Open house Sunday
Thirty years ago, the town’s iron mines had closed, leaving many older laid-off workers not ready for retirement, but at 55 and older, also not easily employable.
To address the socio-economic impacts of the mine shut down, Fran Kolton was hired by the Town in 1980 as a transition counselor. (It was a role similar to that of Action Centre staff in the past few years who helped laid off forestry workers find support, training and employment opportunities). For that senior demographic, there weren’t a lot of employment options. She saw firsthand the dejection in many of these older men who were still physically active and possessed a wide range of skills from wood working, to mechanical repair, welding, wrought iron work and much more.
The wives told her that “their husbands were driving them crazy. The ladies were really frustrated with their husbands” and their moping about the house, she recalled.
Then recreation director for the town, Edgar Morrisette suggested starting a club, like Thunder Bay had, a place for men to use their skills to put their skills to use – and just as importantly find that support and camaraderie they had enjoyed in their years at the mines.
Kolton invited the founder of a Thunder Bay-based Fix It Club for senior tradesmen and retired men, Ed Lauzon, to present to about 30 Atikokanites, who were receptive to the idea. They decided to pursue funding for a building and equipment through the federal department of Health and Welfare, and the club would be open to both men and women (most were wives of the retired men who pursued quilting and crafts).
The group – Atikokan Fix It Club – quickly formed its inaugural board: president Jim Chambers, vice-president Charlie Pelletier, secretary-treasurer Ruby Chumway and directors Coltus Giles, Jim Cryderman, Ron Vollans, Bill Busch, Mary and Al O ‘Callaghan, Helen and Wilton Parker.
On February 4, 1981, the club received an $11,500 New Horizon grant for their first digs at 308 Mackenzie Ave, which they rented from Henry Danielson for $200 per month for 21 years.
Renovations to the shop area, meeting room and ladies craft room were eagerly undertaken by members and all manner of shop tools were purchased. They agreed upon a $2 membership fee would entitle the person to a key to the facility, and anyone over 55 was eligible to join.
From there, the club grew rapidly, peaking at 140 members. Just as quickly, work requests came rolling in, with requests for varied tasks, from carpentry jobs, wood working orders, and refurbishing furniture and overhauling equipment. This work became a source of revenue for the members who would contribute 30% of their earnings to the club.
The following year, the Fix It Club was approached by service clubs to manage rentals of tables and chairs and have added scaffolding and other construction equipment for public use. Rentals remain one of the club ‘s steady sources of income.
A few months later the Town purchased the Danielson building outright for the club for $26,000, and was reimbursed through a New Horizons grant and a loan repayment plan worked out with the club. More upgrades were completed.
In 1982, the club incorporated, but the real success of the club was the fact that these men had something constructive to do, and even many who had no background in wood working “have become amazingly skilled,” said Kolton. She and husband Richard have been members since the beginning.
A few of the Club’s many outstanding craftsman include Jacques Perron who crafted gorgeous ornate cedar chests and more, Ed Sinclair who produced the “most intriguing” wooden toy bulldozers and pulp trucks, Ernie St. Pierre for his birdhouses and jewelry boxes and Ben Beaulieu for his tables and chairs.
One of the club’s crowning achievements, was the replacement grain box on Brian Bates’ 1933 1½ tonne truck in 2004. Ernie St. Pierre, Claude Girouard, Richard Kolton and Beaulieu removed the box and cut, planed, and sandblasted the wood, and laminated the new box – painstaking a three month undertaking. They used the profits to purchase a new 14-inch band saw for the club.
Nowadays, most work strictly as a hobby or to make gifts for friends and family members, rather than for hire, said Kolton, and both men and women also contribute their creations for raffles. Tickets for the May 12 raffle of Richard Kolton’s a cedar chest and lazy Susan have already sold out and the women will raffle a quilt in the fall.
Not only has the club been a creative outlet, but also a social one, where members have helped each other through the most difficult moments in their lives.
“Quite a few have lost a partner. Especially when the man would lose his wife, they just felt at home and the group would just rally around them,” recalled Kolton.
“The women’s group has also been a very good social outlet and sometimes someone is facing some adversity, and it’s a place to share.” (They gather to quilt Tuesday afternoons.)
The club holds pot-luck dinners two or three times per year, and the coffee and reminiscing is always on tap at the shop daily from 8 am to 4 pm. The longstanding joke is that “there’s more iron ore that comes out of that Fix It Club than ever came of those mines,” laughs Kolton.
“They used to sit around and talk about the mines. Now they tell tall tales and talk about the hockey game. You couldn’t find a better place to go in the winter when it’s cold and blustery.”
These days, the shop is no longer strictly a male domain: Trudy Vogel makes intricate wooden butterflies with skilfull use of a scroll saw, a tool Kolton has also discovered a penchant for.
The club went through another change in 2000, when it received $13,000 in Trillium funding for new equipment and relocated to the industrial mall. The Mackenize Ave quarters were proving too cramped and expensive to heat, so the club sold it to John Cain for $15,000.
With a three-year lease from the Town for a 3,000 square foot stall, members and a few Ontario Works recipients revamped the space, using donated materials mostly from the demolished Hemlock School.
While the impetus for the club’s beginnings was the mine closure, the purpose has remained the same: a place to be productive and socialize. And members are quite willing to lend a hand or share ideas, she added.
There are only two original members (the Koltons) because many have died, become too elderly, or moved away. Still, membership has been a continuous trickle of those entering retirement age, and over a decade ago, the club opened it up to people in their 40s in an effort to revive membership.
More recently, the club began welcoming anyone over 18 to join and learn a new job, skill, or pastime. (Current membership is about 70, with about two-thirds men).
It seems that the younger crowd isn’t sure what Fix-it is about, says Kolton, who fielded many questions about the club recently while selling raffle tickets.
“There are new people in town and they don’t know anything about us.”
In honour of 30 years, the club is hosting an open house this Sunday, May 6, 1-3 pm. The community is welcome to come out for anniversary cake and view the displays of the members exquisite hand crafted creations, said Kolton.