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Jack and Jim Thurston Remember Dunsford

June 17, 2023

Jim and Anna Thurston on the porch

With Images from Myrna Thurston

In the stable farming communities of Old Ontario, many neighbourhoods had a family or families that it seemed like most people were related to, whether by birth or marriage. Verulam Township had several of these prolific family enclaves—the Junkins north of Sturgeon Lake, the Fletts near Bury’s Green and the Thurstons near Dunsford. In each case, a family migrated together, and as the generations passed, many of their descendants remained to become the nucleus of a growing community.

John and Elizabeth Thurston were farmers in Norfolk, England and while their family was still young, they decided to sell their farm and buy another one. Unfortunately, the lawyer handling the transaction proved to be dishonest, and fled to Australia with their money. They could no longer afford the new land, so everyone in the family had to find a different livelihood. One son joined the British Navy, another stayed in Norfolk, but six boys decided to try their luck in Canada—Carnaby, Henry, Jonas, John Jr., Thomas and Jabez. John Jr. took up a lot near Lindsay. The other five brothers moved to South Verulam, near Dunsford, and four of them would raise large families.

By the third generation, it seemed that practically everyone around Dunsford either was a Thurston, had married a Thurston, or had a member of the family as a close friend or neighbour. In the 1960s, it was said there were 17 J. Thurstons in Dunsford. In fact, there were so many Thurstons in town, that it was customary to refer to family by their first and middle name. When outsiders would hear locals talk about ‘William Wallace,’ many would mistakenly assume that was the full name. 

A century earlier, in 1860, the Methodist (now United) Church was built on Thurston Property, and over the years, the family came to be such a large and active subset of the population that many public services that would be undertaken by church or state elsewhere, were looked after by the family. Though Dunsford (originally Sheriff’s Corners) was renamed for politician James Wicks Dunsford (who had no particular connection to the community), Thurstonia was named in honour of the family.

Brothers Jim and Jack have lived, worked and farmed near Dunsford for their entire life. Their grandfather, Sam Thurston was one of the founders of the Dunsford Telephone, Light and Power Co-Operative Association Limited. Best remembered as a telephone company, at its peak it served communities right around the east end of Sturgeon Lake, reaching as far as Sturgeon Point. After Sam died in 1941, his son, William Wallace Thurston took over active management of the company. As Jack was reaching his teenage years during the war, he grew up helping his father with the telephone company.

With so many young men serving in the colours during the Second World War, there was a shortage of labourers, and when he turned 14 in 1945, Jack was able to get his chauffer’s license—though he was not old enough to have a full driver’s license. As a chauffeur, he could drive for work, but not for recreation. He was driving a Model-A Ford, drawing telephone poles for his dad’s company. Wallace would arrange to purchase poles from a farmer or logger—straight cedars with a six-inch top at 25 feet. Though he was able to drive loads of logs, he was not permitted to drive into Lindsay to go to the show on Saturday night. Jack was far from the only teenager driving at the time. For everyone who thinks that today we have an education system where the students are the ones driving the bus, it was literally true when Jack was a young man. Doug Burke, from Reaboro, (Remembered later in life as Omemee’s Honey Man) drove the bus to school, though he was only about fourteen years old.

Jack and Jim both began their schooling experience at the neighbourhood’s one-room school. Over the years, Dunsford had four schools at different times. By the time the brothers were growing up, two schools remained, one at the present day site of Laura Thurston Park and the other south of Community Centre Road, that still stands (now a private residence). The brothers attended the latter school separately, since Jim was twelve years younger, but the experience was much the same for both of them. Knowing everyone from the neighbourhood, “it just like a big family.” Jack says. In those days, students started when they were six, and “the teacher taught the same lesson to all 8 grades, so by the time you were in Grade 8, you knew it all,” Jim continues. The teacher would often send the older students over to the other side of the room to help their younger classmates.

While the teacher did her best to instruct everyone in the class, a lot of learning relied on individual work and study. “When I was learning my numbers,” Jack explains, “I was busy writing them out, and was way up into the hundreds. I knew that once you got to nine, you just needed to add another digit. Then the teacher came over and asked me what I was writing, but I didn’t know how to say any of them.”

Jack’s teacher, Evelyn (Webber, married Bert) Moore, like everyone during the wartime years, wore many hats to help the community function. While she was teaching, she also staffed the train station. Every day at 11:45, she would leave the kids on their own at school, because she had to be at Dunsford Station by noon to meet the train. After unloading the freight, the train would carry on to Bobcaygeon, which was the end of the line. When it returned to Dunsford at 2:45, she would again be there to meet it, and would be back to school by 3:15 to teach until 4.

In 1946, Jack moved on to Lindsay Collegiate Institute (the name changed in 1963, recognizing new vocational studies). At the time, Security and Defence was a national priority, so every boy in the school trained as either an army or air cadet. The cadets had a bugle band and spent many hours practicing shooting in the gymnasium just down the road at the armouries. “Everyone trusted everyone back then, and each student would get ten shots. If you missed, you would hit a steel plate behind the target.” Far from being concerned about having a group of teenage boys, indoors, firing live ammunition, “the teacher sat and read a book while we were shooting.” In a farming community, learning how to handle a firearm was a skill that Jack and Jim would use for the rest of their lives.

From the time that Jack was a child, his family had a tractor, and after school he would go home to work on the farm. One night, he came home to plough 25 acres. By the time they were in high school, youth were needed to help their parents work, but the community had its own cultural institutions—largely based on volunteerism. The Thurston family had been instrumental in bringing a rink to town. “It was built in 1922, as a memorial for the soldiers who served in the First World War and was originally for the curling club,” Jim explains. “Then later on it became a skating rink.”

Living in a waterfront community, there were several resorts along the south shore of Sturgeon Lake, and Thrustonia was one of the most popular. Jack and Jim enjoyed the opportunities they had to swim there, near the famous Treaty Rock. At this great “round ball of stone,” locals would tell stories about how this was the place that Champlain made a treaty with the region’s native inhabitants. Another tale recounted how the natives “from the north shore of the lake would come over and have a picnic there,” Jim remembers. “But I don’t know if the stories about Treaty Rock are true or not.”

When he was young, Jack recalled that the stone could be slippery and “other kids would help you get up on it.” He believes that it initially sat on dry ground, but when the level of Sturgeon Lake was raised by the Bobcaygeon dams, the foot of the rock could be underwater. His theory is that every year the ice kept shoving it towards shore, and for many years now it has again been on dry ground. One night, when Jack and his friends were having a wiener roast there, part of the rock broke off.

Before his younger brother Jim was born, in the 1930s, Jack recalls a memorable excursion run by Dunsford’s Anglican and Methodist Churches on the steamer Stoney Lake. They started off at Ancona Point, then travelled around the lake picking up more passengers at Ancona Point, Thurstonia, Pleasant Point, Long Beach, Sturgeon Point, Hickory Beach and Verulam Park before travelling through the locks at Bobcaygeon and Buckhorn to visit Stoney Lake, the boat’s namesake, and a very popular tourist attraction. Henry Devitt had a little booth set up on the front of the boat, selling plums for one cent each.

Like many teenaged boys in the 1940s, starting out on his working life seemed more interesting to Jack than continuing on in school, so he left LCI in 1948 to work at cutting ice on Sturgeon Lake. “I just hated it. We would be out there at 7 am, in the wind and cold. By 10 am, farmers would come out onto the ice with their horses and draw the blocks to fill their ice houses. Many of the blocks we made were for the local summer resorts.”

To make a block of ice, the lake needed to be frozen over to a depth of 22 to 24 inches. The power saw they were using would not cut all the way through the ice. “We would break out the first row by hand, then finish sawing in between in each individual block by hand. Then we would break off another log of ten blocks, and break in between then with a bar. We tried to set up the ice field so the wind would help bring them over to the elevator, which would lift the ice up out of the water. Some of the blocks weighed 200 pounds and if it fell off the cart, not everyone could put it back on. We were paid 10 cents an hour.”

As youth, both Jack and Jim worked for the telephone company. Then as now, building and maintaining the transmission lines was a large proportion of the job. Operating in a small town where not everyone had the cash to pay for luxuries like telephone service, customers could pay for their installation and service by supplying cedar telephone poles. “You could get a telephone if you dug 25 post holes,” Jim explains. Back then, telephone service was $12 per year. In much of the area around Dunsford, there is perhaps two feet of topsoil, then rock, so they had to excavate rock on a daily basis. When Jack started out, he was working with his brother Lorne (who later became well known for his honey) boring holes by hitting a chisel with a hammer. They figured they could bore a 1 ¼ inch hole, one-foot-deep in an hour. By the time they were 14, they were considered old enough to handle dynamite, so they would put a charge in their hole, and let it blow. Once heavy equipment came to the area, this work led Jack to go into the excavation business.

On a party line system, like Dunsford’s Telephone Company, families could ring the other houses on their same line. If they wanted to call someone on a different line, they would ring the operator, then ask for a number like “3 Ring 1.” Then the operator would ring once on the third line. It cost ten cents to make a phone call after 10 pm unless you were calling a doctor or coping with an emergency. The operator could “pull all the keys down and with one long ring, everyone would know there was a fire,” Jim explains. “They would pick up and hear about the details.”

By the time local MP Leslie Frost was Ontario’s premier in the 1950s, there was an expectation that utilities would consolidate. The first step was that Bell came to manage the switchboard, but then “they had the profit, and we had the bills” of local maintenance and operations, as Jim says. With multiple companies in Lindsay on one side, and Bobcaygeon on the other, it was difficult to expand. The company’s service range was reduced, only stretching as far as the South School in Bobcaygeon, instead of Sturgeon Point. Then in 1972, the company sold out to Bell Telephone.

With a grandfather who was involved in the utility business, the Thurstons were among the earliest rural families to have power. Around 1918 or 1919, Sam acquired a lightning plant. A gasoline motor powered a cyclone that generated 32 Volts DC. In a shed near their house, they had a bank of batteries that would store the power, then their house (and later the barn) were wired to the bank. Long before household appliances became common, electric lighting was the most common use, but it could also be used to run an electric motor, which could activate a butter churn, water pump, cream separator or a (otherwise hand) washing machine. The Greenhurst Pavillion also had a lightning plant. In 1941, the Thurstons’ home became part of the grid, as everything converted to AC.

Like most of their neighbours, the Thurstons also farmed, particularly beef cattle. When they were younger, farming was profitable. Up to at least the 1960s, it was entirely socially acceptable to drive cattle on the road. While many farmers would drive cattle to a nearby pasture, the Thurstons rented an extensive acreage in the vicinity of Tie’s Mountain, Harvey Township (now Trent Lakes). Jack recalls, the annual journeys they made from 1908 to 1967:

“We would get up at 4 am, feed the cows and let the calves out. The cows knew that it was the day they were going to the ranch and were excited to go. They would practically run for the first little bit. As we passed some houses, their dogs would come out and give the cows hell, but they paid no attention. Years after the government rounded the corners on Highway 36, the herd would still walk out to the old square corners, Dad could not persuade them to follow the new route. From front to back the herd of 65 head would be a mile long, walking up Highway 36. [Since the Bobcaygeon Bypass was not yet constructed] they would go down King Street, down main street and across the swing bridge. One year, the bridge was out for repairs at Locust Lodge (Bobcaygeon Inn), and there was just the bailey bridge. They didn’t want a herd of cows going across the new bridge. Instead, they jumped in the river and swam their way down to Gordon Boat Works. On the way home, they knew every apple tree along the way and would be down in the ditch cleaning them up.”

For years, the Thurstons’ cattle would roam around Harvey Township, on a lease from the Provincial Department of Lands and Forests (now Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry, formerly MNR). “They would be there for months, and we would not see any of them until fall,” Jim says. “We just stopped by once a month and refreshed the salt.”  Though the cows would end up as far away as Silver Lake, there seldom was a problem. But near the end, cattle rustling became an issue, and in 1967, the Department ended the lease.

Sam Thurston was also one of the first farmers in the area to have a tractor, purchasing a brand new, Fordson in 1918. “It did a lot of custom work like threshing or filling silos on the belt pulley,” Jack explains. Back then, between the farmers of the neighbourhood there would be a threshing machine and a tractor, and neighbours would join together at a threshing bee. It was a busy day for everyone was involved. As the men of the neighbourhood worked out in the field, the host farmers’ wife would be hard at work putting on a banquet to feed the assembled host. “At the threshing bee, many families would bring their dogs, who would end up fighting and the kids would be sicking them on for entertainment,” Jack says. “It used to be that the equipment went around the whole neighbourhood,” Jim continues. “Someone else would have a different piece of equipment. Now, everyone has their own equipment. Farmers have bought independence, but a cost has been the neighbourhood.”

The early tractors worked at the walking speed of a horse. So even as they had a tractor, they worked with horses too. Throughout much of the twentieth century, Lindsay was a booming manufacturing town, with many plants like “the arsenal, Carew’s lumber company and Sylvesters [who manufactured rail cars]. They all had steam power and they would signal the end of the day by blowing the steam whistle. It would take 5 minutes to get here, but it was so piercing that we could hear it all the way out to the farm. If we were out scuffling corn, Mabel (a horse) would hear the whistle, and wouldn’t even go to the end of the field, because it was time to go in for dinner.”

By the time that Jack was a young man, the rush to get out virgin pine was history, and logging camps were no longer set up around Dunsford. His grandfather, Sam, and brother-in-law Jimmy Kennedy, had spent their winters logging. They logged a 100-acre lot they bought from the Bell family, piled it where McLaren’s Marina was later built, loaded it on scows and took it to Lindsay to sell. “I can remember when the Carew Lumber Company was cutting in Galway and Cavendish, floating it down the Squaw (now Miskwaa Ziibi) River. They cribbed them back to Lindsay. I remember seeing the tug boat towing this mile and half of logs behind.”

Jack bought one of the area’s first chainsaws in 1949, which was brought in from British Columbia. “It was a big one—85 pounds. The bar alone weighed 19 pounds.” Though it was heavy, unlike the convenient lightweight saws of today, it was apparent what a revolutionary technology it could be. “I cut 25,000 feet of oak in two days, but it burnt over 500 gallons of gas in one winter.”

For many years, Verulam was a dry township. There were a few people in Bobcaygeon who were making moonshine, and others who were bringing it to town. Since selling alcohol was illegal, rather than dispensing alcohol, many people would describe where it might be found. For instance, describing a particular fence post. On a farm, alcohol could be extracted from the corn in the silo and out in the pig pen, “we have 40 bottles our grandfather made,” Jim says. “He died in 1941 and it is still there, it has never frozen.”

Jack and Jim’s cousin Martin Thurston operated the nearby Greenhurst Pavillion. When he was serving overseas during the First World War, he enjoyed the dance halls in Europe and brought the concept to his home community. “The little old pavilion is now gone,” Jack says. “The ceiling was covered with crepe paper. When the weather was damp it would sag down, then it would pull back up when it was dry. It had street lights, and they would play music in the park all day. Girls would get in free, but boys would have to pay five or ten cents per dance. When the music quit, the boys would pull the rope out, and as a boy, you would have to pay if you didn’t want someone else dancing with your favourite girl…. Martin was quite a sharp businessman!”

For years, Greenhurst and was a booming business. They often played waltz music, and Guy Lombardo once came to perform (famous Italian-Canadian violinist, credited with making Auld Lang Syne the definitive New Years’ Eve musical selection). The contracts required performers to play two hours on Sunday afternoon, so there would be music in the park, before the evening’s dance. “It was just a mob in there on Saturday night,” Jim explains. “On Saturday, 2600 cars would drive by my house.” Drinking was not allowed, and alcohol was not openly sold on premises, though many visitors brought their own. “When drinking came in, that was the end of it, because the police could not control it.”

Close by, Percy Skitch built the Swastika Inn, which had to be renamed Thurstonia during the Second World War. Many of the early visitors would come by train, and rent a cottage for a week or two. From the train station, teams of horses and wagons would carry their luggage to the hotel, where guests could rent a boat, and a lot of families came for the fishing.

While many families would travel to dance at Greenhurst, there was not a dance hall in Dunsford village. In the 1960s, Highway 36 ran right through the downtown, and the Junior Farmers would close the main street to host dances. The gathering often started around 6 pm on a summer evening.

Around 1971, Darwin Germyn (who also instrumental in founding the Dunsford Lions Club) had the inspiration to start a winter carnival, that initially centered on the community rink. The Keenan family from Gil-Mar lodge were really involved, and it soon became a much-loved local event. “I had a bull that wasn’t well, but he liked to be with children,” Jack explains, “so I took him down to pull a cart at the Winter Carnival.” One year, he used his tractor trailer float to make a curling rink for the parade, but unfortunately “there was enough salt coming up off the highway that you couldn’t throw a rock on it.” In one memorable event, they made a course out of straw bales, that a blindfolded couple would try to navigate on a skidoo—one would steer, the other would hit the gas. “It was entertaining to watch—it was hard to know how far the skidoo had gone.”

The winter carnival was a great community fundraiser. “When I took over in 1975, it was making $2000 per year,” Jim explains, “and we got it up to $7000. We saved the money and had enough to build the new community centre. The carnival lasted until 2003. By then the weather had changed. How could you get ice in an outdoor rink today? Then we built the new community centre and it moved over there with a dance.”

As in many small communities, the original cemeteries were the churchyards. A desire for a non-denominational cemetery prompted the neighbourhood to found a private cemetery, on one of the Thruston Farms (Highway 36 and Thurstonia Road). In the winter of 1964, no one could be found to dig Torrence Robertson’s grave. Jack and Jim figured they were up to the challenge of picking by hand down through the frozen ground—six feet down and three feet wide. “It would take all day,” Jim remembers. “Sometimes a day and a half. If it was frosty out, the hole had to be 3 inches wider than normal because it would shrink overnight. When the ceremony was over, it would be another half day to fill it back in.” Back then, there were not concrete vaults for the caskets, so after a few years, the box would rot, the earth would settle and there would be a noticeable divot on the surface. After four years of hand excavation, they acquired an excavator, and Jack is still digging the graves today, at the age of 91.

Up to 1957, Dunsford was on the Canadian Pacific Railway line between Bobcayeon and Lindsay. In the 1930s, unbeknownst to the CPR one free train a week would run from Bobcaygeon, as Jack explains. “They would load the train in Bobcaygeon, come down to skate on the rink at Dunsford, then return to Bobcaygeon that night.” Its regular service brought passengers and freight to down, but once it seemed like everyone had a car, traffic dwindled.

Jack remembers when the work crews would come to maintain the railway, “Art Munro, was the only one who could go over to a rail and pick it up with his thumb and finger. The fence on the railroad track was the company’s responsibility,” and the crews made an effort to keep it properly fenced. But, sooner or later, animals would get on the track, which is why locomotives had cattle catchers on the front. “One time, Charlie Brown’s bull got on the track, and the engineer thought the train would scare him out of the way. But the bull turned around and put the train off the track—though he was just fox meat by that time.”

“Dunsford was a prosperous community when we were young,” Jack observes. “The money that came from the town, stayed in the town.” There were five service stations including Max Kennedy’s and Byng’s Shell; two blacksmiths and with daily train service there was a stock yard, weigh station and grain elevator. “The Orange Hall was never locked, everyone just went in and used it. The Orangemen would let people know that their meeting was at 7:30, and the Boy Scouts would make sure they were out of there by then.”

The village’s grocery store changed hands many times over the years, including the Bradley, Laidleys,Jamesons, Max Kennedy, H.C. Wannamaker and later Bill & Myrna Thurston. When Jack was young, “Most of the groceries were in bulk, so they would have a barrel of sugar, and would put what you needed into a bag. They butchered their own beef at the back of the store. It had the necessities like bread, milk and butter, kept in a refrigerator that was just an insulated box with ice in it. They kept ice out in their ice house.”

Big Will Thurston operated the hardware store. Earlier in life, he was sawing logs at Jack Elliott’s farm in the 13th Concession of Emily, using a horse powered circular saw. He had made a habit of using his arm on the side of the blade as a brake, but on that day he slipped and it cut his arm off. In place of his hand he had a metal claw. “It was a big family, so not everyone could be a farmer,” Jack explains. Back then the store sold a lot of nails, some wood stoves, and many products that would not be common today—like kerosene for lamps, snaps for harnesses, caulks for boots (a screw nail on one end and a sharp point on the other, used by log drivers to walk on logs), and a brace and bit instead of the cordless drills that every carpenter uses today.

“As a teenager, you could go in there and buy dynamite,” Jack recalls. “It was dangerous for the person using it. The fuse would burn a foot a minute, so if you wanted a three-minute fuse, you would cut of three feet. But sometimes it would not go off. People would go back to see what had happened and get killed.”

As automobiles were becoming common, often roads were not plowed and “the lake was the highway in winter,” Jack remembers. “My grandfather would draw sand on the lake in winter, and when (sister) Anna May was married we would drive across the lake to visit her. One of our neighbours was driving across the lake with the girl he was dating, and when he hit a crack, the car upset and he had to walk home.” Jim continues, “one year we drove over the lake on the sixth of December, it was not plowed, it would just blow off.” Jack then observes, “Now the lake is just not going to freeze over.”

On occasion the lake was also used for trucking. One winter, Jim was cutting logs on Boyd Island: “Vince Junkin came to drive them across the lake. As he was crossing the ice in the centre of the lake, heading towards Walmac Shore, the load was so heavy it had shoved the ice down, so there was water over the top of his tires.” In later years, the township plowed a road across Pigeon Lake each winter.

In summer, there were three floating bridges between Dunsford and Peterborough—at Bridgenorth, Gannon’s Narrows, and across Pigeon Lake from Purdue’s Shore to Flood’s Landing. “It was nerve racking to drive across them,” Jack recalls. “On a rough day the water would be running right over it and it was basically just a 2×4 on the side to keep you on. If you had a heavy load on, the bridge would sink and if you stopped too long you would sink.” His brother remembers hearing about the odd car that fell off. To save it from ice damage, the township unhooked the Pigeon Lake bridge each fall, and pulled it along shore, “but the other ones stayed in year round.” Bridgenorth had a swing bridge at one end to allow traffic to go through, but the others had to be manually moved out of the way when a boat wanted to pass.

As much as Jack and Jim have seen Dunsford change, after all these years they still live in the community their ancestors helped found, several generations ago. “One thing that has really changed is the neighbours,” Jim observes. Though the Thurstons still play a great role in the community, gone are the days when practically everyone in town was related. In place of the agricultural community, where farming was a profitable career that many young families looked to for their livelihood, today more and more families are moving to the community from elsewhere to enjoy life in the country. “Today, farms sell for over $1,000,000 when they are only worth $100,000 as agricultural land.” Jack elaborates, “I have property where the taxes are more than three times what I paid for it.” But today, nobody is paying for those lots by the cattle that they pasture or the logs they cut. Many people look at these old family farms in an old farming community very differently than they did when Jack and Jim were young.  

This story is a memory and nobody’s memory is perfect. Sometimes details get a little mixed up, things get forgotten or overlooked, and the perspective is inevitably subjective. If you notice something that not right, have something you would like to tell us, or a memory to share the museum would be happy to hear from you:

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