by Penny Rose
There are still many friends and landmarks around Morin Heights that trigger memories of my early days in this village. Many of us still lovingly refer to them as the ‘hippy’ days. To this day I know I was a ‘hippy’ although I worked like a dog!
Let me give you a brief account of my perspective of the early ‘70’s experience, on rue du Village, then known as ‘Main Street’ in downtown Morin Heights, and life at Rose’s Cantina, now reincarnated as a children’s day care centre – the irony of it all!
It began with three people seeking asylum from city life and a burning desire to get down to basics and “back to the country.” The failing brakes on our trusty Volvo landed us in the hub of Morin Heights at Gordon’s garage (now the restaurant “O Petit”). Chris Rawlings and Bill Russell, now both professional musicians as well as family men, filled out the eager trio that gave birth to Rose’s Cantina. A few years later, Norma McNaughton joined the new home and shared the experience.
As fate would have it, the old Joseph Seale house directly across the street from Gordon’s garage was for rent. Its Louisiana style appealed to Bill who was born and raised in Baton Rouge. Chris and I just loved all the rooms, the warmth of the house, the beautiful loft, the wrap-around porch and the “vibe” that still makes our town unique.
We opened our doors and invited people to share the experience of live music in an intimate living room space. To my dismay, the town was at first quite skeptical. Long-time residents were suspicious of this group of weirdly dressed longhaired musician types, assumed hippies, draft dodgers…. vagrants! It was an unusual sight. An endless stream of people coming and going, carrying banjos, guitars and a variety of other instruments. People hanging around on the front porch having a nip or enjoying a coffee - and from all appearances, no one seemed to work. Yes, we were a cross between communal living and a boarding house. It gave you the feeling that the Cantina was sort of a transit point for the “Peace & Love” movement of the sixties and seventies.
On our first Halloween, we made homemade candied apples and popcorn, but to our dismay no one would bring his or her children to our door. Fear is a mighty thing. As time passed, the townsfolk became more familiar and comfortable with the strangeness of its new residents, and the music continued to play in our living room every Friday and Saturday evening. We were very proud of the talent we brought to Morin Heights in the seventies. Many musicians passed through our doors; some have even become quite famous: Jesse Winchester, Karen Young, Michael Browne, Colin Linden, Penny Lang, The Stephen Barry Band, Lorne Elliot, to mention just a few. We were also unique – the only coffee house folk music establishment in the Laurentians. We gained considerable notoriety and attention from the press. Articles appeared in Montreal’s major newspapers and we were interviewed several times on the radio.
We presented many outdoor events including a wonderful day at Basler’s Ski Hill, funded by a grant received from the Federal government’s ‘Year of the Child’ program. We hosted dances, square dances, backyard folk music festivals, parades, musical jams, mega feasts, art and macramé classes, theme parties such as “Ladies in Black” in honour of all those born under the sign of Taurus, Swedish night…. We even organized an organic food co-op.
Village life suited our style, the “Big V - everything” store, Mickey’s Laundromat, attached to the one and only clothing store of the same name, the L’Héritage restaurant with its great “Perry” burgers, Books & Things, the Leather Shop, the summer Fruit Stand in what is now the library parking lot, the Bell Theatre, Percy Gordon’s Garage, the incredible Hanover House restaurant, and, of course, the other nightlife--the Commons Bar and the Bellevue Hotel. At that time Morin Heights also had two banks; it must have been a prosperous town!
Our life at the Cantina was far from uneventful. There was always something going on and from that, many stories. One memorable event has come to be known as the “Great Drug Bust.” It was a typical Friday night. We had 20-25 people in attendance for our evening of music. Just after dinner, a group of younger people arrived at the side kitchen door. After much miming through the window, the newcomers did regroup and enter through the front door. I greeted them but they seemed to look through me and headed directly into the audience area. I, of course, barked, “Excuse me, but that will be $2.00 each please.” (That was the modest entry fee at the time). “Oh, that’s okay, we’re the RCMP” to which I promptly responded, “Yes and I’m Penny Rose.” That apparently had no effect as they replied, “You don’t seem to understand, we are the RCMP.” Goodness! I did feel rather speechless but once they flashed their ‘warrant’ authorizing them to search Rose’s Cantina and all its rooms, I did manage to say, “Oh, then do come right in.” They boldly entered the Cantina and asked questions and searched a few customers, shook and sniffed a few of the spice jars, rifled most of the closets and drawers they could find in this large home, but they couldn’t seem to find anything substantial. The RCMP did manage to find a very inconsequential quantity of an “illegal substance” in the possession of one of our customers, who was charged, but the whole thing was thrown out of the courts. Jason Lang, a wee tot at the time, had eyes like saucers when he asked his mother, Penny, if that was a “real gun” they had. Walter Edge was sure they wanted his US money. The RCMP left feeling rather unfulfilled. We still to this day, do not know why we were “busted.” Just another night at the Cantina.
I remember the winters well; they were magical compared to city living. It was a winter wonderland. The town didn’t take the snow away in those days; it piled high everywhere so you could ski on top of the snowbanks created by the ploughs. The cross-country ski trails were all of the backwoods variety, and they were a secret known only to those living in the area, yet Morin Heights was on its way to becoming the “Cross Country Ski Capital” of the Laurentians.
A history of these times would be incomplete without reference to ‘Buckshot’, my wee runt of a fake corgi who integrated easily into country life. He often expressed his masculinity and was regularly caught and returned to me by either Owen Legallee or Basil Green. Bucky was truly delusional, thinking he was the ‘King Dog’ of the Heights. One of his favourite activities was hanging around the door at the Big “V” where he usually got lucky and was favoured with a treat. Or perhaps he would just sit in the centre of the corner stopping traffic in all directions. To this day, I still see dogs with very Bucky-like characteristics around the village. Who knows!
Music on the go. No wonder old-timers scratched their heads about the Cantina crowd.
There are many more stories from that time, some of which have been greatly mythologized over the years - the free plane rides over the Heights courtesy of Inky Kneeland, our beloved postmaster; the raising and killing of the pigs; the Cantina dinner with Cat Stevens, the “dynamite in the firewood incident” - just to mention a few. These will be saved for a future instalment. All to say, the Cantina days evolved and are affectionately remembered by many still living in the community or abroad in many countries.
Ed note: Although the Cantina is long gone, Penny Rose is still here and has continued with her efforts to bring live music and theatre to Morin Heights. The Joyful Noise Choir, Theatre Morin Heights, the Centaur Group, Shakespeare In The Park, the Wild Roots Festival and her own personal house concert evenings and parties with music have all grown out of the fertile ground provided by the Cantina.
At right, Penny Rose, at home on Vivaldi with husband David Hodgson and Bollywood, 2010. Click below to hear Penny talk about the Cantina.