The bear and the place - Winnie the Pooh and White River

This week Back Roads Bill tells us about how a town has made a children's story character into a destination and about the evolution of writing a weekly story

Read the story at SooToday


This is a summertime, main road story - a human catalytic, chain reaction, 'what if' one. The leaves have fallen, winter is approaching and everything takes time including writing the next story. You look for something different; you have to get a feel for the prose.

After the recent leaves story, a Village Media reader, Ian Watson, contacted me.

“My favorite fall story is Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day - 'Happy Windsday Pooh,' said Piglet, rake in hand. 'I don't mind the leaves that are leaving. It's the leaves that are coming.' In late August, I had stopped in White River not knowing when or when a Winnie story would happen, where it would go but a story it would be, so the reader contact started the keyboard tapping.

I have driven by and stopped in at the Husky and A&W so many times on the way to the back roads.

White River has a notable roadside icon like the Wawa Goose to the east, with a themed festival based on the A.A. Milne story and Disney character Winnie the Pooh (Winnie).

At one time the town had the image and notoriety that it was “The Coldest Spot in Canada" with recorded temperatures as low as −58 °C (−72 °F). (This apparently is a myth, as the coldest temperature in Canada was recorded in Snag, Yukon, at −62.8 °C (−81.0 °F) on February 3, 1947. The town shed that image in favor of Winnie as the “cold” was deterring people from moving there.)

The Background

The background and defining detail of Winnie’s evolution is well known enough. A female, black bear cub adopted by Lt. Harry Colebourn, a Canadian veterinarian and soldier with the Royal Canadian Army Veterinary Corps, stopped over at the Canadian Pacific Railway station. The cub, orphaned when the sow was shot by a hunter, was negotiated from a trapper for $20, a fortune at the time.

Colebourn named the cub “Winnipeg Bear” after the town he grew up in — “Winnie” the nickname became the shortened version.

Harry was on his way to join fellow soldiers heading overseas for the ‘Great War,’ the bear went with him on the ship. In England, Winnie became the mascot for Harry’s troop, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade. The brigade played with her whenever they had downtime.

Then the word came, they were going to France and it came with the order that Harry could not bring Winnie. It was arranged Winnie would be loaned to the London Zoo — a transition that would later become permanent once Harry realized how loved she was by all the zoo visitors, particularly children.

The Story

Piecing together a weekly story takes patience, the deadlines are eventual enough; I have that luxury as this is my avocation.

From the time I took the photos, coming back from the back roads, during the last week of August until this week, it takes perseverance.

I like to include 'talking heads' to give the story various forms of information and creditability. First contacts were to various town administration emails. Eventually, Troy Sauriol responded. He is the Financial Assistant for the Corporation of the Township of White River.

Sorry, we missed your original query, but we’d love to enlighten you on our community’s history…as for this year’s festival, it was a rousing success and we believe many people enjoyed being able to attend public events within the framework of COVID-19 protocol.

We appreciate everyone who worked on, volunteered for, and attended the festival. It takes a lot of people pulling in the right direction in order to make something as large as our festival work.

We look forward to being able to continue our festival next year and are excited to see our community filled with those curious about our ties with Winnie. 

If you’d like to learn more about Winnie, the mural, and their ties to the community I believe the best person to start with would be Jan Ramage. She is our local librarian and a part of White River’s Historical Society.”

Historical details are important for the record, things don’t just happen people make them so.

Mia Sokoloski is one of the founding members of The White River District Historical Society still residing in White River.; she deserves a great deal of credit.

I received a message from Jan Ramage, White River Public library on your behalf. The original member who contacted Dorothy Duncan of the Ontario Historical Society to organize the White River Historical Society is Debbie Duplassie who still lives in White River.

The person who gave the festival its name was Leroy Talbot; before it had been called The Teddy Bear Festival. There were many changes as time went on.

The Historical Society was incorporated in November 1988, and held its first Teddy Bear Festival in 1989.

She authored through a children’s book the first account of how the Winnie story began. 

I had students from our school as well as volunteers from Katimavik act in a play that I had written in 1993.

The title was The Bearcub Called Winnie. Regarding the train, I was asked by a gentleman who arranged Tourism Excursions from Winnipeg if I would read my book I had written called The Romance of the Captain and Winnie the Bear to the tourists onboard the Budd Car in the morning, prior to their departure from White River to Sudbury.

All of this as a volunteer, Mia connected with the late Fred Colebourn (son of Harry Colebourn) and communicated with the late Christopher Robin Milne to accurately tell this true Northern Ontario story. As well she wrote about the Disney conflict with the Winnie statue, read on.

Mia’s authentication of storied details has led to her being recognized by the Ontario Historical Society for her work in preserving history.

So many significant dates and chronological events, almost karma-like.

Winnie was one of the most popular animals in the London Zoo at the time. Thanks to the Canadian soldiers Winnie was very tame; children visiting the zoo could ride on her back. Christopher Robin and his father, A. A. ( Alan Alexander) Milne became frequent visitors.

Christopher Robin named his teddy bear after Winnie, combined with the name of a friend’s pet swan, “Pooh,” to create Winnie-the-Pooh. The story collection Winnie-the-Pooh was published in October 1926.

Guinness Record

In the interim, I honed in on an integral sidebar story related to Winnie and the festival.

In 1961, Disney purchased the copyright to Winnie The Pooh and the real marketing and merchandising only as Disney can do, began. Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree in 1966 was the franchise's big-screen debut. There has been a steady stream of movies, TV shows, video games, and amusement park rides ever since. In 2006, Pooh Bear himself received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

People collect things and some have a healthy obsession. Contact was made with Deb Hoffmann in Waukesha, Wisconsin. She has the largest Winnie the Pooh memorabilia collection consisting of more than 20,000 items verified on Dec. 20, 2020, by the Guinness Book of Records.

She started her collection in 1967 and officially broke the Guinness World Records title in 2009 with 4,405 items. Since then, she has continued to grow her collection and update the record.

“Along the exposition of collecting, I have found some fantastic Pooh items, met some wonderful people along the way and have experienced some fun and memorable events. I have also confirmed that I am not alone in my love for Winnie the Pooh.” She knows White River.

“There was not a festival in 2020 and sadly travel restrictions prevented us from going this year. I have been to White River for the last 20 years and, other than that, have emceed Winnie's Hometown Festival since 2006.

“They have honored us by having a shelf in the museum with items that we donated to display, many are items that could only be found in the US. They also have my Guinness Book Centerfold displayed -- we love White River and the people we've met.” She continues to donate to the festival’s raffle to help the museum.

The latest edition to her collection is a first edition Harrods exclusive copy of Once there was a Bear autographed by Mark Burgess the illustrator which is # item 21138 in her collection. A first edition of Winnie the Pooh published by Methuen & Co, 1926, in “near fine condition” sells for$ 7,095 (USD) so check your old books. See her website about the anatomy of a collector.


The present and future of the festival finally took flight when I eventually located Brandi Greenwood, festival coordinator for the past seven years.

“The Facebook page is probably our most effective way of advertising. Last year (2020) we did a virtual festival and had all free events in order to improve our outreach by allowing anyone from anywhere to participate and tried Facebook advertising for the first time and we received over 250 new likes on the page which is amazing for a small-town festival. This year we saw tons of new likes and lots of new people which is amazing. We had a great attendance and everyone enjoyed themselves. I have not started planning 2022 yet but usually start end of the year.

“The festival creates a great sense of pride in the community. Everyone who lives in White River is a family and [they] are all very proud of our story and how we became the hometown of Winnie the Pooh.”

See the Facebook page for the festival.

The historic 1885 CPR train stop where Captain Harry Colebourn arrived in the town on Aug. 24, 2014, is still an active railway station, now serviced by Via Rail, and is located on Winnipeg Street; just down the way is a large timely mural.

When you think about it, it is here you get a sense of the past and place of a come-by-chance meeting that triggered so many sequential events. The brick-clad station is comprised of two adjoining parts: a two-story Telegraph Building built in 1926 and a one-story international-style passenger facility built in 1957. White River was originally only accessible by train until Highway 17 was completed through the town in 1961. You will see the prominent silhouette signage spelling out “WHITE RIVER” on the west side of the track.


When you write a story there is so much to learn and pick through to highlight.

When you stop by the Highway 17 statue keep the following in mind.

In 1989 the Disney corporation asked White River not to use Winnie the Pooh because the bear "is a Disney company asset that we have by right of copyright laws." Disney’s lawyers issued a letter refusing the town’s request to build a Winnie the Pooh statue; the mega-company suggested that the town build a statue of a black bear. American newspapers covered the dispute between the northern town and the movie mogul.

Soon enough Disney agreed to design the statue, the community then fundraised to build it, and the town established a corporation so that it could create and retail Disney-approved Winnie the Pooh items. It initiated the “Where it all began” retailing opportunity that features a profile of Winnie with a honeypot underarm as the statue depicts.

See the Disney retailing site on this website. The value of the rights to Winnie the Pooh was estimated to cost the Disney corporation $350 million in 2001. In 2020 it was estimated Winnie-the-Pooh‘s diversified worth is billions of dollars per year (the amount Disney makes from the franchise).

See the White River map link for the park and the mural.

As you read and review sources you discover little things. But, there is an oversight on the website, “…given up to the zoo in London, Ontario. The real Winnie The Pooh was a female bear cub who brought much joy to zoo visitors from all over Canada…”

It was London, England but we know that. Winnie remained at the zoo until her death in 1934. On Wednesday, July 19, 1995, there was an unveiling of a statue of Lt. Colborne and Winnie the Pooh at the London Zoo, similar to the one located in Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Zoo.

The story leads the writer to finally say, “In no particular order stop by Winnie the Pooh Park for some photos, gas and burgers. While Walt Disney may have made Winnie, the loveable bear with the taste for honey, a movie and merchandising icon; White River, once known as the coldest spot, has made the warm, soft-hearted bear into a festival and a destination."

You can feel it.


About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre