A reel mystery

Steve Bartlett
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Thrift store suitcase contained a surprising find

Tonya Ritchie paid five bucks for the old suitcase she used to cart frozen fish back home to Ontario.

She didn't realize that simple purchase would bring a flood of tears and memories to a close friend who lived just three doors down.

"It's bizarre," Ritchie says from Shelburne, a small community northwest of Toronto.

If, after reading her story, you are left wondering if it's a work of fiction, you wouldn't be the first.

But Ritchie says there'd be no rhyme nor reason to fabricate such a story.

"You just can't make it up," she says. "It's so true, it's scary."

The suitcase saga started three or four years ago, when Ritchie and her husband, Bob, flew to St. John's for a friend's wedding.

That's when they bought the frozen fish to take home.

With no room in their luggage, Ritchie dropped into the since-shuttered Salvation Army Thrift Store on Waldegrave Street and purchased a purple nylon suitcase.

The intent was to toss the luggage in the trash if the seafood thawed en route. But there was no problem with the frozen fish, and Ritchie stored the bag in the attic.

Years passed. The suitcase was packed a few times, but for the most part it collected dust.

A few weeks ago, Ritchie was preparing to fly to St. John's for her goddaughter's christening.

She decided to pack the old purple suitcase. While doing so, her hand hit something in a pocket no one in her family had used.

She discovered three eight millimetre home movie reels, which were popular in the '60s and '70s - long before the days of mobile phones that shoot in high definition.

Two of the reels were in boxes with faded handwriting - a name, titles and a few other details. Among those clues: the owner was from Glen Williams, Ont.

"I said, 'This is somebody's memories'," Ritchie recalls. "If they were mine, I'd want them."

Her husband, showed the reels to their neighbour, James Piper, whose wife, Janet, had grown up in Glen Williams.

He thought she might know the owner, but his jaw dropped when he read the name on the reels.

The movies belonged to Janet's father, who died nine years ago.

When the men showed her the home movies, she was blown away.

"We laughed, we cried, we hugged. We were a little freaked out," Janet says.

Ritchie wasn't around at the time, but when she learned the movies had been shot by Janet's dad, there were more waterworks.

"To give (Janet) back a piece of her dad is more than I can ever put into words," she says.

"Like, the expression on her face when she held those and saw her dad's handwriting, I can't even put it into words. It was incredible."

No one has the slightest idea how the films ended up stuffed in a second-hand suitcase in St. John's.

Nobody recognizes the bag, and Nova Scotia is the farthest east that Janet's father ever ventured.

"How they wound up in St. John's, Newfoundland, where my friend and neighbour spent five bucks and brought (a suitcase) home, I have no idea, no idea," Janet says.

"It's a big mystery."

Adding to the intrigue: all goods on the shelves of Salvation Army Thrift Stores in Newfoundland and Labrador are locally donated.

Janet says her father had a large collection of home movies that her brother transferred to VHS in the 1990s.

She suspects the recently found footage got separated from the collection when the family moved from Glen Williams to Shelburne in the early '70s.

No one has watched the movies yet.

A few weeks ago, Janet and Tonya held a '60s-themed potluck to watch them, but the projector wouldn't work.

They've managed to track down a working projector and plan to watch them on Sunday.

Janet remembers when one of the movies was filmed.

"I expect to see a lot of my cousins that I grew up with. I expect to see a lot of my aunts and uncles.

"It's going to be really emotional, because some of those people are now gone."

Even though it's not her family, Ritchie also expects Sunday's showing will prompt a "whole lot of tears."

With few answers to this luggage legend, some people in St. John's might quip that the film got back home between the jigs and 8 mm reels.

sbartlett@thetelegram.com Twitter: @SteveBartlett_


Organizations: Salvation Army, Thrift Store

Geographic location: St. John's, Shelburne, Ontario Toronto Waldegrave Street Newfoundland and Labrador Nova Scotia

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Recent comments

  • Jeff
    March 10, 2012 - 20:52


  • Rosie
    March 09, 2012 - 20:56

    What a great story, yes a Hallmark Movie did come to my mind! (good idea) And it reminds us that things still do happen that human as we are we don't understand HOW OR WHY It is a miracle, Im happy for botrh families. I know I'd LOVE to receive a old family movie with past love ones in it! A long with HOW AND WHY??? Things do haqqen in His time not ours! I'm sure this family will understand with time! If only we had more articles in the news more often instead of all negative etc it would be refreshing for a change. Thankyou, for sharing this story ! I'll be looking for a simular movie to come out !

  • vanderhaas
    March 03, 2012 - 11:23

    What a enlightening story! It`s about time something happy was in the news. We hear all about how our pensions are going down the toilet, how our economy is suffering, and how crappy things are getting in the world, it`s so wonderful to share a touching story such as this, thanks for sharing !

  • Dent
    March 03, 2012 - 08:32

    It would be funny if they all get together to finally watch the films and they're homemade porn... You never know!

  • Jeremiah
    March 03, 2012 - 08:31

    This is the lead story on the front page of the province's leading newspaper! Weekend edition, no less! With all that is happening within the province and worldwide, this is the best you can do? Come on!

    • marie
      March 03, 2012 - 11:28

      the best they can do. yes i think so. i think its a marvellous story and much better to read than the woes and antics of some others. its wonderful for a change to pick up a newspaper and not be inundated with crap going on in other peoples lives for which it is nobodys business. i hope the people with the movie reels get a lot of joy from watching their loved ones who have passed on come to life if only for a few minutes. these stories are good to read once in awhile and not the negativity that we have been seeing for the past months. keep up the good reporting

    • trina
      March 03, 2012 - 11:44

      well Jeremiah Its better to have nice things and something different and encouraging instead of pain and tormant, or useless news that only makes people upset. This story lifts peoples spirts my friend. Nice to have a good story with no hidden agenda behind it. Newfoundlanders and people around the world are more than that you should be ashamed. I think the telegram did a good job by this story. Its a part of our history, small, but still. I think we need more stories like this

  • jaydee
    March 03, 2012 - 08:05


  • Selina Parsons
    March 03, 2012 - 07:59

    What a wonderful story! Some things are just meant to be.