The big, the bold, the eccentric
Bold, strange, brilliant, unfortunate and evil characters from the past are to be showcased in the North Glengarry Heritage Tour, another promotional tool designed to bring tourists and prosperity to Ontario’s Celtic Heartland.
Storytelling, based on facts and fiction, is a key element of “branding” the history of the place “Where Ontario Began.”
The heritage tour is a spin-off of the North Glengarry Community Improvement Plan.
“One of the priorities identified in the plan was to leverage economic development through the celebration of cultural tourism products that highlight the heritage and cultural assets and distinctive identity of the township,” the draft report notes.
In the ongoing quest for a tourism boost, colourful people, the successful and scurrilous, from the early days of Glengarry will be resurrected as visitors discover the good, the bad and the ugly of the county’s past.
A feature of the pioneer days in Glengarry County was that the settlers were “highly and even indulgently tolerant of ‘eccentric’ men,” reads a draft report on the tour, which relies heavily on details contained in the Dictionary of Glengarry Biography.
While the leaders and builders of Glengarry have been celebrated, and their lives have been well documented, the tour will highlight some less prominent, and less popular, figures as well.
For instance, when he died in 1922, William “Wild Willie” Denovan finally stopped scaring the children and intimidating the adults of Dalkeith. Known for his “violent speech and eccentric life,” he rarely saw his parents, who lived in one half of their home, slipping notes to him under a closed door if they needed groceries. Infamous for lurid outbursts, he may have had Tourette’s Syndrome, or he may have just been giving the people what they wanted, living up to the character he had invented.
He was a choir boy compared to the bootleggers and bodysnatchers who plied their illicit trades here. “Grave-sized dents” were regularly found in burial grounds, indicating that medical school students had desecrated plots to remove cadavers. Corpses are the centre of many intriguing tales. “The Man Who Disappeared,” Archibald H. McCuaig, was last seen crossing Alexandria’s Main Street in 1908. His body was never found. But legend has it that it might have sunk into the ooze of the Mill Pond, or was burned in the furnace of a hotel.
Isabella M. Gilchrist, of Maxville, was indeed a victim of foul play. On her way to Alaska in 1905, she married an American, Lee H. Johnston, who claimed to be a “promoter.” The victim’s body was later found, cut into pieces and partly burned, and buried near a Nome cabin she shared with her husband, and presumed killer. Mr. Johnston concocted a story about his despondent wife committing suicide, and writing in a note that her final wish was that her body be secretly interred and that nobody know of her “self-destruction.” He had conveniently lost the “suicide note.”
In the meantime, he returned to Maxville and sold her propertuy using forged papers. But the jig was up. Isabella’s sister regained the farm. Lee Johnston was charged with murder, but he escaped the gallows. In the Summer of 1908, while being taken from Seattle to Nome, the presumed killer disappeared overboard and his body was never recovered.
John J. MacIntosh, an Alexandria builder who erected schools and churches, died in 1917 while supervising the demolition of Knox Presbyterian Church in Vankleek Hill. Fire had gutted the building, which had been the site of an earlier tragedy. In 1900, while inspecting construction of the original new place of worship, Rev. John MacLeod climbed to the top of a scaffold. When the wall collapsed, he and two of the builders were killed. Some believe the deaths were the work of divine intervention, vowing to never darken the door of the church because it had been built on a former burial ground.
Alexander (Alex And A Half) MacDonald, so nicknamed because he was believed to have been dim-witted, was only 32 when he died under sensational circumstances in 1946. When he disappeared, it was assumed he had headed off to work in a lumber camp. His lifeless form was later found in an outdoor privy, after a woman had dreamed that he would be discovered there. A coroner’s jury could never determine the cause of death, which remains a mystery.
The outside public interest in the case is said to have marked the end of the “old Glengarry,” which had been closed off and inward-looking.
When it comes to legacies, few could match Joseph Lauzon (1799-1881), who had 36 children during three marriages. When interviewed at the age of 91 he said he was about to become a father again.
A legacy of another sort was the scar on the head of Alexander John MacIsaac MacDonald, who passed away in 1951. “Big Alex The Champion,” from Apple Hill, was a world champion stone thrower and received a gold wristwatch from the Queen at the 1919 British Empire Games. His scar was not the result of competition. He said he suffered an injury during what he described as “a most violent fight with a supernatural creature in a swamp near where he lived.”
Those are just some of the figures whose stories will help encourage outsiders to explore Glengarry’s routes and roots.
It is refreshing to see that the heritage tour will give much-deserved attention to both the weird and the wonderful people who have made this place so special.
We are constantly being told to, at any cost, avoid contact with the miniscule threats that may be lurking in the great outdoors.
We are supposed to be particularly wary of blacklegged ticks that may be carrying Lyme Disease.
Since we cannot live in bubbles, we cannot guarantee that we will not feel the sting of a close encounter with a nasty insect.
But now we are being encouraged to actually seek out and become acquainted with bumble bees.
Under the Bumble Bee Watch initiative, a “citizen science project,” people are urged to photograph the insects and record the images at the bumblebeewatch.org to begin a “virtual bumble bee collection.”
The information will help researchers determine the status of the bees and help conserve the vital pollinators.
Just as honey-making bee colonies have been threatened, the bumble bee numbers have also been declining.
If you accept the mission of becoming a citizen scientist, you may get stung, should you corner a bee, or disturb its nest. However, these busy buzzers are generally innocuous, and can be safely photographed when they are doing their thing on a flower.
With any luck, you might help find remnant populations of rare species, before they go extinct.
At the same time, to further help the cause of bee rejuvenation, you could consider tweaking your gardens by creating beefriendly habitat.
We can never underestimate the importance of the tiniest of creatures.
-- Richard Mahoney