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Memories of Mark Fell

November 7, 2022

Mark Fell in a Tuxedo

Mark Anthony Fell grew up near Bury’s Green on Lot 17, Concession III in Somerville Township, a farm that was in so many ways like his neighbours. But his childhood was marred with tragedy as his father Johnston died while Mark was still young. In those days farming was a way to make a living, but it was no road to affluence, and there were very limited opportunities for a widow left alone with a family to raise. Faced with a life of destitution, his mother remarried, but Mark’s step-father turned out to be abusive, and it has been said that he drank himself to death. To escape his unfortunate childhood, Mark enlisted in the army in 1916, as part of the 252nd battalion of the Victoria Regiment. He later said that when he volunteered, he had just $1 in his pocket.

Before they were shipped over, new recruits received some basic military training, as the unit practiced marching up and down the village streets. The soldiers took the train to Halifax, where they loaded coal on a ship for two days, and Mark later told a friend that the ships going over were more full of coal than men. His ship survived the Atlantic crossing, despite U Boat patrols, and once they arrived in Britain his battalion was broken up to serve as reinforcements for other British units. He ended up fighting in the 21st Battalion, 2nd Division near Ypres from 1917 to the end of the war.

Ypres was an intense sector on the Western Front. In 1915, it had been the site where the German Army first used poison gas, followed by immense casualties as the Allies took Passchendaele Ridge in 1917, and then the Germans recaptured it the next spring. A salient had formed in the front there in 1914, and seen small changes in location, at great human cost, until the Allies finally broke out at the start of October 1918, just over a month before the end of the war.

Mark arrived on the Western Front in time to witness some of the most intense fighting. He felt the ground shake under the great artillery barrages, watched friends fall, and was himself wounded when he was hit with shrapnel in the left foot.  He recovered sufficiently to return to active duty, but as he lived in the trenches, he couldn’t help but wonder if a shell hole in no man’s land wouldn’t end up being his final resting place. Mark had a gift for poetry and vividly captured his experience in the poem below.

Mark proved to be one of the fortunate soldiers who survived the war and he returned to Fenelon Falls. He had a lifelong interest in construction and used the gratuity he received when he retired from the army to buy a cement block maker, cement mixer and 6 hp – 1 cylinder Fairbanks-Morse gas engine to run it. Concrete was then a relatively new building product, and Mark set about making concrete blocks. With a recipe specifying the ratio of sand, stone, water and cement, he was very particular about how he mixed up each batch to produce high quality blocks, from a few forms. At its peak, he made blocks in batches of about 50 at a time.

It was quite apparent that Mark set out to live a very different life than what he had witnessed as a child. He never drank, did not swear and few people in the history of the village have worked harder than Mark did. He worked practically all day, every day, “everything he did had a purpose,” recalled his friend Ross McIntyre. It seemed that overcoming what he had witnessed as a child was something that stuck with him, “he would point out drunks and people that he thought weren’t working,” remembered his nephew Wade Moore. With his industrious spirit, it did not take long for Mark to earn a reputation as one of the best carpenters and masons around, coupled with unusual honesty and generosity.

By the fall of 1919, Mark Fell had used his new apparatus to turn out so many concrete blocks that had earned enough income to cover the $1900 initial investment—“in those days, that was a wad of money,” Ross explains. He then temporarily moved his operation to Bobcaygeon. Block by block, he would construct many of buildings including the Fenelon Theatre, the Fenelon Dairy (Slices and Scoops), Pogue’s Garage (Daisy Mart, Re-max and Pharmasave), Bill Black’s Barber Shop (Fenelon Marketplace) and McFarland’s Store (Diana’s Gift Shop and Greenleaf Cannabis).

Needless to say, it took a very long time to make all the blocks, then lay them to create a building. Mark carried on making blocks until after the Second World War, but then curtailed his operations when Len Jubb started selling them at his building centre located at the Glenarm Road and Highway 35 (Now MR Flooring). Yet, Mark carried on his masonry and carpentry well into the age of commercial cement blocks.

Mark Fell not only built a sizeable portion of the main street of Fenelon Falls, he also built many barns in Verulam Township, houses and cottages. He did concrete work along with both stone and brick masonry. Wade worked alongside him for years, but just as often, Mark worked by himself, and it was incredible to see what his two hands were capable of building. He built his own home, 60 Bond Street East, and then one just down the road for his good friend Dick Bulmer—like many of the houses he erected they featured a gambrel (or hip) roof. Because Dick could not afford to pay, Mark was happy to finance the purchase. When he built a barn for the Mitchell Family (Mitchell’s Road, Verulam Township), he signed his name in the concrete feeders located in the stable. Having a concrete mixer at a time when sanitation was becoming a thing, he also built many septic tanks. Some people found him hard to help, because he was used to working on his own, and wouldn’t always see how someone else could be of assistance. One friend recalled trying to help him move lumber, only to have Mark grab each handful in a manner that would allow him to carry it himself.

Mark never charged enough for the work he did, but he was also notoriously thrifty, and being someone who was happy working practically all the time, he accumulated a lot of extra money. He tarried basically until the end of his life. He was not entirely sure about banking—though Wade remembers him skating to Lindsay across Sturgeon Lake and down the Scugog River to make a deposit at Victoria & Grey (now Scotiabank). So he filled his house with cans of money. Years later, when his relatives were winding up his estate, they found countless money cans, all carefully concealed. One powder horn contained $7000. By then, many of the bills were very old and the family had to make a trip to the mint in Ottawa to see if some of the money was still legal tender. He also bought up many lots around Fenelon Falls.

Mark liked to help people—whether it was by building something for them or sharing. If he saw a family that was working hard, but struggling to ends meet, he would find a way to help, perhaps going to McFarland’s store and making a deposit on their account, so they could buy clothes or groceries they could not otherwise afford. Though he was unsure about chartered banks, he became a sort of bank himself, charitably lending to many of his friends and neighbours—many of the loans would never be repaid. When he died, he left sizeable donations to the Ross Memorial Hospital, Five Counties Children’s Centre, the Lindsay Boys and Girls Club and the Salvation Army.

For all the money Mark earned over the years, he spent very little of it on himself. Though he would dress appropriately when he served on village council, as president of the Legion, or attended a Rotary Club meeting, he spent practically every other moment in his denim bib overalls, grey plaid work shirt, undershirt, and black leather work boots—even for Sunday dinner. He really liked a fold-out, wooden ruler that he kept in the pocket just below his knee. A safety pin kept a great wad of cash in his chest pocket. Eddie Wong was one of best friends, and it seemed that he ate most all of his meals at Eddie’s Chinese restaurant—often sitting by himself, unless a friend like Goldie Hallock was there. Some wondered if his gave Eddie money to help open the restaurant. When he passed, Mark asked to be buried beside Eddie, and it is thought that he may have paid for his friend’s internment.

Mark never married, and his war experience seemed to weigh on him for the rest of his life. He rented out part of his house to a family, and had a room where he always said “Maggie and the Kids”–his own fictitious family lived. No one quite knew who Maggie and the Kids were, and one day his neighbours Freda (Kelly) and Orlee Bulmer (Dick’s daughters) snuck a peak. It was actually filled with his war paraphernalia, and he would spend time remembering his service overseas and the friends who did not return.

Mark became close friends with many of his neighbours. He frequently visited Goldie Hallock, a machinist. He often spent part of Christmas with the Bulmers and regularly came to Sunday dinner with Harry Moore and family. Mark had Irish ancestors, so Mark accompanied Harry on a trip to Ireland. He also liked to go with his Fenelon Falls friends to see steam shows in Milton. He partnered with Menham Platten to restore a steam engine that was featured in many local parades and at the Fenelon Fair. He was also a mason and liked to curl.  

His neighbour Marlyn (Bulmer) McGee would babysit for Laurie James, whose family rented the front of Mark Fell’s house. One night as she was waiting for the parents to return, she was enjoying a show on television, “and there was something rustling behind the couch. And then a skunk walked out. I just about died, when I saw it, and ran to Mark’s door. He was as calm as could be, saying ‘he’s alright, don’t worry about it. It’s a pet skunk.’”

Years later, Belinda Wilson was a Grade 8 student at Fenelon Falls Public School, as the village celebrated the 100th anniversary of its incorporation with a Homecoming in 1975 (1974 was the actual anniversary, but it had to be postponed because of sewer construction). The community really came together for the celebrations, which featured an historic parade, while the public school set up an old school room. With old fashioned desks and readers, it was intended to be a step back in time for visitors. Belinda was the hostess, and when Mark Fell entered, one of the books caught his eye. “He said I want to show you something, and flipped open the reader to a poem. Mark explained that his class learned it by heart, and to that day, he remembered exactly where it was in the book.”

Mark’s love of construction included taking a deep interest in observing the reconstruction of the Fenelon Falls lock in the early 1960s—being one of the greatest engineering projects in the village during his lifetime. To many, he was the local expert on masonry and concrete work, and he thought the lock should have been made of stone, like its predecessor. Like many of his contemporaries, he enjoyed catching up on the comings and goings of everyone in town. Mark was often deep in thought. When someone came up and said “Hello,” he would often seem startled, and then reply “Oh, Hello.” He came across as being quiet, and if you asked how he was, he was likely to reply, “I’m as fine as frog hair.”

Mark loved to collect antiques and took time the explain many of them to his friends. For many years, his house was so filled that there was just a narrow pathway down the centre. Many of his treasures ended up at Maryboro Lodge Museum, include several that he made himself, such as a homemade rat trap.

A man of small stature, about 5’4 tall, with a distinctive high-pitched voice, Mark Fell did the work of a great many men over the course of his very lengthy construction career. Few others have single handedly built as much of the local landscape as this carpenter and mason. While at first glance, he did not always come across as being a people person, few others did as much as he did to improve the lives of others in the community, never seeking accolades or thanks, often with acts of generosity that went unnoticed. Mark Fell was an unforgettable local personality, and one that earned the respect of practically everyone in town, working day after day to help build his community, always in his denim overalls. To the end of his life, it always looked like he was marching as he walked, with proper posture, a habit engrained during his years in the military. Everyone could see that Mark Fell had a purpose in his stride.

A Poem from the Trenches by Mark Fell:

I have stood in many bedrooms

In a dozen different lands,

And I have slept on many bedsteads

And of many different brands.

I have snuggled up in feathers

Stuffed by dear old grandma,

I have enjoyed some solid comfort

On a palleys of Straw;

But the queerest I have ever had

So help me General Foch

In a rubber sheet in a funk hole

At the bottom of a trench.

It is this tiny little funk hole

Just a foot above the ground,

And so very narrow in proportions

You can scarcely turn around.

It’s not built on plans elaborate

So the best that can be said,

It’s a shelter from stormy weather,

My funk hole bed.

And when old Fritzie get his wind up,

And starts to raise a row,

You ought to see me making for my funk hole

At the bottom of the trench.

Some chambers have their fancy fixtures

Mine also has its view

You ought to see the ration boys struggle

With a dixie full of stew,

While the trench rats run sedately

For the feed that is in sight,

And the flare lights split the darkness,

With their all revealing light.

Though my edifice is humble,

And wouldn’t suit a chamber wench,

Still I’m quite happy in my funk hole

At the bottom of the trench

Now I’m quite used of working parties,

And of wielding pick and spade,

And somewhat fed up on the struggle

That Great Britain has essayed.

When imagination morbid

Make my very skin to creep,

And I think a shell hole in No Man’s Land

Will harbor my last sleep.

When I am mud from top to bottom

And my clothes are all adrench

Then I’m thankful even for my funk hole

At the bottom of the trench.

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