Jeff Green | Mar 11, 2015
Shirley was born and raised in Sharbot Lake, and although her family moved to Perth when she was nine, in 1935, it was her first school principal at Sharbot Lake Public School who introduced her to naturalist pursuits.
“He took us outside and introduced all sorts of vegetation and birds, showed us Blue Herons. It certainly caught my attention,” she said,
Shirley always returned to Sharbot Lake on weekends to visit her grandmother. In 1988, she had a small house built on the lake, on a lot in the village that was still in her family, to serve as her winter home.
It was difficult to talk to Shirley on Tuesday, because the phone kept ringing as friends from all over were calling to congratulate her as news of her appointment to the Order circulated around the province.
“I’ve known for three weeks, but I wasn’t to tell anyone except for family until it was officially announced,” she said, but since Shirley is not exactly prone to self-promotion it is likely she wouldn’t have told anyone about it at all if it hadn’t already been publicized.
After being raised in eastern Ontario, Shirley said, “I wanted to know what it was like to live in different parts of the province.” That led her and her husband, who was a teacher, to move to Kenora. In 1956 a road was built joining Quetico with the rest of Ontario, and it wasn’t long after that that Shirley made her first trip to the park.
Fifty-four years later, her story has become synonymous with that of Quetico Park. Marie Nelson, who has worked as a ranger in the park with her husband Jon, is the person who put the application for the Order of Ontario togethe
Shirley Peruniak was born at Sharbot Lake in 1926, and she can trace her family roots back at least two generations further to a grandfather who lived south of the village near the Tryon Road. She attended Sharbot Lake Public School until she reached grade 7. Her father, who worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway, was then transferred to Perth to work in the office of CPR Express, a postal mail and parcel service. Although Shirley did not live full time in Sharbot Lake for over 50 years (1935 until 1988) she always came back to visit her grandparents and other relatives for Christmas and summer holidays. They
who owned a number of cottages on the lake, and rented some out during the summer tourist season.
Shirley, whose maiden name was Walroth, has always been a history buff, and attended Queen's on a sholarship to study history. She lived with her husband in Kenora for many years where they were teachers, adn where she formed an association with Quetico Park in northwestern Ontario (Onear Dryden). In 2010 was honoured by being named to the Order of Ontario for her work as a historian and naturalist in the Park.
When she returned to Sharbot Lake in 1988 after her husband had died, she torn down one of the two remaining cottages that she owned herself byt that time and had a small house built on the lake, on Walroth Lane (her maiden name was Walroth)
She quickly established herself as a historian in Sharbot Lake at that time, working with then librarian Michael Dawber (who late wrote a book about he history of Central Frontenac called Back of Sunset) she founded the Oso Historical Society.
In the early years of the society, descendants of some of the long standing families in the township spoke at public events that were organised for that purpose, and although much of the energy of those years has slipped away, Shirley has kept an archive of material, with files about each family kept neatly in alphabetic order at her home, and in a series of file cabinets that are housed at the Sharbot Lake Branch of the Kingston Frontenac Public Library.
Her own memories of life in Sharbot Lake in the 1920's and 30's are consistent with other accounts, and the material she has gathered about life in the preceding 50 years are consistent with other sources, including the chapter on Oso township in County of 1000 Lakes, which was written by Peggy Cohoe, Evelyn Johnson, and Doris and R.D. Ayers.
“I know that farming was particularly difficult all through those years,” she said.
Based on census data and accounts or people such as Thomas Gibbs, the surveyer who completed a Survey in 1860, County of 1000 lakes says that the entire population of the township was 138 in 1860, but that number rose steadily over the next 40 years. By 1900, 60% of the land in Oso was listed as agricultural, but even then the life blood of the town was the railway, since the CPR and K&P rail lines crossed at Sharbot Lake. In 1900 there were five lumber mills in the vicinity of the village, employing 150 people, and an apatite mine employed 40 more. All of this was based on the ability to ship product to markets in all directions.
Over the next 20 years most of the mills closed, a discovery of large quantities of apetite (which was used int the fertiliser industry) in Florida led to the mine being shut done, the population dropped by 25% and farming became less and less popular.
By 1911 there were 160 farms in Oso, and by 1961 there were 31, which is still a lot more than there are today.
Shirley Peruniak remembers the railway as central to the town in the 1920's.
“The K&P would come in first, and it would wait for the CPR to arrive. People and goods were transferred, and the trains would be on their way,” she recalls.
One of Shirley's regrets is that in those years she took many trips on the K&P to Kingston, even when she was only a summer visitor to Sharbot Lake, but never took the train north the Snow road, or Flower Station, or to where it ended, at Calabogie.