As the decades passed following her death in 1962, Winnifred Trainor became increasingly "a person of interest" in a mystery in which, at first, her role had barely registered. Today, screenplays, musicals and works of fiction have been written about her. She's even featured in the Tragically Hip song Three Pistols as the woman who hides in the shadows as young girls come to place flowers on the original Canoe Lake grave of Tom Thomson, sweeping the flowers away once they've gone. And yet her name doesn't even appear in the well-known story of Tom Thomson's tragic death until 1969, when Ottelyn Addison, Ranger Mark Robinson's daughter, joined with Elizabeth Harwood to produce a slim volume called Tom Thomson: The Algonquin Years. Addison, accepting the identification provided to the National Gallery by Jessie Fisk, the painter's niece, printed the misidentified photograph of Winnifred Trainor in that book, and the photograph of the mystery woman - taken by Tom Thomson during his first trip north in 1912 - has been "Winnie Trainor" ever since. "Winnifred," the authors wrote, "comely elder daughter of Hugh Trainor, took a great interest in Thomson and his work. Tom visited her at Huntsville and gave her some of his sketches. One or more of these are reportedly of houses on the street in Huntsville where the Trainors lived."
There was no suggestion that there might have been more to this relationship than friendship. The authors used only a back-of-book footnote to add: "It was rumoured around Mowat Lodge in 1916-17 … that Tom Thomson and Winnifred Trainor were to be married. A letter left carelessly lying on a dresser gave some substance to this rumour."
And yet, in the four decades since this first small mention, Winnie Trainor has increasingly emerged as a character of tremendous intrigue. Dr. Sherrill Grace of the University of British Columbia, author of the 2004 study Inventing Tom Thomson, sent an e-mail to me in 2009 after I'd suggested to her that Winnie Trainor's life might represent a greater heartbreak than Tom Thomson's death. "I absolutely agree," she said, "Winnie is the real tragedy. Tom Thomson's death is a tragedy for our art, but the human pain, surely, is Winnie."
Part of the tragedy was that Winnie did not enjoy much sympathy in her lifetime. As Winnie grew older, she became known as "an opinionated woman." Joe Cookson was a local Huntsville historian whose family owned Grandview Farms on Fairy Lake, a tourist lodge where, in her later years, Winnie worked in the laundry. He wrote to me in the fall of 1976 and said, "I was acquainted with this lady, so much so that I avoided like the plague any verbal controversy with her. Anyone who dared cross her trail, especially in money matters … [was]subjected to her caustic tongue, be it ditch digger or mayor."
"Winnie was A-No. 1 as far as we were concerned," countered long-time neighbour Minnie Carson. "No one had a better character. When it came to writing letters or filing for pensions or finding out about anything, she was always there. This was the Winnie Trainor that we knew. She was very outspoken, didn't mince words and didn't bother to go behind your back. I never thought of her as being odd."
Minnie remembered her old neighbour as being capable of great charm, when she wished to show it, and as a very attractive woman when she took the time to look her best. "Winnie was a very, very good-looking girl - good-looking until she died," Minnie said.
"She could be a fine-looking woman when she wanted to be, but she just looked like a hobo most of the time," said Jean McEown, Winnie's downstairs tenant. "She'd have her socks rolled just about to her knees. But she was a good-looking woman, even when she was older. She dyed her hair as blue as the sky sometimes."
We youngsters had our own thoughts about who Winnie Trainor was, and they differed sharply from those who befriended and defended her. For months around the time of Winnie's death in the summer of 1962, a large brown squirrel had been frozen between two wires leading into the green hydro box that sat on a pole directly in front of her bedroom window. It had been zapped and mummified in a crucifixion position until, eventually, time and the elements caused the carcass to rot to a point where the animal's remains finally fell to the curb and vanished in the runoff headed for the river. Because of this bizarre coincidence, neighbourhood children considered her a bit of a witch and avoided her house.