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Heritage Corner (June, 2021)

Heritage Corner (June, 2021)

The Beacon of St. Clair Township June 2021 Page 10
By G. Wayne Brown
Editor’s note: In the April Beacon, we were introduced to life in the hamlet of Duthil by author G.
Wayne Brown, who spent the first 22 years of his life
there. Part one of the story ended as we learned that,
due to a curious twist of fate, Duthil’s main street
once featured a store located across from a church and
a school situated across from a saloon, which led some
witty individual to quip it had “…provision, religion,
education, and damnation all in one place!”
Enjoy this third installment of Duthil Days: Memories of My Hometown.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The Silent Policeman
Downtown Duthil around the mid 1800’s had its earliest beginnings at the intersection of the 10th Concession of Sombra (presently the Holt Line) with the
Duthill Road (spelled with two Ls). This would put you
beside the North Sydenham River and approximately
eight miles north of Wallaceburg. Ordinarily, this intersection would not be unlike any other but, if you took
a map of Sombra Township and drew a diagonal across
it from each corner, you would find that this intersection is almost at the geographic center of the township! To go one even better, at the very center of this
Duthil intersection stood a great elm tree which, at
maturity, measured four feet in diameter at ” stump
height ” and was about 70 feet high. (See the Duthil
tree below.)
The story goes that when the district was being
opened up, surveyors placed some marks on it, and
when the road right-of-way was being cleared, this
marked tree was left. It was then only a few inches
through. The tree prospered while the traffic of generations, beginning with horses and buggies, passed to
the right and left. Over time, its limb spread became
immense and afforded shade for community gatherings.
On the other hand, standing so squarely and firmly in
the middle of these intersecting roads caused some
folk to suggest that it was a traffic hazard.
In 1939, three local people, whose car windshield
was said to have frosted over, crashed into the trunk
injuring two of the occupants. Not surprisingly, in
1940, a group of agitators were prepared to cut the
tree down with their saws but the strong voice of the
tree’s champions came rushing to the rescue.
About a decade later the “silent policeman” was
mortally injured when it was unfortunately struck by a
lightning bolt and the tree began to die. This is when
my connection with this great tree begins.
In the early fall of 1952, when I was five years old
and sitting along the far-right row of desks which were
designated for Grade 1 students, our teacher, Maxine
Johnston, had all of her students line up in front of the
three windows facing the north. This was an historic
occasion for the Duthil community since this famous
tree, which had graced the intersection for 100+ years,
was about to be felled! The use of a chainsaw was out
of the question due to the fact that there must have
been about a keg of nails embedded around the tree’s
circumference. This was the result of about 50 years
worth of people tacking posters, notices, bills, and advertisements for the community’s benefit. Therefore,
locals such as Ken McKnight and Billy McGee used axes
to cut off as many roots as they could.
Then Ron Tulloch, operating a Caterpillar D8 bulldozer owned by my uncle, John Fraser, who was an
engineer at the Wallaceburg Brass Factory, toppled the
tree over with most of the root system attached. He
then pulled the tree westward for several rods paralleling the river until he reached a spot where it could
be pushed down the riverbank. Since this activity took
up a good part of the morning, we students were more
than content to watch the proceedings rather than do
school work!
To conclude my coverage of the demise of this once
majestic tree, I can say it became part of my life during the rest of my elementary school years. I’ll explain
why it became a treasure trove for me.
Around the perimeter of the lower part of the trunk
were four large tinplate sheets, each covered with a
diamond-shaped collage of green, amber and blue reflectors. I would periodically climb down the riverbank
to the tree to remove as many reflectors as I needed
for my bicycle’s mud flaps. A couple of years ago, I
went to the spot where the tree used to lie but it was
gone. It either disintegrated completely over time or it
had floated to a new resting place, carried by floodwaters held back behind the Darcy McKeough dam.
The Brown Ferry and the Duthil Bridge
Even though my home looked down on
the Brown ferry for the first four years of my life I
don’t remember it at all. What I do know is that my
great, great, grandfather was the ferryman for a number of years at this crossing while he also farmed acreage butting up to the Sydenham River at this spot until his death in 1905. I should mention that a ferry along the Duthill Road, actually not too far from the
aforementioned elm tree, was also in operation. This
was known as the Duthil ferry and Mr. McNeil operated
it for a period of time. As a kid going to school, I recall
an old, rotted-out scow pulled up along the very
steep access road leading down to the river there.
Continued on page 11 The stalwart “silent policeman” stands in the middle of the
Duthil intersection doing traffic control.
Sombra Museum archives
The Beacon of St. Clair Township June 2021 Page 11
Up until 1951, the only means of crossing the Sydenham River for those living in the Duthil area was by ferry or by Becher or Wilkesport bridges, a distance of five
miles. Therefore, Sombra Township made the decision
to build a new bridge with a span of 180 feet and at a
cost of $53,000. As a small boy, I distinctly remember
watching from our picture window as bulldozers, graders, and dump trucks prepared the new approach on
our west side of the bridge. For me, the construction of
the Duthil bridge was very timely since I would be
crossing it to attend school, along with my brothers,
Eldon and Jim, for the next eight years.
For the sake of simplicity we’ll call my two brothers
and myself the “little Brown boys “, a name we were
collectively given as we rode the high school bus together in the years to come. But while all of our ages
were still in the single digits we made use of the bridge
in a variety of ways. With gravel docks situated at the
west end of the 10th Concession, along the St. Clair
River dump trucks used our road extensively in moving
gravel throughout the township. In order to have a little fun, we Brown boys decided to install a speed bump
right at the crown of the hill just west of the bridge in
front of our laneway.
We tingled with anticipation as these trucks would
hit the bump with a loud bang especially when they
were returning empty. Late one afternoon, after heaping a ribbon of stones about 8” high across the road, a
driver hit this obstruction at full speed, not seeing it
until he was upon it. We saw him bounce high in the
seat as we were hiding in the ditch not too far away,
hidden by a few shrubs. We heard him hit the brakes,
back his truck up to the pile of stones and, while he
was scattering them with his foot, we heard him say,
“If I ever catch you little buggers, you’ll know it!”.
A couple of years after this, during the late 1950’s,
the Brown boys thought they would be somewhat entrepreneurial. Maybe we figured that we weren’t getting
enough allowance money so we dragged enough lumber
down to the bridge and built a toll gate. One end of the
gate was attached to the railing which allowed it to
swing out of the way after a driver paid the toll. We
thought 10 cents was a fair price to collect and we did
this for several days until we realized that people were
getting annoyed and were no longer wanting to humour
us. However, it was certainly one way of getting to
know our neighbours and vice-versa!
Another escapade, and I hesitate to divulge this
one, occurred when a good buddy of mine, Gerald Waring, and I decided to test our climbing abilities. We’d
probably be around 14 or 15 years old at the time, old
enough to know better but not smart enough to realize
the risk involved. The bridge seemed to be like a magnet drawing us to it and it wasn’t long before we scrambled up the south main support beam to the top of the
bridge. ( I measured this beam recently to find that it’s
a foot and half wide.) At the highest point at the top of
the bridge we then sat on this narrow piece of steel
enjoying the view. We actually pulled another trick like
this later when we had our wives watching us but that’s
another story. All of a sudden, we heard somebody
yelling at us from the top of the hill. It was my grandfather telling us in no uncertain terms that he had never seen such a pair of fools and that we were to get
down off there pronto!
Several years later, after Gerald and I had our own
cars, the bridge still became somewhat of a drawing
card. We, along with our friends, would line up our cars
at one end of the bridge in order to see how much rubber we could burn on the white, cement roadbed. The
one who laid the longest strip, hopefully all 180 feet
across, was deemed the winner.
By 2014, sixty years after the bridge’s official opening on August 2, 1951, exposure to the elements was
naturally the greatest reason for deterioration. Yet the
steel structure and roadbed had survived these years
remarkably well. The cement abutments, especially the
one on the west side, gave the most concern. Also, the
curbs at the base of the railings were badly deteriorated. A decision had to be made – renew the
existing bridge or build a new modern one.
St. Clair Township commissioned a Cultural Heritage
Value study in 2014 and an Environmental Assessment
study in 2015 to arrive at a decision. Thankfully, both
studies encouraged the renovation of the historic structure and the green light for the project to begin. The
result would be the preservation of a rare example of a
Parker truss designed bridge!
In 2020, while the work was being completed, members of the Brown family spoke with the crew of the
chosen contractor, McLean Taylor Construction of St.
Mary’s. They were very interested when we showed
them pictures of the ferry crossing prior to the building
of the bridge. Also, of interest, they stated that the
steel used in the bridge was still as good as some of the
steel produced today. A few months later, on Thursday,
November 26, at precisely 3:14 pm, it was only fitting
that my buddy had the privilege of being the first to
cross over the newly reconditioned Holt Line Bridge.
Way to go, Gerald!
From page 10
Brown’s ferry carries passenger across a placid Sydenham
River. Photo courtesy Wayne Brown