BY KEN R. JOHNSON
In the 1930s, Maud Gascon was a highly-respected entrepreneur in the Little Long Lac mining district, appearing frequently in newspapers and mining periodicals.
Today, however, her pioneering contribution to such places as Hardrock, Little Long Lac and Longlac, is not well known. Her grave marker in the abandoned Geraldton Cemetery says only: "Mrs. Maud Gascon - Died 46 years old."
At her death, she was described as "the brave, gay, little French-Canadian pioneer woman" who was "one of the most colourful and dearly beloved characters of the North."
Maud was born in Ottawa but raised in Hanmer where at 12 she was working for her living on a farm. She was married at the age of 16 but separated by 21 after which she worked as a cook on trains. When her children reached school age, she settled in Longlac, arriving in 1923 with only $150 in hand.
Maud rented a tent and established a store and restaurant. She thrived, and was well-known to such mining personalities as (Hardrock) Bill Smith and Tony Oklend. She was acknowledged as being a "Good Samaritan" to the sick or needy.
By her death in 1940 she "had been the owner and active operator of stores, inns and restaurants at Longlac, Hardrock Station, Geraldton and Bankfield," though what she enjoyed most was "cooking for the railroad construction gangs down the years."
Maud worked hard to establish post offices. With a general store and hotel at mileage 18/Smith's Landing on the CNR line, she petitioned the Postmaster General, in October 1931, for a post office, to handle the increased mining activity in that region.
She made "an offer for the mail service between the railway and the proposed post office at a cost of $600 per year."
Though her request was refused, a postal outlet was later opened at Hardrock, with Malcolm MacLean as postmaster.
When this was threatened in early Dec. of 1935, Maud took pen in hand to stress the inconvenience of having to go to Geraldton each day -- a journey of six miles return trip. John Ross, District Superintendent, said this about Maud's objection: "Mrs. Gascon . . . fully expected that (Hardrock) would be a community of some considerable importance, but the building of roads from Geraldton Station to the Little Longlac Mines and Hardrock Mines has changed all this, and Geraldton Station is now the business centre."
With her general store in Longlac, Maud then applied unsuccessfully for the position of postmaster there, noting that her "place was situated . . . right across (from) the (railway) station." She then applied in 1933 to be postmaster at the Little Long Lac office, the forerunner to the Geraldton post office, but was again rejected. War veterans were given priority when it came to filling such positions.
In 1936, Maud suffered a further set back, when a forest fire destroyed much of Hardrock, including her rooming house, but with plans announced for a road from Hardrock Mine to the town site, she decided once more to "start working on the development of the town site, throw open lots to the public, and thus attract tourists and possibly mine workers."
Though Geraldton became the area's main town, many felt that Hardrock had a better location; it possessed "one of the finest if not the finest lakeside locations between Long Lac and Port Arthur."
Despite adversity, Maud endured, building a frontier home for her family. It has been written, ". . . to her last day, ambition burned in her heart to go on, doing her bit to make Canada a better place in which to live.
To the last, Maud longed for the day when she could again pick up her packsack and take the trail to fame and fortune." Hopefully, she will continue to live "in the memory of the North she knew so well."
Looking Back is written weekly by one of various writers for the Thunder Bay Museum. For further information visit the museum at 425 Donald St. E., or view its website at www.thunderbaymuseum.com. This article was published in the Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal, Jan. 5, 2014. It is re-printed courtesy of the Thunder Bay Museum.
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