By Barry Penhale
What better winter reading than a trip back to the not so distant past through an eclectic assortment of colourful, perhaps occasionally embellished stories? One such account is an amusing yarn that my delightful Bancroft friend Henry Taylor enjoyed telling whenever he was encouraged to recall old bush days. Regular readers may remember him from an earlier Summer 2014 Country Roads’ article titled, “Remembering Henry Taylor, Bancroft’s Citizen of the Century.” The “Bunkhouse Buck” story came to my attention when interviewing Henry Taylor for CBC Radio and his reminiscence of this event was later recorded in a 30-minute profile on the man for the TVO series For the Record.
Here’s the story as told by Taylor: “It was around the 1940’s that found me working for the McCrae Lumber Company putting boom logs on the Lake of Two Rivers in Algonquin Park when we ran out of hay for our team of horses.” An older brother reminded Taylor of some hay that was stored in an old camp at nearby Head Lake and since Taylor knew the location, he was dispatched with a teamster to get the load required. Upon entering the camp yard, “... the horses immediately began snorting and prancing!” The cause of their agitation was soon determined — a big buck deer complete with enormous winter horns bolted out of the camp’s back window and hightailed it into the bush. “Upon entering the camp building we found where Mister Buck had used bales of hay for a stairway and had got right up and slept on the top bunk.” It was quite the discovery when Taylor, upon making the climb up, felt the bunk and found it was still warm. A chuckle at this point almost always followed Taylor’s accounts of his “Bunkhouse Buck” story.
In retirement, Taylor whittled his way into prominence as an artisan in his own right. Whatever the challenges were for him when lacking supplies and materials, his resourceful “Taylor-made” solutions always won out. Improvising was his forte, and surviving examples of his wood carvings remind us of his ability to roll with the punches. A prime example of his success when making do with whatever he could lay his hands on can be seen in his carvings of horses — tributes to those sturdy steeds that were so important to the lumber camps of yester-year. And it need be shared that the life-like eyes in his horse carvings have quite their own story to tell.
As it turns out, his memories of earlier times included images of bereaved women in mourning, always dressed in black, with their only decoration being the ever-present mourning pins. Such items were ideally suited to the craftsman, who cleverly cut off the pin, and as quick as one could shout “Voila!” — the glass head instantly became an eye for one of Taylor’s horses — only but one example of the ingenuity of a true master of folk art.
Armed with curiosity and a tape recorder, over the years I had the good fortune to document little-known Ontario history. As my off-the-beaten path explorations increased, so too did my appreciation for the distinctiveness and diversity of our various regions. One district to win me over and remains forever a favourite of mine is North Hastings and the sprawling rugged Madawaska Valley area, which is undoubtedly one of Ontario’s finest tourist regions.
Starting in the ‘50’s, when I began oral history-gathering forays in the area, I encountered the likes of Harold Petch, Hilda Bruce, John Churcher, and Robert and Henry Taylor, whose combined memories enriched the pages of Before The Memories Fade, a history of Carlow Township. At that time Petch was the genial host on Bancroft Radio, which was a unique broadcast outlet linked to the city of Belleville.
Being much involved with local history, Petch opened each on-air program with the words: “This is the voice of the Bancroft senior citizens.” His guests provided first-person accounts of numerous aspects of the history of Bancroft and environs: the arrival of the early colonization roads such as the Monck Road (named after Sir Charles Stanley Monck, Canada’s first Governor General), the importance of the railway, early school days, and much more.
It was Mrs. Bruce, in speaking of her family’s local roots, who commented that it was likely that her father was the area’s very first tourist operator. It was a pleasure to have struck up an enduring friendship with Petch and to have guested on his show. Petch dearly loved his community, and it is to be hoped that his role in documenting the history of Bancroft and North Hastings is still recognized.
John Churcher was another well-known area booster of that period whose volunteering stints included serving as the 1961 chairman of the Bancroft and District Old Home Week Committee. And again, one would hope that such past service has not been obliterated from the historical record.
As a somewhat “bookish” individual, I take pride in a sizeable collection of local histories in print. Those Country Roads readers wishing to do so may be successful in tracking down copies of some “golden oldies,” which should make for pleasant reading throughout the winter months.
Checking out used-book dealers should pay off, and one could not do better than beginning your book sleuthing with a copy of the Bancroft: A Bonanza of Memories by Nila Reynolds, published in 1979 by the Bancroft Centennial Committee. I first encountered the author through her much acclaimed history of Haliburton County, in her book In Quest of Yesterday. Another personal favourite is The Oxen and the Axe, a truly charming collection of stories that have lovingly and with great authenticity captured the history of the region much visited by campers and cottagers — The Land O’ Lakes. This name, incidentally, was hatched over a bottle of fine Scotch at the back of the old Tweed newspaper office in the late Sam Currie’s day. But that’s a story for another time.
Meanwhile, I tip my hat to the Pioneers Club of Cloyne, publishers of The Oxen and the Axe. It was my great pleasure to have known the editors, Gene Brown and Nadine Brumell. They made it possible for me to read the galley edition, which was sent to me by the printers, the Madoc Review. Thanks to such cooperation, I was able to be its first reviewer before the book was bound and went on sale. My glowing praise for the book, cover to cover, was heard during an appearance on the hugely popular, CBC Radio weekend program, “Fresh Air.”
How times have changed! Here I am at my Mac computer with yet another school year well underway. I wonder what old Bob and Henry Taylor would make of our schools today? A transcript of an interview with Henry reminds me that he began school in the September of 1911 in a poorly heated red-painted building that accommodated 45 pupils and all grades. As there were not enough seats, all the smaller boys sat on benches with their backs against the wall.
Taylor’s lunch was packed in a Gunn’s lard pail and identified by his initials nail-punched into the pail’s lid by his mother. His only equipment was a slate and a slate pencil adorned with red, white and blue paper. Just imagine — no cell phone — no back pack— no Nikes. But he made it his way to the final curtain at age 102, in April of 2006. Go figure!