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Nancy Krock remembers her Grandfather’s Garage, W.J. Flett & Son

June 2, 2023

William John Flett of Burys Green, later Fenelon Falls

William John (W.J.) Flett grew up on his family’s farm (Lot 27 Concession 6, Verulam—now 86 Walker’s Rd.), born in 1877, just a few years after his family had immigrated from the Orkney Islands. The family was from Harry, located on the inland lakes of the Orkney Islands, while “practically every other community is on the coast. Coming from a place that was so flat, North Verulam is very hilly, and I wonder if they took that into consideration as they were moving.” W.J. was the youngest son, and as he grew up the Fletts’ were kept busy creating a farm and a home from the woods. As was common in those days, W.J. married a girl from the neighbourhood, Letitia Southam.

From the time he was a young man, W.J. was a very keen businessman. While he still lived on the family farm, W.J. developed a reputation as a wheeler-dealer. It was said that if he sold a team of horses in the morning, he would have another team by the evening. While some of the kids from the neighbourhood settled into the routines of farm life, W.J. took an interest in a new, revolutionary technology—the automobile. His enterprising spirit would lead him to start five garages over the course of his career, and once he became a businessman his farming days were over.

Early on in his career, he operated a garage in Oshawa, where W.J. and Letitia’s only child, Stan was born in 1906. That same year, back in his home town of Fenelon Falls, Francis Sandford’s Fenelon Falls Furniture and Woodenware Company’s factory burned (south of the railway station, on the east side of Lindsay Street), a blow that the company would never recover from. In 1883, Sandford had built a carriage factory, that was one of the most prominent buildings in the village, being located on the island that was being formed at that time as the canal was dug. For many years, Sandford had made cutters, sleighs, wagons and buggies, but as his woodenware factory was going up in smoke, automobiles were starting to replace buggies and cutters. Sandford’s Carriage Works was nearing the end and Francis retired to Florida.

In 1937 W.J. Flett commissioned a new stucco and brick home on Bond Street West, and at approximately the same time he took over the former Sandford Carriage Works and converted it into an automotive garage. W.J. Flett and Son’s Garage was B/A station, which at that time was that also sold Firestone Tires. Early automobiles were revolutionary—able to drive at 45 miles per hour!—turning journeys that would have taken several days into a few hours. But they were not nearly as reliable today, and most small towns had several service stations that were ready to help get cars back on the road. Flett’s Firestone tires would have been in demand in that era—before the invention of radial tires, it was common to have to replace a tire while on a journey—back then carrying a spare tire was a necessity.

Behind Flett’s garage, W.J.’s cousin, Alec operated a cottage business. Fenelon Island was a great location for visitors to the village to stay—it was on the waterway, right beside the locks, conveniently located to the downtown and the water falls. Right across the river, was the village campgrounds (now the south end of Garnet Graham Park). Combined, the two Flett businesses provided a lot of what visitors to the village would need.

“It was always exciting going to the garage. The men gathered there would be talking about their boats and cars. I was the smallest in my family, my sister was 2 years older, and when we visited our parents would buy us ice cream cones so we would behave. As a small child, it was busy, and a bit of a dangerous place, with the falls right next door. There were two driveways leading in from the main street, one on the left and the other on the right of the garage, leading to Flett’s cottages behind. There was no place to play, it was all driving or parking spaces.” It was also right beside the community’s cenotaph.

Nancy’s father Stan often helped out at the garage. But during the Second World War, there was not as much business (there was gasoline rationing) and he worked with Alec’s brother, Joe, building houses in Bowmanville. Stan worked in the woods near Rosedale, getting out material for the cottages, and trucking it down to Joe, who oversaw construction in Bowmanville.

Nancy was a war time baby and spent her first years in Fenelon Falls, as the community was doing their part to support Canada’s war effort. One memory that stuck with her from her toddler years, was the sight of a Hitler effigy burning in front of the Post Office, which was then located at the corner of Colborne and Francis Streets (now CIBC). “That was when I learned that Hitler was an enemy.”

When he wasn’t helping Joe build cottages, Stan was working at the garage, which soon became a Dodge-DeSoto dealership. Stan and his wife Mary (Thurston) would take the bus to Windsor and drive the new cars to Fenelon Falls, because they could save money by driving them home. Often they tied tires to the roof, in order to be able to make the trip. At the time, not everybody had a car, and operating a taxi was an important part of the business, particularly picking people up at the train station. As they transported passengers, the Fletts’ taxi often had cargo tied to the roof. A lot of the cottagers, including those staying at the head of the island, depended on the taxi to get their groceries. “Not many staying outside the village bicycled into town to get their groceries.”

Riding in an automobile back then was a very different experience than the comfortable rides we take for granted today. Many of the roads were not nearly as smooth as they are today, especially on smaller roads, bumping along over stones was a common experience. Cars were far from climate controlled, and were often uncomfortably hot in the summer and cold in the winter. “Every vehicle carried a car blanket, typically heavy wool. We used it to keep warm and have a picnic on. It was as heavy as a brute, but it came in handy.” Cars also did not have safety belts.

Stan enjoyed living in a waterfront community. One winter he and his friends built a beautiful wooden boat, with an inboard motor that was stored in the boathouse furthest from the falls, in what is now Summerland Cottages (or Jellybean Row). “It was quite an experience when you were starting the boat down by the Falls… Dad loved to go fishing below the falls, would bring his catch home, so we could eat fresh fish.”  Nancy enjoyed swimming in the canal (despite the boat traffic, it was the village’s common swimming area) and at the Alpine Inn’s pool. At W.J. Flett’s, Saturday Night was Boston Cooler Night—as the family enjoyed bringing home Ginger Ale with Ice Cream, from Northey’s Restaurant.

For Nancy, growing up on Francis Street, beside the Orange Hall was memorable. The 12th of July, with a costumed rider on a white horse was an unforgettable spectacle. At that time, there were many people who took the differences between denominations seriously, there were Protestant families who would think their kids shouldn’t cross the street to play with Catholics. “I was an adventurous girl, and somehow I got my kiddie car up to the second story of the Orange Hall, then fell 15 feet, knocking myself unconscious.”

W.J. Flett was always looking for the next deal, and as the Second World War was winding down he sold the business to Aubrey Lyon and John Henderson, who carried it on as a B/A and Dodge-De Soto dealership. W.J. retired, and to the end of his life he was someone who loved to talk and tell stories, while Letitia was much quieter. They enjoyed visiting with their friends and relatives, in their red brick house on Bond Street, west of Colborne. Stan became a baker, then took an interest in buying a hardware store. When one was offered for sale in Norwood, Stan, Mary and their two daughters moved in 1948.

As Lyon’s Garage, the service station would continue to be one of the focal points of the community, one of the many built landmarks on Fenelon’s Island. As Dodge-De Soto ended selling cars on commission, it would cease to be a dealership, then in the early 1960s, both the garage and Flett’s cottages (which had been built on land held through a 99-year lease) had to be removed as Parks Canada surprised everyone on the Island, when they decided to convert it into greenspace.

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