Several columns over the past few months have dealt with an epidemic of barn fires in Wellington County during 1929 and 1930.
Some of those fires were attributed to carelessness during threshing operations, but most were of unknown origin, though there was a widespread belief that some of them had been set deliberately.
This week the subject is again a barn fire in 1930, this one near Mount Forest in Egremont Township. This fire was unusual because the farmer who was a victim of the blaze claimed that he was familiar with the suspect. The victim, James Brown, farmed on Concession 7 of Egremont, about three miles north of Mount Forest. His barn burned to the ground on the morning of May 29, 1930.
Brown claimed the perpetrator was a hobo he had first encountered on his farm on April 1. Brown was in his barnyard early that morning, he said, and had seen the suspect emerging from the building. He told the man that he was not wanted there, and that in future he was to stay away from the building and his farm.
The man brazenly told Brown that he did not care for Brown’s attitude, and that he would “get him” at some point in the future for evicting him.
The stranger was seen in that area of Egremont several times during early May by a couple of Brown’s neighbours. On the nights of May 27 and 28 Brown believed that someone had slept in his barn.
He discovered a couple of horse blankets were removed from their pegs and were in the hay mow, suggesting someone had slept there.
On the morning of May 29 Brown went out to his barn at 5:30am to feed his animals. As he was about to leave, he later related, a man jumped out of the mow. Brown immediately confronted him, and the conversation quickly degenerated into an exchange of threats. Brown said later that he recognized the man as the hobo he had encountered in the barn two months earlier. He threatened to turn him over to the police.
Brown said that he lunged toward he man, attempting to grab him, but the man quickly stepped aside, and slipped away through the door of the barn. Brown attempted to follow, but lost sight of the man.
He then went back into the barn to put a harness on a horse, in order to drive his daughter to school. That task completed, Brown returned to his house. He turned around as he reached for the kitchen door, he later told the police, and saw a cloud of smoke billowing from the open barn door.
Immediately realizing the barn was on fire, he ran back, and working at a fever pitch, managed to get his animals out of the structure. Within minutes the barn was a mass of flames.
Brown did not bother to call the Mount Forest fire brigade–they would have been able to do nothing but watch by the time they would arrive.
With his animals safe, Brown returned to the house and called the Provincial Police. That force was still in its formative phase in 1930. Founded in 1909 with 45 men on the roll the first year, it was charged with enforcement of the Ontario Temperance Act in the 1920s, and that took most of the force’s resources. Most of the men in uniform were anxious to prove themselves as efficient crime fighters, rather than chasers of small-time bootleggers.
Brown’s phone call brought two officers to his farm before noon. Constable Denton, accompanied by Constable Cook of the Meaford detachment, arrived to interview Brown and to poke around the still-smouldering ruins of the barn. They did discover some footprints leading from the barn through a field to a swamp at the rear of the farm. There they lost the trail. From the spacing of the footprints it was obvious that the man had been running.
Brown provided the constables with a description of the man. He was a large fellow, about six feet in height, and weighed between 180 and 200 pounds, with broad shoulders and a ruddy complexion, suggesting he spent much time outdoors.
Brown estimated the man was in his late 40s. He wore blue trousers, an old blue coat, and a grey cap – all in poor shape – and he had not shaved in a couple of weeks. According to Brown, he looked every bit the tramp.
The police then made some enquiries around the neighbourhood. A few people recalled seeing the man weeks before, but no one had seen him recently, a fact that puzzled the constables. How could he have existed in the area for almost two months, they wondered, without being seen by anyone?
Nevertheless, the constables were able to organize a large posse of neighbours who spent the rest of the day scouring the area. Volunteers came forward readily because there had been a rash of mysterious fires in the area in recent months, and farmers wanted the culprit apprehended.
The search failed to produce even the hint of a lead. Farmers in Egremont were quite agitated, fearing they might be the next victims, and many stated that they would leave nothing undone to ensure the capture of the man.
Some local residents believed the mysterious tramp had made a quick exit from the area immediately after setting the fire.
Others believed that he had holed up in the loft of some barn in the area, or some other place where he could remain unnoticed.
Some scoffed at those theories. At some point the man would need to come out of hiding to beg or steal some food, and that would certainly mean that someone would spot him, if not seize him.
Others still expressed doubts about at least some of the story related by James Brown, as he seemed to be the only person who had encountered the man, or even seen him, for almost two months.
Though they may have had their own doubts, Constables Denton and Cook issued a warrant for the arrest of the suspect, unnamed, but considered to be a dangerous man to be at large. They asked local farmers to be on the alert, and to hold the man if they spotted him.
That seems to be the end of this curious story. The police received no reports of a stranger answering the description of this tramp. A few people vaguely recalled seeing a man of his description weeks earlier, but James Brown was the only person who had seen him at the end of May.
Perhaps there is more information in an old OPP file. In any case, that is all that was ever reported in the Mount Forest Confederate, the newspaper closest to the scene of the incident.
It occurred almost 85 years ago, which means that there is unlikely to be anyone living who can remember details of the case.
However, it may have persisted as a local legend for decades after. I would certainly like to speak with anyone who has more information about the case, which forms another fascinating part of our local history.