Old Joe’s Trail

While the Kettle Boils

by Susan Stanton Pryke

From a child’s point of view, Old Joe was the Paul Bunyan of Sparrow Lake. We heard of his exploits round the dinner table—how he single-handedly cut his way into the bush and set up two mines, one for feldspar and one for nickel—how he strapped dynamite round his waist and backpacked two 50-pound bags of flour to his diggings—how he killed a wolf with an axe and kept rattlesnakes in his cabin. To make the story more intriguing, Dad pulled out pieces of rock from a dusty drawer in his workshop and showed us the shiny flecks of nickel.

That did it. There was no rest for Dad until he took us on the day-long hike so we could stuff our pockets with the ore and “be rich.” It was an adventure I’ll always remember—following the track Old Joe had built to get some Model-T’s into the mine, tracing the foundations of his old barn, crossing beaver dams, and boiling water in a can for tea at lunch time. I particularly remember the tea because we never drank it at home. It was as if on this magical trip we were not children but fellow adventurers.

The water for the billycan came straight from Old Joe’s flooded mine shaft. Once she boiled, Dad threw in tea bags, milk and sugar all at once. I can still taste it. And still smell the dry-leaf smell of the feldspar flats where Old Joe had dozens of pickholes. A landscape littered with shards of pink granite and milky quartz. After lunch we pushed on to the nickel mine, the trail dense and overgrown, so far from civilization that we couldn’t believe the relics of old cars we saw rusting in the bush.

Just as Dad had promised, there was nickel to be found. We picked up samples of the ore inside the remains of Old Joe’s shack where, with a dramatic flourish, Dad sat in the exact spot where Old Joe died. No one tells Old Joe’s story quite the way Dad does, so I’ll let him carry on from here.

“Sometime in the 1920’s there came a knock at our door in Port Stanton. We opened the door, and there stood a stranger, a queer-looking man who introduced himself as Joe Lalonde—prospector. He was of medium height, on the thin side, but tough and wiry. His face was dark from the sun and windburn. I believe he was French Canadian or Metis.

“After he was fed and comfortably seated, he started into a story of his exploits discovering the Red Lake Gold Fields. He made the original discovery, but was cheated out of it by his partner. However, he ended up with $2,000, which in those days was a considerable sum. What brought him to this area, I am not sure, although he had a brother in nearby Gravenhurst.

“His plan was to open a feldspar mine in this area, and he wanted lodgings for awhile. He proceeded to prospect, and finally found a good vein of feldspar near Long Lake. He filed claim on it and went to work building a road in. Still known as Old Joe’s Trail, this road is much used by hikers and ski-doers. At one time the road was good enough to haul over with horses and wagons.

“With a sledge hammer he finally reached a depth of 20 feet or more in the feldspar. He bailed out water with a barrel pulled up long sloping skids by horses. Water was his biggest problem, not having mechanical pumps. He actually hauled some feldspar out to the village (Port Stanton), his plan being to load flat cars here in the siding, and ship it somewhere to make dishes. None of it was ever shipped. His money soon ran out, and his venture into feldspar mining came to an end.

The Nickel Mine

“When Old Joe was grubbing for feldspar, he ran across some mounds pushed up by volcanic action. On sampling the ore in the push-ups, as they were called, he found it contained nickel. The rock was blue-black with a greenish tinge, and in freshly broken rock, veins of nickel could clearly be seen with the naked eye. Now, of course, he was broke and called on us to grubstake him. We supplied him with a minimum of supplies, including dynamite, which he would strap around his waist to pack in there about four miles.

“He was in there for several years—winter and summer—snaring rabbits for meat. He owned a 10-gauge double-barrelled shotgun and a pistol, but seldom used them, preferring snares and traps for food. Drilling alone, he used a cedar log with a hole in it to hold the drill, and he would strike with one hand and turn steel with the other. Here again, water was his enemy. He would get down only 10 feet, then start another hole. He dug many such holes and sent samples to Sudbury for assay. They assayed fairly good as I recall, but he was never able to interest any large company to explore it.

“On occasion Old Joe would dog out deer for us. On one particular day, we were lined up around the big cedar swamp while Joe went through the middle. After a long wait, he appeared at the open end carrying a large wolf. No shot was fired that day, and of course we all wondered how he got the wolf. He only carried a small axe. He said, ‘I sneak up on him and kill him with axe,’ which was true.

“One very cold winter, Joe was out of supplies and came to stay with us for awhile. He wanted to earn his keep, so Dad set him to work cutting poles in a swampy area. After two or three days, Dad went over to see how Old Joe was making out, and lo and behold he had the whole swamp cut down and the poles piled up in sleigh-loads. This with just an axe, and many of the poles were dead and bone-hard to chop. It took us a week to haul them out.

“Joe built two tar-paper shacks in at the nickel mine. The first was large and reasonably comfortable, although infested with rattlesnakes, which he rarely killed as he said they kept the mice down. It was in this first cabin that my cousin and I found him one day propped up in a chair—bare from the waist up and wrapped around with rags. It seems he was levering a heavy rock out of one of his holes when it slipped and fell back on him, breaking his ribs. He taped himself up and told us he would be all right. He recovered partially from this, although it marked a steady decline in his health.

“This cabin was burned accidentally, I believe, and he built another smaller one at the edge of the swamp. He died in this one and was discovered by blueberry pickers, who came out and notified the OPP. We found he’d died in a sitting position against the wall just inside the door. We fashioned a stretcher from poles and attempted to load him. He was set up in a sitting position and would not lie flat, and he kept falling off the stretcher on the rough trail out.

“Joe firmly believed that the motherlode lay under the cedar swamp, and the last hole he dug was in a push-up out in the swamp, now made an island due to the depredations of the beavers. His sole possessions at the time of his demise were a shotgun, the small axe he killed the wolf with, and a striking hammer,” as told by Ernest Stanton.

Reprinted from The Simcoe Sun, July 7, 1987 with permission from the author.

Editor’s note: A gravestone in Symington Cemetery, Severn Bridge, Morrison Township, Muskoka District, Ontario, marks the resting place of Joseph La Londe, born Oct. 12, 1881, death no date, husband of Henrietta (Greenwood) La Londe, born Apr. 22, 1885, died June 19, 1954. www.interment.net

Preserving the Past for the Future