By Barry Penhale
It has frequently been noted that we the living all too often pay insufficient attention to those who have departed this world. The late W.C. “Bill” Hunt is a case in point. This exceptional individual though no longer with us, greatly deserves to be much more than a mere footnote in recorded history.
Hopefully this article will serve as a timely reminder of the late Belleville-based personality whose historically valuable contributions as a prolific book author, noted tour guide, and incomparable storyteller represents a remarkable lasting legacy. His is a generous gift passed along to residents of the regions that he explored extensively and knew so intimately, namely Hastings and Prince Edward Counties.
Hunt was born in Toronto on June 19, 1931. Though his place of birth is listed as Toronto General Hospital, it can now be revealed that Claude William Hunt was actually born in thetaxi cab that was taking his mother to the hospital. The account of his start in life quite delighted Hunt whose sense of humour within his lifetime was one of his most endearing traits.
During his younger years, he was keen on the sport of cycling and at age 16 biked (no gears) from Toronto to Peterborough, having signed on for summer employment on a local farm.
Cycling wasn’t his only athletic interest, however, and while in his early teens Hunt became an active member of a local boxing club. Those in the Quinte region who knew the man in his later years could hardly picture genial Hunt as a pugilist, but truth be known, while a young teenager he had from time to time entered the ring in boxing matches that pitted him against formidable opponents. As the expression goes, “Who would have thunk it?”
Hunt’s arrival in Bellevillein 1948 occurred when his father came to take up responsibilities as regional manager for an Allis Chalmers farm equipment dealer. Son Bill attended Belleville Collegiate & Institute graduating from Grade 13 with honours, to be followed by positions in business that fortunately allowed him sufficient time to complete a full year of courses from Queen’s University.
Though his work in sales proved lucrative, Hunt was drawn to academia, prompting the move to Kingston where he enrolled in Queen’s full-time, eventually completing an Honours History course. Various teaching appointments soon followed, including head of history at the high school level in Peterborough. As fate would have it, Hunt and wife Milli returned to Belleville in 1968, where he took on the role as Head of History at Moira Secondary School. But his never-flagging entrepreneurial bent and boundless optimism could not be denied and he left teaching in 1979 to take a gamble (as it turned out successfully) by venturing into the business world.
It wasn’t long before the former teacher hit his stride locating and selling Dixie Lee Chicken franchises and assisting franchise owners with set-ups. In time the always up-for a challenge duo of Bill and Milli Hunt became owner/operators of their own franchised enterprise in Bancroft, which became one of the chains most successful sites. Yet another Bancroft business venture wistfully recalled by Milli was their very popular eatery and entertainment complex known as The Olde Barn Restaurant & Rumble Seat Tavern, which regrettably burnt to the ground on March 16, 1992. A sad day to be sure, but these extreme circumstances prompted Hunt into semi-retirement and freed up the time he needed to quench his expanding interest in the colourful and abundant local history that surrounded him. That is when he became a detective without a gun —armed with doggedness and insatiable curiosity that would lead to books, storytelling, and so much more!
An inventory of the accomplishments in the lives of certain busy individuals tends to remind observers just how much can be achieved in a single lifetime. Such is the case with C.W. Hunt as we reflect on the imposing body of work he left behind upon his passing in the Belleville General Hospitalon December 30, 2016. Vivid book covers remind us of his considerable output as the passionate author of colourful accounts of regional history. A hefty number of much-in-demand books were destined to rack up significant sales figures, and in the case of Booze, Boats & Billions it became a national bestseller. BB&B garnered nation-wide rave reviews including this excerpt from the London Free Press: “If you have any interest at all in that era of flappers, gangsters, great wealth, and grinding poverty, Hunt’s tale will go down like a shot of well-aged rye.”
So popular was the book that speaking engagements and media interest kept the author busy for several years.
Another book that is a personal favourite of mine is Hunt’s extremely well-researched Dancing In The Sky, which, according to Milli, resulted in a research/writing experience that gave her husband an enormous sense of accomplishment, and rightfully so. This important book was often cited whenever Hunt was recognized with both regional and provincial awards. His notable contributions to local history resulted in the Ontario Volunteer Service Award in 2014. And, posthumously, in 2018 the first presentation of the Award of Merit from The Deseronto and District Historical Society was accepted by Milli in the company of family and numerous area dignitaries. It can be said that Hunt as a historical researcher and documenter held his own in the elite company of Gerald Boyce and Orland French. No small feat!
Obviously we couldend this here, but I think Hunt would want us to be less serious and in his typical fashion he would also encourage a respectful nod in Milli’s direction. In a very helpful email from Milli prior to publication, she noted that Hunt was the perfect teacher and that their children on numerous occasions remarked, “We didn’t have conversations at the dinner table, we had lectures.” Finally to paraphrase Milli: “We were High School Sweethearts —my 63 years with Bill were never enough —life was never dull and I could easily take another 63 years!”