GRAND BEND MAIN STREET RIOT, 1964
In the summer of 1964, I was at the family cottage with my parents, Mary and Ed Desilets. We decided to take our usual evening stroll down to Main Street, and take up our usual perch on the wall next to MacLaren's Drug Store. We enjoyed people watching and being part of the activities on the main drag.
On that particular night there were unusually large crowds of young people gathering on the sidewalks and in the street. We had never experienced crowds like that, and wondered what was going on. In a very short period of time it evolved into a mob, out of control. The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) made an appearance on Main Street to assess the situation and to make their presence known. When they noticed the police presence, the crowd panicked and started running in all directions, on Main Street and up the side streets.
Given the mood of the crowd, we decided that this wasn't a good place to be, and we headed back to the house. We got caught up in the melee, so I grabbed onto my mother and we stepped in between two vehicles that were parked on the street in front of the MacLaren house. We felt safe between the vehicles. As soon as the crowd dispersed enough to give us a comfort level to step back into the street, we proceeded home. We got back to the cottage safely and bedded down for the night.
The following weekend (Labor Day Weekend) we had guests from Michigan. On Saturday evening, we all, as well as my boyfriend (now my husband, David) decided to do the usual trip to MacLaren's sidewalk wall, where everyone sat. We checked out the crowd, then stepped down the street to the Cheryl Ann for some fries and then across the street for a beverage at the Imperial Hotel.
After a couple of cocktails we decided to call it a night and head for home. We stepped out of the hotel into the middle of another unruly crowd, numbering in the hundreds, much more vocal and aggressive than the previous Saturday night.
Directly in front of the hotel was a gang of young men doing their very best to roll over an OPP squad car. On our left stood an OPP officer with his nightstick, pummeling a young man. We stood in awe as we watched the crowd of rowdies acting out.
I cannot recall how long we observed the goings on, but, when we had the opportunity, we crossed through the crowd to the north side of Main Street and bolted up Huron Street for home.
As we rounded that corner at Main and Huron, we heard something that we had never experienced before. A very vocal official was reading The Riot Act to the boisterous crowd. We all looked at one another, knowing that we had experienced something very unique, then followed Huron Street home.
When we got to the house, my parents and their friends were ready to settle in, but Dave and I decided we wanted to see how the events had played out, so we sneaked back towards the action to check it out.
When we got out onto the street and headed south, we came upon Gordon Mackay and his girlfriend Kathy (now his wife) and their good friends Jim Monnot and his girlfriend (now his wife Dianne). The Mackay's had a family cottage a half block from ours and Jim and Dianne were at Dianne's family cottage on the south side of the Ausable River.
As we stood in the street talking about the events of the evening, we got the second surprise of our lives. The OPP "paddy wagon" was traversing the streets just north of Main Street, with the rear doors swinging open as they rounded corners. Inside the wagon were OPP officers discharging tear gas cannisters into the crowds. We opted not to go back down to Main Street until the crowd thinned out and all appeared quiet.
Around midnight, Jim convinced us that we needed slip back downtown to check out the 'scene of the crime'. So we set out on the two block walk to Main Street. We got back to "the wall" at MacLaren's when we met up with a lone OPP officer who promptly turned us around, telling us that Main Street was off-limits for the night. So off we went, back to our homes, to settle in for the night.
Two years ago, while wintering in Florida, we were enjoying the sunshine at the pool of our condo, when we struck up a conversation with a fellow who had a noticeable Canadian accent.
One thing led to another in our conversation about "where are you from", etc. We were very surprised to learn that he was a retired OPP officer. We asked him if he ever was posted at the Grand Bend station, and it was neat to hear that he was. Amazingly, he was at the riot there in 1964. He inquired if he had arrested me for misbehavior at the riot, and I responded that I was not a participant, but merely a casual observer.
Having been frequent visitors to Grand Bend since 1946 has truly been a significant part of our lives. We have introduced other friends to The Pinery, Main Street, Oakwood and many other attractions in Lambton County. We continue to visit the Mackay's at their retirement home there, and have many fond memories of the hospitality in the area.