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Building Barns and Memories of the Northey Family with Reneene Graham

March 11, 2023

Bridge over Perrin's Creek, built by Felix Northey

By Karen Hogg

Originally Published in the Visitor, November 25, 1987

“My dad did a little bit of everything,’ says Reneene Graham of Fenelon Falls. “He built barns, did cement work, sold vegetables and gas,” she recalls. It is perhaps the building of barns for which Felix Northey is best remembered. Felix was one of five boys and girls born to Roseanna and Daniel Thomas Northey. Mr. Northey Sr. came from England through Washburn Island. In 1869, he moved to Verulam, ‘that was the year that the school (at the top of town) was being built,” Reneene noted.

At one time the young Northey boys were all in business in Fenelon Falls except, Fred who went out west to farm. While Felix was busy building barns, dams and bridges, John sold farm equipment, Alfred had a bake shop, Washington ran a candy store and Azor was a diver on the Trent Water System. The only girl in the family, Alma, married a Jackett which is still a prominent family name in the area.

Of her uncles, Reneene recalls that John was one of the first to put up lightning rods on barns. “He got the jobs, then dad did the actual work,” she says.

Of Washington she says, ‘he’s mostly remembered for the ice cream he made. It drew people from all around these parts.” Besides the Bake shop, Alfred also owned the local jewellery store and Reneene still has the gingerbread clock that her father bought from the store in 1908. Although it will be eighty years old next year, the clock is still ticking away.

Reneene always knew that uncle Azor was in town when she’d see the government boat ‘Bessie Butler,’ tied up at the docks. Reneene noted that Uncle Azor fixed anything on the locks and she still remembers watching him dive with the heavy equipment and bubbles that rose to the surface telling where he was.

Many of the barns built by Felix are still standing in good condition. One is the Wilson barn in Baddow built in 1905. One of the largest barns in the area still standing is on the Blythe farm [near the Sturgeon Point Road.] It was built by Felix in 1903. Felix brought the trees from the bush, and prepared them into timbers. He also built the stone foundations that were the walls of the stables, then he called in the barn raisers. “The barn raisers in the area always said they never had any trouble with Dad’s barns, they went together just fine,” Reneene said.

She recalls that her dad had seven or nine barns on the go at one time and a local photographer used to take pictures of the barns during construction. There are also little stories told in connection with the barn buildings. One story relates that when Blythe barn was being started the owners ordered in a ton of flour to help feed the men, but before the barn was finished they had to order in another 100 pounds. Perhaps that says as much about duration and stamina as it does about appetites.

Felix also built both the Blythe School and the School on County Road 8. The latter was built in 1907, and he worked on the Fenelon Falls Dam in 1913. As well, he built the rainbow bridge over Perrin’s Creek. The bridge was later bypassed and another one was built, but there have been efforts to have an historical plaque placed at the original bridge site.

“Although Dad didn’t learn his trade from anyone, it just seemed to be what he knew,” Reneene said. Later he got others to work for him and he taught them,’ she added. Felix also did cement work, laying sidewalks and making culverts and drain tile. “He stirred it up with a shovel,” Reneene recalls, and “I used to help quite a bit with those little jobs.”

Reneene’s mother was a seamstress who learned to sew from her mother. Although Reneene worked in Toronto for some years she learned to sew and worked in the tailor shop in Fenelon for seven years. “I made Dr. Thomas (Bobcaygeon) his first long pants,” she said, “then some years later, at a blood clinic I spoke with him and he remembered.”

Reneene has seen a lot of changes since her birth in 1901. She remembers a factory fire that was next door to their house when she was just 3 or 4 years old. “I was afraid our house would go up too,” she recalls, “so mom took the baby out of the cradle and put me in. I went to sleep. The next day I was out picking up the charred wood that had fallen in our yard. That was where the beer store is now.” She recalls other changes too, like the advent of the telephone and the pond where the kids from town and her family all went to skate. The pond was where the motel now stands.

Felix, who was married twice, and raised 12 children, left behind a legacy, both for his children and his community. “After all, the dam is still standing and that says something,” said Reneene’s daughter Marg. It is like the lines penned by an unknown author, ‘to each is given a kit of tools, a shapeless mass, a book of rules; and each must built ere life has flown, a stumbling block or a stepping stone.’ The stepping stones that Felix Northey left behind can be seen in his buildings; bridges to our past scattered throughout our communities.

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