By Barry Penhale
At a current bodyweight of 410 pounds, Hal Trites is but a shadow of his former self. Now that’s not to imply that the well-known Tweed businessman is svelte! But the one-time Canadian Belly-Flop Champion is way down from the avoirdupois he previously carried on his six foot-four-inch frame. It took serious surgery — a gastro bypass in 2014 — to bring about a weight loss of about 200 pounds, leaving the big guy on assorted pills for the rest of his life. But Trites, as I was to discover, is anything but a downhearted “woe is me” type of individual. Far from it! The man I met and interviewed proved to be as congenial and positive a person as one is likely to encounter anywhere. He is also a force to reckon with as he racks up endless weekly volunteer hours to the benefit of the village of Tweed, the community he loves dearly and speaks about with enormous affection.
Trites came into this world in Streetsville, Ontario, the first of four children born to Hagen Trites from Moncton, New Brunswick, and mother, Ellen Town of Brighton. His father excelled in athletics and was to achieve prominence as player/coach with the Streetsville lacrosse team. Trites’ vivid memories recall his dad’s active years as a fine swimmer and a qualified scuba diver who was often recruited by the Ontario Provincial Police to search for drowning victims. Upon leaving Streetsville, Trites’ parents took up residence in the Tweed area and established Green Acres Restaurant. Located just south of Actinolite on Highway 37, at the Hawkins Bay Road, Green Acres was to become a busy spot remembered to this day. The road improvements of the late 1960s resulted in increased highway traffic that found Green Acres with its on-site gas pumps to be a destination quickly favoured by motorists, car rally participants, and truck drivers alike.
Inspired by his athletic father who began a lacrosse team in Tweed (circa early 70s), and as a youngster living beside the Skootamatta River, it is not surprising that Trites took to water and entered swimming competitions while a youngster. But he had no idea then what was to lie ahead and certainly not an inkling of a future in which he would become famous as “Hamburger Hal Trites — the belly-flop king of Canada!” It was when Daisy Dafoe was the owner of the Tweedsmuir Hotel that Trites first heard of a belly-flop contest in Belleville and was encouraged to enter. That he made a splash is an understatement! At about 25 years of age and weighing 380 pounds, Trites left all competitors in his wake and was to go undefeated over a ten-year span. His closest rival was Belleville’s own Todd Boomhower, a much smaller man, who in time became Hal’s good friend.
Soon widely known as “Hamburger Hal,” the large man from Tweed became a big draw — no pun intended — attracting record crowds not only in Belleville but in Gananoque, Kingston, and elsewhere. But it was his participation during the Belleville Waterfront Festival years that causes people to remember him to this day. During that time Hal’s winning belly flops in front of thousands of spectators at Meyer’s Pier created headline stories in numerous newspapers. Success meant prizes, either cash or merchandise, including TV sets, patio furniture, and the countless medallions now stashed away in his home. While we were together, Trites recalled with obvious delight a few of the costumes he wore in competition: Hal the Cowboy, Hal as Humpty Dumpty, and, not surprisingly, Hal as a giant hamburger under the sponsorship of MacDonald’s of Belleville. On one occasion the latter costume resulted in someone yelling out, “I’ve got something for you!” and he found himself on the receiving end of an entire box of hamburgers.
I was to learn that there is a lot a more to a good belly-flop than I realized. Trites spoke of his past twice-weekly routine to keep limber by training in the Skootamatta River. He told me of the pounding his knees would take from springing off diving boards and of the concentration needed in order to make a really splashy entrance into the water — which Trites slyly suggests not attempting in shallow water. Hamburger Hal perfected a technique that enabled him, following a perfect jump, to touch the water below with his belly first — something many other floppers never mastered. In a class by himself, Trites won the Canadian Belly-Flopping Title (circa 2001) in Coquitlam, British Columbia, by besting 30 competitors from across the country. While holidaying in Florida the year before he entered a contest and won gold, beating out 18 contestants who were unable to match the Canadian outsider. Yes, Trites has reason to look back on those days with pride.
Today, now 67 years of age, Trites is happily married to Samantha Beesom and operates a taxi business in Tweed with the slogan “9 to 1 odds to get 9999.” Volunteering is a big part of his life, and his legacy will most certainly be of someone with a strong sense of community. The former president of the Kinsmen Club, he joined the local Legion 16 years ago, and this year became its highly active president. For a person who so obviously enjoys helping others there is little time for hobbies but, when asked, he admitted to occasionally making homemade beans in his grandmother’s old clay crockpot. As for the past, well, it lives on in his scrapbooks and the many memories of those heady days when crowds would gather along the water to witness a sumo-wrestler-size human hurtling through the air on his way to making the biggest splash ever!
Fittingly, those times have been captured on a CD and performed by a local musician, Scott Pettigrew, whose song about “Hamburger Hal, the Belly-Flop King,” is often requested by patrons at the Tweedsmuir Hotel. As the man himself said as we were parting, “I can’t go anywhere but that they know me.” — An appropriate tribute to a big, big man with a big, big heart.
Acknowledgements to Hal Trites, Tweed News, and Evan Morton at the Tweed and Area Heritage Centre. A special thank you to my friend and Hastings County historian, Gerry Boyce. Gerry was the one to bring Hal Trites to my attention and I am delighted that he did so.
Photos, magazine and newspaper articles are from the personal collection of Hal Trites.