Community Memories from Mike Rutherford

Mike Rutherford is a fine example of a true Thompsonite, arriving here at the age of 7 in 1957 and still making his home here. Mike's father, John (Jack), a mining engineer, came to Thompson to help build the railway spur for INCO. There were many delays in getting their home ready for occupancy. Every three weeks they moved into a different house, waiting for theirs to be ready.  Mike felt that Thompson was a fantastic place to be a kid.

Mike remembers the large number of people who came here from Sudbury, people brave enough to come north. He tells about how Thompson wasn't built from an existing settlement.  "They just built it out of the bush.  You could wander at will.  There were no dangers here except for natural ones like the river or wild animals."  He remembers animals such as rabbits and foxes wandering through town on a regular basis.  He feels "the people just kind of took their home away from them." 

Mike described the town as a very transient place during the early ‘60s. Families of men who worked for the construction companies left as soon as their jobs were finished, but eventually the population became more stable.

Mike's father put in very long days at his job.  Mike felt that the wives of the breadwinners probably had a more difficult time coping with the isolation and the long winters. His mother, Nadine, had grown up in Tahiti, and though she never complained, it must have been hard for her to cope with the northern climate.  Nadine had a degree in Home Economics and got involved in teaching evening classes and doing some substitute teaching.  Mike's father, Jack, was on the staff at INCO, and as such did not get paid for overtime, in spite of his long days.  His specialty was sinking shafts, considered very dangerous work—some of the tasks even too dangerous for INCO.  As a result, these high-risk jobs were done by subcontractors.

A friend of Mike's father, George Hickey, told of some of the primitive methods once used in shaft sinking.  Mike's version of the story made it sound like a very hazardous job.  George, talked of men riding a bucket like a huge sand pail to the bottom, filling it with rock, then climbing aboard for the ride up to ground level.  There, a dumping mechanism emptied the contents into a truck; the worker would then jump onto the bucket and ride back down to the bottom.  If you made a mistake you could fall a half-mile.

Mikes first experience attending school was in a one-room, eighth grade classroom with Miss Nora Stuart as a teacher.  The classroom was in a house on Poplar Avenue.  Mike's mother had brought along textbooks from the school in Lively, Ontario, where Mike had first attended classes.  Mike said he was in four different houses used as classrooms during the first year he attended school in Thompson.  As the school population expanded, some students were moved into a different house.  One of Mike's favourite teachers was Bill Taylor, who came here in the early '60's and spent his whole teaching career in Thompson.  Mike attended the Thompson High School, later named R.D. Parker Collegiate.  High School then was a no-frills education, no band, choir, etc., just the basics.  School dances were a very popular form of recreation.  Bullying was a no-no.  Boys have been fighting since time began, but bullying someone who couldn't fight back was really looked down upon.

Mike recalls going with his teacher and class to visit a School on Rails.  Mike actually saw one of the rolling classrooms.  They would travel around to the different communities, the kids would come and attend 'real school' for a couple of weeks, then the car would roll on to the next community. "Parents were supposed to continue the kids' education."

Attending university in Winnipeg came as a shock to many of the Thompson students, mostly because of their exposure to the big-city environment.  Mike completed three years of engineering at the University of Manitoba then decided to apprentice as a mechanic.  He has worked for INCO in that capacity for 34 years and has now retired.

As a boy, Mike enjoyed going hunting with his friends, no matter what the weather.  If they got cold they stopped and built a fire. Most of their hunting trips took place across the river, which involved crossing the one-lane Bailey Bridge, a scary experience.  There was no pedestrian walkway, just two fairly wide boards for vehicles, supported by steel beams.  "Every time a truck came, you hung out on the beams over the open water until the truck passed, then jumped back on the boards.  There was a lot of white water, as the river was a lot lower then.”

Mike recalls going to double-feature movies at the Strand Theatre with its 25 cents for admission, 10 cents for popcorn and 15 cents for a coke.  He also played hockey on the outdoor rinks.   During the summer, Mike's family usually went to a cottage in Ontario.

Mike felt that people were treated equally, having similar wages and opportunities.  He doesn't recall any evidence of discrimination in hiring practices or mistreatment of workers in the '60's.  Mike says, “At INCO, all anyone cared about was if you did your job."

There were workers from all over—Saskatchewan farm boys, people from Newfoundland, immigramts from Portugal, etc.  Everyday, 10 to 20 people would be hired and get their boots and hard hats.  Some lasted less than 10 days, so the work force was always in flux.  Mike describes Thompson in the '60s as a company town, with many of the amenities paid for by INCO—streets, sewer, water, schools, etc. He says this was a necessity at the time, as a way of attracting permanent residents, but he felt that it was a situation that could not go on forever.

He remembers the visit of the Queen and Prince Philip to Thompson.  The people were taking more pictures of the stewardesses than of the Queen because girls were so scarce here.

Mike recalls a tragic incident when a house on Granite Crescent exploded. Bulldozers had accidentally ripped up a gas line and the gas leaked into the house. Two workers died, and two men were injured in the explosion.

He remembers a lady on Riverside who called the R.C.M.P. to come and remove the horse from her lawn only to learn that it was a moose.

Mike's parents never regretted their move to Thompson, nor does Mike.  He and his wife Gayle have raised their family here.  They have had the opportunity to meet people from all over the world, and to see the growth of a modern city from a small town in the northern wilderness.  The disadvantages would be the distance from major cities, but with better roads and the improvements locally, they are not in a hurry to leave.