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Hugh Armstrong Remembers His Dad Henry Armstrong

October 21, 2022

Henry and Ila Armstrong

In traditional Ontario farming communities, the neighbourhood blacksmith provided indispensable services. In an age when so much was made from wood, practically every family had the tools and some ability to work with wood. But not everything could be made from the forests, and the ability of the blacksmith to hammer out just about any metal work that was needed, meant sooner or later, practically everyone needed their help.

Henry Armstrong grew up on a farm near Burnt River, born on March 30, 1913. He was called the high water baby, because the day he was born the Burnt River was flooding. The flood waters separated the Armstrong farmhouse from the road, so the doctor had to get on a boat by the highway and paddle over to deliver Henry.

His grandfather, James Armstrong, was born in Cavan Township, and moved to Somerville establishing the Armstrong homestead on Ledge Hill Road, just north of Bury’s Green. He married his wife, Elizabeth Schell, who was the daughter of the family living next door. The Schell family had immigrated from Baden, Germany initially to Pennsylvania and then north to Canada, establishing their homestead adjacent to James’ property. Around the start of the twentieth century, Henry’s grandfather purchased a farming lot on the Burnt River, just east of its namesake village, for Henry’s father, also named James. Here, the younger James and his wife, Pheobe Smith, raised Henry and his siblings Russell, Myrtle (McGill-White), Mabel (Lamb) and Bertha (Poulsom).

Henry’s father had a blacksmith shop on the farm and did some crude work on the forge, but he was better remembered as a barn builder and framer. He built many of the barns around Burnt River. He also had the only stumping machine in the vicinity, and travelled around the neighbourhood helping to rip the tree roots out of the fields so they could be worked. Many of the traditional stump fences that he helped create to separate fields and enclose livestock have slowly decayed and disappeared. The main components of the stumping machine remain as a conversation piece/lawn ornament on the farm.

Growing up on a farm in those days typically entailed learning to be a jack of all trades. But Henry took particular interest in blacksmithing. Having learned the basics from his father as a boy, Henry became a perfectionist—a trait he equally displayed in farming, logging, hunting, fishing or just about everything else he did. As he matured, he developed a great degree of skill at the forge, especially once he took his first outside job working for Dick Bulmer at his Fenelon Falls Blacksmith Shop (located in the old McArthur House Livery Stable now the home of the Fenelon Falls Brewing Company). About the time he moved to Fenelon Falls, he married Ila Herron of Powles Corner, and the lived in a small house rented from Alfred Tiers on Bond Street (today an artist lives there). Their family of four children was born while they lived at Fenelon Falls—my older sister June (Phillips), myself (Hugh), my younger sister Mary Ellen (Elliott) and my deceased infant brother, Bruce.

Dick Bulmer was an unforgetable local personality. He had also grown up on a farm not too far from Bury’s Green, in an age when horses were not only the motive power of the farm, but towed buggies and wagons for transportation. Before the automobile, it was indeed a special occasion to travel any further than the nearest village or town. Going to either the store or the blacksmith shop was often a memorable social outing, especially Dick Bulmer’s. In the small world of local blacksmiths, Henry’s cousin, Melrose Smith, worked out of his own shop on his farm at Bury’s Green.

While Henry’s brother Russell stayed home and worked on the family farm at Burnt River, Henry helped Dick modify old hay wagons to accommodate rubber tires. Having a wagon with pneumatic tires was indeed an exciting sign of progress for farm families who had got by with wooden wheels for years. For many families, this step forward would be much anticipated. Area farmers frequently dropped into the shop for help in fabricating custom parts to keep their farm machinery operational. And countless horses still made their way to Dick’s shop to get shod either with less expensive foundry-made shoes or the top of the line hand crafted ones which became Henry’s trademark in later years. While having the opportunity to work for Dick, Henry also became skilled at making swivel hooks, cant hooks, wedges and many other smithy things to assist both farmers and loggers alike. There was always some project underway at Dick Bulmer’s Blacksmith Shop. That is, when Dick wasn’t playing Euchre with his friends, or horrifying some newbie with the dead-finger-in-the-box-trick.

After mastering the trade while working for Dick, Henry and his brother Russell agreed to swap their careers. Henry moved back to the family farm in Burnt River in the late 1940’s and Russell came to Fenelon Falls to work as a smithy at Dick Bulmer’s Shop. As Henry set out on his own as a farmer-blacksmith, it was in an era when modern technology was beginning to transform the ancient work at the forge. Dick Bulmer adopted the skill of welding into his shop as many farmers were buying their first tractor. Switching from horse-drawn machinery to a tractor was quite a change for many farmers. While some traditionalists went on insisting that nothing should be done with a tractor that could be done with horses, Henry was excited about his new Massey Harris tractor. Of course like so many of his neighbours, he couldn’t afford to buy a new one, but that didn’t matter.

The Kawarthas are a region where there are dramatic changes in the landscape over a relatively short distance. To make a living, farmers needed an ability to appreciate the terrain they occupied and make the most of it to get by. Henry’s property was located on the sandy floodplains that were once the bed of a much mightier Burnt River. But “other than where the two rapids on the farm, you cannot find a loose stone anywhere else.” This contrasted with many other lots in the district which had no shortage of stones presenting their own unique problems. In his sandy soil, Henry took great pride in growing the very best crops he could, particularly hay and oats to feed his livestock of cattle, horses, pigs, laying hens, and seasonal turkeys or capons. And he always ensured he had some additional crops of corn and turnips to treat the animals and a garden full of vegetables for his family. There was a little bit of everything on his farm similar to many of the other mixed farms of his neighbours. “It was an abundant living, but no one got rich on that kind of farming”.

In the 1950s, many farm families were starting to adopt electricity. As a boy, Hugh remembers going to visit his maternal Grandparents, Lila and John Herron, who farmed at Powles Corners. They had electricity for as long as he could remember. In 1953, Hugh visited his friend’s house in Burnt River who did have electricity, and watched his first TV program, Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation.

As a child, Hugh wondered why his family had not connected to the grid sooner but it finally happened in 1957 when he was in Grade 11. It was quite an expensive project and Henry got busy logging on the forested area of the farm and sold his logs to pay for the installation. “That was typical for him that whenever he had a big expense, winter logging was what he did to make payment.” And when the lights were turned on for the first time, “it was one of the most exciting and proud days—you felt like you had come of age”. The day after the lights were turned on, Henry went to Fenelon and guess what the first electrical appliance was that he brought home? A television!

In the 1950’s, neighbourhoods shared many happy moments of their own making together and Henry and his family were part of most of them. They often gathered in their homes to play Euchre or enjoy live music played by whoever in the community had the talents to do so. “I loved to go to Grandsen’s, where I learned from Doris how to play the piano. She taught me how to chord as she chorded along while Gardie played the violin.” Sometimes it was just their two families that gathered to share Old Tyme Music, but on other occasions, it seemed like the whole neighbourhood was there.

There was always something going on at either the Orange Hall or St. Luke’s Anglican Parish Hall. The former hosted dances to live music, public meetings and many other social events. They both offered card games and tournaments. The Anglican Parish Hall hosted community dinners for both the Anglican Church and Burnt River United, who did not have their own hall at that time. Burnt River was a close-knit community, home to three stores operated by the Wright, Godwin, and Sheehey families. Wright’s store also had a gas station and restaurant, while Sheeheys sold gasoline as well. There were two sawmills: Handley’s and Dancey’s. Dancey produced rail ties, while Handley’s did custom sawing which eventually consolidated into their other location creating the four generation Fenelon Falls building centre know as Handley Lumber.

Wright’s General Store burned down, Sheehey’s was converted into a home and Godwin’s was the last to operate. It too was converted into a home. The Burnt River Telephone Company served farmers and the community for many miles around. Verlie Chalmers commanded Burnt River Central located in her home opposite the Anglican Church. Morris Watson maintained the necessary lines, poles, and general upkeep. Everyone had their own distinctive telephone number, known as longs and shorts (rings) on the party lines. In was not unusual to have your neighbor listening in on your phone calls. The CNR train still made its daily trek from Lindsay to Haliburton and stopped at the village station—now long gone. In that era, diesel locomotives were supplanting steam.

As much as he loved mixed farming, Henry really loved horses and raised prize-winning Percherons. And it was probably his proudest moment when he sold his last two to the Woodbine Racing Commission, who used them to ceremonially rake the track for special events like the Queen’s Plate. He never missed a Horse Show or a Fair, especially the local ones at Kinmount or Lindsay. He eagerly watched the horse pull and admired all the show horses. He also really enjoyed working on the forge, hammering out excellent horse shoes for them. For show horses, every shoe he made was customized—fitting the shoe precisely to their hoof as best he could. Horsemen travelled great distances to have Henry shoe their prized possessions. They either brought them to his shop on the farm or sometimes he travelled to their location carting his equipment. Such showmen were the Mark and Walker families of Cameron; the Hobden and Robertson families of Lindsay; the Hughes, Ness, and Hamsen families of Orillia; the Heber Down Stables from Brooklyn; and one of his best known customers was Doug Palmer of Schomberg. Palmer’s eight horse Carlsberg Hitch was much admired at the Canadian National Exhibition, the Royal Winter Fair, and parades all over Ontario. As Henry was winding down in the late 1980s, the last team to visit was probably the Carlsberg Belgians.

Through all the years of heavy hard work and lifting all those horses’ feet, Henry’s health held up too. “He didn’t even have arthritis…he obviously loved to do it!” And it was always special when the famous show horses were at the farm. It really made his day and he always looked forward to their visit. For such an occasion, his wife, Ila, would make the visitors a hardy farm dinner. As they had travelled so far, and Henry was happy to see them—that was the least they could do to show their appreciation. “It was just how they did things and from the kitchen my mother was always part of that.”

Henry’s family and neighbours would never forget the sight of him hammering away on hot metal in the blacksmith shop even when it was 35 C outside. “The heat didn’t seem to bother him,” and neither did all the wear-and-tear of a lifetime of difficult physical work. He loved his farm and always strived to make it better for future generations that still live there and continue to enjoy the treasures it offers. For Henry, it was not only his birthplace and workplace but his hunting and fishing paradise, with the river and forest. “However, we joke now that we, amazingly, see more wildlife today than ever before because Henry is not there with his ready rifle.”

Henry operated the family farm like so many of his neighbours. He was widely known and respected for his “smithy” skills, particularly his unusually high-quality horse shoes. He often signed his work, proudly hammering HA into each piece—items still occasionally show up at local auctions. His shop on the farm still exists just as he left it but missing the expertise to put it into action, a place of historical interest and conversation. Henry was one of the last traditional Blacksmiths of Victoria County and a man that made the most of his own unique interests and abilities.

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