Between 1934 and 1943, close to three million people made the long journey to the section of Lake Nipissing between North Bay and Callander in Canada that the travel brochures called “Quintland”. The road led directly through Callander. Here was the service station operated by Léon Dionne, the quintuplets´uncle, with its five pumps, each named for one of the babies. And here, up the street, was the oblong brick house with the brass plate on the door bearing the name of the world´s best-known doctor, A.R. Dafoe.
The turn-off road was heavy with automobiles. On peak days they formed themselves into a metallic snake, two and a half miles long, winding from Callander to the Dafoe Hospital. Except for a small sign that read TO THE DIONNE QUINTUPLETS, there was no hint of anything unusual. But then, as the roadway rose to the crest of a low hill, each newcomer encountered a swirl of dust and was treated to a spectacle he could never forget.
Directly ahead a small community had been carved out of forest, swamp and rock. Each summer morning and afternoon, seven days a week, it vibrated with people. The road spread out into a macadamized plaza, choked with parked cars and ringed with buildings and signs. At the far end, where the road curved, stood an ungainly frame structure on which were emblazoned the words MADAM LEGROS AND MADAM LEBEL MIDWIVES OF THE QUINTUPLETS BID YOU WELCOME! In the foreground, to the right, was the birthplace of the Quints, an unpainted farmhouse, and a cluster of barns. Beyond it lay Oliva Dionne´s two souvenir stands, with his name in gigantic letters and the words SOUVENIRS – REFRESHMENTS – OPERATED BY PARENTS OF THE WORLD´S MOST FAMOUS BABIES. Behind these were a parking lot for a thousand cars and a large log rest room.
On the left side of the plaza were more buildings; the nursery in the foreground, a neat, squat structure with a red roof and stained log walls, flanked by a staff house and a guardhouse. Beyond it lay the horseshoe-shaped playground building and observation gallery. The entire complex was surrounded by a seven-foot fence of meshed wire, like that of some minor correctional institution. Uniformed policemen stood guard at the gates.
There were people everywhere, pouring out of cars and buses, and spending money – buying souvenir postcards, pamphlets about the birth, binoculars at inflated prices, British woollens and china, candy, pop, hot dogs, and, for a quarter, Oliva Dionne´s own autograph.
They came as early as six in the morning. By the time the first observation period began at 9:30, the queue could stretch back for half a mile or more. As the people moved forward they passed a long trough labelled STONES FROM THE QUINTUPLETS’ PLAYGROUND. These were the famous ‘fertility stones’, gathered each morning from the shores of Lake Nipissing in the trucks of the Ontario highways department and widely believed to be a boon to barren women. Everybody took one; like the view of the Quints, they were free.
The visitors were allowed to enter the gallery in groups of one hundred, peeling off in two directions, some moving counterclockwise and some in the opposite direction. No one was allowed to bring a camera. Only one man could take pictures; Fred Davis from the Toronto Star. Oliva Dionne himself could not even photograph his own children, since only Mr Davis had the rights.
The playground was surrounded on three sides by a U-shaped roofed passageway with windows facing inward and fitted with a silvery screen of wire mesh so closely woven that a pin could not be thrust through the opening. From this dark tunnel the five toddlers could be seen, playing on swings and tricycles or splashing in their shallow pool, apparently oblivious of the unseen thousands shuffling silently past them.
By 1936, the quintuplets industry was in full swing, and Quintland had equalled the Niagara Falls as the biggest tourist attraction in Canada, rivalled in the United States by only Radion City, Gettysburg and Mount Vernon. The Quints saved North Bay from financial disaster in those poor depression-era days.