Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tornado tears up the 'prettiest town in Canada'

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I misspent a good chunk of my youth driving around Courthouse Square in Goderich looking for excitement.

It was what teenagers did on a Friday night in the small Ontario town in the 1970s -- and the unique octagonal street around the Square provided the perfect track for cruising in endless circles.

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The old Square got more excitement than we ever could have imagined -- or feared -- on Sunday when a tornado came off the shore of Lake Huron and ripped through the town, destroying anything and everything in its path.

It's hard to see the heart torn out of your hometown.

But that is how I felt as I sifted through photos online.

The Square, once covered by beautiful old trees, was denuded as if the trees had been sheared to the ground in a clear-cutting operation.

Buildings around it were shattered, their roofs lifted off, their fronts collapsed, their windows smashed.

Cars and trucks were tossed like toys onto the centre of the Square, their windows impaled by branches.

Down at the harbour, the photos showed much of the Sifto Salt mine facility, where I once worked, torn to shreds. One worker died there.

Up West Street from the harbour, there is a pattern of destruction in that odd way tornadoes have of taking one building while leaving another intact.

Culbert's Bakery, maker of the world's best cream doughnuts, appears relatively unscathed next to a building that has its second storey ripped apart.

The Burger Bar, another spot where I spent too much time as a youth, is crumpled, its roof collapsed and its windows shattered.

I couldn't find any photos of South Street, where my mother lives three blocks from the Square, but she is safely back on the farm with my brother's family.

The only movie house in town, the Park Theatre, sits on one side of the Square.

In a weird coincidence, the photos of devastation show two movies advertised on its marquee -- Fright Night and 30 Minutes or Less.

Both would have been appropriate titles for what happened on Sunday as Goderich lost much of its history and present in a matter of minutes.

Goderich is a town that traces its roots back 185 years.

The Square has played a major role since its beginnings.

It's an odd design for a harbour town -- a central octagonal plaza with eight streets radiating out from it in every direction.

Half the streets head right back to the lake, leading to a lot of modern-day speculation about whether someone mixed up the design plans when the town was laid out in 1829.

Regardless, inhabitants ever since have embraced the Square as the centre of town life.

It lends an old-world feel to the place, surrounded by buildings that date back a century or more, and is the key reason why Goderich proudly proclaims itself "The Prettiest Town in Canada."

When I was young, people went to the Square for basic commerce -- buying groceries, furniture and clothing. Most such stores have long ago left for shopping malls on the outskirts of town.

But the Square has persevered, surrounded now by restaurants, specialty stores and other businesses that cater to tourists in the lakeside community.

I know that Goderich will recover -- its inhabitants are resilient rural stock who know how to pull together as a community.

They've absorbed blows in recent years like the closure of the town's major employer -- a grader manufacturing plant owned by Volvo, which moved 500 jobs to the U.S. and Brazil.

But the tornado is a real wallop. It will be a long time before another teenager drives carefree around picturesque Courthouse Square.

 

bob.cox@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 23, 2011 A11

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About Bob Cox

Bob Cox was named publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press in November 2007. He joined the newspaper as editor in May 2005.

"Rejoined" is a better word for it, because Bob first worked at the newspaper as a reporter in January 1984. He covered crime and courts for three years before getting restless and moving on to other journalism jobs.

Since then, his career has spanned four provinces and five cities. Highlights include working in Ottawa for the Canadian Press covering Prime Minister Jean Chrétien during his first term in office, and five years at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, first as national editor and later as night editor.

Bob grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario, but has spent most of his adult life in Western Canada in Winnipeg, Regina and Edmonton.

bob.cox@freepress.mb.ca

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