The Home of Winnie the Pooh
A Journey into White River, Ontraio
I just read of the 90th anniversary of Winnie the Pooh. Somehow the passage of time does not seem appropriate for Pooh Bear. Winnie the Pooh is timeless.
Nonetheless, all this anniversary news got us to reflecting about Pooh's origins.
My kids are getting older now, but it seems like only yesterday that endless hours were consumed watching Disney videos. One of their favorites was Winnie-the-Pooh.
Personally, I also enjoyed hearing the story of the Bear and his friends. I especially was heartened about how the bear was named to help a soldier stay connected to his hometown, Winnipeg.
Most folks logically connect Pooh Bear to Winnipeg. However, fact is that the bear came, not from Winnipeg, but rather from White River, Ontario.
There was a little black bear cub that became an orphan when a hunter killed her mother. She was found by a trapper who brought her into White River, which was a fairly common thing to do in 1914. Several people had bears then. Some have photos showing pet bears leashed and posing with family members.
Upon the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Lt. Harry Colebourn of The Fort Garry Horse, a Canadian cavalry regiment, volunteered his service. On August 24, 1914, while en route to Valcartier to report to the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps (CVAC) as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, he purchased a young bear cub for $20 at a train stop in White River, a railroad community founded by the Canadian Pacific in 1885. It was in White River that trains would take on coal and water as well as doing some train housekeeping jobs, such as cleaning out the cinders. During the First World War, most trains carrying troops also carried horses, since they were used in the war. Trains would stop here from four to six hours. The horses were taken off the train to be watered and exercised. Troops were drilled along Winnipeg Street where the Train Station was located.
So, it was during one of those stops that the transaction occurred leaving Coelburn $20 poorer but with a cute bear that would first become a mascot and then a legend. Winnie accompanied him to Valcartier and all the way to England, becoming the mascot of the CAVC and a pet to the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade Headquarters. Before leaving for France, Colebourn left Winnie, also known as Winnipeg the Bear, at London Zoo.
Winnie was in London during the War. Winnie’s eventual destination was to have been the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, but at the end of the War, Colebourn decided to allow Winnie to remain at the London Zoo, where she was comfortable and much loved for her playfulness and gentleness. Among her fans was A.A. Milne’s son Christopher Robin, who consequently changed the name of his own teddy bear from “Edward Bear” to “Winnie the Pooh”, providing the inspiration for his father’s stories about Winnie-the-Pooh.
Back in White River, each year a Winnie-the-Pooh Festival is held on the 3rd weekend in August. At the 1992 festival, a statue based on the Disney “Winnie-the-Pooh” was unveiled. It stands in the Park where the Visitor Centre is located. There are beautiful flower beds surrounding the statue which can be viewed and visited from Highway 17. Click here to learn more about the festival.
The White River District Historical Society has received many “Winnie-the-Pooh” memorabilia from fans and friends from far and near. In 1994 a large collection from Saperstone family and from Fargo, North Dakota, U.S.A. was brought to White River and is displayed at the Visitor Centre. In 2003, Lisa Yee, then residing in Orlando Florida, contacted the Society, as she felt the White River Heritage Museum would be a perfect home for her unique, one of a kind “Winnie-the-Pooh” collection. Once inventoried, it will be on display at the White River Heritage Museum.
By the way, there is more to White River these days than the train station and Winnie-the-Pooh. In 1961, The Trans-Canada opened up accessibility to the area as a result, a region once mainly known for lumbering now attracts attracts people from across North America who want to experience the rugged and picturesque beauty that Northwestern Ontario has to offer. Located midway between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, White River offers an abundance of wilderness areas, including beautiful fresh water lakes and rivers, providing an ideal outdoor recreational experience. From swimming, boating, fishing and hunting in the summer to snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter months.
White River advertises itself as “The Coldest Spot in Canada” with recorded temperatures as low as −58 °C (−72 °F). However, this is a myth, as the coldest temperature in Canada was recorded in Snag, Yukon, at −62.8 °C (−81.0 °F) on 3 February 1947. Even in Ontario, the coldest recorded temperature was in Iroquois Falls on 23 January 1935 [−58.3 °C (−72.9 °F)], which is also the lowest temperature ever recorded in Eastern Canada. White River’s reputation for being the “coldest spot” is probably based on the fact that for many years, its reported temperature was deemed “the coldest in the nation today” from the handful of stations reporting daily temperature extremes in newspapers and on radio, with most stations’ data being available only on a monthly basis to Environment Canada at the time.
Its official weather station (which closed in 1976) was located in a frost hollow, but most residential areas have good air drainage and do not see temperatures far below −40 °C (−40 °F). Gardeners can keep their flowers alive into October and grow non-boreal species such as silver maple.
But it still Winnie-the-Pooh, the home town bear that made good, who makes folks most proud.
For more information about “Winnie-the-Pooh” and White River’s connection to this very popular and much loved bear, contact:
White River Heritage Museum
P.O. Box 583, White River, ON P0M 3G0
Phone (807) 822-2657; heritagemuseumwhiteriver.ca