Short but interesting: Three bizarre incidents from 1921

This column normally tackles topics that can be dealt with in the 1,200 or so words the editor allocates to me each week.

Occasionally a complex subject requires two or more weeks to cover properly, though I am loathe to do so. On the other side, there are many incidents that are interesting but that do not require 1,200 words, or anything close to that amount of space.

Over the years I have accumulated a thick file of such stories. It is a shame to neglect them, because they offer insights into the past that are as important as the longer stories.

This week I am tapping into that file, with three stories from the late summer of 1921.

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There is an old cliche in the newspaper business that an editor can do no wrong in running stories about small children and dogs.

In late August of 1921 a collie belonging to Sam Neil of Minto Township was with him in a hay field. Sam was driving a hay rake while Jack Hollingshead laboured on a following wagon, forking the hay. The dog had been with them all day, probably thinking that he was helping.

Bowser had run ahead of the haying outfit. All of a sudden the dog began jumping and yelping, and then rolling on the ground. Sam initially thought that the dog had gone suddenly mad. Jack was of the opinion that Bowser had gotten trapped briefly in a ground hog hole.

The dog started to return to his owner, zigzagging across the field and continuing to yelp. As the dog approached, the two men saw that he was covered with hundreds of bees, and that a swarm of more bees was following him.

Sam and John at once grabbed some rags and began beating off the swarm. They succeeded in chasing the bees back to their hive in the ground.

The dog had been stung a number of times, mostly around the head, and was whining, though it seemed to realize that the men were helping him. It appeared that the thick coat of fur on the dog saved him from dozens of more stings.

It was a lucky break for Sam and Jack. Had the rake and wagon passed over the hive the bees undoubtedly would have stung the team of horses, spooking them, and the results might have been disastrous. With a shaking but recovered Bowser beside them, the men enjoyed a good laugh.

As it was, the dog was stung a number of times, but survived the ordeal. Sam and Jack gave the hive a wide berth that afternoon. They returned the next day with shovels, and dug up the nest.

They claimed they were able to recover enough honey to fill two milk pails. That was likely a slight exaggeration, but it gave the men a subject for conversation for the rest of the summer and fall.

And newspaper editors across Ontario copied the story, which initially appeared in the old Harriston Review.

* * *

Jim Ascott farmed in Erin Township, south of Erin Village on the Ninth Concession and near the hamlet of Brisbane.

On Sept. 14, 1921 he decided to drive his Maxwell car to Erin to do a little shopping. After completing his errands he stopped to gas up at the Bush Hardware Store, which sold gasoline and other automotive supplies. He backed the car to the pump and filled his tank.

He got back in the car and then muttered a few mild oaths when the starter on the car refused to work. He got out and picked up the crank that was the back-up starting system. Jim gave a sturdy spin to the crank and the car started at once.

Unfortunately, he failed to realize that he had left the car in reverse, rather than neutral.

Ascott’s Maxwell ran well without a driver. It backed away from the pump into a team of horses tied to a hitching post in front of Milloy’s General Store. The frightened animals jumped away before the car hit them, but they damaged the harness and the wagon they were hauling. Their owner, a farmer named Warren, was leaving the store when the incident occurred.

He was able to intercept his team before the horses took off down the main street, but they gave a scare to T.J. Bush, who narrowly missed being trampled.

The car continued to move backwards, but at slow speed. Ascott managed to catch up with the vehicle and get into the driver’s seat.

While he tried to get the vehicle under control, it crossed the street, and climbed onto the sidewalk in front of the Erin Casket Factory. As the car climbed onto the sidewalk it stalled, mere inches from the big plate glass window at the front of the factory.

A fellow named Kearsh was standing in front of the building, taking a break from work inside. He barely missed being crushed and run over by the Maxwell. Several people witnessed the episode, and all agreed it was the most excitement seen on Erin’s main street in a long while.

For some, the incident had resembled one of the comedy features that were then popular with silent cinema fans.

In fact, it was a scary affair. A couple of men might have been injured seriously or even killed, and damages might have totalled a considerable sum had the car veered one way or another.

Amazingly, this incident resulted in minimal damage. Ascott dusted himself off and headed home in his prize Maxwell, vowing to carefully check his gearshift the next time he cranked his car.

* * *

A week later, Jay Gibbons of Fergus was involved in another incident that might have been taken from a slapstick comedy film.

Gibbons was working for the Fergus Hydro Commission, and was part of a crew installing new poles in front of the old Royal Alexandra Hospital. Jay had finished digging a hole for a new pole, and inadvertently left his long-handled shovel at the edge of the hole with the blade overhanging the excavation.

The crew moved the pole into an erect position, and then dropped it into the hole. The bottom of the pole struck the shovel solidly. The shovel flew up and struck Gibbons in the face. It hit him squarely on the nose, then deflected to one side, blackening an eye.

Gibbon dropped to the ground with his hands grasping his face and nose, which was bleeding profusely as Gibbons muttered under his breath.

Several sturdy arms soon had Gibbons back on his feet, and half carried him the few steps into the hospital. Staff there carefully washed the wounds, then stitched up the gash on Jay’s nose before covering his face with bandages.

Weeks later, when the pain and bruises had subsided, poor Jay began to see some humour in the incident.

* * *

These were three of the incidents in Wellington County in the summer of 1921 as described in local newspapers, and repeated in other papers the following week.

Historically, none are of any great significance, but they do give a hint of the way things were done in former decades. Such stories were a prime ingredient of local newspapers in the early 20th century.

Few weekly papers back then had more than 1,000 in circulation, and many boasted less than half that. Today few papers record such stories.

We are the poorer for this editorial policy, and future generations will be deprived of this aspect of our local history as it unfolds.


Stephen Thorning