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Truly Canadian Characters From Our Own Backyard

author: Orland French   illustration: Tim Zeltner

Truly Canadian Characters


Those who make their mark on history are often a cut above the crowd. In the 150 years since Canada’s birth, a number of exceptional and unusual people have emerged from our own backyards. In their lifetimes they have achieved a standard of excellence that has enriched the social fabric of their communities. They may have profited from it, they may have died a pauper in spite of it, or they may have been totally unaware during their lifetime of the benefit they had bestowed upon the world. But when histories are written, their names pop up as people out of the ordinary.


From the age of 10, Letitia Creighton Youmans vowed to chase the demon rum from her life. At that tender age she pledged a lifetime of abstinence. When she moved from Cobourg to teach in Prince Edward County, she was horrified to find “nine places of legalized temptation” in Picton alone. After raising a family of eight, she set out to deal with the devil. She formed a Women’s Christian Temperance Union branch in Picton in 1874; 11 years later she was president of the national WCTU. She travelled across Canada forming WCTU chapters and making speeches promoting her picture of a woman’s ideal family life: a comfortable home, a sober husband and sober sons. She died in 1896. But there was no turning back the demon rum: today Prince Edward County has three liquor stores, numerous licensed restaurants and is Ontario’s fastest growing wine region.


Lieutenant Charles Smith Rutherford left his mark on the battlefields of the First World War. By the summer of 1918, he had already been awarded the Military Medal and the Military Cross. But it was at the 4th Battle of the Scarpe, near Monchy, France in August of 1918, that he proved his real mettle. Single-handedly, or perhaps single-voicedly, he bluffed a party of 45 Germans, including two officers and three machine gun crews into believing they were surrounded. The Germans surrendered to Rutherford who promptly took them prisoner. For this, he received the Victoria Cross.

The Victoria Cross is the most prestigious award for conspicuous bravery that can be bestowed on a member of the British or Empire forces. The 26-year-old native of Colborne received the highest decoration conferred on a local resident.


Now in her 90s, the shoemaker’s wife still dreams of restoring the faded glory of the company town her husband founded in the 1940s. Sonja Bata was trained as an architect, and to this day she has visions of restoring the town of Batawa. This includes the conversion of the former Bata shoe factory into a multi-purpose centre of condominiums and commercial activities. The project has been described by The Globe and Mail as “a living laboratory for the post-industrial future”.

Her late husband, Thomas Bata, was a successful shoe manufacturer in Czechoslovakia. Foreseeing clouds of war, he fled Europe in 1939 and established the Bata Shoe Company of Canada at Batawa.

When he lost his Bata holdings in Eastern Europe to the Communists after the Second World War, he transferred his headquarters to Toronto. The company flourished around the world, although in later years it struggled in Canada. Bata stores in Canada were closed in 2001 and the Bata organization relocated to Switzerland. However, Thomas and his wife Sonja remained in Toronto. Sonja collected enough shoes to form the Bata Shoe Museum, the largest of its kind in the world. Thomas passed away in 2008 but Sonja remains active in her role as philanthropist and architectural dreamer.


This rough-hewn and rumpled politician may not have known an aileron from an altimeter but he recognized the potential for job creation when he saw it. When he heard that the federal government was going to build a new air base somewhere in Eastern Ontario, he determined it would be located near Trenton. Billy Fraser (1886-1962) was the mayor of Trenton in the mid-20s when word came down about the air base. Trenton was a depressed area and the construction of the air base provided an ongoing source of jobs at 20 cents an hour.

Wheeling and dealing through his political connections, Fraser landed the airbase for his hometown. Ninety years later, the base provides work for more than 4,500 people. Its annual payroll exceeds $110 million, a vast figure that even Billy Fraser would have difficulty imagining.


It is doubtful whether Col. Arthur Trefusis Heneage Williams would be given a hero’s welcome today, given that the target of his military action in the North West Rebellion has become a prominent national hero himself. Williams was a member of a wealthy and influential family in Port Hope with a life of careers that touched on law, banking, the Midland Railway and politics. He successfully led an unauthorized charge by the Midland Battalion against Métis and natives at the Battle of Batoche, Saskatchewan in 1885. Unfortunately, he died of a fever on the way home to Port Hope, where his anticipated hero’s welcome turned into a massive public funeral.

A statue of Williams, sword raised overhead as he strides forward to victory, stands in front of the town hall in Port Hope. However, in the 132 years that have passed since the rebellion, public opinion has changed. The enemy at the time, Louis Riel, has been elevated from being a rebel to a celebrated leader of the Métis cause. Hanged for treason, Riel has since been honoured on a stamp, a coin and in statues. Louis Riel Day is a holiday in Manitoba. Meanwhile, the statue of Williams stands lonely in a park, caught in its own time warp.


Anybody who has ever turned a furrow in the Northumberland hills is familiar with the name Massey. It has become a name long associated with agricultural equipment, ever since Daniel Massey (1798-1856) imported some American machinery to see what he could do with it on his farm near Grafton. One day, after working with a particularly clumsy piece of equipment, he mused to his son Hart, “If only I had a factory instead of a farm.” Instead of wishing, he built. He and Hart constructed a factory near Newcastle and began making farm equipment. Eventually it became the Massey Manufacturing Company, later merging with A. Harris, Son and Company to become the well-known Massey-Harris Co. Ltd.

The Massey family line produced actor Raymond Massey (Daniel’s grandson) and Vincent Massey (Daniel’s great-grandson), the first Canadian-born Governor General.


Eliza Jane Creighton gave a fellow named Frank a penny for his thoughts and wound up wildly wealthy. The sumptuous halls and ballrooms of her later life were a long leap from the log cabin of her birth on the Bay of Quinte.

In her teens, Jennie moved to Watertown, N.Y. to learn dressmaking. She went to her local dry goods store to buy thread and fell for one of the clerks, named Frank. He shared an unusual marketing idea with her: he figured that he could make a lot of money by selling everything for five or 10 cents. The owner of the store gave him part of a counter to try out his idea. It worked so well that the Frank and Jennie, who were by that time married, started their own five-and-10 store in Utica.

Frank’s last name was Woolworth. Local lore has it that the couple borrowed $300 from Jennie’s cousin Margaret Morrison in Picton to get started. Frank Woolworth was forever grateful, sending her payments until she died, calling her the “Mother of the 5 and 10 cent business.” One of Frank’s mansions, a gift to a daughter, was recently on the market for $90 million.


What a Friend We Have in Jesus continues to be sung by millions of Christians all over the world more than 150 years after the words were written by Joseph Scriven. Born in County Down, Ireland, Scriven migrated to Canada in 1845.

He was in Bewdley, near Rice Lake when he received news of his mother’s illness back home. He composed a poem he titled Pray Without Ceasing. It was put to music, renamed What a Friend We Have in Jesus and published by Charles Crozat Converse, an American lawyer who also composed church songs. Although legions of churchgoers still find solace in the famous hymn, Scriven’s personal life was one of tragedy. The irony of the title of this hymn haunts his life story. His fiancée drowned in 1843 on the eve of their wedding. A second intended bride suddenly died of pneumonia in 1860.

Prone to depression, Scriven’s death was in all likelihood a suicide.


It was a wild and crazy idea. An 18-year-old girl with no equestrian experience would ride a horse 800 miles from Belleville to Washington, D.C. to promote the 140th anniversary of the arrival of Loyalists in the Quinte area. Belleville Mayor W. C. Mikel had issued the challenge and Gwendolyn Lazier accepted. Her own father said she wouldn’t make it beyond Shannonville.

But she did reach Shannonville, and beyond. Onward through Kingston, Troy, West Point, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City to Washington she rode. Gwendolyn and her horse Tip covered the 800 miles in 28 days. She was reputed to be carrying a revolver in case of adverse company. Surrounded by photographers, Gwendolyn, atop her horse Tip, did deliver the mayor’s invitation to President Calvin Coolidge on the White House lawn.

But there was a history of derring-do in her blood. She was the great-granddaughter of William Weller, a driving force in the development of the transportation industry in early Northumberland.


The brightly coloured Royal Mail Line coaches of William Weller were familiar vehicles on the main roads of Upper Canada in the 1840s. They served settlers from Niagara to Montreal, with Weller operating the network of coach lines from his base in Cobourg. He started his stagecoach business in 1830 by offering transportation from York (Toronto) to Kingston; over the years he expanded his system into steamboats that were more comfortable than his stagecoaches on the brutal trails described as roads. He was one of the backers of the Cobourg and Rice Lake Plank Road and Ferry Company.

Weller was renowned for his speedy stagecoach service. Once he delivered Governor General Charles Poulett Thomson over the frozen roads between York and Montreal in 35 hours and 40 minutes, a trip that usually took several days. Time was of the essence. G.G. Thomson had to reach Montreal in time to commute a condemned man’s death sentence hours before he was to be hung.

Weller’s energy and influence carried him into politics, where he served as councillor and mayor of Cobourg between 1850 and 1863. During this time town council borrowed significant amounts of money to build roads, the harbour and Victoria Hall. In spite of all his business and political interests, Weller also enjoyed a rewarding family life. He had 22 children, 11 by each of two wives.


H.J. is said to have built Prince Edward County. Not just in the literal sense, where his construction company built roads, streets, bridges and harbours. But also in the political and economic sense, where he wielded huge local political power to get things done for The County, for Picton, and, of course, for Harvey. He was a poorly educated man but had business savvy beyond the understanding of many MBA graduates. He was generous and caring beyond a fault in public, but woe betide the unfortunate soul who stood shaking and stammering as H.J. delivered a tirade in private.

It wasn’t that everybody loved Harvey, but his list of friends was far longer than his list of enemies. He held the mayor’s office from 1951 to 1970. After the town experimented with a female mayor for one term, Harvey was returned to office, until he died in 1974. As a political dynamo, Harvey McFarland was able to attract the Lake Ontario Cement Company to Picton (now Essroc Italcementi) and the Harmsworth Speedboat Races on Wayward Long Reach. His sponsorship of the Belleville McFarlands led to the team winning the world hockey championship in 1959.


For more than 30 years Burt Biddle was a one-man police force in Picton. He was constable and chief, all in one. A large, burly man, he was the sort of cop whose presence automatically makes one take notice. But he tempered his authority with a personal concern about the lives of the people he lectured and occasionally locked up.

When he was hired in 1918 as chief of police, Picton council paid him a grand sum of $800 annually.

He had no police car: if he needed emergency transportation he would commandeer one. Nor was there a police station. Biddle had an “office” under the stairs of the Picton Utilities Building. There were no police radios: a blinking red light outside the building indicated that the officer was needed. He had a good rapport with people: once he “arrested” a man for being drunk, pointed him in the direction of the jail with instructions to have the jailer lock up him up. The man obeyed. Biddle ignored expired parking meters but he enforced a personal sense of morality: he wouldn’t allow shorts on Main Street. When Thomas Burton Biddle died in 1955, the town shut down out of respect and school children marched to his funeral.


The Fox sisters of Consecon made rapping popular long before urban blacks discovered it as a form of music in the 1970s. Margaret and Katie Fox had moved to New York State in the 1840s to be with their family. In 1848 they began to “communicate” through rapping with a spirit that they determined to be that of a travelling salesman who had been killed and buried under the house. Sure enough, a skeleton was found right where the rapping spirit said it was.

The Fox sisters became founders of Victorian-era spiritualism, travelling around the world, helping people to try to contact spirits in another World. Over the years, questions about their supernatural powers stripped both sisters of their fame and fortune. They both died alcoholics.


Of the 44 different types of aircraft Vi Warren flew during the Second World War, the Spitfire was “the nicest airplane to fly because it was a small plane, lady-sized.” At barely five feet tall, Ms. Warren often sat on her overnight bag to see over the instrument panel in larger aircraft.

Ms. Warren, of Colborne, came to be acquainted with so many aircraft through her wartime job of ferrying aircraft between manufacturers, maintenance facilities and various armed forces units. Pilots on active duty would usually fly one type of aircraft but staff of the British Air Transport Auxiliary flew all kinds of planes. Vi would glance at the manual and say, “an airplane’s an airplane” as she fired up the engines.

Her interest in flying developed in the late ’30s when she took a trial flight. By April 1940, she had become the 11th woman in Canada to earn her commercial licence. She became a role model for generations of female pilots and was awarded the Order of Canada for her courage and determination.


There probably wasn’t a sport at which Campbellford’s Lou Marsh didn’t excel. Running. Football. Swimming. Sailing. Racing. When he got too old to play, he refereed. When he got too old to referee, he wrote about sports.

His colourful commentary sizzled on the sports pages of the Toronto Star. “A hick town,” he wrote, perhaps thinking of his home, “is a place where they still play seven-man, half-hour period hockey, lift the puck from end-to-end, time the game by the town hall clock, and pay the referee off in eggs.” Hockey refs stayed in the middle of the ice because “if you went near the boards, the hometown fishermen and lumberjacks let you have it in the eye. They all chewed tobacco.” Today he is almost forgotten, except that every year Canada’s top athlete is awarded the Lou Marsh Trophy: Bruce Kidd, Russ Jackson, Jacques Villeneuve, Mark Tewksbury and Barbara Ann Scott have all been winners. Some of them, like so many of our athletic heroes in this nation of small towns, may well have honed their skills by the sound of the chime on the old town clock.


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jane kelly P8191289

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carl wiens

cwportraitCarl lives in Belleville, teaches iIllustration at Sheridan College in Oakville…

meghan sheffield

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Meghan is a Cobourg writer, web producer and social media manager....

norm wagenaar

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