The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
Our local history is littered with people who had few if any redeeming virtues. I’m glad I never met them.
On the other side of the aisle are those who seem fascinating, and I regret that I cannot invite them to a dinner party or have them as a seat mate on a long train trip.
One of the latter is Beecher Parkhouse of Fergus. Though he is gone for a half century, a few older readers may remember him.
Parkhouse was not a Wellington County native. He was born and grew up in Simcoe County, at a place called Crown Hill, near Barrie. A neighbour was E.C. Drury, the farm activist who severed as premier of Ontario from 1919 to 1923.
Drury was 15 years older than Parkhouse, and served as something as a model for the young boy as an independent thinker and an individualist. Rather than political activism after graduation from high school, young Beecher decided on a career in the ministry, becoming a preacher for the Church of Christ (Disciples). He served for several years in northern Ontario, then came south to Everton, in Eramosa Township. Overall the Disciples denomination was insignificant in Ontario, but there was a sizable cluster of adherents in Guelph and in Eramosa and Erin Townships in the 19th century. The disciples were in a decline when Parkhouse arrived in Everton in January 1923.
He remained as preacher at the “Stone” Church until August 1925. The previous May he gave notice of his desire to leave the position. In his letter of resignation he stated that he found it “increasingly difficult to accept and practice and urge upon the general public some of the primary features of the church’s doctrine and customs.”
He never elaborated publicly on the details of his differences with the church. His resignation though, was in keeping with his character. His own opinion and beliefs were paramount to him, no matter if anyone else shared them or what the consequences might be.
By 1925 the consequences might have been serious. He was married by then, to the former Bessie Church, and the couple had four young children.
Parkhouse soon found work in Fergus at the Beatty Brothers plant, and he moved his family to the town. This meant the end of his career as a clergyman, though he did fill in from time to time at Hillsburgh and other churches in the area.
In Fergus, he and his wife became associated with Melville Church, which had recently voted to join the new United Church of Canada. Bessie Parkhouse, an accomplished pianist, regularly participated in church activities at the keyboard.
Continuing his youthful admiration for E.C. Drury, Parkhouse stood as a candidate for the provincial legislature under the United Farmers of Ontario banner, but he failed to attract a significant following.
At the Beatty factory management shifted him to various duties, and eventually made him an inspector, checking the quality of workmanship in products leaving the plant. He remained with the firm for 29 years.
Though he would be horrified at the notion, there was something of the performer in Parkhouse’s character. He enjoyed speaking in public and was good at it, though he seldom used two words when he could think of 10.
Parkhouse was an exceptionally well read and intelligent man, and could speak with authority on a wide range of subjects, and had a flawless memory for people, events and dates. Soon he came into demand as a guest speaker at service clubs and volunteer organizations.
Late in life he admitted that he was a windbag, but was neither apologetic nor regretful at the insight.
In the 1930s he became involved in civic affairs, and served on council for the best part of 20 years, a portion of that time as deputy reeve of Fergus.
Immediately after taking his seat he seemed to think he was in the wrong if he agreed with the majority of his colleagues. Frequently he recorded a negative vote on motions, in the simple belief that nothing should be approved unanimously. As a councillor he was a tireless worker. He spent his spare time studying the Statutes of Ontario, and could find some technicality that might void a motion or bylaw that council had passed.
He never hesitated to express his opinion at a council meeting, and would spend hours arguing points that were often trivial or irrelevant. Meetings stretched until midnight and beyond, and sometimes extra sessions would be needed to get through agendas. At these marathon meetings Parkhouse fueled himself with a big bag of salted peanuts.
Hugh Templin, the Fergus News Record editor who had to sit through those sessions, agreed that Parkhouse often raised important points, but other times he was simply an obstructionist. Though he and Parkhouse were close personal friends, Templin became exasperated at some of the arguments used by Parkhouse. He claimed Parkhouse could filibuster as well as any southern American senator.
George and Milton Beatty were staunch temperance people, and Parkhouse unequivocally supported their position. The issue was a hot one in Fergus in the 1930s.
Council devoted a lot of effort into closing down a barroom in one of the town’s hotels; in frustrating the Legion’s efforts to secure a beverage license; and in general keeping liquor out of town.
Parkhouse was at his best at nomination meetings, where he would bring up subjects no one wanted to discuss, and would ask questions no one wanted to answer. He never held back with his opinions. He enjoyed writing letters to the editor, not only to the local press, but to the big city dailies. In contrast to his verbal pronouncements, he was happiest when he could sum up his point in a sentence or two, and preferably with a literary or Biblical allusion.
During the Second World War Parkhouse risked censure by his outspoken opposition to the military draft. As a good Christian he had grave doubts about the justification of the war and its horrible human costs. Nevertheless, his own two sons enlisted voluntarily for military service.
Railways helds a lifelong fascination for Parkhouse. He would often hang around the Fergus stations, and would be on hand when a train crew member was making his last run through Fergus prior to retirement. When Fergus council was in Toronto for meetings and conventions, Parkhouse would spend the spare hours watching trains from the Spadina Avenue bridge while his colleagues took in a ball game at the old Maple Leaf Stadium nearby. He had a working knowledge of locomotives and other railway subjects, and no doubt could have filled in as a crew member in an emergency.
While on county council as the Fergus deputy reeve, his colleagues named Parkhouse to a seat on the University of Western Ontario Senate. In those days UWO allocated a seat to each of the counties in southern Ontario. He served a dozen years on the university senate, and always acknowledged that the position was the proudest achievement of his life.
In 1954, Parkhouse suffered a debilitating heart attack. He had to retire from the Beatty plant and give up his council seat.
He recovered sufficiently to be able to walk downtown daily from his home at 240 Tower Street South. Invariably he would stop for a rest at the News Record office and chat for a while with his old friend, editor Hugh Templin. During their chats he dazzled Templin with the extent of his memory for names and events.
Beecher Parkhouse died at his home on Sept. 1, 1958. He was 65. Hugh Templin concluded his tribute by writing, “Beecher Parkhouse never knowingly wronged any of his fellow men. He was not afraid to stand up for what he believed right, even when he was a minority of one.”
*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Sept. 12, 2008.