Visiting the Dionne quintuplets

On my vacation, my Mother and I took a road trip to North Bay, Callander, and Corbeil Ontario to explore and experience the story of Canadian folk figures, the Dionne quintuplets.

“On May 28, 1934, five identical girls were born to Oliva and Elzire Dionne, a Franco-Ontario family in the tiny community of Corbeil, Ontario. Their births were a miracle of its time during the difficult Depression, the only quintuplets to survive more than a few days. Midwives Douilda (Donalda) Legros and Mary-Jeanne Lebel delivered the first 3 of the quintuplets, and Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe assisted with the final 2 births. The five girls – Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie, and Marie – became a “good news” story in this challenging time, drawing worldwide attention to the area, and attracting 3 million people to “Quintland” to see and hear the girls at play. Hollywood told their story in 3 movies, while endorsements for commercial products became commonplace.” – Dionne Quints Heritage Board website

The Dionne Quint House Museum

In North Bay, we visited the Quint house museum. This was the actual family home where the quintuplets were born. It houses a lot of original artifacts; such as the bed where they were born, cribs, children’s beds, children’s clothing, and their baby carriages. It also contains a lot of original photos of when the children were born, while they were growing up at Quintland, and also a lot of the advertising that was created using their image. Everything from baby food to GM motors was advertised using the Dionne quintuplets. Dr. Dafoe profited from the twin’s fame. At the Quint house museum, we were given a tour of the house and memorabilia by an actual relative of the quintuplets, their nephew. His mother was one of the siblings of the quintuplets, making Elzire Dionne was his grandmother. He spoke about the quintuplets and what happened to them as a tragedy and preferred to not mention the doctor, as he sees him as a villain in their story.

The Dionne quintuplets: (From left to right) Yvonne, Marie, Emilie, Cécile and Annette.

The Dionne quintuplets were separated from their family and exploited by the “good” Doctor. As well as extensive advertising using the girl’s image, Quintland was built. A large building complex where people from all over the world came to see the twin girls. The courtyard of Quintland was encircled by two-way mirrors, where visitors could pay a fee to watch the girls as they played. After about 9 years, the girls left Quintland and returned to live with their parents. They had other siblings, as the Dionne’s had had 14 children in total. The quints were essentially strangers to their own family, after having been separated from them for so long. It must have been just as strange for their siblings, hearing about their famous sisters, but not knowing them at all. I can only imagine the strain that would put on the family.

After visiting the Quint house museum we traveled a little bit down the road to Callander to visit the Callander Bay Heritage Museum and Alex Dufresne Gallery. This museum is housed in what was once the office of Dr. Alan Roy Dafoe. A turnstile that was used to admit and count attendees to Quintland sits outside. The Quint house museum also has one of these turnstiles. The house is very rustic and feels like a home office. It would be really interesting if they had a floor plan of what the office looked like when it was in use. This museum also contains a lot of memorabilia of the quintuplets. Some of the more interesting items include lead sculptures of the quintuplet’s faces that were mounted on a clock tower. The sculptures are quite terrifying. There are other exhibits at this museum as well, such as a 1920s barbershop, some military items, as well as logging and mining history.

A lead sculpture of one of the Dionne quintuplets, that was once part of a large clock tower.

Visiting the Quint House museum first made walking around Dr. Dafoe’s office a little awkward. Knowing the pain and strife he had put the family through, made the experience a tad unpleasant. The Callander Bay Heritage Museum also holds an art gallery. We took a little detour from the quintuplet exploration and looked at the beautiful artwork they had on display. We also visited the gift shop and purchased a few things; in particular a recent book on the history of the quintuplets called The Miracle & Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets by Sara Miller.

After grabbing some lunch at a delicious little chip stand in Callander, we made our way to Corbeil to visit the Sacred Heart cemetery. As we traveled down a little dirt road and came to the entrance of what looked like the driveway to a farm, I started to realize something.

I had been to this cemetery before!

The cemetery is on farm land. Next to the chicken coops and tractors is a fenced-in cemetery with a bright orange diamond sign that says “cemetery entrance”. As we drove up, a man was outside working on his tractor. I rolled down my window and asked if it would be OK if we visited the cemetery. He smiled and nodded, saying that it was fine, so we proceeded to go in. It’s a medium-sized cemetery with a mix of older and newer stones. It Motherlooks like it is still an active cemetery as well. The Dionne’s have a small family plot. Oliva and Elzire, the Father and Mother of the quintuplets are buried there. Along with 4 of their children, one of which is one of the quintuplets Emilie. findagrave.com lists 2 of the quintuplets being buried here, but I was only able to find the headstone of Emilie.

The grave of Emilie Dionne, one of the Dionne quintuplets. Sacred Heart Cemetery, Corbeil ON ©2021

I have photographed this cemetery before. In 2019 some friends and I did a road trip to North Bay and the area, where we visited the local cemeteries. I’ve even taken pictures of Emilie’s stone. At the time, I recognized the name Dionne, which is why I took the photo. But I never made the connection between the two.

Sacred Heart Cemetery, Corbeil ON ©2019

This time I had a postcard with me from the Callander Bay Heritage Museum that showed the quintuplets with Dr. Dafoe. I took photos of the postcard with Emilie’s stone, with no issue. I attempted to take a photo with the postcard on the tombstone for Oliva and Elzire Dionne. The wind was not cooperating and blew the postcard away. After several attempts of trying to get a shot with the postcard, I put it away. Maybe it was the wind, whipping up at an in-opportune moment, or maybe it was the spirit of Oliva and Elzire, refusing to take a photo with an image of the man who took their children away.

Sacred Heart Cemetery, Corbeil ON ©2021

There are only two of the quintuplets still living, Annette and Cécile. Emilie and (supposedly) Yvonne are the only quintuplets buried in Corbeil, their home town. The rest of the quintuplets are buried in Montreal. I was curious where Dr. Dafoe was laid to rest – he is buried in Toronto.

This was a very educational trip. It was interesting to dive a little deeper into the true story of the Dionne quintuplets. Being able to speak to a blood relative and learn how the family was affected by what happened was truly heart wrenching and eye opening. The Dionne quintuplets still draw a crowd, but now for a different reason. In the 1930s it was seen as a miracle and amazing, and no one batted an eye at the fact that these children were taken away from their parents. Today, people are still interested in the Dionne quintuplets, but the narrative is much different.

If you are interested in learning more about the story of the Dionne quintuplets, you can visit these links below:

Dionne Quints Heritage Board

Callander Bay Heritage Museum & Alex Dufresne Gallery

The Dionne quintuplets: The exploitation of five girls raised in a ‘baby zoo’ – Washington post

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