The Wheeler family (part two)

Gray Rocks was a destination which became, for its customers, a tradition in both winter and summer, year after year, solo, with friends or as a family.

The reputation of Gray Rocks was built largely on its devoted, reliable and proud employees. Many of them served there throughout their working lives.

In addition to being able to look forward to time with Réal Charette, who was the soul of skiing, hotel guests were welcomed warmly at reception by René Giroux. René knew his customers well and went beyond their expectations, developing a feeling of trust over the years.

In golf, director Eddy Eustace was the very incarnation of a stable, reassuring figure. The tennis academy, with pros Dennis Van Der Meer and later, Butch Staples, was very popular with the tennis buffs due to its international reputation.

They were pioneers

At the same time, the Wheelers never stopped innovating and demonstrating their remarkable entrepreneurial spirit. When the Bell Company became established in the region and refused to include Gray Rocks Inn in its development plan, George Wheeler bought poles and created the Wheeler Telephone Company.

The oldest, Tom, concentrated on aviation and created the Wheeler Airline, which became Canada’s second-largest aviation company. At the same time he developed, on the other side of the lake, the Lac Ouimet Club (Le Château), which he managed alongside his sister Frances Ellen.

The very select club would serve an elite clientele looking for new territories for hunting and fishing. They were accompanied by guides…including my father, Charles Duncan.

My grandfather, who was a blacksmith, depended on the “train du Nord”, as did George Wheeler. A friendship sprang up between the two patriarchs. While the parents got on well, the sons became real friends.

In 1930 Harry, Tom’s son, founded the Wheeler Kennel Club. It was a club of sled dogs. These dogs, Siberian Huskies, travelled – believe it or not – by train to competitions throughout Eastern Canada and the United States. My father became the accompanying person on these trips…which could be described as epic.

During the club’s existence, until the end of WWII, the dogs produced 39 litters of the competition dogs.

Lucille Wheeler, who inspired a whole generation

Lucille Wheeler, the granddaughter of George and Lucille, concentrated on alpine skiing. She was the first Canadian to bring home an Olympic medal. She won bronze in downhill at Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, in 1956. In 1958, at the World Championships in Bad Gastein, Austria, she took gold in downhill and gold in giant slalom and came second in the combined.

She immediately became the inspiration for a whole generation of young skiers. When she returned from Bad Gastein, our idol visited my school on lac Mercier and I still treasure the piece of paper on which she wrote, to me: “Keep up the good work”.

The “Ski Week” concept

Over the years, Gray Rocks Inn, under Harry’s management, continued to diversify. Alpine skiing gained in popularity and in 1951, the Inn created the “Ski Week” package, ideal for those who wanted to get started in the sport. Through it, the Inn taught skiing techniques at an affordable price. It was the ancestor of what we call today the “all-inclusive”.

This marketing strategy was hugely successful and was rapidly adopted by the big ski resorts. The credit went to Réal Charette, spokesperson and director of the Inn’s Snow Eagle Ski School who, every fall, visited the many ski shows across Canada and the United States to boast of the merits of his school and the quality of the services of Gray Rocks Inn.

The third generation

Tom ran into financial difficulties and the Lac Ouimet Club and Wheeler Airline closed. Harry’s son, Frederick Haskel (Tom Jr.) studied the hotel business and, along with his brother Harry Roberts (Biff), took over the management of operations.

Tom Wheeler Sr, Harry Roberts Sr, Harry Roberts (Biff) and Frederick Hasquel (Tom Jr)

At the end of the ‘60s, Harry started into a gradual retirement and it was thus that Tom Jr. and Biff became owners of the hotel, ski centre and golf course. The two brothers worked constantly to improve the hotel, with new facilities such as the swimming pool.

In 1982, Tom Jr. decided to retire, with his wife Sheila and their children.

They moved to Bermuda, but returned every summer to our beautiful part of the world. Early in the ‘90s, Biff decided to sell Gray Rocks, and with his departure for the Canadian West, the story of the Wheeler family on lac Ouimet came to a close.

Other owners followed one after another, but the heyday of Gray Rocks ended with the departure of the last member of the Wheeler family. Today, Gray Rocks Inn is no more. History repeated itself and a fire ravaged the hotel in November 2014. Many people wept that night for the memories, for the tradition, for the loss of heritage….

This wonderful story of Gray Rocks reminds us of the courage and tenacity of these pioneers. Let’s wish the new owners an equally rich experience.

 

By the same author:  The Cuttle’s Tremblant Club (Click the image below)

 

Peter Duncan50 Posts

Membre de l’équipe canadienne de ski alpin de 1960 à 1971, skieur professionnel de 1971 à 1979 et champion américain en 1965, Peter Duncan a participé aux Jeux olympiques de 1964 à Innsbruck ainsi qu’à ceux de 1968 à Grenoble. Intronisé au Temple de la renommée du ski au Canada, au Panthéon des sports du Québec et récipiendaire de la médaille du gouverneur général, Peter a longtemps été commentateur de ski à la télévision./ Peter Duncan is a Canadian former alpine skier who competed in the 1964 and the 1968 Winter Olympics. He was named to the Canadian National Alpine Team in 1960 at the age of 16 and competed at the national level for the next 10-years until 1970 before retiring.

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