In these days of high mobility it is not often you have the opportunity to meet someone who, after nearly 86 years, is still living in the same place he was born.
But so it is with Walter Heeks, a bachelor gentleman, who has lived in the same house for the past 75 years.
Walt was born in 1898 on a farm that was next to his present property, where his father was employed as a helper to Mr. John Wilson. He was the second youngest of seven children and only he and one sister remain today.
His father, Fred Heeks, came to Canada from England in 1885, at the age of 19.
He worked initially for a Mr. Mitchel, who rented a farm in the Bronte Creek Flats area, the farm being owned by Mr. John White, who, at the time, was the federal member of parliament in John A. MacDonald's Conservative government. After a year there, he worked for Mr. Mahlon Bray and during this time he met and married a young woman who had come from Ireland in 1884. He worked for Mr. Bray's brother-in-law for a time before joining the farm of Mr. John Wilson where he stayed for 16 years. While he was in Mr. Wilson's employ, he saved his wages to buy his own farm.
In 1905 he was able to rent a neighboring farm with the option to buy, which he did a few years later. The northern extremity of the farm was at Rebecca Street, one of the main east-west thoroughfares of Oakville; the southern limit was the Old Lakeshore Road.
Third Line formed the western boundary and the farm extended east for 40 rods (660 feet, or about the length of a good city block.
Fred Heeks and his wife and family of four daughters and three sons moved into the house, which was on the property, on March 27th, a day when there was so much snow; the only way they could transfer their belongings was by sleigh.
Four years later, in the fall of 1909, they moved into a new house, which Mr. Heeks built on the farm. This house is a three-storey red brick structure with front porch running the width of the house and second storey balcony above. It has 10' ceilings in the large kitchen and big living/dining room where Walt seated 28 for dinner one Christmas. There is a large back porch - formerly the summer kitchen - an entrance hall with stairway leading upstairs, and a bedroom on the main floor. Upstairs, the five bedrooms have 9' ceilings and the bathroom is on the second floor.
Other buildings on the farm included a barn for cows, a pot house where grains were cooked for animal feed, a wood shed, a horse stable, and later, a five-door garage for trucks and tractor, a house for chickens and ducks, and an ice house (Ice was cut from a pond on Mr. Wilson's farm and later from Bronte Creek. The Heeks boys did not cut the ice; they bought and hauled it from others who did the cutting). The original residence was used for storage for awhile but gradually it was dismantled and material from it was used as needed for other purposes.
When Walt was ready to start school, he had to walk two miles east to Pinegrove School. He attended there for three or four years. Then a two-room school was built in Bronte which cut his walk in half.Some years later the two-room school was replaced by a two-storey brick school on the same site, and this building now operates as a fresh fruit and vegetable market. By 1912 he was ready for High School which was in downtown Oakville and necessitated travel on "The Radial" (electric train or street car). From the Third Line corner of the farm to the school, the student return fare was 5¢ (adults paid 5¢ each way). Increasing
popularity of the automobile terminated the Radial service in 1924. Walt's father bought his first Ford Touring car in 1916 for $485. Gasoline at that time was about 20¢ a gallon.
In the summers, Walt and his friends would swim in Lake Ontario. "The water wasn't as cold then," he maintains. His father would attend the C.N.E. as an observer, not to exhibit any of his produce; and it was always exciting for the children the day after he returned when he distributed the many samples he had collected.
Winter fun included skating on a frozen swamp that they kept clear; this area is now part of Coronation Park on the shore of Lake Ontario in Oakville.
There was also a slope on Mr. Wilson's farm where they could go sleighing. Walt had three years at High School and then stayed home to help his father run the family farm.
This decision was made as a consequence of a world event reaching in and touching the lives of individual families. One of Walt's brothers, who had enlisted in the army in 1915, was one of 64 Oakville men who gave their lives in World War I. The shock of this loss contributed to Mr. Heeks' heart attack in 1918. He was, however, able to carry on in a supervisory capacity until his death in 1932 at age 66. (Walt's mother died in 1938 at age 73.)
When Fred Heeks bought the farm in 1905, it was his plan to operate it as a small-fruits farm as there was a good demand for these berries.
However, when the Heeks family took over the 45 acres, it was in a somewhat neglected state with much work needed to remove old trees and clean up the grounds.
One of the major ways Mr. Heeks got cash for his plan to turn his farm into an income-producing entity, was by keeping cows and selling cream to the local Gilbrae Dairy. With seven children in the family, the unsold milk did not got to waste. Walt's mother made their butter as well.
Once production was underway the farm had a good variety of small fruits for sale: red raspberries, thimbleberries, blackcaps, red and black currants, gooseberries, and the highly favored strawberries. Oakville had a reputation in the market place for producing strawberries of particular excellence. Hazel Matthews in her comprehensive study of early Oakville, Oakville and the Sixteen (1953), tells the following anecdote to illustrate: " ... an Italian vendor of bananas was meeting with little success on the wharf at Toronto. He noticed that another pedlar nearby was doing a rushing business and that he was calling "Oakville strawberries, fresh ripe Oakville strawberries." Adapting this to his wares, he announced that he had "Oak-a-villa bananas, nice fresh Oak-a-villa bananas" and was bewildered by the laughter of people boarding the steamers."*
The excellence of the region's strawberries is apparently due to the heritage of geological time which, over eons, produced a rich soil composed of limestone, red clay, glacial debris, sand, and a deep layer of vegetable matter from a hardwood forest.
One other credit must also be given for the excellence of the berries, and that was to the horses who drew the milk and bread wagons of Toronto. Manure from their stables was shipped by railway car load and Mr. Heeks and sons would unload it on to their own conveyance at the station in Bronte and distribute it among the strawberry plants and orchard trees. (It was also necessary to drive to farms north of the town to get loads of straw to protect the strawberry patch over the winter.)
It took about three days of intensive work to place out the new strawberry plants when the work was done by hand, one person digging the hole and the other planting. The addition of a tractor in 1928 and a planting machine in 1930 helped reduce the labour involved in setting out the plants. They always tried to get this job done by the 24th of May and then go fishing in Bronte Creek on that holiday. With luck they would bring home a few small perch, a catfish, or some eels for supper.
Once the fruit was mature, they had to hire help to get the berries to market. It was usually possible to hire local people but during the years of World War II, they also got young folk through the government agency, The Farm Services Bureau. The Heeks had built a cottage at the south end of the farm to house the seasonal workers, but one year, 1944, when there was an especially abundant yield, they had to have a large tent as well to house an additional 9 or 10 pickers. Some of the growers, particularly in the Clarkson area, relied on itinerant Indians from the Brantford Reserve to do their picking.
In addition to the seasonal help, there was always a hired man to help with the many daily chores. While there were cows and horses and feed crops to tend, as well as the jobs directly associated with the fruit business, it was necessary, at times, to have two or three men helping.
The girls in the family, as they grew up, all left for various jobs; however, one of the young girls who had picked berries regularly for several years, returned as a berrypicker in 1938 and has stayed on as housekeeper to the present.
The demand for Oakville strawberries and other small soft fruits, in turn, produced a demand for baskets. One of the major industries of Oakville during the first 30 years of this century was The Oakville Basket Company which turned out the many thousands of baskets needed to get the produce to market.Frances Robin Ahern gives a good concise report of the basket making operations in her book, Oakville, A Small Town, 1900-1930.
There was also another smaller basket factory in Bronte, independent of The Oakville Basket Company, run by a Mr. Charles Taylor, where Mr. Heeks got his baskets. The maker would deliver the baskets to the farm where they were stored until needed.
This arrangement helped to ease the warehousing space of the manufacturer. Like the larger factory in east Oakville, the Bronte factory burned, but unlike it, was not rebuilt, and Mr. Heeks got his baskets from a supplier he knew in Grimsby.
Before Mr. Fred Heeks started fruit farming, many people shipped their berries to the Toronto and Hamilton markets by boat. However, the railroad, which came into prominence in 1900, provided excellent service (as many as 13 trains a day out of Oakville) and Mr. Heeks took his berries to the station for rail shipment to Toronto. In the 1920's a grower got 6 or 7¢ a quart for his berries.
During the depression years there was always a market for the fruit, even though the prices were at almost give-away levels; there was usually someone at the door for a handout as the house is within the first block north of Highway 2, between Hamilton and Toronto. (The southern tip of the farm had been sold to the provincial government in 1914, when Highway 2 was put through connecting these two cities with a paved road.)
One of the regular transients who hitch-hiked this stretch was called "Markham". No one knew his real name but whenever you asked where he was going, no matter in which direction he was headed, he always said he was going to Markham. For the most part these called did not ask for work, just sustenance to get them to the next place. Walt's mother never turned anyone away hungry.
Walt's mother would preserve fruits in half-gallon jars and he remembers asking him one summer to pick up the sugar she would need for the fall preserving. When he asked
her how much to bring home, she replied: "Four hundred pounds." Just for one season's produce! This meant many hours of work over a hot stove, and it meant a lot of wood to keep the fire going.
During World War II, Walt sold his berries to the local jam factory, which had a government contract to supply jam to the services. A truck picked up the fruits at his farm twice a day. After the war, Cudmore's Market in Bronte bought his produce. This market still sells from its original location on Highway 2. There was also an independent trucker who would call and buy whatever fruit Walt had available for sale. Marketing his produce was never a problem.
Under his father's guidance, Walt and his other brother carried on with the small fruit production while they planted, pruned, sprayed, and tended hundreds of maturing apple and cherry trees. Apple tree saplings were bought from Mr. Davidson's Nursery in Burlington and were about 4' tall and the thickness of a man's thumb. They were planted 40' apart and in between they planted pear trees as filler. Pears grew to maturity sooner and their small upright habit did not interfere with the space requirements of the spreading branches of the apple trees. While it took 8 to 10 years to get a good yield off of apple trees like MacIntosh, Wealthy, or Delicious, it took 15 years to achieve a crop of the Spy variety. Walt gives credit to his brother for the orchard planning. He had the foresight to plant the trees that would be bearing the fruit for their harvests of the future.
By the end of World War II, the orchard trees which had been planted and cared for, were coming into maturity and the market of apples and cherries became a larger part of Walt's business. In addition, he did plant a few acres in early potatoes which he sold to Cudmore's. These potatoes were out of the ground before they got busy with the apple crop.
While Walt was concerned with the operation of the farm, his other brother went into partnership with a Mr. Ernest Gilbert and they rented orchards and set up two cold storage warehouses to supply apples to Toronto and surrounding area. During the 1930's and '40s, they sold apples to 105 small Dominion grocery stores in Toronto. When he had the time, Walt helped by delivering to the stores east of Yonge Street, as far as Kingston Road, and another man delivered to the stores west of Yonge Street. This warehousing business lasted until 1954. One of the warehouses was bought and renovated into living space and is still in use today as a residence. The site of the other warehouse, on Highway 2, is now the premises of a donut shop.
Gas lines were laid along Highway 2 from Hamilton and in 1933, by doing their own digging, the Heeks household had gas piped in all the way up from the highway. Gas lines were not put in along Third Line until the early 1960s when a developer was preparing a subdivision of housing. Walt remembers a backhoe operator, trying to remove a large maple tree strump, who bit into the main and scattered dirt and workers for hundreds of feet! Fortunately, there were no serious injuries.
Wells and a septic tank system provided the essentials for water and waste disposal for many years, but Walt took advantage of the water and sewage facilities installed for new housing in the area and he hooked up his home to these services in 1958.
As times changed, and the demand for housing grew in this "suburb of Toronto", Walt was often approached by developers wanting to buy his farm, as they had those of some of his neighbors. New residents in the area thought nothing of helping themselves to the fruit, without regard for the owner of the property. As Walt put it, "they seemed to think that stuff grew and that's all there was to it. But it wasn't exactly that way." It is Walt's polite way of saying that people did not realize what time, money, and work was involved to grow good produce. A neighbour who was constantly plagued with thievery got annoyed one night, switched on a strong light on a pole in his yard and fired off a shotgun into the air at the same time. "There was quite a scatteration in the patch that night!" One can appreciate this farmer's frustration when he discovered that a stile had been built over his fence to facilitate the unauthorized removal of his produce.
When a developer came up with a fair price and Walt knew he could not hold back the hands of the clock, he made his decision. He took his last crop to market in 1959 and closed the deal to sell in 1960, retaining his own home on 229' of frontage along Third Line.
With all the many daily chores and the management aspects of the farm, Walt did not have time to think about what he would do with leisure. During those busy years he said, "I never thought of it as work. It was there to be done. It was my job." When he was in high school, he had some thought of being an electrical or civil engineer, but he does not regret his decision to be a farmer. He feels he's probably had a better life being his own boss.
Today there is talk of varying lifestyles. However, for a farmer, work is always in style! Even in winter, for a fruit farmer, there was not a lot of time for sitting around. If you were not too tired after the chores, there was radio and gramaphone to listen to or books and papers to read. Or, as Walt remembers, a couple of neighbors would come in one night a week in the winter to play euchre with his father and brother. There was also the Epworth League of the Methodist Church in Bronte which met on Tuesday evenings. This League consisted of two teams, each team taking a turn to put on a program. The program was judged by a system of points, and 12 at the end of the season, the losing team put on an oyster supper for all. The League also sponsored three or four socials a year, held in various members' homes. They made their own fun.
Although Walt enjoys watching baseball on T.V. today, he did not have the time to get involved in this spectator sport, which was very popular in Oakville in the first half of the century. There was a healthy rivalry between Bronte and Oakville teams and some of the local regionalism still exists today, particularly in the minds of the older residents. As an example, just this past summer, when some old trees were being taken down on the boulevard in front of the Heeks home, one of the older men working for the Town, commented that, "What we'd call a shack in Bronte, is a heritage house in Oakville!" There is still a connotation of gracious living attached to east Oakville, and the area of the Sixteen Mile Creek. Certainly, there are many large estates and points of early local history attached to downtown Oakville. The rivalry that existed between the ports of Oakville and of Bronte has died down due to the changes in transportation and the economy. Transporting goods and people, and ship building, have given way to pleasure boats and, today, you will find large yachts, laser sailboats, and canoes, at both Marinas.
Some of the newsworthy events of the past several decades that Walt recalls include the fact that isolation camps were set up in Oakville for victims of a smallpox epidemic in 1907. It was during the flu epidemic of 1918 when one of his sisters was critically ill with pneumonia. The coldest winter was 1933-34 when the extremely low temperatures lasted long into February, killing a lot of the old apple trees. A twister went through at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 17th, 1942, pushing a large spruce tree against the side of the second floor balcony. Walt has a few snapshots of the havoc on Highway 2, which was closed by fallen trees, forcing the buses to be rerouted up Third Line in front of his house until the highway was cleared the next afternoon. Walt also remembers a boy who attended the same two-room school in Bronte. He was about 10 years older than Walt and was one of a class the teacher set up as a good example. This student was Percy Page who can be identified in the Canadiana Encyclopedia and Who's who of 1958-60, as the coach of the world famous girls' basketball team, the Edmonton Grads. Percy Page later went into Alberta politics and was appointed Lt. Governor of that province in January 1960. His niece lives in Bronte today.
After "retiring", Walt helped his sister and her husband with their peach and apple orchard near St. Catharines and he had time to go on fishing trips with a friend who owned
a camp up near Temiskaming. He also took some trips to the United States, the boat trip along the inland waterway of British Columbia to Alaska, and a guided tour of rural England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Walt still puts in a good sized garden every spring and prepares the soil every fall, as well as raking up leaves and needles from the many tall trees that surround his home. As long as the weather permits, he walks about the neighborhood and has some good friends who call regularly to visit. He has a comfortable chair that affords him a view of his garden and the many varieties of birds that come to the feeder outside his window.
Walter Heeks is a gentleman who spans over eight decades of changes, who has adjusted with every innovation, and who looks ahead with the same calm acceptance of each day that has served him so well in nearly 86 years of living. It is good to talk with someone who has done a good job during his life and who is content with what he has accomplished.
"In all these usual things there was something to interest a man." From The Channel Shore by Charles Bruce, p.46
Ahern, Frances Robin, Oakville, a Small Town, 1900-9130. Erin, Ontario: The Boston Mills Press, 1981
Brimacombe, Philip, The Story of Bronte Harbour. Cheltenham, Ontario: The Boston Mills Press, 1976.
Matthews, Hazel C., Oakville and the Sixteen. Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1953.
**A note of thanks for Mrs. Elizabeth Callaghan, manager of the "Access to Oakville History" project at Woodside Library, Oakville, for her suggestions of source material for reference.