- by Frank MacDonald
Another Inverness Gathering has come and gone, the 66th since the town’s inaugural celebration on its 50th birthday in 1954, billed then as Old Home Week. That week was probably planned as a “one of” that got a bit out of hand. Invernessers have ploughed through some severe winters in the following years, July being the carrot dangled before us while people shovelled their way out from under a battery of blizzards. The annual Inverness Gathering was our gift to ourselves.
Old Home Week was probably the most joy-filled summer activity in any boy’s life or memory, or their parents, for that matter. So, the town did it again. And again. Coincidentally, the Gathering culminated with a separate but equal gathering in Broad Cove, where the parish there was developing a habit of gathering a field full of fiddlers and thousands of their fans for Cape Breton’s greatest annual concert.
In a town that was struggling to justify its economic existence, each summer carried a question mark of whether or not there were enough bodies and energy available to pull off another Inverness Gathering. But the Jaycees rose to the occasion, the Kinsmen and Kinettes rose to the occasion, and the organizations throughout the town, the fire department, the legion, the arena commission, the fishermen/women, the Inverness race track, the CB Club, and others all in their turn and time rose to the occasion.
The Inverness Gathering became as literal as its name, vacations were being booked to coincide with whichever event a come-home-from-away preferred. For some, the attraction was the always sold-out Firemen’s Fashion Show; for others it was the Gathering Pace, where an impressive card of harness racing paused long enough to introduce the large Wednesday night crowd to the 15 or 20 Gathering Princesses; for many, many more it was the Inverness Arena Beer Bash, soundtrack provided live by one or more of the best bands in Atlantic Canada, and in Atlantic Canada at that time, some of the best bands called Inverness home.
At any given Gathering, there were high school reunions, kicked-out-of-school reunions, the old timers versus the hottest new arms and bats playing baseball at the time. It was as a child that I watched Angus Willie Rankin hit a ball off the roof of the Dinner House, a large structure that during the original Old Home Week fed thousands of people amid the festivities. A baseball had to leave the ballfield, soar across the race track itself and travel another hundred feet or more to reach the Dinner House. I have watched historic clips of Bobby Thompson’s 1951 homer, Kirk Gibson’s great one for the Dodgers in ‘88, Joe Carter’s ‘93 dinger for the Blue Jays, but all pale in comparison to that memory of Angus Willie’s baseball bouncing off the roof of the Dinner House.
The 1979 Inverness Gathering was arguably the most exciting. That year, Nova Scotia hosted the International Gathering of the Clans, and the Inverness Gathering was celebrating the town’s 75th birthday. It was a week when celebrations were on steroids. The Oran was a three-year-old toddler. Scores of rolls of black and white film were shot that week, with the intention of fully documenting this amazing week, but due to a darkroom disaster caused by yours truly, most of the films were ruined. While the week itself was filled with many emotional moments, my discovery of the damage done by my negligence in that darkroom was the only time all week when I cried.
The 1979 Inverness Gathering had captured the town’s imagination so fully that when the parade began, the first float left from the Inverness Beach Village, travelled across Central Avenue, up Maple Street towards it destination at the race track, reaching that destination before the last float had even left the Beach Village.
It was that kind of a week, all the usual things to do and places to be, and considerably more. The guest of honour in Inverness that week was Ranald Macdonald of Macdonald, Laird of Clan Ranald. But the most honoured guests that week were toasted at the Native Sons Dinner paying tribute to Hon. Allan J. MacEachen, Fr. John Angus Rankin, Devco President Steve Rankin, and artist Charlie Chisholm, an event emceed by another great native son, Alistair MacLeod.
The Ceilidh Trail CB Club gave Inverness an annual gift on the Thursday afternoon of each Inverness Gathering, Buddy in the Park, featuring Buddy MacMaster, drawing one of the Gathering’s largest audiences each time Buddy played.
The Centennial Inverness Gathering in 2004 was a homage to the men and women who, 50 years before, decided they weren’t going anywhere, were already at home, a knowledge of place passed down to generations since then.
Each year, when the calendar notes its other important dates, Canada Day, Labour Day, Remembrance Day, Christmas Day, on local calendars the week before the last Sunday in July is marked off, a Staycation long before it became this summer’s marketing motto.
This summer, the Inverness Gathering Week arrived amid a time for restraint, a time for protecting each other from the dangerous threat of the coronavirus. Parades and picnics were cancelled, road races and beer bashes put on hold.
Making oddity of it all.
In 1953, the year of the closure of Inverness’s last coal mine, a Chronicle Herald headline predicted the place would become a ghost town. Those families who had for the previous 50 years done all they could to make Inverness something more than a boomtown, to make it a hometown. These people challenged traditional thinking in the summer of 1954 by celebrating ourselves and a new future that the first organizers believed awaited Inverness.
Those people, our parents, our grandparents, never saw that future they had staked their lives on by choosing to stay here. That future did arrive, development has created employment and business opportunities, the population has increased more than 30 per cent in five years, students graduating from Inverness High have a choice most of their parents and grandparents never had, a choice between going away to look for work or remain in Inverness and go to work. That was all the 1954 Old Home Week organizers really wanted, a choice for their children.
This week, streets that would normally be full of people visiting while waiting for the parade, who would be filling the wharf for the music and the beer tent, who would be filling the park for music, who would be flocking to the arena on Saturday night, or shouting greetings to each other across the distance of the street and the distance of a year since they last saw each other, these people were either missing or subdued, cloistered or self-isolated. The closest there has been to a parade has been the daily parade of masked men and women pushing shopping carts behind each other in the aisles of the Shean Co-op, no embrace, no handshake, but eyes that were smiling as though we were all Irish.
In this year of 2020, with the absence of the Inverness Gathering, Inverness carried about itself an aura of a prospering ghost town, partially fulfilling the Herald’s 1953 prediction. The Old Home Week organizers would probably have called it a forerunner.
But as teams and towns suffering setbacks like to say, “Just wait ‘til next year!”