By Johanna Zomers
The Bulger name is familiar to many older readers of the Eganville Leader who avidly followed the weekly social notes written by Miss Carmelita Bulger. Carmelita, also known as Pat to her family, observed the comings and goings of area residents for over two decades from behind the counter at the popular general store at the intersection of Bulger Road and what is now called McGaghran Road.
In the days of horse and buggy, both were well travelled routes. Bulger Road ran almost arrow straight from Kelly’s Corners, past what is now Shaw Woods, through a couple of good curves to the Snake River Bridge before intersecting with Highway 41 to Pembroke. McGaghran Road, which originated as the District Line, also crossed the Snake River further east and emerged near St. Pius Roman Catholic Church in Osceola. Here one could turn left to Micksburg or right toward Cobden. Today McGaghran Road is a favourite back road to the Renfrew-Pontiac Livestock sales barn near Cobden, with cattle trailers rattling down through Pine Valley on Tuesdays.
The crossroads at McGaghran and Bulger was the site of a blacksmith shop which later became a general store, also housing the community post office. A one-room schoolhouse across the road served the children of the district.
An ambitious Irish immigrant, Daniel hailed from Nairn in County Offaly and arrived in Canada in 1840. Records show that Daniel and at least one brother, David, came from Ireland as young men, arriving in Lanark County. By 1851, both brothers with their young families are listed in the Wilberforce census records. Daniel made his way to the fertile land of Wilberforce Township where he built a rough pioneer shanty with a scoop basswood roof. During an alarming encounter with a bear who broke into the cabin while he was asleep in his high bunk under the eaves, Daniel found himself unable to lift the heavy roof to escape. He remained trapped in his bed until the bear devoured all the provisions and left as he had arrived.
Daniel married Ellen Sheehan of Ramsey Township, fathering 13 children, including three who died in infancy. His brother, David, also married a girl from the Lanark area and both families settled in Wilberforce. However, by1861 there is no record of David’s family in the area, other than a son, Nicholas, living with his uncle Daniel. There is speculation that both David and his wife died, and that Daniel Bulger incorporated both farms into one.
A stern figure of a man with imposing sideburns, by 1871 he had two houses, two barns and had increased his livestock to four horses, 10 milk cows, 33 sheep and nine pigs. By 1874 he possessed the deeds to a total of 460 acres of land in Wilberforce Twp. The farm was fertile, producing 10 tons of hay, 600 bushels of oats, 300 lbs of butter and 65 lbs of wool. The forest on the land also contributed over 6,500 cubic feet of white pine, red pine and other species, all cut into square sided timber, as well as 1,750 standard pine logs and 24 cords of firewood. He built a grand brick three storey (presumably bear-proof) house near the intersection of what is today’s Cold Creek Road and Bulger Road. The farm was later owned by Wilfrid and Gladys Howard who raised their own large family, most of whom still live in this area. As a parent, Daniel also had an interest in education for his surviving 10 children and was among the first school trustees of the local schoolhouse built on Bulger land.
One of Daniel’s sons, Patrick, established a haberdashery in Eganville and another son, Michael, established an all-purpose ‘general store’ at Bulger’s Corners in 1880. Michael and his wife, Mary Jane Breen, raised their children in a stately red brick house built adjoining the store. Situated on the district line (now McGaghran Road) which divided Wilberforce and Bromley townships, the store also served as the post office and was the social centre of the community on Saturday nights when farmers and their families came to the crossroads to shop, exchange gossip, play cards and perhaps partake of a little nip. Under the proprietorship of Michael’s son, Lorne Bulger, and later managed by Lorne’s sister, Carmelita, it was one of the longest serving general stores in eastern Ontario. The building, now a private home, still stands today, sturdily anchored on a stone and masonry basement with two-foot-thick walls.
The first telephone line came to Bulgers Corners from Cobden in 1910. There were three subscribers on the line: Bulgers Store, the Osceola store and the parish priest in Osceola. Later, the Bromley Telephone Company, centred in Douglas, served almost all the homes in the area with party lines which were a marvellous feature if news had to travel quickly at the expense of individual privacy. Before the phone lines arrived, news came to Bulgers Corners via the post office which was established in 1884 with blacksmith Timothy O’Gorman as the first postmaster.
After O’Gorman’s death, Michael Bulger took over the role and the post office moved to a separate office in the store. The mail came from Cobden to be sorted and householders came to the store to pick up the mail. In 1915 a rural route was established, and mail delivery came to each household. That change must have affected the fortunes of the shopkeepers who had previously been guaranteed a steady influx of potential customers coming to pick up their post.
With the popular Tin Lizzies built in Henry Ford’s factory, it was possible to go faster and further afield. Michael Bulger added a delivery truck to his business which also served as a passenger vehicle simply by setting several benches on the open truck bed. In summer, a cloud of dust enveloped the passengers; in spring, the dirt roads were pocked with mudholes; in winter, the roads which were plowed for the width of a team of horses, were too narrow to allow cars. Only in the warm, dry bugless autumn did travel either by horse or by car permit any pleasure at all. In winter, along the open flats of Bromley and Admaston, a big storm could render roads impassable for days or even weeks. Michael Bulger’s granddaughter, Ann, recorded that the mailman from Eganville, one Charles Miller, would periodically take pity on the snowed-in community, leave his car at Kelly’s Corners and snowshoe a round trip of some six to eight miles to bring the mail to the marooned residents.
Much local business was in barter, trade or cash dependent on cattle, crop or livestock sales. Notes in the store ledger promise payment “when the lambs are sold”. Carcasses of beef and pork were shipped to mining camps in northern and western Ontario. Eggs, butter and poultry were shipped to Montreal, Ottawa and Sudbury. The Great Depression very much affected the area and like many other rural people, Michael Bulger was forced to borrow money to keep his business afloat. Nevertheless, he continued extending credit to his neighbours so they could feed their families. By the time Michael died in 1933, the store was deeply in debt for the times, although all his working children sent money home to help with the store. Son Lorne delayed marriage for eight years so he could concentrate on paying off the mortgage.
After Michael’s death in 1933, son Lawrence (Lornie) took over the store. A generous and community-minded man, he too carried the debts of friends and neighbours until he had to take a job selling insurance to keep the store afloat, while his sister Carmelita ran the store. Another sister, Viola, was a well-known teacher at the Osceola school as well as long-time housekeeper for Father Isaiah Rice. Another sister, Ann Mary Irene joined the Grey Sisters, and a brother became a monk with the Christian Brothers but drowned later in a forestry accident on a lumber boom. Another brother went to the seminary but was not ordained and a younger sister, Bernice, suffered from a misdiagnosed thyroid deficiency and also died young.
Lorne Bulger and his wife, Doreen had three daughters, all of whom graduated from St. James Roman Catholic Continuation School in Eganville. Lorne died after a car accident in 1987 at Kelly’s Corner which also injured his sisters. His three daughters had moved from the area, Joan and Betty becoming nurses and Ann becoming a teacher.
Bulger’s Corners eventually fell upon hard economic times as the availability of automobiles sent residents further afield to the larger centres of Renfrew and Pembroke. Despite that, the general store survived until 1986, almost a museum with its mementos of the past lovingly tended for 26 years by Carmelita Bulger after her brother, Lorne’s death. As a shopkeeper at the crossroads, Carmelita had an inside view of the social events of the area and for many years wrote the popular social notes for The Eganville Leader.
At the closure of the landmark store, Wilno auctioneer Leonard Daly presided over a well-attended final auction of the contents of the historic building. The one-room schoolhouse is now a private home and, sadly, there is no longer any presence of the Bulger family in the hamlet bearing their name. The Bulger names engraved on tombstones in the cemetery behind St. Michael’s church in Douglas is all that remains of this pioneer family whose presence was so vital in establishing the ghost hamlets of Bulger’s Corners.