The other day my dad told me a story about “Old Man Russian”, who lived on Elgin Street – just a few properties down from Maudslay Court.
His lengthy backyard sloped towards McVicar’s Creek, it was a lush and fantastical forested area. Tiered gardens filled with vegetables and flowers accented the angled terrain, along with homemade underground rabbit hutches – made from discarded railroad ties and remanent materials.
Nearing the creek he grew raspberries and strawberries and tended to the tall grass on the bank with his scythe, the freshly cut grass was given to his rabbits. The clearing and maintenance on and off his property and around the creek created a haven for children to play, especially the children who attended St. James school.
Old Man Russian would climb the large trees and hang ropes to create swings. Some swings were made with wide enough planks to seat two at a time. He also constructed a small foot bridge from his side of his property over the creek to McVicar Street, giving safe passage.
Kids flocked here to play.
My dad and his twin brother, Peter, attended St. James school. They overheard some of their friends talking about “Old Man Russian by McVicar Creek” and asked who they were talking about. I guess they responded with: “the guy with the swings and the rabbits”.
Here’s the thing, Old Man Russian wasn’t Russian at all.
Old Man Russian was my dad’s Grandfather, Antoni Franków.
He loved his grandchildren, it’s pretty apparent in all of his photos – he’s rarely looking at the camera, rather making sure everyone is a-ok.
I laughed when my dad told me this story. I asked how his Dziadzio ended up with the nickname “Old Man Russian”. He guesses it’s because he didn’t speak English, and people just assumed he was Russian.
Antoni Franków was an immigrant from Poland. He served in the First World War and returned to his homeland where he and his family farmed. After WWII he immigrated to Port Arthur, to join his family and escape Communist persecution.
He and his wife Rozalia arrived in Canada in 1951 – he would have been 71 at the time.
Can you imagine a man in his seventies and eighties climbing trees and building bridges?
In the late 1970s when Grandview Mall was under construction, he would sit by the creek and fish out building debris that was tossed into the water. Whatever floated down, he would fish it out with a board with a large nail on the end. Not only did he cleanup the creek, he used many of the materials to maintain his bridge, his rabbit hutches and for his homemade rat traps (he didn’t like rats).
So there’s the story of “Old Man Russian”, aka “Old Man Polska”or how about: “Tree Climbing Dziadek!”
Further to this story, my dad’s Babcia, I guess in this case; “Old Woman Russian” needs honourable mention. While her husband was creating a wild and fun paradise in the backyard, she was unknowingly nourishing wild and fun grandsons.
Innocently enough, she got her twin six-year old grandsons sloshed on preserved fruit juice that had unknowingly fermented. On their walk home back to Court Street, she noticed her grandsons were tipsy and staggering – whistling at girls and lipping off to passersby.
As my mum says… “You can’t make this shit up!”. Indeed.
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