Remembering East Gary’s ‘Ultimate Sleepover’ 49 years later

March 12, 2020   ·   1 Comments

By Mike Baker

When Wayne Donnelly said goodbye to his wife, and left his Orangeville home in the early hours of March 3, 1971, he had no idea that it would be three days before he returned. 

Back then, Wayne was the principal at East Garafraxa Township Central (now East Garafraxa Public) School in Marsville. When he arrived at work that morning, it was a day just like any other. It was winter, which meant it was cold. There was some snow on the ground, but certainly nothing for people to fret about. Around 300 students, from Kindergarten to Grade 8, came in by bus ready for another day of learning. 

The morning classes went off without a hitch. There wasn’t even a hint that things were about to take a dangerous turn for the worse. 

Mr. Donnelly recalls, “We had just brought the children in from noon hour recess, but the winds were picking up and there were ominous clouds in the west.” He wondered if it might be appropriate to bring the buses in early, to ensure his students were able to get home. Twenty minutes passed before he was able to get in touch with the owner of the local bus company.

“We can’t get the buses out of the valley. There is no visibility and the snow is really piling up. A couple of drivers can’t even get out of their own lanes,” the owner informed Mr. Donnelly. 

Long story short, the buses weren’t going to be available for their normal afternoon route. The local drivers took it upon themselves to notify parents that the buses wouldn’t be operating.

Back at the school, Wayne was preparing for the worst. By this time, snow and high winds were pounding much of Dufferin County. Visibility was just about zero, Wayne recalled. He cancelled afternoon recess and organized a staff meeting to discuss next steps. It was then, Wayne remembers, that people started to realize they were in this for the night. 

At that time, the school had only a single phone line, and no PA system. Cell phones, at that time, were still a couple of years away from being invented, and the mere thought of something like the internet, which would have enabled staff to send out emails to parents, or post updates regarding their situation online, was a fantasy. 

Instead, Mr. Donnelly, the rest of the school, and the community itself relied on two Guelph-based radio stations that reached the school area. Local DJs provided updates to parents and relayed messages outlining items staff needed to get through the night. 

“The stations sent out requests for flashlights, blankets, milk and food – lots of food,” Wayne stated. “Our rear doors were sheltered away from the snow. All of a sudden, snowmobiles began appearing, bringing us what we had asked for and much, much more. Bread, butter, milk, apples, oranges, plus sandwich makings, including jars of homemade jams and preserves, went directly to the kitchen (our staff room).”

He added, “A mountain of sandwiches were prepared on our staff room table, boxed in cartons, delivered and distributed to the classrooms.”

Caroline Fletcher has lived in Marsville her entire life. Her parents, Ernie and Betty Geffs, operated the local store and service station there for more than 35 years. At the time of the storm, Caroline remembers, her parents sprang into action. Her mother spent hours baking loaves of bread, which she later delivered to the school. She emptied the shelves at her store to ensure the 300-plus students had enough to eat and drink. 

“I don’t really know a lot about it,” said Caroline, who at the time attended Orangeville District Secondary School (ODSS). “I was stranded in Orangeville for a couple of days, but I remember my mom and dad telling me stories about that storm. The community in and around (East Garafraxa) school put forth a huge effort. They sent blankets over to the kids, made sure they were fed. Anything they could do, they just about did.”

Painting a picture of just how bad the snow was at the height of the storm, Caroline remembers hearing stories of cars being buried along Dufferin Road 3, of people, quite literally, being snowed in at their homes, unable to leave. Snow drifts, in some parts, were so high that those who climbed them were able to step over telephone wires. 

“People think that the snow is bad now, but it’s nothing compared to what it used to be,” Caroline says. “We had a little bit of a taste (a couple of weeks back), but that really was nothing when put alongside the storm in ’71.”

Already in 2020, Dufferin County, as well as Orangeville and Shelburne, have declared at least two ‘significant weather events’, with roads being closed and plows being pulled during storms in January and February.  

While Caroline was forced to stay with a friend’s grandmother in Orangeville, her sister, a Grade 7 student at East Gary, was a forced participant in what Mr. Donnelly has labelled ‘The Ultimate Sleepover’. 

“My sister really wanted to go home. She was homesick. She was really close, but they wouldn’t let anyone leave because the storm was so bad. It just wasn’t safe,” Caroline said. 

Wayne set the record straight in that regard – it wasn’t that the students weren’t allowed to leave, it was more that parents refused to take them home, due to the ferocity of the storm. 

While it was bad in Orangeville, and even worse in Marsville, the detrimental weather was so far-reaching that areas outside of Dufferin, including Dundalk, were heavily impacted. Kathie Macintosh, wife of Orangeville Deputy Mayor Andy Macintosh, was just 10 years old when the storm hit. She and her family had recently relocated to Dundalk from Mono, with Kathie a newly enrolled student at King Edward Public School. 

“I remember being bused in that day, but we weren’t allowed to be bused back. My mom didn’t drive, and my dad worked far away. The roads were all closed, so I was forced to stay,” Kathie remembered. 

While some students stayed at the school, Kathie was fortunate that her teacher, Mrs. Meredith, lived only a short walk away. She, along with between 15 and 20 classmates, slept at Mrs. Meredith’s home for two nights at the height of the storm. 

“We would walk to school and back for three days. All the teachers came together and did a sort of pot luck to make sure we had food to eat,” Kathie said. “The school remained open for kids, but it wasn’t regular classes. We went there basically to play in the gym. We were also allowed to play outside, where we made snowmen and used different powders to give them colour.”

She added, “Some kids enjoyed it, but I was a very shy child, so it was awful for me.”

A relative newcomer to Dufferin County, Debra Wale was in Grade 9 at ODSS during the storm. Her family had just moved to Orangeville from Toronto, buying a home in the new Purple Hill subdivision. She remembers hopping on her school bus that morning.

“They were all running normally. It was fairly clear that morning, so there was nothing to worry about. Then, by lunch time, they had called off all the buses and we were told we had to try and find our way home, or stay at the school,” Debra said. “At that time, there were no warnings for storms, no communication from any weather network, so things just came out of the blue.”

Fortunately, Debra says, her father had recently purchased a snowmobile, which he used to, first, pick her up from ODSS, and, second, pick up her siblings from Mono-Amaranth Public School. It was a 30-minute trip between the two schools, and an eerie one at that, Debra recalls.

“Orangeville was a ghost town. I’ve never seen anything like it since,” Debra said. “It was so dark, and brutal out. Not that I’ve ever been in a desert when there’s been a sandstorm, but it was like what I imagine that would be like. We couldn’t see our hands in front of our face. It was like that for three straight days.”

Upon returning home that night, Debra said the snow was half-way up the front wall of the house. By the end of the storm, the snowbank was approximately 20 feet deep. It took Debra and her family of five three hours just to dig their way out of their house. It took several more hours to clear the walkway, and driveway.

Back in Marsville, at the height of the storm, students were assigned to rooms, mostly depending on what grade they were in, although Wayne remembers that staff allowed siblings to stay together, something he described as the best decision they made over the course of the three days. Each room had its own record player, which served as a minor distraction for students who, in reality, didn’t have much to keep them occupied. 

Despite that, Kelly Gardhouse, who was in Grade 4 at the time, remembered the sleepover being one of the greatest experiences of her life.

“To pass time late in the afternoon, after we found out we could not go home, we were allowed to go outside if we chose to. I thought that was the best. However, when we got out, there was maybe five or six of us, we decided to get back inside right away. I became so disorientated because the snow was blinding,” Kelly said. 

Elsie Graham Beaulne, just 11 years old at the time, recalls the meal she and many other students were treated to, more than anything else.

“I remember having half of a banana and a half cup of soup for dinner, but that’s about it. It wasn’t a fun time,” Elsie said. “I remember having to sleep on our coats. Some kids were able to go home (after the first night) because the parents had snowmobiles, and I remember being so disappointed that my parents could not get me.”

Another student, who gave only his first name (Don), recalled having to eat a peanut butter and jam sandwich, which he absolutely hated.

“To this day, I haven’t eaten another one,” Don said. 

The sleeping arrangements were far from idea, says Nicky.

“There were five of us on one crash mat, and we shared one blanket,” Nicky said. 

On the second day of the storm, two husbands of school staff turned up to organize a round-robin-style floor hockey tournament. The students tried to hard play, Wayne remembers, but were too exhausted. The perimeter of the gym held spectators – staff, students and parents who were able to get to the school – but they too were too tired to cheer on the participants. 

“There was little to no enthusiasm, but we had made it through the night safely,” Wayne said.

That was in no large part due to the assistance provided by the Grade 8 students, who served as monitors for the younger students. They would accompany kids to the washroom during the night, and helped to deliver messages between classrooms. Wayne also reserved special praise for the faculty, who went above and beyond to essentially serve as the primary caregivers for more than 300 students over a more than 48-hour period. 

“This was not in our lesson plans,” Wayne chuckled. “The staff did an incredible job under such difficult circumstances. You have to remember, they were all away from their families, too. It was a tough, tough time. But I’m proud to say we got through it unscathed.”

Well, partly unscathed. There was one minor emergency involving a heater in one of the classrooms. The school was predominantly kept warm by electric exchange heaters, located under classroom windows. In one of those rooms, the strong wind had blown snow into one of the heaters. The snow melted, turned to ice and pushed the air filter too close to the electric elements, causing the filter to smolder.

“One of the students smelled smoke, but our custodian acted very quickly. He removed all the filters on the west side of the school. It was very routine. There was no panic,” Wayne said. 

Eventually, the storm subsided. The winds calmed, and the snow stopped. On the third day, March 5, students were preparing to leave. Municipal plows had managed to open two main secondary roads in Marsville, with four buses able to get in and out. The first bus arrived at around 10 a.m. Students were organized and sent out depending on where they lived. At key intersections, they were met by snowmobiles, tractors and even tractor-driven snow blowers to finish their trip home. By 2 p.m. the last student had left, and staff were finally allowed to leave.

The tractors that had brought the parents in to the school to drop off supplies were now on hand to help pull teachers’ cars out of the outrageous snowdrifts. Wayne was, eventually, the last to leave. 

“When I reached the main highway, I had to drive around a ‘road closed’ sign. Ironic, I thought. After I pulled into my garage, on an impulse, I lifted the hood (of my car) and found the engine compartment was full of snow – I could not see the engine!” Wayne exclaimed. 

In the years since, he, nor anyone this reporter questioned for this story, has experienced a snow storm as bad as the one that ripped through the region on March 3, 1971. It took several days before roads were completely clear and hubs such as Orangeville, Marsville and Shelburne were fully accessible. 

“The storm was nicknamed the ‘Storm of the Century’ in Quebec,” Wayne concluded. 

A fitting statement if ever we’ve heard one.

Readers Comments (1)

  1. Helene Lace says:

    I remember the sleepover. It was actually my first time of having a sleepover and it was absolutely amazing for me and my best friend Kim. We were thick as thieves Kim and I. We both had never been away from our own beds so we were pretty excited to be in the biggest sleepover of our lives. We were only 8 years old and I think of that time when ever I see a snow storm hit around me. Kim I hope you are doing well and if you read this article I wonder if you are remembering us running laps up and down the rows of mats pillows and blankets.
    Yes I remember that Sleepover fondly
    Helene Lace Hadley now
    Helene Lace then


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