March 31, 2010

The two-furrow riding plow

The Advocate's Devil – Historical Flash Fiction

“MONEY TO LOAN: – I have any amount of money at a low rate on first mortgage. W. HULL”

It was just the sort of filler that Wellington Hull loved to drop into the pages of his newspaper. Like most businessmen, he wore several hats.

Case in point, the advertisement on page one of today's Erin Advocate (Wednesday, March 30, 1910) from J.W. Turner, the Hillsburgh funeral director: “Our wallpaper has been tried and found guilty and condemned to be hung. Call early and get the bargains before they are all hung. Four cents and upwards per single roll.” Hillsburgh humour at its finest.

Here in Erin village, Mr. Hull was in the business of knowing everyone else's business. People who didn't qualify for a loan at the Union Bank could simply go upstairs to the newspaper office and make a deal with Hull. He was constantly auctioning farms and machinery, offering eight months of credit on sums over $10.

Hull was also the Erin “Correspondent” for the Standard Mercantile Agency of Toronto. That meant he was not only a debt collector for far-away wholesalers, but was empowered to rate the credit-worthiness of any Erin businessman. Information was the key to his success, which is why I was in his office. A printer's devil always gets the dirty jobs.

“Robert Campbell wants to borrow money from me, but he's new in town, so no one knows much about him. Last fall he showed me a brand new horse-drawn gang plow. Two-furrow. Seat for the driver and big wheels. International Harvester. Wants to put it up as collateral, but I don't think it he owns it. Suspect he borrowed it from his brother in Rockside, just for show.

“Now I have it on good authority that he and his family are going by stage coach to Fergus today to visit his uncle, who has taken ill. Take this letter to Campbell's farm, and when you find no one home, take a look in his barn. I need to know what implements he has there now.”

I took my 25 cent bonus and smiled about the things Hull didn't know, like the fact that I knew the combination to his office safe. And the distinct possibility that Campbell's 17-year-old daughter Edna would be home, alone. I packed a flask of Erin's finest and set off.

Caught a ride with a buggy headed for Alton and got off at the Tenth Line. As I neared the farm on foot, I saw a man on horseback riding down the lane from the house. I ducked into the swampy bush beside the road, and when he turned and rode by I saw it was George McCutcheon, a slimy sort who hung about the hotels and loaned money at usurious rates.

My friend at the post office said McCutcheon had received a mail order package of Phosphonol, advertised as an “Electric Restorer for Men” that would return every nerve in the body to its proper tension. “Premature decay and all sexual weakness averted at once.” Just $3 a box – almost half a week's wages.

Running up the lane, I found no one at the house. I stepped into the barn and heard a curse from the horse stalls. Edna stepped out, covered in straw, fastening the buttons of her blouse.

“Ethan! So nice to see you. Come here. Let's have a li'll dance.” Her words were slurred as she stumbled and grabbed my shoulders. I remembered last year's Fall Fair, when we had danced, then snuck off into the woods near the river. “What's the matter, you don't wanna dance?”

“Did he force you?”

“Ha!” She started laughing, caught herself, then put on her serious face. “No.”

“Why was he here?”

“I invited him. He was here last week, arguing with papa. We owe him 5 dollars. Or should I say, we used to owe him.”

“You shouldn't have.”

“Don't worry. I didn't.” She started to giggle. “Georgie Porgie wasn't up to the task.” She laughed, coughed, gagged, and soon the whiskey she had consumed was on the barn floor.

As she composed herself, I looked around. There was a small harrow, a rusty mower, a big wagon and an old-fashioned one-furrow walking plow.

I took Edna to her bedroom and laid her down on the bed. I covered her up, placed a kiss on her temple, breathed in the soft scent of her hair, and left.

“Yes, sir. I had a good look around Campbell's barn. There was a small harrow, a rusty mower, a big wagon and a brand new two-furrow riding plow.”

“Did anyone see you?”

“Not a soul.”

Public input crucial for highway improvements

As published in The Erin Advocate

They actually wrote back to me, and it wasn't a form letter. In December, I wrote to the Ministry of Transportation team that is planning new links for the Brampton-Milton-Guelph area, voicing opposition to a major highway through the Escarpment and the farms of south Erin.

"In regards to your comments about making every possible effort to avoid crossing the Niagara Escarpment with new transportation infrastructure, the EA (Environmental Assessment) process being followed by the GTA West Project Team is designed to carefully consider potential impacts to environmental features including the Niagara Escarpment, Greenbelt, Oak Ridges Moraine and other conservation areas during the generation and evaluation of alternatives."

The language may be bureaucratic, and it isn't signed by an individual, but at least someone read my letter and took the time to respond. My view that it would be better for the economy to build a highway from Brampton to Milton, south of Georgetown, instead of to Guelph via Erin has been "noted".

They made no comment about the possibility of expanding Wellington Road 124 or other roads like Winston Churchill, other than to say that public feedback and other factors are being weighed to come up with a "recommended" strategy, to be presented at a Public Information Centre this spring.

When I expressed concerns about the high rate of growth in Southern Ontario, they reminded me that the Ontario government has identified growth centres like Brampton, Milton and Guelph, and that their job is to improve transportation linkages.

Ontario's Places to Grow program attempts to manage growth in a way that "supports economic prosperity, protects the environment and helps communities achieve a high quality of life." This includes "more compact" communities, to avoid urban sprawl. The Greater Golden Horseshoe is expected to add 3.7 million more people by 2031. Do we need that many more people, or could we manage with 2.7 million? How about 1.7 million?

I was surprised to learn that the population of Brampton is estimated at 510,000. It was only about 180,000 when I worked there in 1985, when it was already one of Canada's fastest-growing cities, having added 100,000 people in the previous ten years.

I suggested to the GTA Project Team that a GO Transit shuttle bus service between the Georgetown train station and nearby communities would make better use of the rail capacity, which is now being expanded. They said they are already recommending expansion of inter-regional GO Bus routes to feed GO Rail stations.

With a recent provincial budget that deferred many transit projects, we shouldn't expect much soon. But still, bus service is an achievable goal that Erin should lobby hard to obtain, since it would be a substantial benefit for many residents and businesses.

In other commuter news, the Municipal Class Environmental Assessment for rebuilding Winston Churchill Boulevard from Olde Baseline Road to the top of the Terra Cotta hill has been completed.

Project Manager Solmaz Zia said that in response to public concerns, "a number of adjustments were made to limit grading impacts to properties, heritage stone fences and mature trees along the existing right-of-way."

The project will resolve serious safety issues on the road, but result in more traffic through Terra Cotta. The two-lane road will be paved, with improved sightlines and drainage, and the speed limited reduced from 70 to 60 kph. There will be four-way stop signs at Ballinafad Road and Olde Baseline. Zia said that wildlife habitat will be protected in compliance with the Ontario Endangered Species Act.

Objections to the plan can be submitted until May 4. If they cannot be resolved in discussion with Peel Region, any person or group can request that the Minister of the Environment order further review. The ministry would make the final decision.

March 24, 2010

Economic committee wants input from local firms

As published in The Erin Advocate

Erin's Economic Development Committee is hoping to get more advice on how the town's business climate can be improved.

Preliminary assessment is being done on a questionnaire that could end up going to every business in Erin. It is part of an Ontario government program called Business Retention and Expansion (BR+E), designed to help communities attract and keep the type of development that they want.

"It is potentially a huge project," said Brian Gentles, who recently took over as chair of the committee, which advises Town Council on business issues. He said they cannot presume to tell business people what is best for them.

"We want to get advice, but in a structured way," he said. "People have different frames of reference. We need a well-communicated plan."

His own opinion is that Erin should pursue moderate growth. "When you don't grow, you decline," he said.

If the Town proceeds with the BR+E program, it will help the community build up a data base that identifies strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. A team of volunteers would be trained to conduct the confidential survey and a task force of community leaders assembled to analyze and summarize the key needs and issues facing the business sector. The process builds partnerships and helps the Town develop specific actions to improve the business climate.

In other Ontario towns, this has included improved municipal approval processes, more effective tourism marketing, goals for new infrastructure, and training programs for skills development and customer service. More information on this and other Rural Economic Development Programs is available from the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs:, or email:

The Economic Development Committee's best known project has been the successful Home & Lifestyle Show, now in its sixth year. It will be held Saturday, May 1 at Centre 2000, 10 am to 4 pm, with admission $2 for adults. The Rotary Club will help staff the show this year. Gentles is expecting more than 800 visitors, checking out 80-90 booths. Businesses can register until March 31 – go to, call (519) 855-6683 or email:

The committee is also reviving the idea of hosting informal business breakfast meetings, including guest speakers. The first one is planned for May.

In a related development, former Town Councillor Mary Shields has been working towards launching the East Wellington Chamber of Commerce, which will encompass Erin and Guelph/Eramosa (Rockwood). It would be independent of the Town, the BIA and the Economic Development Committee, though there are overlapping interests.

It sounds like a good idea, worthy of some enthusiasm and cooperation to get it started. Chambers of Commerce are voluntary associations of business and professional people working to strengthen the community. Unlike Business Improvement Areas, they are not supported by a surcharge on municipal business taxes. They act as a voice to government and the media for the broader business community.

The new Chamber will host a sign-up night for businesses that may be interested in becoming founding members. It will be at the Town of Erin offices on Trafalgar Road on Tuesday, March 30, 7:30-8:30 pm. For details, contact Acting Executive Director Mary Shields, 519-941-9419, or

For an idea of how it could work, take a look at what Georgetown and Acton are doing through the Halton Hills Chamber of Commerce. The organization gives businesses exposure on the internet and through directories, including a quarterly newsletter published by The Independent & Free Press.

It offers group insurance and on-line business training, provides social/networking groups, including Halton Hills Women in Business, runs events such as the Halton Hills Home and Leisure Show, does tourism promotion, and gives out various awards. The group has been a business advocate since 1912, getting involved in local and provincial/national issues and providing a link to the Ontario and Canadian Chambers of Commerce.

Annual membership costs range from $212 for firms with 1-4 employees, to $630 for those with more than 200 employees. Check it out at

March 17, 2010

Who really cares about protecting fresh water?

As published in The Erin Advocate

The Credit River is pleasant to behold, so as long as it doesn't dry up or catch on fire, it is easy to treat it as just part of the scenery. Here in Erin, since we are have the privilege of living in a headwaters area, we should be concerned with protecting the mix of wetlands, aquifers and streams that give life to our river.

"When you look around the world, you realize how precious fresh water is," said Andrew McCammon of the Ontario Headwaters Institute, speaking at a recent community workshop at the Terra Cotta Conservation Area.

He warned that climate change could reduce water flows, killing off a high percentage of fish and other wildlife in the Credit. His group urges the Ontario government to strengthen environmental policies, which control the work of conservation authorities, municipalities and developers.

"The function of a river is not just to move water off the land – it's much more," said Bob Morris, an aquatic biologist with Credit Valley Conservation. The CVC works to keep the river clean and cold, with the right mix of nutrients and sediment to support wildlife.

As land is developed for human activities, it is no longer acceptable to simply channel small streams into underground pipes and pave over large areas that allow water to seep into the earth.

"How many roots can we cut off a tree before it dies? It's the same for rivers," said Morris. He will be the guest speaker tomorrow night (Thursday) at the Erin Legion, at the FAST Forward environmental film series, presented by the Climate Change Action Group of Erin and the CVC. The film is Waterlife: The Story of the Last Great Supply of Drinking Water on Earth, about preservation of the Great Lakes ecosystem. It starts at 7 pm and admission is free.

The public is not always enthusiastic about preserving natural treasures. Late in the previous century, when it became common knowledge that Erin's septic waste was a serious source of pollution, there was little public concern. If enough people cared about the Credit, the problem would have been solved long ago. Environmental awareness has been taught in our schools for a long time now, but we seem to have little to show for it.

Inconvenience is more likely to stir people up than environmental damage. I cannot agree with those who would preserve the Hillsburgh Transfer Station, a leaking pile of garbage that should have been shut down 20 years ago.

The opposition to the Rockfort quarry shows how the public can be mobilized for a clear-cut cause. Erin's need for a septic sewer system, however, is more complicated, because it will involve major costs, affect future growth and require a treatment plant that will discharge into the Credit. Without strong support, the project could be put off indefinitely. Will Erin's environmentalists rally to that cause?

Education on environmental issues is key to attitude change, and one of the best ways to combine that with some fun and exercise is to get out into the natural environment. On Sunday, April 11, the CVC is holding a grand re-opening of the Terra Cotta Conservation Area, at 14452 Winston Churchill Boulevard.

It is not a return to the intensive recreational use of the 1970s and 80s, when the site was known for its campgrounds and huge outdoor pool. The focus now is on nature hikes, and events at the refurbished Watershed Learning Centre, where they have already started holding educational programs. The re-opening will include maple syrup demonstrations and wagon rides. Go to

Admission is free that day, but normally it is a bit expensive if all you want to do is walk your dog for an hour. In peak seasons the cost is $4.75 per adult, $2.75 for children and seniors, and a maximum daily fee per vehicle of $20. I'd rather spend $55 on a 12-month membership ($45 for seniors, $100 per family), for unlimited admission to all the CVC Conservation Areas.

The CVC publishes an excellent 58-page booklet called Rising to the Challenge: A Handbook for Understanding and Protecting the Credit River Watershed. Well-illustrated and clearly-written, it provides basic scientific information and outlines issues at the political and household levels. Download a PDF version in the education section of the CVC website, or contact them for a printed copy.

March 10, 2010

Sports groups launch registration blitz

As published in The Erin Advocate

On Erin's smorgasbord of organized fun, perhaps the most eccentric option is Rocketry. On two Saturdays this summer, Erin Hoops offers budding scientists the chance to build and fly their own rockets, for just $30.

Erin Hoops has expanded its selection of summer camps to 32 this year, with a different mix of activities every week. Most are $45 for the whole week, 9 am to 4 pm, with choices that include basketball, baseball, soccer, skateboarding, tennis, floor hockey, badminton, lazer tag, dance, archery, kites, golf and crafts.

"It offers a broader range for kids," said organizer Patrick Suessmuth, at the February 27 sign-up fair hosted by the Town of Erin Recreation and Culture Committee. Erin Hoops also has a March Break Variety Sports Camp, with supervision from 8:30 am to 6:00 pm. Go to or call 519-833-2058.

Many children now get into organized sports even before they get into kindergarten. The Hillsburgh Minor Softball Association has their Peanuts group (for kids born in 2006) or T-Ball (2004-2005) for just $40. "It is set up to be fun, and the kids learn together," said Peanut and T-Ball Convenor Doug Todd.

Registration fees range up to $115 for teens. There will also be a Pitching Clinic, April 26-28, with separate sessions for beginners, intermediates and seniors. For more details, go to

Hillsburgh Erin And District Soccer (HEADS) had more than 800 players last year. Early bird registration rates are in effect until March 15, ranging from $90 for the Under 5s to $155 for older groups (family maximum $420). Regular rates are $120 to $200 (family maximum $550). There is a Let Our Kids Play fund to help families who cannot afford the fees.

Debby Gear of HEADS has been impressed with the number of adults willing to coach and take on other duties. "It's nice when you live in a town where everyone works together," she said.

There will be another soccer sign-up session on Saturday, March 20, 10 am to 1 pm in the Centre 2000 lobby. For forms and more details, got to or call their office line, 519-855-4431.

The Erin Tennis Club is expanding its schedule of events and training. The membership cost is the same as last year: $140 per family, or $85 for adults and $50 for juniors (17 and under).

Members do not have to pay additional fees for regular court use or club activities, such as the summer junior program on Tuesday mornings. Membership also includes four free lessons (for both adults and kids), but there are fees for additional lessons.

Junior Spring After School Clinics are $80 for eight one-hour sessions. Half-day summer camp sessions (1-4 pm) are $115 per week, but families can apply to have the cost waived. There will also be a Competitive Player Development Program.

Everyone is invited to a free Try Tennis Day on April 17 at the courts, located behind Centre 2000. For more information on the club, call Brian Gentles, 519-833-9715.

New club pro Doug Ing of No Limits Coaching is starting a Munchkin Tennis class for ages 5 and 6, emphasizing fundamental movement skills. Using smaller racquets, smaller courts and slower balls at first, players progress in stages to regular tennis.

"There is no better way to ensure proper tennis development," said Ing, in his newsletter. "The focus is on physical activity, safety and tennis FUNdamentals. We don't emphasize competition for small children."

About 100 families registered for one thing or another at the fair. While it was mostly for sports, though there were two booths dedicated to reading, one from the Wellington County Library ( promoting their pirate-themed events for March Break and one from Barbara McKee of Tutor in the Hills, 519-927-01010. There was also a display on Erin's walking trails – call Steve Revell at 519-833-2571 for more information.

March 03, 2010

Volunteers needed to improve Erin trails

As published in The Erin Advocate

The view from the top of the water tower hill is a spectacular asset, now enjoyed by a relative few. If the Height of Land Trail could be converted to a loop route into the downtown core, with proper markings and educational signage, it would be something of which Erin could rightly be proud.

I mention that trail only because it is my favourite, but there are others in the village and elsewhere in Erin that need improvement, and I would gladly work on any of them.

There's a new effort being launched to plan and carry out trail upgrades in the Town, and volunteers are needed. Better trails would not only improve the walking experience for residents, but give the town an economic boost by making it a more attractive destination for visitors.

"If we want to build the community, we need connections," said Steve Revell, an avid hiker who has been involved with the Erin Trails Subcommittee. "We need planners and dreamers and schemers and workers."

He was speaking at the recent screening of the film Who Killed the Electric Car?, sponsored by Rob's Automotive Service, part of the Fast Forward environmental film festival presented by the Climate Change Action Group of Erin and Credit Valley Conservation (CVC). It was a receptive audience for the trails message, and several people signed up to help.

Picking up on the car theme, Revell held up a pair of sturdy shoes. "These get good mileage, and use a variety of fuels," he said. While there were no details about emission controls, the point was clear: walking is great for both human health and the environment.

To find out more about the trails effort, call Revell at 519-833-2571, or the Town office at 519-855-4407. An informal meeting will be held to look at maps and discuss possibilities.

For those of us who depend on vehicles, but would love to part ways with gasoline, the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? was a discouraging chronicle of how oil and car companies, governments, inadequate technology and even consumers contributed to the death of the GM EV1 car in the 1990s.

While interesting, the film was too long and sentimental for my taste. It follows activists in their quest to stop GM from obsessively destroying virtually every electric vehicle it had put on the market. Fortunately, it is old news. Watch for Revenge of the Electric Car this year.

More interesting was the live presentation after the film by Ross McKenzie, Managing Director of the Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research at the University of Waterloo ( Funded by governments and the auto industry, WatCAR has more than 300 researchers working on new fuels and ways to make vehicles lighter, safer, more "intelligent" and user-friendly.

Conditions are better now than in the 1990s for electric cars. Gas prices are higher, the public is more open to new technology, environmental concerns are more urgent, and car companies see innovation as a means to survival.

Recent electric cars include the Toronto-based ZENN (Zero Emissions No Noise), like a golf cart with a car shell, for short-distance, low-speed city driving only.

"The challenge is to downsize the battery without compromising performance or power storage," said McKenzie.

Commuters with "range anxiety" are more likely to go for something like the Chevy Volt, coming out late this year in the US. It uses both electricity and gasoline, but unlike other hybrids, all the power to the wheels is provided by the batteries. The small gas engine only kicks in as a generator to boost the batteries after you travel about 65 km, providing an uninterrupted range of about 500 km. The price has not been announced, but it is estimated at $40,000 US, minus possible tax credits.

A batteries-only car with more range and speed than the ZENN is the Mitsubishi i-Miev. It is now undergoing cold-weather testing (using the heater cuts the 160-km maximum range in half), but it won't be available here until next year. A full re-charging with 100-volt household current could take 14 hours, but new inventions in quick charging could cut that to less than an hour.

It looks like a Smart Car and sells in Japan for about $50,000 US, according to That's what I would expect to pay – for three or four used cars.