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Jim Hopkins Remembers Baddow’s Farming Community

June 17, 2023

Wood Cutting Bee at Hopkins Farm

When Jim Hopkins was born, Baddow was a stable farming community. Having been founded in the 1850s by a few families—Eades, Watson, Mason, Perdue, O’Brien, Gale, Suggitt and Halliday—many of the local residents were their descendants. Jim’s grandfather, Ben, had purchased a farm there in 1870, which passed to Jim’s parents, Harold & Mearl, when they were married in 1932. When he was a child, his family knew practically every other family between Rosedale and Coboconk. For years, neighbouring families had worked together, because no one could have made it on their own.

In 1943, Cliff Suggitt bought a tractor, a first for the neighbourhood. Harold Hopkins followed suit the next year, which was a memorable event. Having a tractor made just about every job easier. Whereas their ancestors had devoted much of their time to caring for horses like a member of the family—feeding, cleaning, maintenance, harnessing—it was much faster and easier to care for a tractor. While it took a little time to become proficient at operating a tractor, the machine predictably did what the controls dictated, whereas with horses, the farmer had to always be conscious of managing the animal’s behaviour. Jim’s dad had a Democrat (a converted Model A Ford, with heavier lugged tires) that was used for a few years to work the fields.

Each year the community gathered to work together at various bees. The wood cutting bee produced the fuel that would heat each family’s home. An old saw was powered by an inverted Model A motor, converted to run on belts. Each family would spend much of the winter getting ready for the cutting bee. Trees were felled using two-man cross cut saws, then bucked into pieces that were manageable. Tree trunks would be skidded to make saw logs, milled at Burnt River, Norland, Coboconk or Cecil Gale’s mill in Rosedale.  The limb wood was used as fuel. Once the bee began, two men would bring in the limbs, one operated the saw, and two others would pile the produce. Cutting pieces to 16 inches length, the saw could cut one piece, or 2 small poles at a time. Jim, his father and grandfather would spend several days splitting all the wood.

The ice cutting bee took place in January. Once the ice was ready to make blocks, they were cut 16 inches square, to whatever depth the ice was—18-20 inches made a good sized block. Harold had another inverted Model A engine, with handles and a circular saw blade on it—no one would want a good motor to go to waste. After cutting a series of rows in one direction, they would then cut the perpendiculars, but the power saw would not break through, so they had to finish cutting out each block with an ice saw. They had to be careful not to fall in, “it was dangerous work and it was cold.” Blocks were floated with a pike pole to a gas-powered elevator, which lifted them up from the lake to a platform, where they would be loaded onto sleighs to fill the ice house.

At the ice house, about 10 inches of sawdust surrounded the perimeter of the building, and the stack had about a foot of sawdust on top, which acted as insulation, so the ice would last the summer. The Hopkins had an ice house at their farm, as did many of their neighbours. Their Balsam Lake cut would also serve Cedar Villa, the Royal Motel (Resort), Cedars Cottages, and any of their neighbours who also had an ice house. Harold also cut at Coboconk.

Each fall neighbours gathered for the chicken or turkey plucking bee. Several local families raised fowl from day olds, which they purchased from a hatchery. The Hopkins raised about 100 birds, and once he was old enough to drive, Jim was kept busy delivering the eggs in Coboconk—their customers included many tourists. Once the meat hens were six months old, neighbours would gather to help process them, and Harold delivered birds to Toronto for sale. The family only saved a few for their own use. Some of their neighbours who did not have an ice box, would keep meat in the freezer boxes for rent at the Fenelon Falls Co-op.

Even as they were getting their first tractors, the neighbourhood still gathered for the threshing bees. For these farm families, much of the summer was spent getting in the crops. Oats and barley (often planted and harvested together as fodder) were reaped with a binder—one person driving the tractor, another operating the binder. The binder was a prized implement, and because there was no insurance, it had its own shed out in the field, so that if there was a fire, at least they would still have a binder. Each armful was bundled together into a sheaf, which were then then taken off the binder as a stook, arranged to keep the heads and their grains up off the ground, and allow them to dry. Starting in mid-August Jim Wilson would take his threshing machine around the neighbourhood to process the harvest into grain and straw.

All of the bees worked on the basis of, ‘if you help me, I’ll help you’—and all the farmers who were wanting to have the community help with their harvest, would go help at everyone else’s farm. Threshing could only be done when the sheaves were dry, so everyone watched the weather carefully. Jim Wilson often started near Rosedale, and worked his way up the highway as far north as Burnett’s. At each farm about 12 to 15 guys would gather. The host family would put on lunch for everyone who was helping—quite an undertaking in the days before indoor plumbing, when cooking was done over the woodstove, even in the blazing summer heat. It was this reality that led the contemporary American President Harry S. Truman to coin the phrase, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

As the threshing bee began, the farmer would go out with their horses or tractor to gather up the sheaves. Typically, two people worked on the wagon building the load, while two others brought the sheaves to the wagon. Once the wagon returned to the barn, two or three others would be unloading the sheaves into the threshing machine. Jim Wilson would be operating the threshing machine and the tractor, overseeing the whole operation to ensure that everything was working correctly. The threshing machine was powered by a (approximately) 10-inch wide belt, powered by a pulley on the side of the tractor, running to another on the machine. To stay on the pulleys, the belt always had a half turn. Other workers would haul the finished product into the barn, where one person would be working in the granary and another in the straw mow to arrange the produce. In two days, the neighbourhood could harvest 15-20 acres and would be ready to move on to the next farm, as the family would have straw and grain for winter. By the end of September, the circuit of the neighbourhood would be complete.

For farm families who spent a lot of time working in isolation, it was often really exciting to get together to bring in the harvest. “A lot of nonsense went on with the fellows who took part.” When Jim was about 10 years old, he was assigned to drive the tractor to haul in the sheaves. One year, when they were bringing in a load at Chambers’ farm, the boys who were up on the wagon “got a hold of two big burdocks, and they started whaling on each other. Running all over the load, it ended up so badly messed up, that it wouldn’t stay on the wagon, and ended up upsetting.” When the farmers who were working at the barn saw the mess that had been made, it was easy to assume that the problem was an inexperienced driver—at that point, of course no one was hitting each other with burdocks. “But Dad took my part and said, ‘if you don’t want him here, he can go home, and then you can put it all back on the wagon.’” And so, Jim carried on as part of the threshing crew. The threshing bees lasted until the advent of combines.

Before threshing season began, farmers would already have gotten their hay in during June and July. Harold and his brother Roy worked together, using a hay loader (or buck rake) to gather up the loose hay. Once they arrived at the barn, they would pull the hay wagon into the mow. Tongs that were about 30 inches high, with a hook on the bottom of them, scooped up mounds of hay, that was pulled up to the ridge of the barn with a pulley, mounted on a carriage that ran down the centre of the barn. When the farmer tripped the tongs, the hay would drop onto a great loose pile in the mow. When Jim was about 15, the advent of square hay bales immensely reduced the labour required. Then once the bales were gathered, an elevator lifted them up to the roof of a barn, where two men crawled around in the to arrange the bales. Working in the blazing summer heat, cooking below a tin roof, the sweaty workers would inevitably get coated in moistened hay dust. Practically all the crops they grew were used on the farm: Chop for pigs, grain for cows and horses, some of it ground more finely at the Fenelon Co-op or Coboconk Feed Mill. For about 5 years they grew an acre of turnips, that were given to cows in winter to boost their milk production.

When Jim was young he would help milk cows by hand, but by the time he was 12, his family purchased a milking machine. His family kept 10-15 head, and after milking them at 6 am, Jim would take them out to the pasture for the day. They had a cream separator in the barn, and “a fellow from Coboconk took the cream to Silverwoods in Lindsay.” Each farmer made their own butter with a churn, and Jim spent many hours turning the crank to make butter. Any leftover milk would be fed to the pigs. Later on, tourists would buy quarts of milk. In those days, drinking raw milk was a norm. For years after milk quota came in, their neighbour Gladys Suggitt would feel bad about dumping excess milk, so she had a vat of raw milk. Neighbours would come and fill their pitcher and throw a little money in a jar. They took beef cattle to Les Caister of Coboconk to butcher. Les Caister would come to the farm to process the cattle, which were used for home use and some for sale.

Jim’s home was heated with a box stove in the living room and a cook stove in the kitchen. The pipes ran horizontally through the second storey to provide some heat to the bedrooms. Though they would burn eight or ten cords of wood per year, no one had insulation in those days and the stoves were terribly inefficient compared to today. Jim’s room was at the far end of the house, so he had more quilts than his sisters. By the time his dad got the fire going again in the morning, it was not uncommon for Jim to be sleeping in freezing temperatures.

Families did the best they could to ensure that wood was dry—often seasoning it for two years—being quite afraid of chimney fires. But because it was seasoned for two years, it all had to be stacked in a shed, before it was moved up to the house. Though the long, horizontal pipe runs made the upstairs bedrooms liveable, they also caused creosote to accumulate as the smoke temperature dropped as it moved away from the stove. His parents were often waiting for the next warm day to clean the pipes—typically four or five times a winter. As they took the pipes down, it always made a mess, even as they did their best not to upset the soot out of them.

The houses that often froze in the winter also did not have running water. As a youngster, Jim often helped out, fetching a pail of water. His family used an outhouse, even on cold winter days—hence the practice of keeping chamber pots. Unlike many families in more remote neighbourhoods, the Hopkins already had electricity when Jim was born, which was used for electric lighting. Before long they acquired modern appliances, like a refrigerator, freezer and stove. In 1952, Len Wilson helped Harold put in running water.

As a youngster, Jim also always had a telephone. The caller would take the speaker off the wall, and would turn a crank to make a combination of long and short rings to signal which of their neighbours they were calling. To reach someone on another line, they would make one long ring for Burnt River central. The caller would say, “I would like to talk to ______, my name is _______” and the operator would dial the number on the other line. “Some people, who had little to do, would listen in on their neighbours’ phone calls—hearing a lot of gossip in the process.”

Jim grew up in the age before computers or even television, and families had to make their own entertainment. The Strawberry Festival that supported Baddow United Church was always popular. The neighbourhood kids got to know each other well, playing baseball together at school recess. In winter, when a thaw melted the snow, creating sheets of ice on the ponds, kids would get to spend many joyous hours skating. The neighbourhood children congregated to go tobogganing on the hill on in front of Hopkins’ farm on the 3rd Concession. The front of the toboggan was a sleigh that pivoted on a plank, allowing them to steer the sled. As many as 10 kids could ride together at a time.

For many years, farm families had gathered together for house parties on most weekends. The Hopkins would travel as far as visiting the Armstrongs at Bury’s Green. Neighbours would play their pianos and guitars. The host family would serve a luncheon and the parties typically lasted until 11:30 or midnight. With the advent of dance halls, the experience of these private gatherings could be transformed into a community event where hundreds of people would gather. The region was home to many dance halls: Natie Pearce and family’s Wonderland at Coboconk, Lakeview Barn Dance on Pigeon Lake, the second story of Bobcaygeon’s Fire Hall (Lion’s Hall on Main Street), Dunsford and Cedar Villa. The Burnt River Hall, the Embassy and one or two other locations in Lindsay also hosted dances. In Fenelon Falls, Jack Marshall’s Cameo typically had ballroom dancing, unlike most of the other dance halls which were country or old tyme—Jack was a great pianist.

While many of the songs were for round dancing, square dances were also popular at many of these locations. For years, Harold had called square dances at private parties, and was a caller at many local dances. One Wednesday night, fifteen-year-old Jim and his friend Grenville Fountain (who lived just up the road on the 5th Concession) travelled up to Cobie together. When they arrived at Wonderland, some people were saying that they wanted to have a square dance, but there was no caller. Grenville thought they could do it, “I will call the first change, you can do the second and I will do the third.” Having watched his father do it for years, Jim turned out to be a natural and has been calling square dance ever since.

Calling square dances has taken Jim all over the countryside. By the time he was 17, he was calling Wednesday nights at Wonderland, Thursday at Cedar Villa, Friday at one of the many other dance halls, then back to Wonderland for Saturday night. He often called for private functions like weddings, at Burnt River, Kirkfield, and even travelled to Casa Loma. Later on as a teacher and principal, Jim offered it as an extra-curricular activity. Over the years he called for many popular bands, including Mel Levine from Honey Harbour and Bobcaygeon’s Don Messer. His father regularly called in Bobcaygeon, and once Jim joined him to have two generations of the Hopkins calling. Square dancing was very popular until the early 1960s, but since then it has gradually disappeared, and today, most people don’t know how.

In the 1950s, many couples would go dancing several nights a week. At that point it was the most popular entertainment for young adults. “It was tremendous exercise and it took great skill to be a good dancer.” In 1954, when Jim was in Grade 10, his family got their first television. Initially, it made little difference in their lives, “because there wasn’t much on it.” But as time went on, families started staying home and watching television, rather than getting out and enjoying themselves at the dance halls. By the late 1960s, the crowds were a fraction of what they once were.

Just as television was spurring the decline of dance halls, the neighbourhood school closed in 1967, as Baddow’s kids would be bussed to Burnt River. The community came together to transform the school into a Community Centre. Gladys Suggitt, long the stalwart of Baddow’s Baptist Church, served as secretary-treasurer, Murray Nicholls served, and Jim volunteered to chair the committee. When it reopened later that year, it would host community functions like dances, and box socials. Neighbourhood ladies would bring in beautiful boxes, then auction them off, with the proceeds to support the community centre. Euchre games became a regular routine, and it later came to host the local car club. It became a great spot for gatherings of up to 40 people—and survived a recent attempt by the City of Kawartha Lakes to close the building.

Gladys Suggitt was a unique figure in the community. In a time when there were clear gendered norms, Gladys did the work of both a man and a woman. It was very unusual for a woman to be farming on her own, but she was beloved, so it was not something that was turned into a negative. Gladys was very progressive, perhaps out of necessity. Lacking the brute strength that other farmers used to get by, she was ahead of her time in many ways, as she cared for her dairy cows. She worked smart, and whereas many people would routinely lift something that was ten pounds heavier than they should, she used the technology that she had. When neighbours went to visit Gladys, she would typically be dressed for farm work, which was unusual for a woman.

Not only did Gladys do all the domestic and farm work that was needed to get by, she took the time to record how it was all done, and the history of her community. Drawing on her unique experience, gives Roses and Thorns a very authentic voice. As she was getting older, she took inLolaPotter, who was from Toronto and brought 4 children with her. The eldest, Bob, was 11, Marlene was 9 and twins Ken & Kathy had just been born. Bob was soon old enough to be a great help on the farm, and he and his brother Ken would carry on the operation after Gladys passed.

Baddow was also home to a one-of-a-kind suspension bridge over the Burnt River, on the Third Concession down where it met the river. At the time, that area was not yet developed, years later Oscar Reid transformed it into waterfront properties. Made of page wire, anchored on both shores, some children crossed it to go to school. The bridge would noticeably sway as they would carefully cross, trying not to look down at the river, perhaps 30 feet below. “I never had any yearning to cross it…. It was not enticing at all.” Nothing remains of this unique architectural specimen.

When Jim was a young adult in the 1950s, “you could buy 100 acres and pay for it in 4 or 5 years by farming. My father and uncle bought the ranch behind this farm for $4000 in 1953, and then took enough elm logs off the farm in two winters to pay for it. At the time, the sawmill at Burnt River was buying them to make rail ties. Today, it is impossible to have a farm produce enough to pay for it in a lifetime.”

From the 1950s on, the family farms have been disappearing. It took many years, but farmers needed more and more land to get by, as fewer youth went into farming. Today few of the local residents can get by without a pension or another stable source of income. Of all the original farm families that were once his neighbours, only two still make a living in the neighbourhood as farmers.  “Most people are here because they think it is a nice place to live.”

Today—as most people drive from Baddow to work, few newcomers join in the community barbeque or Christmas party at the Community Hall, and families entertain themselves with social media or YouTube—kids grow up in a very different world than the 1940s and 1950s. No longer do neighbours need each others’ help just to survive, today relationships of work and play can be formed over great distances. But the old farms of Baddow continue to produce, just today, they are part of much larger and more specialized operations.

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