My husband, Bruce, lived at 3100 Kingston Road, the big farmhouse on the other side of the barn south of Halbert School's industrial arts wing (long before my time in the McCowan family!). His parents were Bill and Nancy McCowan. Here are some of Bruce's earliest recollections of living next door to Halbert.
1950: Looking south from about where the
Outdoor Hockey 5 : Stair Climbing 0
We lived in the 2 and a half storey farmhouse originally built for my grandparents prior to their marriage in March 1916. Truly a "monster" home, this Queen Anne Style house had about 4000 square feet of living space. We lived on the first floor and two other families occupied the second and third.
The Hunter family was the first that I remember on the third floor. One of my earliest memories, at about 3 years I suppose, was boldly walking upstairs to ask Mrs. Hunter for some candy -- or did I demand the candy? (Not really sure about that part of it!)
For a time after the Hunters, David and Lynn Ford and their parents were on the third floor. For a four or five year-old outdoors-type, the long climb up two flights of stairs -- 10 foot ceilings in this house, you know, David -- was a good enough excuse to make sure that he came outside to play. I was never too keen on going all the way up to his place to play when there was so much cool stuff to do outdoors. I must have placed more value on good candy than playing with David indoors way up in the "attic".
To borrow a term from the Auld Country, the two-plus acre "policies" had more trees, shrubs, flower beds and hiding places than most kids could dream of. We had no "backyard" in the usual suburban sense of the word where Mom could safely put the kids on a nice day while she did the ironing. We didn't have suburban-type neighbours on three sides a few yards away and dozens of homemakers along the street to watch out for wandering toddlers. Our neighbours were the Esso station behind the thick shrubs to the east, Uncle Ashley's big farmhouse across the orchard on the west and Halbert School over the fence to the north.
Along the south side was the Kingston Road, Scarborough's only artery in the mid '50s -- and a very busy and dangerous one at that. I seem to vaguely recall a short piece of old fencing along the road, but it was from another era. I don't remember any personal close calls with Kingston Road traffic, so I imagine Mom kept a close eye on me when I wasn't penned inside the play-yard.
So, no, I didn't have a backyard perse in which to play. I spent a great deal of my pre-school days in the "play-yard" -- my very own personal forest of scotch pine, a pair of swings suspended from spliced wagon tongues, a fort and, get this, the old grease pit. The west wall of the garage -- the "driving shed" in the photo above (taken 3 or 4 years before my time) -- limited my movements to the east and the Halbert School fence held me back along the north. A four foot wire fence on the other two sides completed the enclosure, which, by the way, was probably as big as many suburban backyards. My portal to the world was through a large sturdy six foot high gate that latched on the outside at the top to the garage -- I was pretty much locked in for the duration.
Another of my earliest memories... Nature called one day when I was about 3 -- I climbed up to the top of the play-yard gate and screamed for early parole on biological grounds. I was a tad uneasy about throwing my leg over the top of the gate, so I just hung on and yelled. Our kitchen was the old pantry which had a window facing north. Trouble was in those days, there was a large shrub which I rather think may have at least partly blocked the view of the gate from the kitchen window. As I recall, it was some time before I was rescued from my predicament.
Trees and Tree Climbing
That aborted gate-climbing episode did not have any negative long-term effect on me -- no emotional scars or phobias of any kind. On the contrary, I later became rather addicted to climbing the trees on the property. I don't remember ever falling out of a tree at our place -- once at Doug Streeter's (at 13 years or so: that poplar's many branches broke my fall all the way down, which I had factored into the risk assessment of course!) -- but never at our place. We had over two dozen big trees, not counting the cedars, poplars and my Scotch pine forest. Just off the top -- 6 or so soft maple, one huge silver maple, a butternut, 5 English walnut (or was it 6?), 2 pear, one cherry, 2 spruce, 5 or 6 macintosh, 1 wolf river, 1 baxter and 1 melba. (The last three are rather rare apple varieties in case you were wondering!) I climbed 'em all!
But the oldest and tallest of our trees and the only one that I didn't climb was a pine (a white pine I believe) close to the road at the edge of the orchard. I wasn't present during the debate, but I'm told that Johnny Johnson's management blamed their less-than-thriving drive-in business on the pine tree which blocked the view of their sign when driving from the east. What a crock...! But the tree was over a hundred years old and it was time to feed him to the furnace anyway. I think the Hydro took it down (for nothing I believe) in about 1962. We threw quite a supply of firewood in through the south-west cellar window. Two or three slabs of the trunk are still out at my parent's place in Pickering, so it's not too late to do an official ring-count. In addition to the big trees, we had lots of smallish english walnut trees popping up here and there due to the energetic squirrels with whom I shared my domain. Dad transplanted several of these at the new place in Pickering.
The grand opening of Johnny Johnsons Drive-In ('61 I think) was quite an event. The search light attracted a fair bit of attention that night. Their business was pretty good I thought for a few months. On a Friday evening, Johnny Johnsons was a scene right out of American Graffiti. But then the novelty seemed to wear off. In Grade 5, on a number of occasions, Mrs. Burnside gave me a quarter or so to buy her a hamburger for lunch.
I should explain that Johnny Johnson became our neighbour on the west when Uncle Ashley moved out of my great-grandfather's house and his half of the orchard was turned into one of Toronto's first "drive-in" restaurants. (I have a vivid memory of an incident near the plum tree on Uncle Ashley's part of the orchard.)
I lived right beside Uncle Ashley and Aunt Flo until I was seven but I honestly don't remember being inside their house while they lived in it. One day Uncle Bob came over to our place with Doug to get the tractor. Uncle Bob backed the tractor up to Uncle Ashley's garage on the level driveway and shut it off. He was getting something out of the garage and he told me to "put it out of gear", probably just to roll it an inch or two. When I said I didn't know how, he laughed. Doug didn't know how either. I felt a bit silly at the time for not knowing how to put the tractor out of gear, but really, do we want six year-olds to know how to do that kind of thing -- put vehicles out of or into gear etc?
Hi Dr. Awlick
Yes, in southern Scarborough, we actually had a tractor, a 1939 Ford 9N, one of the first tractors ever built with a three-point hydraulic. One fall day when I was about five, Dad and I were ploughing the garden. Well, I was sitting on the seat between his legs with my hands on the wheel but he was the one in control. Dad was very particular about putting the plough away clean. The heavy Scarborough clay could rust the shimmering steel mouldboard if it wasn't perfectly clean and oiled for the winter.
So, "we" drove from the garden to the hose near the northeast corner of the house where Dad shut off the tractor. We had a cinder driveway, so he left the plough "up" to make sure it stayed clean. He proceeded to wash the plough, leaving me on the tractor seat. Well, I seemed to have a habit of putting my hands where they didn't belong. I started to monkey with things, including the hydraulic control lever -- the plough suddenly crashed to the driveway. Dad jumped back. He could have lost some fingers or toes in that incident. Important point here -- that's when Dad told me to always keep one hand on the fender or whatever else was most likely to forewarn me of sudden movements. That could perhaps also explain my later "hands-off" position on knowing how to put the tractor out of and into gear. There was probably also a "don't touch this and that" warning that day with the plough. In any event, I certainly learned a lesson.
Doug's "Harrowing" Experience
I'll let Dad talk about the origins of the agricultural implements that we had on our little "farm in the city" since they were purchased before my time. It must have been quite a sight for Kingston Road motorists in the 60's to see Uncle Bob driving the tractor along the shoulder with the cultivator or plough. He and Dad both used the tractor in their big gardens. Uncle Bob's garden was in a part of the old north orchard along McCowan Road, two houses up from the Halbert driveway. (Uncle Bob had a Duchess -- apple tree, that is.)
In addition to the plough and cultivator that were part of the "Ford package" in 1939 as I understand it, we also had a few horse-drawn implements including a scuffler, a scoop and a two-section set of harrows. With sharp-ish teeth, the harrows were used to smooth out a field before seeding.
Now then, the two McCowan gardens were big but perhaps not quite wide enough to really turn the tractor around at the ends while dragging the harrows. (The harrows could not be lifted so that the tractor could be turned around on the grass.) And, of course we didn't have horses during my time. So, we really didn't use the harrows all that much at our place, but I know that Uncle Bob did...
One late spring day when I was nine or ten, Uncle Bob had the harrows at his place. At the far end of the garden, he was using a couple of ropes to pull the harrows himself -- no point in having the tractor around. Then he noticed that Doug, John McCormick and I were doing something up by the house (well, probably absolutely nothing of any value). Uncle Bob walked up and took Doug by the arm. The harrowing would be a touch easier if two were pulling. John and I parked our butts against the wall of the house to watch. Uncle Bob and Doug dragged the harrows from the orchard side of the garden to the Oxtoby hedge -- Doug ran back across the garden and parked his butt against the apple tree (the "Spy"). Uncle Bob took him by the arm and dragged him to the harrows. They pulled the harrows back to the orchard side. Again Doug parked his butt against the apple tree... John and I were howling! "We like work. We could watch it all day!" It never occured to either of us, nor to Doug, that us three kids could have given Uncle Bob a well-deserved rest. We could have done the harrowing ourselves and enjoyed the experience just the same.
Learning to Skate
I clearly remember the day I learned how to skate. I was three I think. Mom and I walked across the Halbert schoolyard toward Uncle Bob's place during "recess". I watched this boy bounding down the hill into the park. I said to myself "must be nice to be an almost-grown-up"! He couldn't have been any more than 11 or 12, but to me he was not only big, but mature, learned and worldly. Perhaps I was getting anxious to go to school myself or otherwise speed up the clock toward adulthood -- how I wish I could now turn back the clock!
On we went to Uncle Bob's. My cousin, Janet, was almost two years older than me and she had a pair of skates (normal tube skates, not figure skates). They were probably a fair bit too big but an extra couple of pairs of socks would fix that. We walked back to the park at Halbert. The skating rink was a good size and it had these little, I'd say, 8 inch-high boards around the perimeter. I don't recall having any trouble learning how to skate that day (although for years I was more comfortable going counter-clockwise than clockwise -- like most other people I think!) I do remember that toward the end of that first skating experience at Halbert, someone dragged out a huge 2 or 3 inch reddish hose to start flooding. I know that I was disappointed that it was all over for the day and that I had to skate around that darn hose for a minute or so. I guess I must have done ok that first time on skates.
That did it. I was hooked on skating and soon to be hooked on hockey. I imagine it would have been the very next winter that Dad put in my first skating rink between the back door and the play-yard. It was almost 20 feet by maybe 30 feet and you can bet that the specifications included boards. Our boards were much better than the boards at Halbert -- full 12 inch planks. My guess is that most of the planks were taken out of the stalls in the horse stable (photo above) or were just kicking around. Now that I think about it, I'm sure that the furnace room had a second coal or wood bin in my early days -- I'll have to ask Dad if he used those planks too around my skating rink.
Dad made the rink the first few winters. But for a good number of seasons, the rink was my baby. I was able to extend it a few feet farther west, but then I thought, why not get another couple of sections of hose and move the rink into the orchard? In about 1963 or so, Dad had put in a new septic bed in the orchard. This had necessitated cutting down two of our oldest apple trees and raising part of the ground with some septic-bed-quality fill. This landscaping arrangement provided me with a great spot for the new and improved McCowan Gardens. Almost twenty-five feet wide, the first rink in the orchard was close to forty feet long, but I still had another 10 feet or so available up to the school fence. Thereafter, I made sure that the rink took up the entire area (about 1/6 of the orchard). Boards for a 25' x 50' rink were a little too much work so I didn't bother.
The Hose that Froze
The water pipe came out of the basement at the northeast corner of the house. The house was about forty feet wide, the southeast corner of the rink was about 20 feet northwest of the northwest corner of the house and the rink was about 50 feet long and another 25 feet wide. So... I needed over 100 feet of hose to do a decent job of flooding. The hoses were plastic and were prone to breakage in the cold, so I became an expert at splicing broken hoses back together.
At the end of a flooding, I would shut off the water in the basement and uncouple the hose. The loops I put in the 100 plus feet hose as I rolled it up were about four feet in diameter. I did my best to drain the water as I rolled up the hose, but there was no way to ever get it all out. The hoses were stored in the "freezer room" in the basement.
Now then, at the beginning of a flooding, the process of getting the hoses unrolled and hooked up and dashing downstairs to turn on the water before the nozzle froze was a bit of a challenge for a ten-year-old but I eventually got it down to a science. One particular frosty night however, when I was still a rookie rinkrat, the hoses got tangled somehow and the nozzle dropped into the snow. Between trying to clean out the nozzle before it froze and untangling the hose... I was a few seconds late in opening the valve in the basement. When I didn't get any flow, I was livid. Being metal with small openings, the nozzle would be the first thing to freeze. I thought that banging the nozzle hard on the wall of the house would maybe jar it into action. So I took what turned out to be a rather wild swing right into the tall narrow window that occupied the north face of the "window seat" in the dining room. Well, that Saturday morning while the other kids were scoring goals on my glassy ice surface, I was scoring, cutting and puttying new glass into the window frame.
We can all agree I think that the winters seem to be getting generally milder all the time. Back in the '60s, however, I always had the rink in good enough shape to take my annual Christmas morning skate. It was still rough, but then, "skating off the bumps" was part of this rinkrat's work anyway. One of the important jobs in rink maintenance was to spread snow over the ice during the "January thaw", as Dad called the mid-winter melt-down. I must have got some funny looks from the kids in the school yard toward the end of lunch time as I performed this very necessary task. The white snow would tend to reflect any direct sunlight and prevent the ice itself from melting. As a bonus, when the snow melted, it would tend to add a little to the ice thickness when it froze. Of course it was important to smooth everything out before an overnight freeze.
We usually had a pretty good turn-out of hockey players on a Saturday morning. If Uncle Bob was over rummaging around in the shop for this part or that sprocket, he'd occasionally pick up a stick and play with us, even though he'd be in his rubber boots. Whenever my cousin John was rummaging for the puck at the rink's edge, Uncle Bob would slide his stick under his belly and fling him into the snowbank. (John didn't like it!)
We had 3 old one-piece hockey sticks (and a broken one) up in the Shop. These sticks would date back to the 30's (still have them along with a pair of gloves with wooden dowels in the wrist pads).
The Horse Stable and My Missing Glasses
The old horse stable was at the north end of the driving shed and is the exposed section in the photo above. The property-line for the school cut through the northwest corner of the horse stable. Consequently, the north wall or "bent" was moved south a few feet and then rebuilt. This made for an unusual connection to the rest of the barn frame. There was a small opening in the extreme northwest corner of the horse stable ceiling just big enough for me and my pals to crawl upstairs into the "shop". So, what was the attraction in the shop? All kinds of neat stuff -- not to mention Uncle Jim's wide assortment of gum and other vending machines. (One old cigarette machine had a prominent label to the effect -- "No Sunday Sale -- The Lord's Day Act".) To my knowledge, there were no cigarettes in these machines -- and I really wasn't interested anyway.
One particular day when I was about ten, John McCormick and I had been up in the shop snooping around. Some time later (or maybe even the next day!) I realized that my glasses were not around. I looked all over for the darn things and even walked up to the pit by the railway tracks where I had been recently. I remember doing a thorough search around a small pond. I must have had some of my pals involved in the search because John McCormick suddenly charged in through the back door while my mother was getting dressed in the girls' room and shouted that he had suddenly remembered where I had put my glasses. As it turned out, I had taken my glasses off to squeeze up through the hole into the shop. I had put them on the barn frame's connecting plate that had been cut short. Sure enough, there they were. We weren't supposed to be in the shop -- Dad had placed a locked door at the top of the stairs some time before -- so I probably got a lecture over the whole business.
I should point out that the horse-stable itself had been a particularly important part of my Saturday morning when I was in my pre-school years. The horse stable was a veritable treasure trove of old junk. The old kitchen range, horse shoes and a bear skin come to mind. The horse stable had a big door on huge hinges which opened out into my play-yard. An old crank was used to latch it to the barn wall. From the kitchen window, I could just barely see whether or not the horse-stable door was open. So, the very first item on my Saturday morning agenda was to climb onto the step-stool to look out the kitchen window -- "hope Dad's in the horse stable!" If the horse stable door was open, I'd be out there in seconds -- my porridge could wait.
The Cinder Driveway
I was about 7 when Dad bought me my first bicycle -- a "previously-enjoyed" bike to use today's sales jargon. We were probably having squash or turnip for supper the night that Dad brought it home. I sat at the table for ages turning my nose up at the cold squash while the other kids were "enjoying" my new bike. I eventually ate the stuff -- there was no throwing out food at our table. (Well, the top of the broom closet in the corner was the target of the occasional bit of unwanted whatever.)
We had a coal furnace hot-water heating system. Every night during the heating season Dad would pick a big "clinker" out of the furnace. This hardened residual substrate was crushed onto the driveway after it had cooled off in a big metal pail. The cinder material was quite sharp and made for wicked looking "sports-related injuries" such as falling off a bike.
Our driveway was circular. When you faced Kingston Road, it was shaped like a "6". So, the rule was, we had to ride our bikes counterclockwise around the driveway. If we rode clockwise, we could make the mistake of riding straight out onto the busy highway. Cousin John did that once -- lucky there was break in the two lanes of westbound traffic at that point. At least the centre curb in the median stopped him from crossing the eastbound lanes. Seems to me Aunt Jewel gave him a bit of a cuff on the ear!
From The Scarboro Heights Record V8 #1
More of Bruce's stories here, written when he was in Grade 5 at H.A. Halbert -- "My Autobiography"!