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Sh-boom sh-boom, if I could take you up to Prefontaine, we’d be so fine

November, 2010

“People are mainlining nostalgia like it was morphine” – Bob Dylan

Many of us who grew up in Montreal around the Second World War spent summers in the Laurentians. Even the most modest of families tried to manage a few weeks of “fresh air” in its villages, including the popular Val Morin-Val David-Trout Lake-Ste. Agathe cluster.

Nestled in the region was the hamlet then called Préfontaine, and on a recent weekend, we returned to the area for much the same reasons our parents felt it was important: to marvel at the tree-clad hills, now multi-coloured, to walk beside a lake or river, to listen to the wind, soak up the silence and pollution-free atmosphere, and yes, retrace old steps and revive near-forgotten memories.

While many homes and stores of 1950s Val David have since disappeared, the natural beauty remains. Photo: Barbara Moser

Our motel, the Clair Mont, is in Ste. Agathe Sud, on what in the 1940s and ’50s was bush on the west side of the old highway. I, with my sister Lillian or friend Bernie Zinman, used to walk the five kilometres or so up that road from Préfontaine to catch matinée showings at the Roxy and Alhambra cinemas in Ste. Agathe.

Children at that time could not, because of fear of fires after many were trampled in the 1920s, attend commercial cinemas, but for some reason it was possible in the summer in Ste. Agathe.

Neither cinema is around any more, but a Dunn’s Famous Delicatessen is near the site of the old Roxy on rue Principale, and there is an Alhambra Street off St. Vincent. The Laurentian Bar, famous for its smoked burger – grilled smoked meat on a hamburger roll – is also gone. But there is a lovely park next to the pier where the Alouette tourist boat still is moored, waiting to take visitors on a tour of Lac des Sables.

The fabled Castle des Monts, memorialized in the hotel scenes in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, is now condos. Though it’s a crisp and sun-filled autumn day, it’s off-season in Ste. Agathe and only a few people, some walking dogs, others jogging or simply strolling, are in the park. They are open and friendly and relaxed. I noted a lot of for-rent signs on closed shop fronts. A Wal-Mart, with its massive purchasing might, has driven many into bankruptcy, I am told.

Young Irwin (top, with hat) and sister Rona (with arrow)

We drive down the old highway, turn left and head for the former “commercial heart” of Préfontaine. It is just past the part of the North River we called “The Rocks” – a rapid-flowing site where once there was a hydro development, its building then transformed into a mushroom factory. We used to swim in the pool just beyond it.

The old Train du Nord – the CP line we took for our annual sojourn – is a paved bike path and cross-country ski route. Alas, the area landmarks are gone. There was the post office in the home of a year-round resident, where I posted letters to girls I liked, with messages like: “D liver D letter D sooner D better.”

Gone is the general store that was run by Mr. Fox. He didn’t talk much. One of his hands was gloved in black; it was wooden or plastic. We never asked. His son was Shimmy (Shimshon.) Then there was Mr. Trudel, who ran a taxi that would show up at the tiny train station every day to pick up passengers. It was across from the Mohawk Inn hotel, also long gone. The street where he lived with his daughters once led to the Mount Sinai Sanitorium for tuberculosis patients. The street is now rue Trudel, but there is nothing left of the sanitorium except piles of dirt. The house where Maxi the Taxi lived is also gone.

So is Jenny’s Dance Hall, which was across the street. It was in August 1954 – I was 10 – where I first heard the doo-wop hit Sh-Boom (Life Could Be A Dream), on Jenny’s juke box. I can’t get it out of my head as we drive farther south.

Ruth Block (left) with Irwin and Lillian.

Many of the modest houses, like the one that had “It’ll Do” posted on its side, are long gone. But a building that looked like Jenny’s is there, just before the bridge crossing the river, to the area where we lived. The old synagogue I attended on Saturday mornings is still there, part of a Hasidic Jewish compound for children. The corner store is gone, but the tree-clad mountain we used to climb remains, a challenge for younger, more ambitious legs than mine.

We drive to Third Ave., where our old house stands. The Singer-Finkelstein clan, the Trapids, the Lyon family, the Kastners.

Our summers were relatively uneventful. We hung around, walked, waited for the Ice Cream Man, the Ice Man, the farmers and their trucks with fresh produce, the deliveries of Kosher meat from Montreal. And we waited for our fathers to come home for the weekend, laden with fresh fruit and other goodies. We swam at the riverside, near the Hollywood Beach Hotel, run by the Geiger family. Then the water was declared polluted, and we swam at an artificial pond dug near Unzer Camp, across the highway and closer to Val David. Saturday nights we sometimes went to that camp, sitting around a huge campfire listening to Yiddish songs.

Irwin’s sister Lillian at the cottage.

Our house, a modest five-bedroom clapboard building on stilts, has had some changes, but remains basically the same. We were kindly invited inside by a member of the family that bought it from us in the mid-1970s, and we noted its main features: a small front porch, a long hallway with bedrooms on either side, a kitchen and a back porch. An electric range has replaced our old wooden stove, but otherwise it is a time warp.

The trip recalled those lazy, carefree days of summers gone. Summers of gazing and dreaming, quiet and cozy times, surrounded by the sounds and smells of nature. Slow times with no phone, TV, Internet or shops. Dusty times. Hazy times. Simple times.



At November 17, 2010 at 8:56 AM , Anonymous GailS said...

That's my mom in the middle of the group shot - Toby Simon (nee Cohen). To her right is her cousin Reisha Bennett (nee Neiderhoffer) and just below her is my aunt Elaine Goldberg (nee Cohen).


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