Isobel McBride kept Barrie’s past front and centre

There’s a contradiction in Isobel Smith McBride’s life. You could say that her life’s enthusiasm was accuracy– knowing, understanding, recording the truth… ensuring that Barrie’s life has an accurate place in history.

And yet, the fact of her own date of birth was something she refused to reveal.

“Ladies don’t reveal their ages,” she would say and her sister Helen would echo her sentiments.

When a host of Barrie folks turned out to pay their respects to Isobel last week, what they celebrated was her incredible legacy of historical accuracy.

Nearly singlehandedly, Isobel recorded every gravestone in Barrie Union Cemetery. Painstakingly, she’d bend over the really old stones, placing parchment over names and rubbing pencil on top so she could try to decipher people and dates. Dates of death.

Dates of birth.

Isobel lived her entire life, almost, in the 20th century. Yet, her mind, her heart, and her substantial ability claimed the century before as its real interest. It’s thanks to her that books about Barrie’s early years have historically accurate photographs. It’s due to her that we can draw on our historically accurate past as we look ahead to Barrie’s future.

Isobel Smith McBride was blessed with a long life. It was a life that embraced a stability that few of us will ever know… Born in Sturgeon Falls (in 1908, it turns out), she moved to Barrie when her father, Arthur Wellington Smith (A.W., as he was known) and her mother Sarah Nixon Smith moved to Barrie for steady employment.

A.W. came here in 1912 at the Town Clerk and Treasurer. Working out of the original town hall, A.W. Smith maintained meticulous records that show each lot in town, with the name of each owner penned into each survey rectangle. Barrie was just a few thousand souls in those days, and A.W. had a solid working knowledge of all of them.

When he brought his bride and first children to Barrie in 1912, they moved into a house at 144 Maple AVE. Big trees, a gracious side porch, hardwood floors, bow windows, this house now is home to the fourth generation of Smiths. Young Isobel, and Helen, and Ruth, and Douglas, and Harold grew up in an era when Sunday drives and afternooon picnics were a weekend’s activity. As a senior, Isobel would still take to her car for Sunday drives and if driven by someone else she’d repeat tremendous detail about the history of each house passed.

She married Neil McBride in 1941, when she was 33 years old. Neil grew up at #9 Penetang St, and worked his entire life as an estimator for Curran Briggs Construction. After a brief stint living in Toronto, they returned to join Isobel’s parents in the Maple AVE house and their only daughter Katherine was born.


In between Isobel’s move back to her childood home in 1941 and her leaving it after a final fall six months ago, lies a lifetime of volunteer work that has gifted our community many times over.

For instance…

She was an avid, reliable member of Collier Street United Church and many of its women’s committees. She attended faithfully the IODE and was a founding member of the Geneological Society. She (with the help of her grandsons) gave hundreds of hours preparing the cataloguing of Barrie Union Cemetery. She submitted winning floral entries to the Barrie Fair in an era when making a home, embroidering cloths, baking wonderful pies, planting amazing flowers were an admirable activity for a woman who was “making a home.”

Isobel really cared about her community, and for several years she followed her father’s footsteps by working in the town clerk’s and treasurer’s office. She sent out tax bills, recorded births and deaths and issued marriage licences. She also dispensed people to the basement of the old town hall with a bag they could fill with coal. After all, it was the Depression and the town did what it could to help people out. In fact, lawyers trying to close real estate deals would often puzzle over a survey that was irregular in shape, and always they turned to Isobel for an explanation. “Oh, there was a laneway there once and Mr. so-and-so bought it.” Or, “Well, that division was the compromise after a squabble between two children.”

She knew. She knew so much about Barrie’s original streets and the people who lived on them.

At one point, for interest sake, she kept a list of all the different makes of cars in town and who was driving what. There were so many Fords, so many Oldsmobiles. It was an unbelievable list.

She left a tremendous selection of historical pictures. She prepared a slide show presentation which she delivered regularly. She maintained her interest in Barrie’s Historical Society, and in Simcoe County’s Historical Society until 1999 when she was 91. She attended the annual dinner meeting of the Innisfil Historical Society in 1999, too. Why? Well, her parents were born in Innisfil.

When she retired, Helen Smith joined her sister in the family home and together they played bridge, enjoyed Sunday drives, and generally maintained their interest in the community. They both confided to me one day in 1990 that one of their most embarrassing moments was the day their father, walking back to work after lunch, found them barrelling down unpaved Bayfield St., bike wheels spinning, braids trailing out behind them, bent as fast as they could go for the government wharf at the bottom of the hill. A.W. didn’t take kindly to this unladylike behaviour on the part of his daughters, and had brisk words for them both.

Isobel Smith McBride lived in a Barrie so small that it didn’t have neighbourhoods. Her good friends lived everywhere.The turnout at her funeral last week would have impressed her good sense.

As long as nobody asked about her age.

Thanks, Isobel.