Sudbury

Community of Bradlo to be commemorated with 11-tonne granite boulder

On July 30 an 11-tonne granite boulder honouring the first settlers in Bradlo, in northern Ontario, will be unveiled.

Settlement of Slovak immigrants had all but disappeared by 1950, former Bradlo resident says

A young man plays accordion.
A young man plays accordion. The community of Bradlo was home to about 30 Slovak families in the 1930s. (www.slovak.com)

This weekend Rudy Bies and his wife Gloria begin their annual pilgrimage from Toronto through northern Ontario, with a final destination of Bradlo, the now-deserted community of Slovak immigrants where Rudy grew up.

Although the last Slovak left Bradlo in 1969, and very little from the community is left standing, Bies still has a deep connection to the place and its history. He even penned a book about the community: Bradlo and Other Slovak Pioneer Footprints in Northern Ontario.

On July 30, Bies will be on hand for the unveiling of a special monument: an 11-tonne granite boulder honouring the first settlers in Bradlo.

"On the front face is the word Bradlo," Bies said. "And on the backside, we have listed every one of the original settlers that came there in 1939."

A historical plaque stands on Highway 11 describing the history of Bradlo.
The community of Bradlo was commemorated by this plaque in 1997. It is located on Highway 11, near the intersection with Highway 538. (www.ontarioplaques.com)

Those settlers arrived at the height of the Great Depression, a wave of Slovak immigrants lured by the promise of work by an enterprising Catholic bishop from the area.

"They were riding the rails, looking for work like everybody else was," Bies said. "And a small group of them were living in Montreal. And the bishop from Hearst, he was looking for settlers for the Hearst area."

"So a handful of them in 1939 headed for Hearst and settled on a 75 acre lot where they formed Bradlo."

There were no roads, no settlements, just a trail, Bies said. Initially, 50 families put roots down, with the population eventually peaking around 200. Once the community saw the need for a post office, residents held a vote to name their new village. 

Rudy and Gloria Bies stand in front of a historical plaque commemorating the history of Bradlo.
Rudy and Gloria Bies stand in front of a historical plaque commemorating the history of Bradlo. (Radio Canada/Francis Bouchard)

They picked Bradlo, named after the burial place of Milan Rastislav Štefánik, a World War I general, who died in a plane crash in 1919. 

Bies said the community, though isolated, provided him with a host of rich childhood memories.

"Growing up on the farm, I thought it was the greatest place in the world," Bies said. "There was no paper route to deliver newspapers to. But I had my little trap line. I would catch weasels and rabbits and other fur-bearing animals."

"I just enjoyed walking the trails, walking through the bush, listening to the radio about far distant places like Alaska or Siberia," Bies said. "I remember feeling sorry for those people because I was so much better off than they were."

Bies said he also remembers the challenge of winters in Bradlo, as the men often left for lumber camps leaving the women to "hold fort."

In a photo from long ago, the Catholic church in Bradlo stands in a wintry field.
In this undated photo, Bradlo's Catholic church stands ready to serve its community of almost 200 people. (www.slovak.com)

"It was very difficult for the women to look after their children," he said. "There was no car traffic. Roads were not open. You had to go by horse to Hearst. What I do remember living on the farm, the wood we were burning was loaded with creosote, so we had many chimney fires."

"The men were always in the lumber camps, so the poor women were the ones running around with buckets of water."

By 1949, the school was closed, with kids being bussed off to nearby Hearst. According to the Ontario Heritage Trust, by 1950 most people had left Bradlo.

Bradlo's brief history is commemorated in an Ontario heritage plaque, installed on Highway 11 in 1997.

"After their pulpwood was harvested, residents realized that their land would not support commercial farming," the plaque reads. "By 1950, most had left for better opportunities elsewhere."

"Although few traces of Bradlo survive today, its brief history illustrates the hard work, resourcefulness and communal aid that have distinguished the immigrant experience in northern Ontario."

With files from Morning North and Casey Stranges

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