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John Lyon Remembers Growing Up on Fenelon Falls’ Island

December 14, 2022

Lyons Garage and Fenelon Island from the Air, an H.R. Oakman aerial photograph

The public face of Fenelon Falls changed substantially starting in the mid 1960s. Home to one of the most picturesque vistas in the region, over the years, countless people stood at the edge of the Fenelon Gorge and photographed the locks and falls. It seemed practically everybody had a picture of Fenelon Falls, with a power plant on either side. The tip of the island was home to several distinctive structures, including the old stone grist mill, white fire tower, and village of Fenelon Falls buildings. The entrance to the lower lock was just to the north, with its beautiful curved stone walls. Then in a few years, so much of this picture disappeared, as the built waterfront landscape was transformed into greenspace.

John Lyon had the opportunity to grow up right at the heart of Fenelon Falls, in the era when all of these unique old buildings still stood. John’s family moved from Newmarket in late 1945, when his parents, Aubrey (Aub) and Lorine, partnered with John Henderson to purchase a garage from W.J. Flett. Aub’s father, Luke, owned the first car in Schomberg, a 1912 Model-T Ford. Aub inherited a love of cars from his father. During the Second World War, he worked as BA fuel truck driver, which gave him an in with the company. He was a natural fit to operate a garage, and by working on cars for so many years, he picked up the skills of a mechanic.

Fenelon Falls’ Dodge-De Soto dealership soon became known as Lyons Motors. Back then, cars were really exciting, probably having greater cultural significance than they do today. After the Second World War, practically every family owned an automobile, and they were starting to become really stylish in their designs. Bright colours, and beautiful curves were becoming the norm. De Soto was a popular brand, that was more luxurious than a Dodge, but not quite on par with a Chrysler.  

In the 1940s, the dealership worked on consignment. Aub could not have afforded to purchase so many vehicles, given how few he sold. It had initially been John Henderson’s idea to buy the business, but Henderson did not have the money to make the purchase himself, so he had talked Aub into joining him. But Henderson died within a year of moving to Fenelon Falls, so the Lyons family bought out the interests of their partners. The dealership, like almost everything else on the island, was situated on Crown Land, built on a 99-year lease, that either party could terminate on 6-months notice. Lorine was a legal secretary, and would have been in a position to advise her husband on the risks of buying a Crown Land lease. But the lawyer at the time thought they would never need the land, and they could put that money towards something else. Lorine spent countless hours doing the books for the business, “Pop could not have managed without her.”

While selling cars was the eye-catching part of the business, most of their income came from operating the garage—in fact, they didn’t sell enough cars to justify the expense of purchasing them outright when the companies phased out consignment sales in 1953. Lyons pumped BA gas at 23 cents a gallon, and Wesley Martin was often the first employee that people encountered when the pulled up to the pump. He was polite, amiable, and prefaced everything he said with a long ‘Waallll’ (Well). Wesley sold ice cream, and did just about all the odd jobs. But customers who wanted their car fixed needed to talk to Howard ‘Neddy’ Akister.

Lyon’s Garage was a large old Carriage Factory (Sandford Carriage Works) that had been modified to keep up with the age of the automobile. Back in the recesses of the cave-like bays, Howard was hard at work. “He had a wonderfully profane vocabulary, that he used without any hesitation at all. He was certainly opinionated and crotchety, hair triggered and explosive. I liked him, but a lot of other people didn’t.” John recalled one memorable incident when a very genteel man had his first unforgettable encounter with Howard, as Wesley was asking, “I wonder if I should have told Howard that he is a Baptist Minister?” There was a protocol for anyone needing to speak to Howard. He was undeniably a brilliant mechanic, extremely focused, and determined to complete the job he was working on. But it was unlikely that he would look at your job if it was after 3 pm and he was already working on something else. A new muffler was $9—$7 for the muffler and $2 to install it.

Howard worked in an age when a lot of skill went into fixing an automobile. Back then, replacement parts were not readily available. So whereas mechanics today diagnose the problem, then replace the part, in the 1940s and 1950s, mechanics needed to be able to figure out how to repair parts with whatever materials they had on hand. There were seven garages in Fenelon Falls, and by agreement one would be open on Sunday. The Lord’s Day Act was strictly observed then. “On Sunday you could fire a cannon down Colborne Street, and you might hit a stray dog, but you wouldn’t endanger any human lives.”

Every Sunday night, Lorine would try to have a roast beef dinner at 5 or 5:30. But if it was Lyon’s week to be open, Aub often wouldn’t get in until 10 or 10:30 at night. He wouldn’t leave a family stranded on the side of the road, and it seemed like there were many Sunday night catastrophes. It was not unusual to need car repairs on a long journey, and many visitors ran into a problem that meant they wouldn’t make it back to Toronto. So often Aub spent his Sunday nights trying to patch a distributor cap with nail polish, reattaching a dangling exhaust system with a coat hanger, taking a generator apart to get the points against the armature, or digging through his spare parts to find a fan belt that would fit a certain car. Though he often spent all day under the hood of a car, Aub was a very meticulous man and valued cleanliness, “so he looked like he sold Bibles for a living.”

Cars were not as reliable back then, so service stations truly were service stations. When someone pulled in for gas, washing the windshield was everyday service. Many wanted their oil, radiator or fan belt checked. They often topped up washer fluid. “One of our customers had a Volkswagen Bug, which was air cooled, with a battery under the back seat. He often wanted us to check the battery. So I would climb in the passenger seat, then into the back seat, take the top off, test that battery, then put it back together.” It was all in a day’s work at a BA Service Station.

Garages did not yet have hydraulic hoists in those days, so work was done in a pit—excavated out from the concrete floor of the garage. The mechanic would not have the freedom of movement that comes with a hoist, and it was dirty work repairing fuel lines and brake lines by a trouble light in the darkened pit. Having a pit was a hazard, and one night after a rummy game, the village’s cop David Gordon missed his footing and fell headfirst into the pit, gashing his face on an angle iron as he fell. It was a disturbing accident for the village. Typically, Howard worked by himself in the back part of the garage, while someone else was in the pit—Aub was eager to keep him out back, away from the public. The Lyons had a tricoloured collie named Bomber, who though blind and deaf, made his way around the garage without tripping or falling in the pit.

“As a kid it was fascinating to watch my Dad or Howard flush the cooling system in a vehicle. They would detach the upper and lower and radiator hose, then attach a long hose from the flushing machine to the outlets that held the hoses. It was the size of a cabinet and had two clear glass cylinders. An air line plugged into the cabinet, and forced compressed air through the systems, cleaning the hoses. A level, like a joystick, attached to the cabinet, and you would watch all kinds of gunk rise up in the cylinder. Then with a huge whoosh the second cylinder would start filling up. After doing this several times with detergent, the cylinder would come clear.”

Lyons sold BA oil products, and had a confectionary in one corner of the old station. They sold soda, chocolate bars, and Silverwood’s ice cream cones—this popular dairy had a plant in Lindsay. Aub also dispensed hunting and fishing licences. Being located so prominently on the island, the garage was a stopping point for many visitors coming to town, and there was almost always someone dropping by to visit. It was, of course, a full serve station, and the employees wore shirts with the BA logo on them, and hats that looked like police caps. When John was old enough to work for his dad, he recalls, “I was Pop’s worst employee. I was dressed in whatever came out of the closet in the morning. But he was extraordinarily patient with me and had a good sense of humour.”

Though John was always the type of kid who enjoyed spending time at the library, there was something undeniably cool about growing up at a garage. “I can easily remember the first time that I saw a 2 seater Thunderbird come to Fenelon Falls around 1955 or the early Corvettes. Some cars were just baffling. What were we thinking driving those cars that were 25 feet long? It was special to see a 1959 Chev, with its tail fins and distinctive tail lights.” In summer, it seemed like there was always an interesting car along the waterway in Fenelon Falls.

Back then, Fenelon Falls was a dry town, and inevitably when Aub went to Lindsay for parts, someone would ask him to get a bottle of Imperial whiskey for them. Aub had a favourite trick that he would play on visitors. He partially filled an old liquor bottle with tea, then added water to make it look like whiskey. When someone new came in, he would ask if they wanted a drink. Often they would say yes, and he would encourage them to add coke. A surprising number would agree that they enjoyed this smooth drink.

Aub also operated a taxi business, and in-town fares were 50 or 75 cents—a trip to Lindsay was $6. One day, he was servicing a car when the phone rang. John, being the boss’ son, was enjoying reading. He told me to go to the IGA (which was then on Colborne Street) and pick up Mr. Friend. John had to go into the store, carry out 7 bags of groceries for him and take him home for 50 cents. Though John said he knew where Mr. Friend lived, which was in a humble building behind the cemetery, Aub proceeded to give him directions: “You can’t go down Bond Street, because they are putting the sewers in. Go by Jacketts, go around the corner where Randy and Doreen Armstrong are. Then turn left, then go by Shosenberg and when you come to the cemetery, I want you to go in, find an empty grave, and bury this son of a bitch.” Such was the sense of humour around the garage back in those days.

In 1953 Lorine and Aub built an apartment above the garage, so for many years, John Lyon lived right at the heart of the village. Looking out the window, he could watch as cars wound their way across the bridge over the falls, and turned onto the swing bridge at the canal. It created a great bottleneck on weekends, especially Friday and Sunday night, as motorists would get caught waiting for boats to pass through the lock—half an hour, forty-five minutes, even an hour. It was opened with a hand mechanical crank, and travellers never knew when it would be open. The bridge was only one lane wide, and it was a sharp turn onto it, so if motorists were not careful, they would rake the side of the car crossing the bridge—“I watched it happen several times a year from the apartment.”

Across the road was Jack and Vi Barrett’s Botany Spinners, housed in the massive old grist mill. “I never went into the Botany Spinners, but I remember many of the workers coming over to buy chocolate bars and cigarettes. It was a low paying job.” The fire tower was beside the old mill, a tall white building that the village used to dry its fire houses. At its foot was a small jail. Further down the hill, the village of Fenelon Falls had a white frame building. Cars could drive right down to the tip of the island.

It was a great place to grow up. There was a road circling the perimeter of the island, passing the creamery and Alex and Gert Flett’s cottage rental business—they had 17 cottages. For nine-year old John, it was one great racetrack for his bike. Aub’s good friend Herb Townley made a large card table for the commodious office and reception area—Herb rented a shop at the garage from Aub. They played rummy with their friends there, often several nights a week in winter. If they needed another player, Aub would holler up, and Lorine would come down from the apartment to join them. Aub and Herb curled and went on European vacations together—John Sobko and Dave Stinson might join them too.

Each spring, the opening of fishing season was a much anticipated event. Tourists came to town a little early to be there for opening day. During fishing season there were many people casting a line below the falls. “In those days, a lot of kids swam and jumped off the falls. Adventurous youth would jump into the upper locks, during the operating season. “Steve Bell would take a running jump off the platform, and almost hit the far wall by the time he got into the water.” Even without a lot of organized activities, there always seemed to be something happening in downtown Fenelon Falls.

“At least once a year, someone’s outboard motor would stall in the river. It was quite a sight as they frantically tried to restart it as they drifted helplessly towards the falls. Several times, a boat went over the falls—the occupants typically saved by Good Samaritans on the dam. The motor would get sucked over first, pulling the prow of the boat dramatically up in the air as it plunged over the dam and then the falls.

A large door at the north end of the garage opened up to an alleyway that was perhaps 90 feet long. In the fall for several years, it housed a shooting range, where hunters could work on sighting their guns, with targets on sandbags. It was not unusual to go back and see a deer carcass hanging there during hunting season. Aub often hunted with his brother Marshall at the Proctor Hunt Club near Sudbury.

Starting in the late 1950s, Lyons Garage also rented space to the Park family for a coin laundromat, that was right under John’s bedroom. The old carriage factory was a large building, and the Lyons tried to use it as best they could to make a living. Much of the upstairs of the Lyon’s Garage sat empty, and there were many broken windows with pigeons flying in and out. There was nothing in the third floor at all, except scraps of lumber, pigeons and droppings. “I don’t even remember there being a ladder or a stair case leading to it.”

Aub worked hard to encourage visitors to come to Fenelon Falls—as it was for so many other businesses, visitors allowed the family to get by. “Everyone encouraged the tourists to come, but everyone breathed a sign of relief when Labour Day came and they returned home. My parents would be flush with money every fall, then overdrawn at the bank by spring. That was probably true for a lot of people who were not on government salaries.”

In 1961, John was sixteen years old when Parks Canada gave his family notice that they had to vacate the island, so the government could transform it into greenspace and build a new lock station. “It came as a thunderbolt to them. None of the tenants on the island had imagined that lease would be terminated. We didn’t know what to do and my parents didn’t do anything for a long time.” A few years earlier, Alex and Gert Flett had retired, selling their business to Cliff Kittle. He hired Ivan Pollard to move the cottages to Front Street in Bobcaygeon. It cost Cliff $1000.

“My parents asked a mover if he could move the apartment, and made verbal arrangements. But then the price went up.” The Lyons were in quite a bind, as the RCMP was threatening to fine them $1000 a day if they stayed on the island any longer. So instead moving their apartment, the Lyons had to sell it to the mover for $500—having spent $10,000 to build it a few years earlier. The Lyons lost their home and their business, and rented an apartment for several years, as they saved up to buy a bungalow on Ellice Street. “Leaving the Island was very hard on my mother. Ironically, when she first moved there, she was out of her element, it took time to get used to the constant rumble of the falls. Later in life it would be quite an adjustment to become accustomed to silence. Having lost everything that they had worked so hard for, the Lyons went through a long period of bitterness and hard feelings. “I’m still very conscious of it.” Aub often said that all the stress of their situation caused Lorine to get arthritis.

Aub tried to make the best of things, taking a job working for Armstrong Motors Ford which was across town (Highlands Propane today). By that time, Aub was getting older, and did a lot of public relations work for Gerry Armstrong. He continued to run his taxi business under the umbrella of his new employer. A few years later the chance came to get his own business back. Brent and Georgie Phillips owned the corner of Helen and Lindsay Street (Texas Burger today). In 1964, Aub persuaded BA to lend him the money to buy the land and put up a cinder block garage. BA was a little slow in forwarding the money, and Aub panicked that he was going to lose it all once again. But in hearing his threats to finance it elsewhere, the company came through with the money. He also borrowed from Lorine’s sister Rita Owens to build a house. For an ageing couple the process of re-establishing themselves was trying, but they did manage to pay off their debts before they died.

The Lyons had a unique experience, having the chance to live right at the heart of the village, at a garage, in the golden age of the automobile. They found themselves at the centre of so much of what was going on in Fenelon Falls. Growing up in a place that was so attractive to so many people, locals and tourists alike, meant that John had a magical childhood—and looking back, it also gave him a unique perspective of how the heart of the village changed in the 1960s.

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