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At 93, Gwen Woermke's life takes the stage in a new musical

At 93, Gwen Woermke's life takes the stage in a new musical

BARRY’S BAY: A piece of the unique life story of 93-year old Gwen Woermke of Barry’s Bay goes onstage this summer in a new musical called "Here Comes the Train! The Ottawa Valley Railway Story," by Stone Fence Theatre.

Mrs. Woermke's remarkable life began in Barry’s Bay, where her family built and ran the well-known Balmoral Hotel. Then she spent 31 years at the isolated Lake Traverse railway station in Algonquin Park with her husband, Roy, before moving back to her hometown, where she remains active in community life.

Her memoirs, Lake Traverse Station: A Railroad Wife's Algonquin Park Memoir, chronicle a very different time. From 1951 to 1981, Gwen Woermke lived among rangers, railroaders and lumbermen. She witnessed the building of the Algonquin Radio Observatory, had a fallout shelter in her back yard, assisted canoeists, campers and travellers and, eventually, saw the closure of the CNR line.

"Could a young couple today live in the bush with no running water, no hydro, no washer and dryer, and no television? Could they survive with only a coal stove, coal-oil lamps and a battery radio?" she wonders. "I don’t know. It wasn’t easy for Roy and me, but we had no time to feel sorry for ourselves, and we were never lonely. We were quite content to spend our spare time together, fishing or picking berries, playing cards, sharing meals with friends and travellers, and occasionally being called upon to help others. It was a simpler life in a simpler time, and it was very satisfying."

Prior to her husband's assignment to Lake Traverse, Gwen Woermke was very much a Barry's Bay person. Her grandfather, Josh Billings, built the Balmoral Hotel and her grandmother, aunt and uncles were well-known hotel-keepers in the area. After Gwen lost her mother when she was young, she had a lot of responsibilities helping her father raise her brothers. 

During World War II, she got a job with Canadian National Railways, which began hiring women with most men overseas for the war. Working in the station, she met her future husband.

"When Roy Woermke arrived on the scene in 1942, I knew he was different right away," Gwen wrote in her memoirs. "He was the only one who knew how to fire up the coal stove properly. After he arrived, I was never cold again." After nine years of dating "and a few fights," the two were married in October 1951. Shortly before that, he had become the station agent at Lake Traverse.

Gwen's life at the hotel, the Barry's Bay station and Lake Traverse make up part of the new Stone Fence Theatre musical "Here Comes the Train! The Ottawa Valley Railway Story". The show, which opens in Eganville on July 15 and makes a stop in Barry’s Bay August 5, looks at the lives of railway people in the Steam Era and at the impact of the railways on Ottawa Valley communities. It is based on conversations that playwright Ish Theilheimer had with veterans of that era from all over the Ottawa Valley.

"People with experience of the Steam Era are getting hard to find," says Mr. Theilheimer. "Gwen was indispensable to the project. She is a real people person with a strong commitment to her community, a crystal-clear memory and such interesting insights. "It has been a privilege getting to know her through this project."

Two songs in the show are drawn from Gwen Woermke's life. "Billings' Hotel" is about the Balmoral and how it was in the heyday of rail travel. "In a Station in the Pine" describes the couple's life, their isolated assignment, and their sense of being part of something bigger. While Mr. Theilheimer wrote the play and all lyrics, the melody of this song is written by Clint Degarie of Golden Lake.

Information on the show and its performance schedule is on the company's website, www.stonefence.ca.