On the morning of Christmas Eve in 1930 James Robb, a farmer who lived near Cumnock, went out to his barn about 7am to begin his morning chores, as he did every morning about that time.
He was astonished when he saw that his two Clydesdale horses were missing, along with their halters.
When he had left them the previous evening, the quadrupeds had been munching on their oats, safely ensconced in their stalls. He had left the barn locked, as was his custom, and the doors to the barn all seemed to be shut tight.
A little investigation revealed what had happened. From marks in the snow, it appeared that someone had squeezed under a door, and unlocked it from the inside. He found a few footprints and hoof marks outside, but the wind had covered most of the tracks with fresh snow. He had heard nothing the previous night. Robb kept a dog in the barn, but he did not remember hearing the animal bark.
Robb returned to the farmhouse at once and called the Ontario Provincial Police. He also contacted the Fergus News Record and placed a classified advertisement to alert others to watch for the missing horses.
Later, Robb went to Nichol council’s January meeting, asking the township to split the cost of a $50 reward he planned to offer for the safe return of his team. Council seemed sympathetic, but deferred a final decision until their meeting the following month. Editors of papers across the county and beyond saw the story in the Jan. 1 News Record, and most copied it verbatim in their own papers a week later.
Police Chief Stuckey, who was the entire Grand Valley police force, read the item in the Grand Valley Vidette. A couple of days later he heard about a team of horses that had come to a farm in East Luther. There was something strange about the story, he thought, and he set out with an assistant to investigate. The horses, he learned, had been brought to the farm near Grand Valley by a man named Joseph Berry. But instead of taking them to his own farm, Berry left them with a neighbour who innocently agreed to look after them for a few weeks.
During the previous summer Berry had been employed by the contractor working on Highway 6 between Fergus and Cumnock, and had boarded in Fergus with his brother, who worked at the Beatty plant. Several times through the summer Berry had called at the Robb farm for water.
Following up on the rumour, Constable Stuckey found the horses and Berry at the neighbour’s farm. Stuckey questioned Berry at length about the animals. Berry claimed that he had purchased the horses from a farmer in Proton Township, whose name he did not know and whose address he did not remember. Stuckey told Berry to remain on the farm and to retain custody of the horses.
Constable Stuckey returned the following morning from Orangeville with several other constables. Two men took the horses to Grand Valley, , and put them in the care of the veterinarian there, Dr. Hughes. Constable Stuckey placed Berry under arrest, and took him to the jail in Orangeville. The following day, Constable Mennie of Guelph arrived to take Berry to the city jail.
Meanwhile, Jim Robb and Constable Tindale had investigated the theft further. The wind had blown away some of the snow that had covered the tracks of thieves. Tindale believed that three men were involved in the case and had led the horses to a little-used road at the back of the Robb farm. He found a place where the thieves had cut a fence to make good their escape onto a little-used road. By chance, a local farmer had been along that road at about 11:30 the night of the theft, and again at about midnight. The first time he noted that there were no other tracks. The second time he saw tracks from a couple of horses and three men.
Jim Robb was delighted to have his horses returned in good health. Joe Berry was not so happy, as he lingered in a cell in Guelph for a couple of days. The judge granted him bail at a preliminary hearing; his father put up the bond. At the hearing, Berry vehemently declared his innocence, stating police made a serious mistake.
During the summer, Berry claimed, he had saved as much money as he could and made a down payment on a farm near Laurel. He would get possession of it in March of 1931, and he planned to be married in April. He wanted to build up the stock for the farm, he said, and had purchased the horses from a stranger for $200.
Joe Berry had his day in court later that week. He embellished the story he had told at the bail hearing, but he produced neither evidence nor witnesses to confirm his tale, which was bereft of specific details. The judge did not find his story credible.
Berry was found guilty and the judge deferred the sentencing until a later session. The judge remanded the sentencing twice. Police Chief Stuckey of Grand Valley received much praise for his insight and groundwork in solving the case. Interestingly, Berry did not identify his two accomplices in the theft of Robb’s horses, and the authorities seemed to have abandoned that thread after Berry’s arrest.
The deferments in sentencing led to speculation in the press and amongst the public that further charges were forthcoming. And they soon were. Berry admitted to taking five head of cattle from J.N. Hamilton of West Garafraxa, “on a sudden impulse,” he said, and had sold them to a neighbour of the rightful owner.
Interestingly, Berry readily admitted to taking the cattle, but insisted he did not steal Robb’s horses, even though they were found in his possession.
At the deferred session on Jan. 29, 1931, the judge passed sentence. Joe Berry would serve 18 to 31 months in the reformatory for the Robb and Hamilton thefts. The case had received much public attention, which grew through the month of January. Livestock thefts and horse stealing, once rather common, had become quite rare. More than one farmer had become fearful that he would be the next victim. It was a relief several recent incidents seemed to be the work of one man who was now in custody.
A day later there was another wrinkle to the story. During the previous summer, four stores in Grand Valley had been robbed. In early January all the storekeepers received anonymous letters, each containing the amount of money that had been stolen from them.
When he was out on bail, Berry made the mistake of going to each storekeeper to ask if they had received the money. One said he received only three dollars, but six dollars had been stolen. Berry reached into his pocket and handed over the additional cash.
Chief Stuckey soon got wind of the story, and he set the legal wheels in motion. After his sentencing in Guelph, the police took Joe Berry to Orangeville to stand trial for the Grand Valley thefts.
Regrettably, space in this column means the next chapter in the Joe Berry story must await a future occasion. Suffice it to say poor Joe received an additional stay in a small room at public expense.