Why this northern Ontario town throws a yearly party for Winnie the Pooh

The bear that inspired the classic stories might have been named after Winnipeg — but he also had roots in White River
By Jon Thompson - Published on Aug 20, 2019
Winnie the Pooh in a tree
Winnie’s Hometown Festival, in White River, celebrates the “tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff.”

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WHITE RIVER — On August 24, 1914, a train carrying the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps stopped halfway between Captain Harry Colebourn’s hometown of Winnipeg and Valcartier, Quebec. Colebourn and his fellow soldiers were on their way to England to fight in the First World War. During their layover in White River, a trapper approached Colebourn on the platform with something to sell.

Later that evening, Colebourn wrote in his journal: “Left Port Arthur 7am on train. Bought Bear. 20 dollars.”

Neither man knew it at the time, but the purchase would eventually influence millions of children worldwide and define the town’s culture more than 100 years later.

Colebourn named the orphaned black-bear cub Winnie, after Winnipeg, and brought her with him to southern England, where she served as the unofficial mascot for a Canadian cavalry regiment. Then, in 1919, he donated her to the London Zoo — that’s where she caught the attention of a boy named Christopher Robin and his father, A.A. Milne. Milne went on to write celebrated stories about a bear named Winnie the Pooh and the adventures he had in the Hundred Acre Wood with Christopher Robin and a cast of now-familiar animal characters.

Many Canadians are aware of the Manitoban roots of the bear’s name. But in the town of White River, population 1,000, residents want to remind the country that the roots of the story are actually there, 300 kilometres north of Sault Ste. Marie. Last weekend, the town hosted its 31st annual Winnie’s Hometown Festival, which features lawnmower tractor races, dances, a cornhole tournament, a mud run, and a street parade in honour of the “tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff.” Each year, hundreds of visitors from Ontario, Canada, and the United States come to town to take in the three-day event.

Deb Hoffmann, who, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, owns the largest collection of Winnie the Pooh memorabilia on Earth, says that the story’s Ontario connection should be more widely known. When the Waukesha, Wisconsin, resident had her record certified in 2008, she says, she had to educate Guinness staff, who knew only of the world-famous bear’s British past.

“So I told the story, and they were so taken aback,” Hoffmann says. “The majority of people in the room didn’t know anything about Canada. They thought it started in England. I take particular pride in saying, ‘There’s more to this story than you know.’”

Hoffmann, 54, who now owns 18,952 unique pieces of Pooh memorabilia, bought her first, a Winnie-shaped telephone, in her 20s. Three decades later, she still uses the phone as her landline.

In 1999, she learned about Winnie’s Hometown Festival and convinced her husband to make the 13-hour drive with her to White River. She’s missed only one since, and she now serves as the festival’s master of ceremonies.

“I’d say I love Winnie the Pooh, but, truly, it’s the people,” she says. “Everyone is so wonderful and so friendly — it just feels like family up here.”

In 1987, Fred Colebourn, Harry’s son, did a radio interview in which he revealed the White River connection. After hearing it, a local couple, Tom and Shirley Bagden, contacted him and obtained his father’s journal. The revelation was a boon for the mill town. Earlier that year, a consultant hired by the municipality had submitted a report to council indicating that prospective residents were wary of moving to a place dubbed locally as “the coldest spot in Canada.”

The small town, though, soon found itself up against the massive Walt Disney Company, as Milne’s wife, Daphne, had sold the story’s rights in 1961. Mayor Angelo Bazzoni remembers the dispute. “We had the biographies, and we had the diaries in our museum, but we had a challenge with Disney because we wanted to be known as ‘the birthplace of Winnie the Pooh’ — which we are — and we had to convince Disney to relinquish those rights,” he says.

In early 1989, Disney’s lawyers issued a letter to White River refusing the town’s request to build a Winnie the Pooh statue. The company suggested that the town build a statue of the original black bear instead.

Major American newspapers covered the dispute between the northern town and Hollywood heavyweight. By the summer of 1989, Disney had agreed to design the statue, White River businesses fundraised to build it, and the town established a development corporation so that it could manufacture and retail Disney-approved Winnie the Pooh items. That gave birth to the “Where it all began” merchandising that features a side profile of Pooh with a honeypot under his arm.

The first Pooh fest, organized by the White River District Historical Society, was held in 1989. In 1992, Mia Sokoloski, who had covered the dispute with Disney as a correspondent for papers in Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay, published a children’s book and wrote a complementary hour-long play that told Winnie the Pooh’s origin story. In 2005, local children performed her piece on the passenger train between White River and Sudbury.

Under Sokoloski’s leadership, the historical society revamped the local museum with a 2,400-piece Winnie the Pooh collection, owned by Florida’s Lisa Ye, which was believed to be the world’s largest when it opened in 2000. The collection includes plush toys, figurines, ornaments, and dishes, among other items.

“It was a very interesting time,” Sokoloski recalls. “We were young and full of vim and vigour then. It became an ongoing story.”

After a couple of decades of hard times and layoffs in the resource sector, the bust is turning to boom once again. The very development corporation that was designed to manage Winnie the Pooh was used to start a co-operative grocery store when the Northern Store closed down. The township even used it to invest in reopening the local sawmill. Now there are four mines operating within an hour’s drive, and, according to Bazzoni, the town is planning to build its first new subdivision in generations.

Melanie Thibault, the secretary at White River School, has seen the school’s population drop from roughly 230 in 1989 to only 40 today. But, she insists, “we’re on our way back up.”

She’s never missed a Pooh fest and has run its bingo event for 15 consecutive years. She says her town’s fight for recognition is a point of pride. “Winnie the Pooh is something everybody recognizes — it doesn’t matter where you go,” she says. “It’s so nice to have a claim to fame.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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