Celebrating one of our best storytellers, BARR none!

September 2021

When I dropped by to chat with Elinor Barr I was greeted at the door by Snoopy, Elinor’s dog. Even though Snoopy barked as I came in the house, that wagging tail let me know I had passed the test to come indoors and sit with Elinor. Snoopy, the Charles Schulz creation from the comic strip Peanuts, always made me smile with his antics. He was a steadfast companion to Charlie Brown, and I could see that our Snoopy was similarly attached to her mistress, Elinor.

Once Snoopy gave me her approval, I spent time with Elinor, listening, writing, and occasionally putting down my pen to laugh at what she said. Over the two hours we spent talking, I learned a lot about Elinor’s life and passions, but I also learned a great deal about how I could enhance my own life with a little of Elinor’s positive outlook. I knew that Elinor is a writer, historian, book promoter/marketer/influencer for Northwestern Ontario writers, musician, mom and wife, but I also believe she is a great teacher. In our brief time together, she taught me about the power of curiosity, the importance of learning from the lessons of history and that a little bit of singing can brighten one’s day.

Elinor, who is now 88, spent her early years with summers on Agimac Lake, and winters on Front/Railway Street in Ignace. Her mother was Mary Berglund, a renowned local nurse, after whom the Town of Ignace named their community health centre. Her father, Tony Berglund, who operated Berglund’s Tourist Camps on Agimac Lake, loved music and every Saturday night her dad and various family members would play for their tourists and drop-ins. Elinor played piano, brothers Neil and Wayne played clarinet and accordion, respectively, and Elinor’s dad would join in on whatever instrument was needed. They would make sure that the family band, and the occasional musical tourist or camper who joined in, played in the same key. “Dad said a song in B flat always sounded better,” Elinor reminisced. “Everyone enjoyed Saturday night. The tourists would come by for a steam bath and a dance. Remember this was long before the days of hot water showers and running water, so that steam bath was needed after a long week! We had so much fun at those dances. I can remember that the floor was bouncing with all the people moving the same way to the music!"

Today, Elinor has a piano in her home and she plays every day. “I love playing songs you can sing along to from the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. Songs I used to play with my dad, like We Ain’t Got a Barrel of Money.” Playing the piano is a joy for Elinor. “A tune comes into my head and I can hear changes in the harmony. Playing piano also is great for my hands. I’m lucky because I don’t have arthritis in my hands like many older people.”

I asked Elinor if some people just aren’t musical. I told her of my efforts to learn to play guitar and she shot up her hands. “Maybe you’re just playing the wrong instrument,” she said. “Try the ukulele. It’s only got 4 strings instead of 6 and I bet you’ll be more successful.”

Elinor has interviewed many people for the eight books she has had published including Swedes in Canada- Invisible Immigrants White Otter Castle – The Legacy of Jimmy McOuat and Silver Islet – Striking It Rich In Lake Superior. “I was fascinated to talk to people about what it’s like to come to a new country without the language. It was also important for the new immigrants to learn about the currency so someone didn’t cheat them when giving change”

Back in the 1980s, Elinor was discouraged that the works of local authors were often not available in Thunder Bay’s libraries, bookstores or retail outlets. She wanted to change that, so she started and operated a regional book distribution and publishing company called Singing Shield Productions. “This was my proudest achievement,” she states. “Authors were paid 90% of their book’s sale price, after the outlet’s discount of 40%, leaving 10% for me. We were able to get their books into many independent retail stores in the area. It made me so proud.” The Northwestern Ontario Writers’ Workshop honoured Elinor for her contributions with the 2018 Phillips Award to recognize a “builder,” who made outstanding contributions to publishing, promoting, or supporting the literature of Northwestern Ontario. It is perhaps fitting that it is named in honour of the late Marg Phillips, founder of the Northern Woman Bookstore.

As a reader, Elinor is thrilled to see the new bookstore Entershine that has opened up on Algoma Street. She’s happy to see the Silver Islet General Store rejuvenation taking place. Her book about Silver Islet brings to life the challenging but hopeful times of the people living in the area while the silver mines were operating. Another Northwestern Ontario treasure that Elinor wrote about, Jimmy McOuat’s White Otter Castle, is also undergoing a substantial restoration this summer. “Jimmy McOuat should be featured in a comic book so more kids would know about him today,” says Elinor. “I always liked to tell his story when I visited the schools. I told the kids that this man, who built a castle, all by himself, and using techniques that even today’s engineers can’t figure out, never finished school. He could hardly write. But he knew what he wanted to do. I’d tell the kids what Jimmy would say, “You can do what you want to do. All you need is to get the knowledge and skills to do it."

Elinor and her husband Peter have been long-time residents of Thunder Bay. Elinor likes the city and says she never has to go far to find a park. As a true Swede, she grew up skiing but doesn’t do that anymore. In her earlier days she was known to ski in her back lane. One of her favourite parks is only a half-block from her house. She likes that she can walk anywhere without fear and she loves the trees that line city streets. “I’m so happy the City of Thunder Bay has an arborist!” she gushes. She liked when Boulevard Lake was drained so she could see the bottom of the lake, and she is grateful to City workers who pick up her garbage every week. “That green card with the garbage pickup schedule is never wrong,” she laughs. She’s also grateful that she doesn’t need an air conditioner. “A dip in Lake Superior cools you off but the only thing wrong is that there’s no sauna on the waterfront!”

Elinor is pleased that the Covid cloud is slowly lifting. She says that she kept her spirits up during those months, laughing out loud while watching classic TV comedies like The Beverly Hillbillies.

She also read a few books during that time, played with Snoopy, and made sure she got her share of hugs from hubby Peter.

I am truly happy that I sat down with Elinor to chat. She inspired me to listen to and share stories and keep collecting them. What an honour it was for me to listen. I know that this is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ll be going back to visit Elinor and Peter again. That is, as long as I can once again get Snoopy’s approval!

Nancy Angus is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Bayview. Contact her at nangus@shaw.ca

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