The real legacy of Maxie Mintha of Barry's Bay

·10 min read

Barry's Bay -- Earlier this summer, this village lost one of its quintessential forces of nature. His name was Maxie Edward Mintha and he passed away on June 22nd, aged 97. He was born in this same village on May 10th, 1925, the oldest of 10 children and he became well-known as a very successful local businessman. But Maxie Edward Mintha was so much more.

In 1946, yet in his early 20s, he joined Stedman's Stores, trained as a manager in Renfrew, and by 1947 became the founding manager of Stedman’s Store on main street, Barry's Bay, a store that after 75 years still continues to delight and mesmerize locals and tourists alike, in part because of Maxie's legendary and lasting touch.

Maxie ran Stedman's here for 17 years but always maintained that the singular most important qualification he had when first hired was his ability to speak Polish and not just any old Polish. Stedman's head office in Toronto knew if its Barry's Bay store was to succeed, it would have to provide the language spoken by the majority of its locals. Maxie's ability to speak and even sing in what was then known as High Polish also became very important beyond Stedman's, especially after Vatican II when St. Hedwig's Roman Catholic Church began replacing Latin with Polish services. Maxie could not only read epistles in High Polish from the altar upon request, but he frequently belted out Polish hymns from the church choir loft.

Maxie may have been a busy businessman, if not a churchman extraordinaire, but he was also a tireless volunteer who not only helped build St. Francis Memorial Hospital, but also the Valley Manor, Barry's Bay's long-term care facility.

Maxie was one of those rare souls who is now seldom seen -- a very busy business owner who somehow found the time to help out his community in many, many ways. In his case, he not only helped raise the funds necessary to build St. Francis Memorial Hospital but was also elected to its first board of directors. As such, he helped oversee construction in 1959 as the board's secretary-treasurer, before taking on the role as its vice-president.

Often, after a very busy workday, he'd lock up Stedman's at 6 p.m. and drive down to Arnprior or Ottawa at his own expense to pick up hospital blueprints from the architects and engineers and then drive them back again to Barry's Bay, the very same evening. And when it came time to build the Valley Manor late in the 1970s, it was Maxie who located a building site, a parcel of land on his father's 100-acre farm that the Mintha family generously donated. Indeed, Maxie and his father literally blazed the very trail for what would become the roadway up to where the Valley Manor's front doors still open.

Such a successful community life seems a long way from Maxie’s grandparents farm out Paugh Lake way, where in his boyhood, wool was still sheered from sheep along the back forty, spun in the log farmhouse on his grandmother’s spinning wheel, and then hand-made into socks, sweaters and just about anything that anybody might want to wear on a farm, in a lumber camp or in a rural village. But anyone who knows the inventory that Maxie once stocked when he managed Stedman's (or who still notes Stedman's inventory today), knows he had a soft spot for woolen socks and work clothes, especially the kind farmers and lumberjacks and village people prefer to wear.

Maxie lived through the Great Depression, earning a few cents here and there by salvaging empty beer bottles down by Plebon's Rink across from the present-day Tim Hortons. Very much inspired by his cousins -- the famous entrepreneurial Palubeskies of Barry's Bay who, at one time, operated four different very successful stores in the village during the middle of the 20th Century, Maxie was never one to let a good business opportunity pass him by. Instead of spending those few pennies he earned occasionally during the Depression, he saved his money at the same time as he soon became famous for telling anyone who would listen that he was 'poor all his life', that is before giving them a wink and a broad smile.

He was barely 14 years old when the Second World War broke out and he not only remembered that horrific day of September 3rd, 1939, but he remembered vividly the very hour -- it was 10:30 a.m. during recess at St. Joseph's School -- when the terrible news arrived that Germany had invaded Poland. But by July 17th, 1942, before he was even able sign up for military service, Maxie was involved in a fatal automobile accident resulting in one death, and his own partial paralysis of his right leg and hands, making him unable to join the war effort. It also left him with disabilities that he managed to hide for most of his life from the general public.

Still, he took a great interest in the Second World War and so began a life-long interest in current affairs. He became a regular listener of CBC Radio and an avid reader of the Pembroke Observer, the Ottawa Citizen, National Geographic, and a thousand and one books about things that interested him for whatever unknown reason.

Recently, his four children -- John, Peter, Noreen and Andy -- all sat on their father's back porch and reminisced about growing up with Mr. Mintha.

"He never travelled the world," said daughter, Noreen, "but he wanted to know about the world."

She also said, and her brothers quickly agreed, some of those books and a lot of his interest in current affairs rubbed off on the family.

"Dad was a big fan of JFK," said John. "And he always told us, 'It's not what your community can do for you, but what you can do for your community!' What he meant was pay your fair share and don't be sucking more out of the system than you are contributing."

"Be productive and be honest," Noreen chimed in. "That's what he expected from us and that's what we've tried to carry forward."

Of course, a younger generation than Maxie’s own knew Maxie Mintha and his wife, Susan Yandernoll, best as the man and woman who built one of the most unique bakeries to ever grace the main street of Barry’s Bay; just the name of Mintha's Bakery, when said to locals of a certain age, can still have them salivating with the memory of a certain aroma of Susan Mintha's phenomenal homemade bread, cinnamon rolls, Chelsea buns, and apple and raisin pies.

"Mom was the master chef," said John who still remembers the recipe for making her famous cinnamon rolls, which he helped make year in and year out. So too with the bakery's famous pies, often prepared by Susan's sister, Annie Peplinski, as well as other family relatives. But John also remembers the incredible heat in the bakery's back kitchen -- often topping 116°F in the worst part of summer.

Everyone agreed, if Maxie was the business brains behind the bakery, his wife was the genius behind the succulent recipes; but she too came by her unique talent in an unusual way. Her mother had arthritis from a very young age, so when Susan was very young herself, she had to learn how to do most of the family’s cooking and baking.

“She made her first batch of bread by the age of 10,” said Noreen. “She loved it and so baking became a passion for her from a very young age.”

As a result, Susan only made it to Grade 6 before she was forced to drop out of school and stay at home to help her parents.

John remembers the days when his dad was still working at Stedman’s and his mother was running her first business, Westend Custard, the first soft ice-cream shop in Barry's Bay, that was just across the road and kitty corner from his parent's home.

At the same time, John said, after Sunday morning mass, Maxie would often stop at Stedman's to check to see if there were any overnight burglaries -- Stedman's once had a major robbery in the 1950s with the thieves blowing open the safe -- so John would have to wait in the toy department while his dad tried all the doors. Occasionally, Maxie would give in to his son's frequent requests and he or his siblings got to go home with a new toy.

Mostly, all four children remember the long hours and hard work their parent's put into the bakery to make a go of it. Still, all agreed Maxie and Susan were attentive parents, often taking home movies of their young family frolicking in three feet of snow or careening around snowbanks with one of the family's two snowmobiles, the best one sporting wooden skies and a six-horse-power engine.

"Dad had a Super 8 movie camera," said Noreen. "And he was always filming us, out playing hockey or skating on the creek."

The children's favourite memories are of the family spending evenings and weekends on a Paugh Lake farm their parents bought in 1962 where they all could go swimming, pick berries, chop wood, collect maple syrup or have winter wiener roasts. Of course, there was also the time when their mother harvested 800 heads of cabbage and turned them into eight barrels of sauerkraut to be sold to their Polish customers at the bakery.

"Our parents gave us all a very good work ethic," said John, "especially working on the farm; it was there we learned the basics -- how to drive a tractor, how to work the power take-off or how to hook-up a plough."

"We have great memories of being out in the bush on the farm," added Noreen. "We grew a lot of vegetables and so did a lot of preserves and canning."

Mintha's Bakery only operated for 18 years, shutting down for good in 1981 as Noreen finished high school and headed for Ottawa. Her three brothers had preceded her, all choosing to leave town rather than take over the bakery. It was one thing to know their mother got up every morning at 4 a.m. to start baking or accompany their father at 5:30 a.m. as he headed out to Pembroke to pick up supplies; it was another to keep carrying on that back-breaking tradition. All four ended up hearing the call of a different drummer -- John and Peter began very successful careers in the airline industry, Noreen launched a great career in insurance and Andy, though he eventually returned to Barry's Bay, found his real joy in auto mechanics.

At its height, Mintha's Bakery sold 100 pies daily, 120 dozen jelly donuts, 100 dozen honey dip donuts, and countless other baked goods that still have mouths watering just to think of them. All of Maxie’s children still know how to make most of those recipes, as they all worked hard and long throughout their younger years to make those baked goods at one time or another.

"We never took a summer vacation when we had the bakery," they all agreed in unison before Noreen chimed in: "Despite it all, we had a great family and a great life growing up."

A very wise man once said that the true definition of real ‘culture’ can only be found in your grandmother’s hand-written recipe box. So, it's no lie to say Barry's Bay culture was changed utterly that summer of 1963 when Mintha's Bakery (located where Vito's Restaurant is now located) first opened its doors. If you never had the pleasure of tasting one of Mintha’s cinnamon rolls, slathered with hot, melting butter, well it might be time to find your grandmother’s recipe for homemade bread and get cracking.

Short of that, you might think of Maxie and Susan Mintha and get to know their real legacy.

Barry Conway, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader