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Random arrests and pot smoke: Bruce Bell recalls when hippies descended on Durham

Sudbury was ‘a wild and happening place’ in the 1960s and our downtown historian casts his gaze back on the turbulent end of that decade 

Sudbury in the late 1960s was a wild and happening place. Since our fair city was on the Trans-Canada Highway, hundreds of young people hitchhiking their way to Toronto would often make a stop-over in the Nickel City.

This was the height of the hippy era, and these youthful boys and girls found a lively and fun place in my hometown for a night or sometimes a few weeks.

Maybe it reminded them of home, but for some reason these boisterous transients smothered in patchouli oil headed straight for Murrays Restaurant on Durham in the Coulson Hotel.

However, it wasn't just unruly teenagers that made a beeline to Murray’s, which was a mainstay with the afternoon tea crowd.

After shopping at Eaton's across the street, the more mature ladies and gentlemen would head directly into Murray’s for their regular afternoon tea fix.

With the influx of young long-hairs, though, sudden every grandma’s favourite teashop was suddenly filled with hippies causing commotion, dancing on tables, openly smoking pot and running out without paying.

It got so uncontrollable for the harried staff in the summer of 1969 that the heavy guns were called in from the Toronto head office to bring order from chaos.  

The heavy gun in question was a fearsome-looking woman — and to this day her image is burned into my memory right beside Kresge's formidable head floor walker, Mrs. Doreen Moore. Strength with a smile. 

Surprisingly, her strong arm tactics worked and Murray’s, for a time, returned to normal. But as many likely remember, a few years later Murray's was turned into a gentlemen's club, complete with strippers — oh, the irony.

While Murray's briefly found some success in turning away hippies and other 'undesirables', the City of Sudbury was introducing loitering laws to curb what was seen as teenagers causing trouble by just standing on the sidewalk.

My rock star brother was one of those teenagers who were arrested and jailed for just standing on the corner of Larch and Durham in the summer of 1969.

This was big news back in the day as the crackdown was seen as a reaction to what was happening south of the border, with American cities burning and thousands marching in the streets protesting the war in Vietnam.

My dad was furious about the arrest, as were most Sudburians, in fact, and eventually the case was dropped.

You can’t talk about the 1960s without referencing the popular music scene of the day, and the Coulson Hotel was at the very centre of local rock’n’roll culture. It's where a lot of out of town rock bands would stay as well as play.

The back rooms of the Coulson were the taverns with their 20-cent draft beers. This was still the time of separate mens and ladies entrances, with one side strictly for men and the other side for women. However, a man could enter the ladies side if he was accompanied by a woman.

I remember the Coulson very well during this era for it was the first time I ever smoked marijuana.

My brother was having a party in one of the rooms, so of course I had to go even though I hadn’t been invited. I knocked on the door and when I heard “Who is it?”, I said jokingly “the police.”

My brother had recognized my voice. The door flew open, he grabbed my arm and said, "Get in here and never ever say that again, and are those my new pants you're wearing?!" He didn’t kick me out though and shortly after smoking my first joint, I was on my way.

One thing you could always count on standing outside the Coulson Hotel at Durham and Larch in the late 1960s was Dino the Popcorn Man.

A favourite of all ages from kids to stoned teenagers to young couples out on a date, Dino was a major fixture of downtown Sudbury. Although he did move his popcorn machine about, he usually stayed on the corner of Durham and Larch.

There was always rumour that if a young man asked for the 10-cent bag, Dino would include a condom in the bottom of the bag. If true, then Dino was doing a great service to the lives of young people back in the late 1960s. Who knows if it’s true?

Across from Murray's was the venerable Eaton store, and these two bastions of civility in downtown Sudbury complimented each other perfectly. While never really catering to the average teenager like Kresge's or Woolworths, I still included Eaton's on my weekly Friday night walks.

I remember the former Eaton's store on Durham as being huge with three floors of shopping. I also remember after you entered the Durham Street entrance, and continued to the back, there was a long annex that went all the way down to Elgin.

Here, the stoves, fridges and dishwashers were all lined up in rows, and in the late 1960s, most were avocado green. This long 'appliance alley’ was demolished sometime in the 1990s and a parking lot stands there today.

Downstairs was my favourite part of Eaton's as they always had the latest home decor items. I remember collecting Buddha figurines (very ’60s) and I would wait with baited breath for the next shipment to come in.

I don't remember if Eaton's had a restaurant like they would when they eventually moved into the City Centre Mall, so it made sense that the fashionable Murray's was just across the street.

Crossing Larch and continuing on the west side of Durham, you pass the Sudbury Bus Terminal at 121 Durham, where Family Dental Health is located today.

The building still has the metal awning. That awning has been around a while. I remember standing under it waiting for the bus with my mom way back in the late 1950s. 

When the buses moved out, Cecutti’s Bakery moved in for a while and I seem to remember a coffee shop being there after that. 

On the east side of Durham, just past Larch, you came upon two of Sudbury most famous delicatessens: Fred's and Frank's, side by side for many years.

I don't remember having a favourite as both places were great, it usually depended on which one had a table. 

I do remember one historic moment for me that happened at Frank's in the summer of 1969. The deli stood — which was in the same location for more than 70 years before it closed in 2015 — was where I met my cousin Carol for a coffee one Friday night.

She told me she and a few friends were planning on going to a music festival in upstate New York and would I like to come?

Now I was 15 years old in 1969 and although I was old enough to come downtown on my own, my dad said no way was I going to this hippie music festival a half a world away. The festival, of course, was Woodstock.

I was disappointed. Then, I watched the TV coverage. Seeing more than a half a million people weathering all that rain and mud, I remember being glad I didn't go.

While I didn't make it to Woodstock, there were plenty of hippies in Sudbury that summer to make up for it.

Next month Part 3: Sex and Drugs on Durham Street.

Bruce Bell live on stage

Hey, Sudbury, I'll be appearing live on stage at the Sudbury Theatre Centre on Sept. 11, taking the audience on a virtual tour of the downtown of yesteryear and sharing my memories of growing up in the Nickel City in the 1960s, sponsored by

There will be two shows, one at 2:30 p.m. and the other at 7:30 p.m. There are no reservations; it’s first come, first seated. The event is free with a pay-what-you-can donation. Hope to see you there!

Bruce Bell is a former Sudburian, now living in Toronto. He shared his memories of Christmas in downtown Sudbury back in the 1960s and 1970s back in December 2020. You can read that story here. In January, he reminisced about SS Kresge’s, which you can read here, while in February, Bell took a stroll through the old Sudbury Woolworth's location. In March, he took us on a tour through the old Zellers store and last month he led us on a wander through the old Nickel Range Hotel. In May, Bell brought readers on a wander through the historic Borgia Street neighbourhood. In June, Bell walked us down Durham Street on a Friday night in the late 1960s.