by Walter K. Billings
My first recollection of Lyn was about the year 1876. Word had come to the farm that the many cords of tanbark piled on what was afterwards the ball grounds was on fire. I was too young to go to Lyn that night and could only stand in our yard and see the smoke and tongues of flame shooting skyward. Tanbark was used in the tanneries in the village, and the loss of this bark was a serious blow. It was ground and placed in vats, the hides were thrown in, and water poured on them. However, the burning of the bark compelled the tanneries to close down and I do not remember that they ever operated again.
Lyn about that time was a thriving village. A saw mill, fed from the pond behind the stores and through the by-wash besides the post office, consisted of an upright saw driven by an over-shot water wheel and was managed by men by the name of Armstrong, Jerry and Robert. Another mill near the flour mill was operated by a Mr. Weeks and Norman Field, who operated a cheese factory in the summer.
There was a woolen mill under the hill also, which a Mr. Burris had charge of, and carriage and paint shop behind the building that housed the fire engine. The latter was in charge of Henry Storey, and the former run by a Mr. Wilson. Before I was fifteen, these firms were all out of business, largely because of the failure of the water power.
My school days, divided between the Howard school and later the Lyn school, where I had as chums Maurice Brown, Ernie Gardiner, Jack Halliday, Trevor Grout and Byron Haskin, were very pleasant memories. The teachers were anxious that we get through the Entrance and on to the Brockville High School, and I think we all did our best at the examinations. But the Horton School (in Brockville) at that time was no place to go to write. I remember I was so cold at this December examination that I could hardly hold my pen, much less do anything worth while at answering the questions. I think Trevor Gout, my desk-mate at school, later judge Grout of Brampton, was the only one who passed.
The next summer I was working hard to try again when I had to leave school and go to work on the farm. A Business College course later gave my sister Lou and me some knowledge of book keeping, which we found very useful in after years.
Marketing the produce of the farm gave me a break from the usual routine. Apples, potatoes, green corn and even pumpkins were in demand, and one summer we had a wonderful crop of Strawberries, Father had contracted with a fruit firm in Montreal to take all the berries. I think the price was eight cents a box delivered at Lyn station. However, at the height of the season this firm wired to send no more berries as they were going bankrupt. They had paid all they owed us up to this time, so Father said we would have to sell them on the streets of Brockville.
One day I had disposed of one fifty-four box crate on the street and had just opened the other. I remember I was on a street just east of William and running at right angles with this street when an engine came puffing along on the C.P.R. tracks. My horse started to run but he was headed east, and I knew he could only go around that block and would come back on to William street. So I turned back, ran over to this street and met him. The crate of berries by this time was standing nearly on its end, but as I had fastened down the lid, I found a lot of the boxes empty and the contents piled there, and pretty well mussed up. A woman had wanted to buy my whole crate previously, so I went back to her, told her what had happened and offered her all I had at five cents a box – we could count the empty ones. She agreed, and produced a large dish-pan, a bread pan, and a wash boiler. When I went back next day she was still picking over the strawberries.
But to get back to memories of the village. One day in the spring of 1884, March 28th to be exact, a farmer living at Seeley’s, John W. Booth, came in on horseback, another Paul Revere, rode up to the door of the Post Office, and called out, “Mr. Mallory, get ready! The dam at Lee Pond has gone out and the water is coming. I am telling you to get ready!” Then he went through the village and down to the grist mill to warn them there. At first it was thought it was all a hoax, but going to the pond at the back of the store the men saw muddy water coming down. With boards and bags the doors were barricaded, and in a few minutes the rush of water two feet deep came, tearing up the stone of the street and washing everything movable down to the valley below. The bridge at the foot of the mill hill was carried away, floated across the flats to about where the B&W station now stands, and lodged against a couple of trees.
I remember when the waters subsided, Tom Hudson came for my father, and together they managed to get the bridge and with long poles floated it back to the side of the road, and next day with moving jacks drew it back on its foundations. The village stores were in a sorry mess. Water and mud had gone over the top of the barricade and into the interiors. At the blacksmith shop, wagon wheels, parts of milk wagons and the various collection of machines had been left outside; later some of those were found on the flats below the mill; others were never recovered.
The blacksmith shop was the usual gathering place for the farmers on a rainy day, each one bringing a horse to be shod or wagon wheel to be repaired, and many a story was told to the amusement of the village loafers. In front of the old box stove there was always a long bench and it was usually occupied. Sometimes a checker board was produced and a couple of the old men started a game. One player, more skillful than the other, near the end of the game would seem to have his opponent all bottled up. Then someone would draw his attention to someone passing along the street, and with a piece of stick would move one of the checkers, so that when the players looked back at their game it had a different aspect. Another, a habitual loafer, usually was on this bench, and the boys, securing some thumb tacks, would put them through the tail of his coat and into the edge of the bench, so that when he would be called to the door by one of these same boys, the bench went with him, tipping over the checkers and players at the other end. Other times they would fill his overcoat pockets with small iron scraps, heavy enough that when he attempted to move he would drop back again on the bench.
Lyn, like many other villages, had its usual number of characters. One couple I remember particularly. The husband was a small man, not too industrious. The wife was tall, angular and quite masculine. One day the husband had bought a load of wood from a farmer, who was unloading it at the side of the house when the wife appeared. Standing there with her hands on her hips she said “My man how much did you pay for that wood?” He replied, “Three dollars.” “Well” she said “it ain’t worth it” and went into the house. The farmer, looking at the husband said “Well?” The husband said. “Yes, guess you will have to do as she says.” In a few minutes he walked over and looked up in the farmers face. “Say, its awful provoking, ain’t it?” he said.
Years later while I was carrying on my work in the village, a farmer from Caintown, whom we will call Jack, came in one afternoon, saying that they were boiling sap that day in his bush. He invited the four lads in the shop u that night to have sugar. Of course they went, taking a lunch with them. During the early part of the night, when the sugar was about ready, one of the boy’s said it would be great if they just had some fried chicken to eat with their lunch. Jack at once spoke up and said “You know my neighbour has a dandy lot of Rock chickens, nearly full size now, and if a couple of you lads go out to the road and into John M’s hen house, just pick one off the roost and I will clean and fry it for you. I have lots of butter and some corn meal here to sprinkle over the frying pan.” Away they went and soon back with a four pound bird. Jack had a kettle of hot water ready and he doused it in, then proceeded to pluck off the feathers, saying as he did so. “My! won’t John M. be mad when he misses this chicken!”
“But,” he sad, “maybe we had better burn these feathers for fear someone should come in and see them.” The fried chicken was just right. When the boys were no longer hungry and the syrup was ready to be taken off they cleaned up the chicken bones, burned them and went home,
Next morning Jack watched for his neighbour, John M. to go to his hen house. He came out with a pan of feed, went in to his chickens, and finally came out and went into the house. Jack thought “Well, he has not missed the fowl or he doesn’t care,” and at last he decided to feed his own flock. Walking over to his hen house he noticed some footprints in the dirt, then going to the door and stepping inside he noticed that his hens were making a fuss as though they had been scared. Looking around then he saw why John M. Had gone so quietly into his house again. The chicken that he had beheaded and plucked was not John M’s! It was one of his own!
It was nearly a month before Jack came into the village, and the first greeting he got as he tied his horse was from across the street. It was one of those boys who had helped to eat the chicken, and he said “Hello Jack! When are we going to get some more fried chicken?”
The flour mills built in 1857 by the Coleman Company when Lyn was a flourishing manufacturing centre, later went into bankruptcy and were taken over in 1876 by James Cumming acting for the bank. He later purchased the whole property and carried on the business successfully doing custom grinding, manufacturing several popular bands of flour and furnishing employment for about twenty men.
James Cumming’s son Gordon, associated with him until the former’s tragic death in 1916, carried on the business until 1933 when severe competition from larger manufactures compelled the Lyn flour mills to close.
In the first chapter I mentioned the fact that the loss of the tan bark by fire caused the two tanneries to close down. However, another custom tannery located west of the village, at the foot of a lane running down across the line of the Brockville and Westport Railway, past the home of Nathan Purvis, was in operation for a considerable period after the larger tanneries closed.
Henry Booth, the proprietor, lived in an ancient frame house just across the lane from the Purvis home. He used hemlock bark for tanning, and the mill for grinding the bark was powered by a long wooden shaft similar to the ones on horse powers of that time. That is, one horse was used to turn the mill, by being hitched to the end of the shaft and walking in a circle round and round. Mr. Booth was considered an expert at tanning calf-skins and cowhides. The finished leather was taken to the shoe shop of Peter Pergau, who fashioned it into boots for his customers. The walls of this tannery are still standing, a reminder of an industry long since gone.
Harness leather was also manufactured in two flourishing shops, one, Norman Coleman’s and the other Sels Orton, who had a shop across the street from the present blacksmith shop.
Another industry, and undertaking establishment, did a good business. Edward Bagg had a workshop on the corner behind the home of Mrs. Blake Mott, and furnished caskets of his own manufacture.
The old tannery at the foot of the hill below the upright sawmill was leased to the G.F.C. Eyre Mfg. Co. About the year 1901. This firm did a good business manufacturing wooden dry measures, cheese boxes, hub blocks for carriage wheels, and wheel barrows. They also had a saw mill for custom sawing and cut cedar shingles. This carried on for five or six years, employing twelve or fifteen men, but financial difficulties looked and the firm went out of business. N.R. Gardiner bought the machinery and did business for a few years, but a dispute over the lease compelled the closing of the factory, and Mr. Gardiner removed the machinery and sold it.
The Lyn Last Works, started by Bulloch and Coleman, manufactured boot lasts, boot trees to form the long boots then worn, and dies for cutting the soles for the shoes. Mr. Coleman passed away and James Cumming carried on with Mr. Bulloch for several years finally selling out to his son, A.E.Cumming, who overhauled the building and machinery. For many years it provided paying employment as a lot of men did piecework and became very skillful at their job.
Logs were purchased during the winter and later cut into short lengths, then split in sizes to be turned into lasts. These blocks were stored in an airy dry barn to season for three or four months, then carried to the factory. But the maple was fast being used up locally and blocks had to be purchased from Quebec. This difficulty finally compelled the factory to close, and threw ten or more men out of employment. The building was later sold to the Brundige family of Frankville, who conducted a custom saw mill until the building burned on March 29th,1924.
At one time a stave factory was located just below the last factory. They manufactured staves for all types of barrels. This building burned on May 7th 1862.
Another industry which had been doing a good business from about 1890 to 1920 was the Lyn Foundry, owned by George P. McNish. He manufactured land rollers, hand cultivators, plows, root cutters and feed cookers, but competition by larger concerns finally compelled the closing of this business. For a few years Alba Root carried on a business in a red building at the edge of the canal finally moving his cheese box equipment to Greenbush about the year 1902. Henry Graham, who owned a portable saw mill and tractor engine, leased the building formerly used by N.R. Gardiner and in 1912 did custom sawing.
After the spring cutting was finished, the traction engine was driven up the hill past the old shoe factory, burning slabs for fuel and emitting sparks from the smoke stack along the way. On one of these trips sparks ignited the roof of the shoe factory, but a heavy shower coming at just the right time saved the building. However on a later moving, May 11, 1914, the shoe factory was not so fortunate. Long vacant, it burned fiercely, a strong east wind carrying sparks over the village. The old carriage shop, later a cheese factory, next caught fire, then Stack’s ice-house and across the street the George Hensby house occupied by William Young, caught fire and burned. The roughcast house on Main Street next to the canal was on fire but was saved. R.F. Tennant’s verandah started burning and the steps were destroyed. Sparks carried by the gale set fire to the barn and stable of John Serviss behind the residence now occupied by James Manhard and Florence Roberts Next went the house and shed of Dave McCrady. The fire engine from Brockville arrived in time to save only the kitchen of the McCrady house.
But to turn to pleasanter things. I have many memories of the concerts given by local talent, when John Square, our painter and decorator would impersonate Harry Lauder and give some of his very popular Scotch songs. During spring cleaning, john Squire was a most unpopular man among many housewives, who had been promised immediate work by John, and then waited in vain. But all was forgiven him at our annual library concerts, when his Scotch songs delighted us!
I can still remember him with Cora Morrison, now Mrs. Burnham, and Catherine Neilson Gray, doing a pretty piece of work together.
The Minstrels in black face comprised the following boys: Arthur Hudson, Frank Stafford, Willie Clow, Willie McNish, Lorne Cumming, Jack Cumming, John Square and one or two others. What nights! What fun at the preceding practices! Mrs. Ern Cumming was always our pianist, and her home was always open house to those boys.
Many stories are told of practical jokes played on the local inhabitants. One of these was at a time many years ago when there was a very hotly contested election in the offing. Mr. Armstrong, a prominent Liberal, was waiting at the Post Office for his daily paper, The Globe, then strongly Liberal, whose editor, George Brown, wrote many campaign editorials.
Thee Mail and Empire was tossed to Mr. Armstrong. Not looking to see what paper it was he started reading, and seeing a bitter article condemning the Liberal organization, he threw down the paper, turned to his companion, and said, “Did you see this? My God! Has George Brown gone crazy?”
One story that Father enjoyed telling was the following: One summer a number of residents of the vicinity decided that a trip to Charleston Lake would be in order. Securing a three seated democrat wagon and team, eight or nine farmers left for the lake, and enjoyed a week’s holiday camping. On their trip home they decided to go around by Farmersville, now Athens, and have a picture taken of the group. I do not remember all of the group but my father was one of the ringleaders.
Mr. Kenneth Morrison, a prominent Scotsman and a wonderful athlete, said. “Well, boys, if we are going to have our pictures taken I am going to change into a clean pair of trousers.” Stopping the team, Mr. Morrison climbed out and took off his trousers, handed them up to his seat mate and reached for another pair. The driver, watching the performance, struck the horses with the whip and away they went, leaving the Scotchman paint-less. Well, he started running after the wagon, and the driver would almost stop to let him in, and away they would go again. Naturally, Mr. Morrison got mad, and threatened to exterminate the whole crowd when he got hold of them. Then someone called out, “Oh here comes a buggy with a woman in it.” “What will I do?” said the victim, and they advised him to get behind the rail fence, which he did. They finally let him have his trousers, after making him promise not to wreak his wrath on the driver!