100 Years of Occupation: Leacock in Orillia

Robertson Davies’s Salterton was inspired by Kingston, and Mordecai Richler immortalized St. Urbain Street. It’s hard to imagine these books set elsewhere: Duddy Kravitz could never come from Vancouver. But no place takes as much pride in being a setting as Orillia does in its starring role in Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.

Leacock was only a part-time resident, but the Orillia phone book is crammed with names from Sketches: Mariposa Market, Brewery Bay Food Company, the Leacock retirement home and the Ossawippi Express, to name only a few. The author’s presence is hard to escape. For years, you could see his face on a wall mural on Front Street. Leacock occupies Orillia, even more than other local icons like Gordon Lightfoot, ex-NHLer Rick Ley or Franklin Carmichael. This town prides itself on a book poking fun at it.

Born in England in 1869, Leacock moved to Orillia in 1908. Then a professor of politics at McGill, he only lived here between semesters, but he arrived in time to see episodes that inspired Sunshine Sketches: the federal election of 1911, the passing of a 1908 temperance bylaw, a fire at St. James Anglican Church in 1905.

Indeed, the town’s population inspired many of his characters: barber Jeff Shortt became Jefferson Thorpe, undertaker Horace Bingham became Golgotha Gingham and hotelier Jim Smith became Josh Smith. “Leacock always maintained that his town was completely fictional,” wrote Margaret MacMillan in her biography of Leacock, “but he took much from Orillia.” Or as Shortt once said, “I never thought he was going to put in a book, what I told him.”

How did Orillia react to his send-up of the town? Pretty well, actually. A review in the Orillia Packet said, “[T]here is no room for resentment, in fact Orillians are rather proud to think that Orillia is the “Little Town,” which has been immortalized as a type of Canadian life.” Others replied with humour: one local sent Leacock a tongue-in-cheek letter threatening a lawsuit.

After Leacock’s death Sunshine Sketches began to occupy Orillia. In 1952, when Elizabeth II ascended to the throne, communities across Canada sent gifts to the new queen. The Orillia city council heard a motion to spend $100 on a leather-bound edition of Sunshine Sketches to give to the new queen. “There was a real debate in the papers,” said Fred Addis, curator at the Leacock Museum. “And one of the aldermen said ‘Why would the Queen want a book by that old drunk?’”

Orillia city council voted the gift idea down, a rejection that kick-started the movement to preserve Leacock’s legacy.

A group of locals, with help from literary heavyweights like W.O. Mitchell and Pierre Berton, set about buying Leacock’s old house. They turned it into the Leacock Museum in 1958, not long after Leacock’s son said he’d never let the city own it.

“That whole cut and thrust in the 1950s was instrumental in establishing Leacock as a Canadian icon,” said Addis. “Leacock’s impact really was cemented in the hearts and minds of Orillia.”

Since then Leacockmania has only grown. In 1960 the Mariposa Folk Festival launched with a name chosen for its association to Orillia. The manuscript of Sketches was acquired by the museum in 1966. By 1972, twenty years after calling Leacock an old drunk, Orillia advertised itself as “The Leacock City.” In 1995, 5,000 people came out to help raise a replica of the boathouse on the museum’s grounds, while the Leacock Sidewalk Sale will run again this year from July 24th to 25th.

This little book has meant so much to Orillia because of how Leacock portrayed the town. While Sketches satirizes small-town life, it never crosses into maliciousness: Leacock’s Mariposa is rural, but not a place to be mocked by urban elites in the big city. It’s not hard for a community to take some ribbing to heart when it’s this good-natured and gentle.

Growing up in Orillia, I found Leacock’s name everywhere.  I had copies of Sketches in grade school, when I graduated from college and now, sitting next to me on my desk, is a critical edition. It’s impossible to be a reader here and not own this book. I’ve seen used copies turn up everywhere: used bookstores, thrift markets, a table in the break room at the Zehrs on Coldwater road.

In a way, Sketches has even influenced how Orillia looks: the city strives to give visitors the feeling of a small town, going as far as having a heritage-themed bylaw for signage on the main street. Leacock’s legacy won’t fade anytime soon. 2012 is the centenary of the publication of Sketches and Orillia is ready: Sketching Sunshine, a one-man play with Joe Matheson playing Leacock, comes to the local theatre in July, and the Leacock museum is throwing a celebration in a city park this August. Downtown, Manticore Books has stacks of Sketches for sale, complete with a cheat sheet showing what represents what. As Addis said, “Orillia will always be in the Leacock business.”