Robert Kelly Remembers his Grandfather Dick Bulmer
November 30, 2022
Dick Bulmer's Blacksmith shop-Dick grinding beside a Euchre game in progress
Dick Bulmer was a local legend. He was among the last traditional blacksmiths in Victoria County. He made his living fabricating whatever people needed. Many of his older customers wanted parts for old farm equipment—threshing machines, combines, hay rakes, and so on. They would come in and bring or describe what they needed, and Dick would sketch a picture on the back of an old envelope. Once they figured it out together, he would get to work at the forge. Some of the newer customers wanted beautiful hand-made decorative rings for their docks. But his shop was so much more than just a useful manufactory.
Dick Bulmer’s blacksmith shop was smoky, dirty and damp, being located in the old livery stable that once served the McArthur House hotel (Now the Fenelon Falls Brewing Company). “It was old school,” Robert remembers, “there was a trough in the corner where people peed.” But the old boys from around town wouldn’t expect anything any different and it was like a community centre for older gentlemen.
Located in the heart of Fenelon Falls, overlooking the locks, practically everybody visited Dick Bulmer’s shop for one thing or another. It was not as much of a business as a way of life. Dick was a blacksmith for 55 years, until he retired in 1976. He had begun to learn his skills as a very young man working at a forge in a logging camp. By the end of his career, it really wasn’t about earning a living any more, being at the blacksmith shop was just what Dick did.
Much of the time there was a card game or two at the table set up in the shop, not too far from the forge. His chums would sit around the table, smoking their pipes and having a grand old time (they all lived through the era when smoking was good for you). Today, many people would be put off by playing with dirty, blackened cards, close to a stream of sparks, as Dick was grinding away on his latest smithing project. But the old men who came to play had spent their lives working as hard as Dick. The constant hammering would not be irritating to friends who were as deaf as a post.
Dick would pick up the blackened cards and play a hand or two, then go right back to the forge. Though there always seemed to be a card game going on, it was as a joker and trickster that Dick Bulmer will be remembered. Back in those days, many older residents had grown up in an era when there was no radio, let alone Netflix. So they made their own entertainment. Sharing stories, tricks and jokes with their friends was a big part of making their hard working lives enjoyable. His neighbour, machinist John Demerling was also a memorable joker, with a water wheel in front of his shop that he liked to fill full of soap to make suds.
Dick liked to say, “I don’t think anyone has ever laughed as much in their life as I have.” His light hearted nature was what people really loved about him. Sometimes, when someone new came in, Dick would act a little bit quiet, which was out of character for him. Then he would go to the window and pick up and old box, and blow off the dust. He would start telling the story about how his uncle went to war, and all they sent back was this finger. Showing it to them, he would encourage them to touch it, then just as they nervously reached out, the blackened finger would lift up—it was really his own blackened finger, projecting through a hole he cut in the bottom of the box. “I remember going there with his mail, and being almost run over by a screaming cottager going on the door,” the latest victim of the dead finger in the box trick. Often Dick was accompanied by a gallery of his friends, laughing at the latest prank. For bringing his mail, Dick gave Robert a dime that he could use next door for an ice cream cone at the Fenelon Dairy.
While hammering on the anvil, he had another trick to play on unsuspecting victims. He would scream, drop his hammer and turn around, displaying a nail that was bent around his finger to look as though it was driven right through the digit. It was of course painted red to look like it was covered in blood. Though this was not as terrifying as the dead finger in the box trick, it got a rise out of many people.
The only heat in the shop was the forge and a wood stove, which had benches where people would sit to warm up by the fire. Dick drove nails through the benches, so that the heads of the nails were on the surface of the bench. He took a 12 volt battery from a car, and ran the coil to all the nails, and wired it to a switch under his chair, where he had the best seat in the house, for what happened next. When guests, like the local hydro crew, came in and sat down to warm up, he would flip the switch, and they would get a jolt. A natural reaction was to try to stand up by putting their hands down on the bench resulting in another zap, and if they touched each other, they might get yet another shock. As his guests were trying to sort themselves out, Dick was of course laughing oh so hard at yet another successful prank.
When Lloyd Kelly saw this trick, he wanted to try it too. For a long time, Lloyd begged Dick to let him flip the switch, but Dick just kept refusing, until one day he relented. But before Lloyd got his chance, Dick switched the wiring, so that instead of the charge hitting the people on the bench, Lloyd got it himself in Dick’s chair.
As a youngster he was constantly thinking up new gags, but as he aged, he often stuck to the repertoire he had mastered. At home, he had a little silver book, entitled Female Sexual Behaviour. One day, when the Presbyterian Reverend William Fairly and his wife were visiting, he lured the Reverend into the kitchen so Rita was left alone with the book. When they heard a yelp from the other room, Dick knew that Rita must have opened his book, electrified with a battery and a coil in it. While his daughter Freda had grown up around the mayhem, and thought the pranks were funny, his wife Bertha would say, “Oh, Dick.” But to have got the minister’s wife, made for a memorable trick.
As a young man, he eloped with Bertha Gamble. Dick had asked for her hand, but had been denied. Freda Kelly understood that the Gambles were holding out for a Presbyterian minister, and that they needed her on the farm. Somehow, Dick and Bertha met up and agreed on a time and date. Bertha’s brother Henry snuck out the suitcase she had packed, and hid it in the ditch, by the farm lane at the predetermined time. When Dick came along with his horse and wagon, they raced off to Lindsay, were married and had dinner at the Chinese restaurant. As they celebrated one of their anniversaries in the mid 1980’s, Dick remembered, “We had pork chops, mashed potatoes, and carrots.” A few minutes later Bertha piped up and said “no Dick, it was peas. And then he replied, “So it was.” Richard and Bertha certainly never suffered any loss of memory.
William Gamble was a stanch man with firm views, and was unforgiving. When his granddaughter Freda (Kelly) asked in 1934, if he had voted, he replied, “Indeed and I didn’t. I wouldn’t vote for a Liberal and I wouldn’t vote for a Catholic.” William would not forgive and forget that his daughter had eloped. The consequent rift meant that Freda was not out to visit her grandparents’ farm until she was 13. His wife was a little more forgiving and came to visit her daughter, but even William went to Dick’s blacksmith shop, because he needed help with repairs.
Like many women of her era, Bertha had to work so hard, day after day. The Bulmers often hosted boarders—sometimes it was a travelling fabric merchant. By housing and feeding him, they would be paid in fabric, and that is how Bertha was able to clothe her family. Having to care for everyone staying at the house, Bertha spent her life standing in the kitchen, where the work never seemed to stop. Dick was no stranger to hard work, either. From his years of hammering, his hands and wrists grew so strong that he could pick up a hardwood kitchen chair by the base of a front leg and hold it level. But they found the time to share music together in the evenings. Everyone in the family had an instrument or would sing, and enjoyed Old Time music. Dick also used to call square dances.
As much as Dick loved to laugh, he had grown up when times were really hard. He once asked me, “Robert, do you know who is the greatest politician ever in Canada? Tommy Douglas. Your Grandma and I wouldn’t have anything if it wasn’t for the CCF and NDP.” But as sincere was he was in his gratitude for what social programs meant to his family, like so many others in the community, he always voted Conservative. Many of his friends might have felt the same way.
Dick was a blacksmith through some hard times. He could recall shoeing horses during the Great Depression, working from 7 am to 6 pm, and sometimes only being paid 25 cents a day. The farmers would then pay in food or firewood from their farms so the family never went hungry. From his beginnings working in a logging camp, he completed a great variety of projects of the years—making pike poles, shoeing horses, setting tires on buggies, sharpening knives and scissors, repairing pots and pans. He liked to say, “there was never a horse that came into the shop that didn’t leave with its shoes on.” In 1950, Dick started using a welder, while continuing work at the forge too.
Like many of his friends, Dick loved to share a good story, in 1984, Belinda Wilson recorded a favourite:
A girl walked into the blacksmith shop, leading a horse. She instructed the blacksmith to shoe the horse’s front feet. The blacksmith replied that he had been talking to her father, and that he was to shoe the four feet. The girl insisted that only the front feet were to be shod, but seeing that the blacksmith was determined to do the four, she left. When she returned, she found that only the front feet had been done. “You were going to shoe the four feet,” she said. “What made you change your mind? “I didn’t change my mind, he replied. “I said I was going to do the four feet, and that’s what I did, the fore feet!”