Back in 1914 I bet no one of White River, Ontario, Canada knew their town would be part of a world-wide phenomenon that would eventually be known all over the world and in Essex County as Winnie the Pooh.
There was a little black bear cub that became an orphan when a trapper killed her mother. She was found by a trapper who brought her into White River. It sounds odd , but it was not an uncommon thing to do back then.
White River, founded by the CP Rail in 1885, was an important stop for trains. In town trains would take load coal and do train maintenance. During WWI, most trains carrying troops also carried horses so they would stop in White River from four to six hours at time to allow the horses to be watered and exercised. Soilders were drilled along Winnipeg Street where the Train Station was located. It was here at the Train Station, that the trapper sold the bear cub to a soldier during a stopover. The soldier was Lieutenant Harry Colebourn. An entry in his journal reads, "August 24, 1914 Left Port Arthur 7AM. In train all day. Bought bear $20". A later notation identifies the township as White River.
Harry Colebourn, was attached to both the Fort Garry Horse Regiment and the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps. He was in charge of the horses on the troop train. He was headed for Val Carteir, Quebec and then on to England. Harry was born in England and came to Toronto, Ontario, Canada when he was 18. He later moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba. Harry decided to name the little cub "Winnipeg" after his hometown - a long way from Essex County. This little bear, known as "Winnie" became a pet for the soldiers, sleeping under the bed of her master even after they reached the Salisbury Plains in England.
Harry Colebourn was now a Captain. In 1914 he received the news that he would soon be deployed to France. He knew that Winnie would not be able to accompany him, so he arranged to keep her in the London Zoo until he came back. Winnie soon became a favorite attraction. Guests would knock on her door and she would open it and come out. She would allow boys and girls to ride on her back and she would eat from their hands. The zoo keepers who cared for her thought that Winnie was completely trustworthy. Other bears were not allowed to get so close to the visiting public.
Captain Colebourn visited Winnie at the Zoo whenever he was on leave. He always recorded his visits in his diary. When Harry saw how popular she was with the children and public, he made the decision he would leave her with the London Zoo. She was officially donated to the Zoo on December 1, 1918.
This little bear captured the hearts of many people to the Zoo, among them Alan Alexander Milne and his son Christopher Robin Milne. They became frequent visitors and it was Christopher who added "Pooh" to Winnie's name. He got the name from his pet swan named Pooh. Christopher had a bear given to him on his first birthday on August 21, 1921 which he first called Edward Bear, but soon changed to "Winnie-the-Pooh" after the friendly Winnie the Bear at the London Zoo.
A.A. Milne started to write stories about a loveable bear in his children's books based on that bear in the Zoo. In his first edition in 1926, he mentioned that these stories were about this bear and his son and his son's stuffed animals. We have been told that Christopher Robin had a birthday party at the Zoo that included some of his friends and "Winnie-the-Pooh" as well, since it was held in Winnie's pen. Thus started the stories parents liviing in Essex County and all over the world would read to their death by the Zoo Officials.
A bronze statue of Winnie now stands at the London Zoo in her memory. It was unveiled in 1981. Part of the inscription reads "She gave her name to "Winnie-the-Pooh" and A.A. Milne and Ernest Shepard gave "Winnie-the-Pooh" to the rest of the world".
The White River 8th Grade Class also went to the London Zoo in 1997 to present another plaque detailing White River's participation in Winnie's history. A copy of this plaque is on display at the White River Visitor's Centre. There is also a bronze statue of Captain Colebourn and Winnie in the children's section at the London Zoo which is a copy of the one in Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg. It was given to the Zoo by the Manitoba Government.
The White River District Historical Society has received touching and sometimes humorous letters from those who knew the Milne family or visited Winnie at the Zoo. A.A. Milne passed away January 31, 1956. Christopher Robin Milne, who passed away April 20, 1996, had previously been in touch with the Historical Society and autographed six books, three books that his father wrote as well as three books he had written. These are on display in the Museum.
Fred Colebourn, the only son of Harry, passed away in May 1998 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. As a young boy growing up, he was aware of his father's connection to "Winnie-the-Pooh" and was pleased when it was verified in 1987. Fred was the guest of honour at White River's first Winnie's Hometown Festival in 1989 which celebrated the 75th anniversary of the purchase of the bear cub and the meeting of the Captain and Winnie at the train station in White River.
Disney purchased the copyright to "Winnie-the-Pooh" in 1961. The stories have been translated into thirty three languages. What girl in Essex County hasn't heard the Pooh stories.
In 1996, the Disney Company commissioned Canada Post to create a set of 4 stamps which depict the story of "Winnie-the-Pooh" beginning with the little Canadian Black Bear and Captain Colebourn in White River, then her life at the London Zoo, the meeting of Winnie and Christopher Robin Milne and lastly showing the "Winnie-the-Pooh" character as developed by the Disney Company.
Every year on the 3rd weekend in August, White River holds Winnie's Hometown Festival to celebrate and remember when the little black bear cub came from.
At the 4th festival in 1992 a statue, based on the Disney "Winnie-the-Pooh" was unveiled. It stands in Pooh Park just down the street from the Visitor Centre. There are beautiful flower beds surrounding the statue which can be viewed and visited from Hwy 17.
The White River District Historical Society has received many "Winnie-the-Pooh" memorabilia from fans and friends from all over the world. In 1994 a large collection from Saperstone family and from Fargo, ND, US was brought to White River and is displayed at the Visitor Centre. In 2003, Lisa Yee, then residing in Orlando FL, US contacted the Society, as she felt the White River Heritage Museum would be a perfect home for her unique, one of a kind "Winnie-the-Pooh" collection. And, Deb Hoffmann, Guinness World Record Holder for the 'Largest Pooh and Friends Memorabilia Collection' has donated several items to the museum. Deb and her husband, Gary, have emceed the festival since 2008 and donate Winnie the Pooh items each year to the festival raffle.
White River would love to share the history and original story with Pooh fans from Essex County anytime you're in the neighborhood.
It is Deb's crazy love for Winnie the Pooh which was the inspiration for the cartoon collectors auction website www.cartoonfreakboutique.com
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