marion and a growing family with him from station to station. He spent time at Glen Tay, and formed a country band there, that put on dances at the Maberly Hall and elsewhere.

In 1958 he was moved to the station at Sharbot Lake . While in Sharbot Lake , Bill purchased the local shoe store from Herb Duffy. As became a pattern, his wife Marion was sceptical of the venture. “What do we know about selling shoes?” she asked him.”

“We could learn,” he told her. Marion ended up managing the shoe store for seven years. Always in search of another venture, Bill began raising rabbits for meat in a shed that had been abandoned by the CP, although the rabbit business did not work out for him.

Eventually, the Robertsons moved to Kingston , where Bill worked out of the train office on Ontario Street , now a tourist information booth. For a short while he actually operated a still in the attic of the building.

In Kingston , there were many business opportunities available, which Bill pursued while continuing with his railroad employment. Bill was quite successful at some of them, including the trucking business (he founded CDS trucking), and the car wash business in Kingston . He was unsuccessful at others, including the car wash business in Gananoque, but his most spectacular failure came in the seashell crafts business, which was called the “Shell Shack”.

It was traumatic for Bill at the time, but it makes interesting reading now. Bill’s recounts how a commission salesman talked him into buying a van sight unseen and filling it to the brim with shell products. The man drove off with the full van, and never returned. A few years later, Bill and his family visited a large flea market in Ajax , and found the same man running a booth selling the seashell products.

“Just Plain Bill” doesn’t talk only about business ventures: he includes anecdotes about near disasters and accounts of the trials and tribulations of family life.

A picture of Bill Robertson as a colourful man on the make, in a period of change, emerges. Although Bill is not a professional writer, the book he has written is compelling, keeping the reader turning the pages to find out what kind of mischief Bill Robertson will get up to next.

“Just Plain Bill” will have its launch at Topper’s Convenience Store in Verona between 1 and 4 pm on Saturday, June 10th. It will be available for sale at the following locations: Sydenham Pharmacy; Toppers Convenience Store, Verona ; McGowan’s Shell, Godfrey; Sharbot Lake Pharmacy; Fall River Country Store, Maberly; Valley Book Shop, Perth ; Smiths Falls Railway Museum ; and The Village Green, Westport .

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