"I don’t know what it is about Jeanne’s cake but people either love it or hate it. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground," says Olenko, referring to local institution Jeanne’s Bakery’s No. 1 bestseller. "I happen to think they’re the greatest cakes on the planet, but whenever somebody new to our group begins a post asking if others remember eating Jeanne’s cake on their birthday, I’m tempted to say, ‘Buddy, you don’t know the can of worms you just opened up.’"
In a nutshell, "If you grew up in Winnipeg Manitoba you remember..." is an online trip down memory lane. Members, close to 22,000 strong at last count, post messages and photographs touching on their favourite Winnipeg-isms, past and present, triggering responses from others who also share an affection for long-gone gems such as Saratoga Lanes, Shanghai restaurant or Capitol Theatre, or were raised on KUB rye bread, cheese Nips and Pic-a-Pop.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the group has seen a marked rise in membership, which has subsequently led to a noticeable jump in online activity. A recent post that asked what yesteryear pizza joint members miss most elicited 400-plus responses in just a few hours. Answers ranged from Tubby’s to Shakey’s to RJ’s to Underground Pizza Works. ("It was downstairs on McDermot Avenue with talking toilets and tables," a person noted about the latter selection.)
"For obvious reasons, a lot more people are at home lately and spending time at a site like ours kind of takes them away from everything else that’s going on in the world," says Olenko who, as one of the group’s three administrators, is partially responsible for ensuring everybody follows the rules: primarily, no profanity, no controversial subject matter and no negative comments directed toward others, whether or not you agree with their taste in dessert.
Laura Kay, the group’s founder, grew up on Harvest Lane near Sturgeon Creek Park. She moved to Ontario for work in 1996, she says when reached at home in Windsor. In 2011 Kay joined the Facebook group "If You Grew Up in Windsor, ON You Remember..." which was patterned after similar groups individually focused on cities and towns across North America. Guessing family and friends she’d left behind in Winnipeg would support a comparable, online community revolving around Manitoba’s capital, she created the Winnipeg page in August 2011.
"I started the group because I missed Winnipeg and felt like I was losing memories that I wanted to continue cherishing," she says, recalling that her first two posts asked the questions, "What do you remember about growing up in the ‘Peg that kids today will not know about?" (that’s easy: Portage Avenue record stores) and which park do you prefer, Assiniboine or Kildonan? (Kildonan — and the witch’s hut — every time!)
"It didn’t take long — about a year — before we were up to 2,000 members. Many people visit just to flip through old pictures or read other people’s fond memories," Kay continues, adding she’s been known to ask her mother to pack an extra-large pizza from Westwood icon D-Jay’s when she’s come to visit her in the past.
"It’s fascinating that somebody can post something that can make you think vividly back to your own childhood. They can remind you of a memory that may not have been awakened without the group."
Bill Julius, a member and group administrator, joined "If you grew up in Winnipeg..." eight years ago after being tipped off to the site by a pal who thought it might be something he’d get a kick out of. Having grown up in Fort Rouge, blocks away from where Neil Young once lived, Julius, 65, had long been interested in Winnipeg’s rich, rock ‘n’ roll history. Immediately upon joining, he began posting missives about various bands he’d seen in his youth, and where he’d gone to see them.
"I mentioned catching Streetheart at the Norlander in the late ‘70s and it was fun to read comments from all these people who said they were probably there the same night as me," he says, mentioning while the site’s main focus is reminiscences associated with growing up in Winnipeg, yarns about frolicking in the waves at Grand Beach or driving to Lockport for a hotdog are fair game, too.
"In time I started posting about other things I enjoyed about the city, places like the old Paddlewheel restaurant at the downtown Bay store or the Sals at the corner of Corydon and Dudley that we used to hit at three in the morning on our way home from wherever. It’s kind of nice to have a forum to talk about spots I remember with people who remember going there, too."
Julius, a big sports fan who particularly enjoys posts about the defunct Winnipeg Whips baseball team and World Hockey Association-era Winnipeg Jets, says rarely a week goes by that he doesn’t learn a thing or two about his hometown through the group. For example, a few days ago somebody brought up the Happy Vineyard, a European-flavoured dining spot situated on Ellice Avenue for years that he never had the opportunity to dine at.
"That particular restaurant’s name had come up before, but this time the person writing about it had all these pictures of the inside, taken at a family gathering in the ‘60s or ‘70s," he says. "Whenever there’s photographic evidence to go along with a story somebody’s telling, it makes it so much stronger."
The "photographic evidence" Julius talks about is the precise reason Olenko, 60, joined the group in the first place, seven years ago. The married father of one grew up in the heart of the North End, near the intersection of Selkirk Avenue and Powers Street. He fondly remembers walking to St. John’s High School as a teenager and passing a different, independently run corner store on every block.
"I’ve always been a bit of a history buff, and around 15 years ago I started looking for tangible evidence of places I went to as a kid. I hit every spot I could think of — libraries, thrift stores, garage sales, you name it — hunting for old photographs and memorabilia," he says. "I made digital copies for myself and after finding out about ‘If you grew up in Winnipeg...’ I thought, ‘What better way to share them with the world than through the group?’"
Listing the Palace Theatre, Oretzki’s department store and the Donut House — in particular, its jambusters — as some of his favourite, childhood haunts, Olenko feels there’s a good reason the nine-year-old group’s membership continues to grow, while the numbers for comparable groups in other cities are more stagnant.
"The last time Laura checked, we had members from something crazy, like, 80 different countries. Even though there was this great migration of people from Winnipeg in the ‘80s, a lot still have deep, personal ties to the city," he says, noting he’s read numerous stories through the group of people having packages of perogies or boxes of Old Dutch chips shipped to where they’re living now.
"Our group kind of proves you can take the person out of Winnipeg but you can’t take the Winnipeg out of the person."
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Jerry Olenko, an administrator with the Facebook group "If you grew up in Winnipeg Manitoba you remember..." says the majority of group members are between the ages of 45 and 64, and that one of his dreams is to create a tabletop book comprised of popular posts.
Asked to list 10 topics that come up most often in conversation on the site, he replies, “Give me a sec and I’ll get that right over to you.”
Here’s what he came up with:
1. Downtown Eaton's store 2. Jeanne's cake (also the most controversial) 3. Winnipeg’s North End, especially the glory days of Selkirk Avenue 4. 1974 film Phantom of the Paradise 5. Defunct bars and nightclubs such as Strawberries, Broadways and the Rorie Street Marble Club 6. Downtown, particularly black and white pics that depict streetcars and period fashions 7. Neighbourhood corner stores 8. Shuttered movie theatres and drive-ins 9. Chiller Thriller, the TV horror movie showcase that aired Saturdays at 10:30 p.m. in the early 1970s 10. Long-gone restaurants and ice cream shops
● March 1966 blizzard ● Winnipeg’s old city hall, the “gingerbread building” that stood from 1886 to 1962 ● Paddlewheel riverboats ● Winnipeg Police buffalo coats ● Old pool halls and arcades
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Updated on Saturday, May 30, 2020 at 2:55 PM CDT: Corrects name of theatre in photo caption.