Jeff Green | Apr 30, 2015
Barb Sproule is not a lifelong resident of the Ompah area, but she has learned to fit in over the years.
She spent her first seven years in South Porcupine, near Timmins, but when her father was injured while working in a gold mine, the family moved back home to Ompah, where both her parents were from.
“It was a big change for me, moving from South Porcupine where there was an arena, stores and a big school, back to Ompah with its one-room school house. But I didn't mind, as far as I can remember. There was always lots to do, and that has never changed for me.”
Her dad was not completely done with mining, however. Years later he was involved in a plan to re-open a gold mine near Ardoch that had been closed since early in the 20th Century.
In the late 60s a couple of men approached him to help them open the Borst mine, and her father, who was a Shanks, took Barb and her husband to see the mine. They climbed down a 75 foot shaft, which Barb said “was not exactly something I enjoyed.”
The two men died in a winter storm in Northern Ontario and that was the end of the last gasp of the gold mine industry in North Frontenac.
When Sproule was young she also worked with her grandparents, the Dunhams, who owned the hotel in Ompah. There were three saw mills in Ompah in those days and she recalls that between summer traffic and logging, the hotel was “more or less fully occupied summer and winter".
After finishing grade 8 at Ompah, she went to the new high school in Sharbot Lake, using the bus service that was also new, and graduated in 1954. By the fall of that same year she was teaching at Canonto School, at age 16.
“I was too young to go to teachers' college, but they couldn't find a teacher for the Canonto school and they knew I was intending to become a teacher so they offered me the job and I accepted it.”
Some of the 16 students were close to her age and one was the same age and bigger than her, so her solution to facing up to them was to not let on she was so young. That became harder to do when the Toronto Star send a photographer to Canonto to take her picture because she was the youngest teacher in Ontario that year.
At that time teachers' college consisted of two summer courses and a full year course. Sproule went to Toronto for part of her education and Ottawa for the rest, and had her teaching certificate by 1956. She later transferred to Ompah and when Clarendon Central opened in the mid-1960s she taught there, and remained until she retired from teaching in 1989.
Clarendon Central was a three-room school, and at the start there were 150 students at the school. Barb taught grades 3-5 and had 50 kids in her class.
“It worked out fine. The older children taught the younger ones and everybody helped out,” she said.
The biggest decline in the local economy took place in the 1980s.
“The logging was in decline and people began going to Perth for work and the local businesses began to close. That was when all that really started to happen. It's too bad really that we've lost so much, and we really miss the restaurant; losing it has hurt everyone,” she said.
Political career 1978-1997
It might not be the case that all politics in what is now ward 3 of North Frontenac and used to be Palmerson/Canonto Township revolve around the fire department, but it doesn't miss being so by much. So it is not surprising that Barb Sproule entered politics in the 1978 election in order to establish a fire department, which is something that the reeve of the day was reluctant to do.
“We had a committee that had gotten together and was working on setting up a fire department and the council of the time would not support us in any way. So, we got some money and some property donated, and we bought a tanker truck and put a motor on it, which they got from emergency services out of Kingston. The reeve went and took the motor out of the truck. So I went to the reeve and said, 'Are you going to support it or not support it?' They didn't give it any support, even support in principle, so I told the reeve I was going to run, and I did and I won.”
When asked who the reeve of the time was, she said “Well, I don't want to embarrass relatives” - an answer that doesn't really narrow down who it was, given the close knit nature of the community.
Sproule served as reeve for five of the next terms, losing in one of the elections and winning the others, and was the reeve during the amalgamation process in the late 1990s.
Like a number of the Frontenac County reeves at the time of amalgamation, she retired from politics instead of running in North Frontenac, although she has continued to sit on the Committee of Adjustment to this day, and regularly gets asked if she will run whenever election time approaches.
“I enjoyed being in politics, but I like to travel nowadays, and I feel I've done my time,” she said.
During her time as reeve, the first Official Plan for Palmerston/Canonto was brought in. In 1982 she served as county warden, the second woman to hold that position in the 118 years of the County's existence. The first was Dorothy Gaylord from Arden, who served as warden in the late 1970s and was still on the council when Barb had the position.
When amalgamation was forced on the local politicians, there were a number of options on the table.
“Those of us from the north end were really wary of the idea of one township for the entire county, which was one of the options, because we felt those from the south were really dealing with a different kind of community than ours. There was also talk of one township for the seven townships north of Verona, and we didn't like that either because we were worried that more attention would be paid to the townships that became Central Frontenac because they were bigger and we thought we might not get our share. So we set up North Frontenac and I think we did the right thing.”
She recalls that the idea of eliminating the County level, which happened in 1998 and was overturned in 2004, was something that the four townships decided to do once they were established.
“They didn't realise that by doing that they would be losing out on grants, so they made the right decision to reverse it, but they wanted to run things without the county interfering; that was the thinking.”
Although she still follows politics, it is from a distance, as Barb Sproule has become somewhat of a world traveller in recent years. Her latest trip was to Australia last October, and she has made many trips over the years, with friends, on her own and once with one of her grand-daughters.
She continues to live in Ompah, in the house she shared with her late husband, and still helps out in the cottage and campground business on Palmerston Lake that she and her husband started and her retired son now manages.
Although the bright lights of South Porcupine were lost to her when she left (she did get to see the Olympic champion figure skater Barbara Ann Scott at the arena there when she was very young) there has certainly been enough going on at Ompah to keep her busy over the last 70 or so years.