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A New Sleigh from Robson’s

April 1, 2023

Monty Robson at the Kinmount Fair

Back when most families were farm families, they worked day after day, doing repetitive manual labour to get by. Once winter came, the fields were frozen, the crops were in, the animals and children still needed to be cared for, but now there was time for fun. Christmas began a season when there was much more time for recreation and enjoyment, when families had the time to go for a sleigh ride and visit their friends. It was also time to start getting ready for the new year.

In the nineteenth century, the backbreaking labours of getting in the hay and turnips just to keep the animals fed was a reality that even children knew all too well. Six-year-olds were mature enough to start helping with the haying. Starting in the second half of the nineteenth century farm machinery held the promise of relieving the drudgery of processing just about everything by hand. The new year was a time of looking forward to the coming season, to purchase the equipment that would make life a little easier, and maybe even a brand new sleigh!

In 1877, Thomas and William L. Robson purchased the foundry that William Hamilton had operated for a few years on the shore of Cameron Lake, on the newly constructed rail line, at the present site of Garnet Graham Park, Fenelon Falls. Working in a foundry was, like many contemporary manufactories, often unpleasant, dangerous and repetitive work. Hamilton had been scaled by steam from his boiler, only to have his plant burn on May 11, 1876. But the Robsons knew what they were getting themselves into, as Thomas was an iron founder from Middlesboro, Yorkshire.

The Robsons manufactured many farm implements, including ploughs, harrows, fanning mills, horse powers, stumping machines, pea harvesters, hay forks, straw cutters, silage cutters, root pulpers—they also made steamship and mill machinery, and outfitted R.C. Smith’s sawmill in 1880. Six years after the foundry opened, the Robson’s added a retail outlet on Colborne Street, which soon branched out into ordering machinery from larger manufacturers, like Massey Harris and Cockshutt. It also introduced a revolutionary new farming product, binder twine, which was not cheap, selling for 10 to 15 cents per pound in 1890. Like haywire that came before it, farmers would soon become adept at recycling it for countless fix-it projects—the phrase to “go haywire” reflected upon this ingenuity.

In 1884, Robert Allen bought William Robson’s share of the business, only to leave shortly thereafter, with Thomas carrying on in the business. J.A. Moore acted as their agent in Bobcaygeon. Like so many other local landmarks, the foundry disappeared in a spectacular 1893 blaze. Robson had just $2,500 insurance on a $12,000 plant, because the insurance foundries were deemed high risk and carried high premiums. He decided not to rebuild, acting an agent for Massey-Harris, operating a second showroom after buying Heard’s Hardware (as they relocated) in 1894. For many years, Robsons were one of the best known businesses in town, selling tractors, right on the main street.

Monty Robson was the last owner of the family business, and a much-loved figure in the community. A devoted Rotarian, he helped with countless community projects over the years and was a fixture at local agricultural fairs. He well is remembered as serving as “master of ceremonies for damned near any gathering of more than ten people.” Many people loved to visit with Monty & Beulah Robson, who recruited countless friends for the local conservative party.

For many years, each community would receive a delivery of farm implements from large manufacturers, typically in late winter. Farmers would often congregate on the street—on Colborne north of Francis Street in Fenelon Falls, or in front of the Grist Mill on Canal Street in Bobcaygeon—full of excitement and anticipation for what the new year would bring. Families would be excited at the prospect that they might have a machine to save countless hours of tedious manual labour processing grain or having a horse power in the days before electric motors. Wouldn’t it be a wonder to be able to turn the crank on your own fanning mill?

Many families would be especially excited to have a new cutter. In the nineteenth century, when roads were notoriously rough, a layer of snow levelled most of the bumps along the way. Whereas travelling by wagon or carriage (with solid wheels) a constant jolt, jolt, jolt, jolt—sliding along in a cutter could be pleasant on a mild winter’s day—as long as the drifts were not too deep. Many kids made a sport of grabbing onto the back of a sleigh as it passed them on the street, and skidding across the village—kind of like water skiing. It was a sport that would carry on into the age of the automobile. Almost everyone could agree it was a wonderful occasion to buy a cutter—where would be the first place you would go in a new sleigh from Robson’s?

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