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  • Writer's pictureJosette Abruzzini

Grand Falls - A Walking Town

#6 in a series, a virtual visit to "My Newfoundland".

Walking was a huge part of growing up in Grand Falls in the 1960’s and early 70’s. I wonder if my perspective might ring a bell for a few others…

With timber logs continuously dropping off of a conveyor belt onto a fifty-foot high woodpile , Grand Falls had a unique sound track. It was the home of a paper-mill and you could hear those logs from just about anywhere in town. They’d been harvested from the surrounding pine forests and had either been trucked into town or “driven” down the Exploits River. At one time it was one of the world’s largest paper mills with newsprint being shipped far and wide, including to New York for the New York Times.

Various school and church bells, fire horns and mill whistles went off throughout each day, assuring that every kid in town developed a sense of time. School let out at 11:45 a.m. – in time for some kids to run home and then to the mill to deliver a woven lidded lunch box to their father. Mill workers walked out the door at the noon whistle, hoping to see a familiar face bringing them their hot lunch. Even though my dad didn't work in the mill, it seemed as if the town revolved around those who did.

But what was it like living in Grand Falls as a kid? In a nutshell, we walked a lot.

For starters, we walked to school in the morning, home again for lunch, back to school and home again at 3:30. There was no such thing as a "school" lunch. I'd walk to and from N.D.A. and Birch Street four times a day, except for those mornings when Dad dropped me off. There was always a cluster of kids to walk with. At least we had hour-and-a-half lunches! And who needed physical education classes when most kids walked three or four miles a day?

On rainy days you could count on Dad, Mr. Kelly or Mr. Bradbury to leave work early and pile all the neighborhood kids into their cars to bring us home. They always had a few jokes for us. The only school busing was for Grenfell Heights kids who lived at least two miles up the road and across the TransCanada Highway.

A highlight of our winter was that each Wednesday afternoon we’d be dismissed early and

walk to the nearby arena for an hour of ice skating. Every kid in town knew how to ice-skate!

I was the oldest of four kids. When I was in first grade when Mom was home with my three siblings, ages 4, 2 and a few months. Since she didn’t have a car of her own she’d give me a shopping list to bring to the Royal Stores after school. I’d ask a sales clerk to read the list to me and I’d walk around the store picking up whatever Mom needed. Then I’d walk over to Dad’s nearby insurance adjusting office until he was ready to close up for the day. I remember thinking that I was grown up at that age, and I was... compared to my siblings.

Lest you think nothing bad ever happened on those hundreds of walks, I should fill you in on one particular event. It was Valentine's Day, I'm guessing 1963, when I was hit by a car on my way home from school. Debbie Duder was on the other side of the street and I impulsively ran to catch up with her. I was brought to the Northcliffe Hospital and had a stiff neck, but was otherwise okay. My greatest concern was that Dad had asked me to pick up a box of Valentine's at the corner store.

I wasn't the only "walker" in my family. Scott, my brother, was a hockey goalie who had practice at 6:00 a.m. Not only did he get himself to the rink for practice, but he often slept in his goalie pads just to save himself a few minutes in the morning! And all four of us Kenny kids made frequent trips to Mel's Mini Mart, just up the street. More than likely the list included a bottle of Coke and a Cherry Blossom for Mom.

By the time I started 7th grade at St. Catherine’s, we’d just moved to the other end of town, so it was still a mile to walk. Believe me, winter mornings were brutally cold! It was all of our custom to wear snow pants for the walk and “unroll” our uniform skirts when we got to school. Warm Grenfell parkas kept us warm.

All that skirt rolling, though, was put to a different use in the fairer months. Miniskirts were in, but St. Catherine’s had strict rules on skirt length; however, there were no such rules for when we passed the boy's high school...

My first date ever was an Eighth Grade Dance. He came to the house and we walked to the dance, wrist corsage and all. Both of my little sisters and all their little friends chased us all the way up Pine Avenue, like a pack of puppies. If we'd been driven I'd have missed out on that fond memory!

There was also an unusual walking tradition at our high school dances. A few kids sat along the wall, others walked clockwise, and the rest walked counterclockwise. This was practical for all intents and purposes. After all, if you had your eye on a guy who was walking clockwise you’d walk in the other direction. That way you had an opportunity to catch his eye at least twice each rotation! I’m not sure if it had to do with having separate boys and girls schools or if it stemmed from ice skating routines at the local arena.

I don't think the Kenny's were the only kids who walked everywhere. Whether we were headed to the rink or majorette practice, Girl Guides or the corner store, there were usually others to walk with. However I managed to get to where I needed to be, it was a great growing up in a neighborhood that covered most of the town.

Decades later, pine logs no longer clatter onto the wood pile. Abitibi Price closed the paper mill in 2009 and the Town of Grand Falls amalgamated with Windsor, the neighboring town. As the housing stock has grown, school busing has become more prevalent. What started as a mill town has evolved into a center for commerce for the entire central region of the island.

Despite today’s pandemic, I'm sure the kids in Grand Falls-Windsor are making happy memories in their "double bubbles". Congrats to Newfoundlanders - their Covid-19 numbers are almost nonexistent. Hopefully the border will open before long and I'll be able to visit my family.

As for now, it's enough to stay safe and take a virtual visit down Memory Lane.

With special thanks to the Grand Falls Heritage Society for permission to use of the first two pictures shown in this post.

Thank you for reading!.

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Twice a teacher and always a writer, Josette Kenny Abruzzini is a native Newfoundlander and a current Pennsylvanian. As a child she wrote letters to her favorite aunts. As a teacher she enjoyed writing report card comments and letters to her students and parents. In time she realized her love for writing about Newfoundland and anything else that caught her curious eye.

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