Wilma Kenny | Jul 29, 2020
Ask any of the thousand people who went to Sydenham High between 1938 and the early ’70’s, there is only one person they will all be sure to remember: Ma Helmes. And she was not even officially associated with the school.
‘Ma” (Myrtle) Helmes ran a small store attached to her house just three doors down from the high school, at the corner of Bridge (now Rutledge) Street and Mill Street, for over 30 years. Here’s some of her story:
In 1933, Mrs Helmes’ husband died, leaving her with no job, no money and two children, June age 12 and Charlie, 5.
Charlie, who’s now in his nineties, told me the story from here. They were living in a rented house on the back street of Sydenham (Portland St). For several years, Widow Helmes supported her family by cleaning house for several people in the village, until one day the minister told her she was working too hard, and should consider buying Mary Gouge’s place, which had a small store attached. She protested she could not afford to buy a house, but Mr Freeburn, who held the $1,000 mortgage, told her to “Pay me when you can.”
The Helmes family moved into their new home in 1938. At first, Mrs H. stocked the store with groceries. It wasn’t long before she realized her chief customers were the schoolchildren who came for candies and school supplies. (note to any readers under 60: we had to buy our own textbooks, notebooks, pens and pencils, etc. back in those days.)
By wartime, she had began serving hot dogs and hamburgers at lunchtime: June worked front of house, collecting the money and yelling back the orders,
”Two hotdogs, Ma” while Charlie acted as runner between kitchen and store. Didn’t take the name long to stick and from then on, she was “Ma” to everyone.
Charlie recalled her saving fifty-cent pieces. Ma herself tells the story in a short essay she wrote for a school history compiled in 1967
“Over the period of two years I had acquired a large pail full of fifty-cent pieces. I wanted to take my children on a trip across the border and what would I do with that pail of money? We hit upon a solution; we decided to bury it, and so one dark night I led the way with a flashlight. Charles followed with the pail of money and the shovel over his shoulder singing ‘Hi ho and a bottle of rum.’ June brought up the rear, with a geranium. We buried the money, planted the geranium to mark the spot, and went on our way. On our return from the United States, the fifty cent pieces were still there, but not one had sprouted. This tale has a happy ending, however, in that I made a payment on my store and home with that money I saved in fifty cent pieces.”
Eventually the store acquired a large sign: “M J Helms, Groceries/ Candies/Tobaccos/Drink Coca Cola”. In spite of the misspelling of the name, the sign remained.
Over the years, Ma generated a lot of memories and stories. There are some common themes: “She scared the living daylights out of me at first”; “quite a lady”; “wouldn’t stand for rowdiness’; “always there when you needed her”; “you had to earn your place, earn her respect;” “she loved to play cards, especially euchre.”
Her grandson Bob admits “She was intimidating when you first met her,” but remembers that when he went for a week’s visit, she would take him down to Ruttan’s store for a popsicles, because she didn’t sell them herself.
Everyone agrees that ‘Ma’s’ was most popular with the older students, especially the boys. She didn’t tolerate rough language, and anyone who swore in her establishment was told to leave. The second time one boy offended, she threw him out and warned him never to return. Another version of the story says that she carried out her threat to cut the tail off his shirt, then gave him the money to buy a new one.
Again, in Ma’s words: “The boys have come to me to mend rips in their clothing, sew on buttons, bandage wounds, and all the little acts a mother would do for her children. I have scolded and shouted at them, and they just come back for more. My place is a ‘bring your own, stand-up lunch room.’ (In later years, she no longer sold hot dogs and hamburgers.) We have had as many as thirty boys eating lunch at one time and Ken Sigsworth always sat on the ice box to eat his lunch. We have had a lot of laughs and a few misbehaviours, a broken window now and then — but the boys were only too glad to stay out of school to replace them.”
There are many remembrances of her quiet kindnesses and generosity.
Students who had a ‘spare’ were expected to sit at the back of the classroom and do homework: often they would slip down to Ma’s instead. Many former students, both men and women, recall the card games at her dining room table in the room just behind the shop: if Ma had particularly good cards, she’d sometimes send one of them out to attend to customers until she had played her hand. Mary Smith remembers, “As I came to find out, her bark was much worse than her bite, and by the time I hit grade 12, I was welcomed into her wee store, and was soon playing euchre at the counter. Eventually, she trusted a few of us enough to let us run the store for her (if we were on a spare) so that she could have a nap.”
In 1969, when Mary was in her senior year, she arranged to have Ma come to the Christmas assembly as a guest of honour, where she recited a funny poem that drew a standing ovation. She was presented with a bouquet of roses.
Ma closed the store in 1973, just a year before her death. Ken Sigsworth saved the door, still with its bell, just as the building was being torn down to make way for the high school addition. He used it on his cottage for years before it finally disintegrated.
The class of ’69 are in the final stages of placing a plaque on the site of her store, to honour the memory of Ma Helmes. Her grandson Rob Wolsey has donated a large stone which Percy Snider set in place, to hold the plaque. To complete the task and get the plaque made and installed, they would welcome donations from former SHS students: if you’re interested in helping, please contact either Terry Crawford (613 376-3558), or Jim Lansdell (613 374-3225).
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