Strange happenings from columnist’s personal files

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.

Each year I spend some time in December sorting and filing away material that found its way into columns over the previous year, and setting up a rough plan for topics to cover in the coming months. 

In a column such as this it is impossible to please everyone every week, but I try, over the course of the year, to maintain a geographic balance for the county, and to cover as wide a range of historical topics as possible.

Several readers have been kind enough to send me material and suggestions for future columns. Others have questions that make good topics for this weekly feature. In fact, I receive far more suggestions than I can use. My file of column ideas, now about three inches thick, is a little bigger than it was at this time last year.

Inevitably, many ideas never make it to print. Sometimes the search for information hits a dead end. Other times the information seems so dull and commonplace that a column would put the majority of readers to sleep. And occasionally there are some fascinating little pieces, but which are not sufficient to fill a column of 1,500 words or so.

This week, as part of my year-end cleanup, I will deal with three of the latter short pieces, none sufficient for a column on their own, but fascinating nonetheless.

Reeve reacts

On Sept. 10, 1895, Elora’s council, with reeve Frank Clark in the chair, held a rather boring and tedious meeting in the upstairs of the old Elora town hall. At least it was tedious until council heard the downstairs door open, and someone began a slow and unsteady climb up the stairs.

It was George Swan, scion of one of the founding families of Pilkington (Swan Creek is named after them). George was a man unrivalled in the area for his capacity for putting away glasses of whiskey.

Swan had come into Elora on some errand which he quickly forgot. He left his team and wagon tethered on the old market grounds while he warmed a seat in the Dalby House hotel for the afternoon and early part of the evening. When he came out, a group of young urchins taunted him and imitated his staggering gait. Elora at the time did not have a constable, and the urchins took full advantage of the situation.

Ole George came to the meeting to ask council to protect him from his tormentors. Reeve Clark and several councillors tried to calm him down. They urged him to climb on his wagon and go home, suspecting that the horses knew the way.

Ten minutes later George was back. The boys had continued their taunts, and Swan would have no more of it. George demanded protection from the council, and backed up his request with a large stone, threatening the reeve with it. One lunge grazed Clark’s ear. 

The reeve jumped up, swung at George, and knocked him out cold. No one was more surprised than Frank Clark: his action did not suit his image as a mild-mannered dry goods store proprietor.

A couple of passersby noticed George pick up the rock and head for the meeting. They suspected he was up to no good. When they climbed the stairs they saw an amazed Clark hovering over Swan as he lay on the floor.

One of them found a pair of the village’s handcuffs in a desk drawer, where they had rested since the previous constable resigned. They were soon around George’s wrists. As Swan regained consciousness, the men half carried him down the stairs, and asked one of the boys hanging around to fetch the wagon and team.

With some help from councillors, the men got George into the wagon. Clark asked them to escort him to the edge of Elora. From there he was on his own for the two mile ride to the old homestead. By then calmed down and half asleep, Swan promised the men he would head in that direction, and not return to Elora any time soon. They removed the handcuffs and parted company.

George’s escapades, such as this one, made him a walking advertisement in favour of the temperance movement. This incident had another effect: it prompted council to make the hiring of a new constable a priority. Had an officer been on duty, George Swan would have found himself held overnight in the Elora lockup, and perhaps charged with disorderly behaviour and threatening the reeve. Those offences might have earned him a couple of months in the Wellington County Castle at Guelph.

Improbable tale

A more curious story was reported from Harriston in early November, 1904. Archibald Michie was out for a walk on the railway tracks northwest of town. About a mile and half from town, on the line to Southampton, he found a boy, perhaps 12 years old, tied to the rails with his hands secured behind his back.

It looked like a scene from an old silent movie–except for the fact that silent films were not yet in circulation. Nearby was a bicycle, also placed across the rails. In true melodramatic tradition, the express train from the north was scheduled to pass in a few minutes.

Michie soon had the boy untied, and at the side of the track when the afternoon train to Palmerston rolled by.

The boy gave his name as Leo Boyd. He claimed to have come from New York City via Buffalo to Palmerston with his father, John Boyd. Leo said that they met another man named Jim at Buffalo, and when they arrived at Palmerston, his father and Jim wanted to get rid of him. He said that he had slept on a lumber pile in Harriston the night before.

Authorities investigated the improbable story. No more about it seems to survive in the public record. Presumably, young Leo, or whatever his name, was placed in foster accommodation of some kind. Or perhaps he gave the authorities the slip.

Liquor lesson

A longer adventure befell Patrick Healey (sometimes spelled Halley) of West Garafraxa on Nov. 27, 1880. 

Accompanied by a 12-year-old sister, he decided to visit an older married sister near Elora.

Pat hitched up the team, and the two set off in a farm wagon. He had a bottle of whiskey with him, and took constant slugs as the wagon lurched onward. The Healey farm was perhaps three miles from Fergus on Concession 4 of West Garafraxa. Their destination was another four or five miles, but Pat soon became hopelessly lost.

Pat seems to have missed Elora altogether. A couple of hours later the brother and sister found themselves in Guelph, and Patrick could not seem to find his way back out. He let out his sister near the Gordon Street bridge in Guelph, south of the downtown area, then drove aimlessly up and down the riverbank before guiding the team onto the barely frozen Speed River.

It was a miracle that the horses did not break through the thin November ice. Patrick then abandoned the team. By some manner that he did not recall, he managed to arrive at his married sister’s house near Elora early the next morning. Now sober, he became alarmed when his younger sister was not there, and headed back to Guelph on foot in search of her.

The younger sister, meanwhile, had wandered around downtown Guelph all night. Very early the next morning she met George Barber, the acting fire chief, who was out on patrol. George took her to the Fountain House hotel, then called on the two police constables who were on duty. They found no sign of George, but the team and wagon were still on the river.

Taking charge of the situation, George Barber led the team to a livery stable to be fed. Later that morning he took the young sister, frightened and still shivering, in the wagon to their original destination near Elora. Late in the afternoon Patrick showed up, having learned of the morning’s developments in Guelph.

Overjoyed to find his sister and team unharmed, he became emotional and penitent, vowing never to touch liquor again. With suitable embellishments, it was the sort of story to make temperance lecturers drool.

These are but three of many vignettes of Wellington County in the late Victorian period. It was anything but a dull time.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Dec. 16, 2005.

Thorning Revisited