My Flemingdon Park: A Hoe, a Pitchfork and a Rake
Rae Hopkins threw his full weight against the latched door, desperate to break through the entrance of the shack before flames consumed the flimsy structure, but intense heat forced him to retreat.
Eyes stinging from smoke, he threw himself against the door, again and again.
Trapped inside the burning shack behind his Don Mills Road market garden, George Bell, 72, repeatedly pleaded, “Help me. Help me. I’m on fire.”
Decades before fire destroyed the little shack located beside where Valley Park Middle School stands today, George Bell farmed the edge of Flemingdon Park for over five decades.
George’s parents also farmed. Robert and Mary Bell worked the land in the Don Valley around Pottery Road—then just a narrow dirt track—upon arriving in Toronto from Ireland around 1888. Of their eight offspring, four sons, Robert Jr., Hugh, George and Charlie, continued the tradition, specializing in cash crops. Eldest son Robert’s life was cut short during World War I, killed four months after arriving in Europe at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. He was 25 years old.
Up the valley from Pottery Road, Charlie and a brother-in-law operated a piggery roughly where Don Mills Road crosses the Don Valley Parkway. In 1929 the hog farmer lost a number of swine when floodwaters caused by torrential spring rains washed away livestock.
The piggery was eventually shuttered when officials passed a bylaw disallowing pig farming in the Borough. Charlie relocated to Scarborough Township.
Roundabout this time, George Bell began farming on high ground above the valley. A ninety-nine-year lease with Ontario Hydro allotted George roughly nine acres at the ridge on the west side of Don Mills Road under the power lines.
Early on, George’s life was marked by tragedy. His wife of thirteen years was struck and killed by lightning, leaving the bereaved widower alone to care for their three sons, aged twelve, eight and five. Life was a struggle for the single father, and he sought solace at the bottom of a bottle. Subsequently, the boys were placed in the care of their late mother’s family. A dozen years later, tragedy struck again when George’s firstborn and namesake died fighting during the final stages of the Second World War, clearing German positions in the flooded Rhine plane. He was 24 years old.
Employed for a spell as a groundskeeper at the Boulevard Club, George’s primary source of income came from selling produce from his roadside kiosk. In warm weather, the market gardener lodged in one of two shacks on the property, sans plumbing, running water or electricity. When the thermometer nosedived in winter, and bitter winds blew up the valley wall and across the tableland, he domiciled in a room above the Wallace House on O’Connor Drive, a drinking establishment known today as The Wally.
Barry Bell, George’s grandnephew, remembers his great-uncle as something of a character. Feet severely disfigured by bunions caused by ill-fitting footwear in boyhood, Uncle George went shoeless in the summer. In 1955 when Barry was ten, he worked weekends and some Friday’s serving customers at the market garden. Barry had no complaints. His uncle paid him generously. “I got around ten or twelve bucks,” he recalls. “It was excellent money for a kid getting one dollar a week for allowance.”
For a long time, Don Mills Road remained unpaved, a single lane in both directions. Bell’s Market Garden’s southbound frontage totalled approximately five hundred and seventy-five feet. The roadway spanned the Don River down in the valley via the dull-white, narrow concrete arch bridge still erect today but no longer used as a thoroughfare. Across the road, farmer Earl Magee sold produce to northbound drivers. For reasons unknown, bad blood existed between the two farmers. Under no circumstances was Barry permitted to cross to the Magee property.
For young Barry, the employment opportunity arose by chance. Initially, he tagged along with his dad who routinely popped by the market garden to visit his favourite uncle. Sometimes they brought Uncle George food. “My dad liked to knock around in the garden with Uncle George when he had nothing to do on a Saturday.” During one of these visits, Uncle George suggested the boy serve customers stopping at the roadside stand. “I got the job basically because I could count and make change.”
They worked out a schedule. Barry’s dad dropped the ten-year-old off in the morning and returned at the dinner hour to fetch him. The market garden had its regular shoppers. Barry recollects, “Sundays were the busy day. Friday afternoon got really busy, too.” Customers enjoyed chatting with the proprietor. For the most part, George was friendly with patrons, but he hardly had time to chat. Something inevitably drew him away.
Barry manned the stand for two years.
His uncle was not a tall man. Balding with a fringe of red hair and a paucity of teeth, his gnarled hands were blotched by large freckles and callused from decades of manual labour. He wore a straw hat, black chinos, and a white shirt with shirtsleeves rolled up. George’s slight frame belied his actual strength. Harvesting hubbard squash in autumn, Uncle George stood rows from his nephew helping gather the gourds. He stooped, deftly cut the stem with a sharpened blade, then, with ease, heaved the heavy, dense vegetable at the boy to catch, nearly bowling Barry over every time.
When George got into a rhythm, he seldom paused until the task was complete.
The selection of produce was plentiful, including cabbage, spring onions, green beans, beef tomatoes and corn. He also sold flowering plants. Uncle George instructed Barry on sales tenets: The stand should always appear neat and organized; be alert for customers helping themselves; a dozen ears of corn doesn’t add up to thirteen; corn purchased sight unseen; no shucking allowed. Uncle George’s maxim: The first one is as good as the last; if you get a bad ear, bring it back, and replace it.
Sometimes George cheated, supplementing available produce with purchases from the Food Terminal. That brought about another rule: If anyone inquired, under no circumstances could Barry let the cat out of the bag, even if it meant falsely claiming apples, peaches, and even oranges sun-ripened elsewhere were plucked from orchards beside sun-drenched Don Mills Road.
Barry remembers a determined customer challenging the fruit’s origin. After examining a sample, he asked suspiciously, “Is this grown here?”
Barry swore ‘til the cows came home it was, going as far as to suggest the customer walk back and look for himself. The man tramped off to the nether regions of the property for a long time. Finally, he returned exasperated, “I didn’t see any fruit trees back there.” A faithful employee to the end, the youngster looked the man directly in the eye and replied matter-of-factly, “You didn’t walk far enough.”
There was one rule Barry refused outright to follow after learning a repulsive lesson. Uncle George had a penchant for chewing tobacco. He’d spit brownish, gooey boluses in the soil between the crops. Barry was required to go barefoot in the patches. More than sixty-five years later, Barry explains, a hint of disdain still present, “I took off my shoes and socks and the first thing I stepped in was a big whack of his chewing tobacco.”
Shoes remained on after that.
The old Case tractor on the property never seemed to work, so for the most part, everything from plowing to harvesting was done manually, and George was often on his own. Sometimes brothers Hugh and Charlie, both Great War veterans, pitched in. The relationship with his two adult sons remained strained. As a child, Barry wasn’t fond of either. Both are now deceased. Except to say their visits to the market garden usually correlated with a request for money, Barry prefers to keep his opinion of his late second cousins to himself.
After Barry’s stint at the vegetable stand, his little sister, Leslie, took on duties briefly. Leslie’s memories of Uncle George aren’t as plentiful as her older brother’s, but she remembers his dirty feet and, “He could be crusty.” She vividly recalls particular produce he cultivated. “He grew the best beefsteak tomatoes I have ever tasted in my whole life. I can remember them to this day.” She admired how her uncle endured. “He worked hard. With just a hoe, a pitchfork and a rake. He was content with what he did. He was as content as he could be.”
George appreciated any assistance he could get. With age, his needs grew. Barry’s father was a big help, as was Barry, Leslie and their youngest sibling, Michael. Customers pitched in, too.
Locals came to refer to the market gardener as Old George with affection.
By 1970 Don Mills Road had been paved over and widened. Across the road, Earl Magee had up and moved his plot three years prior. Nine years since the ribbon cutting ceremony, Flemingdon Park was well on its way to resembling the community of today. Plans were in the works to construct a junior high school immediately south of Bell’s Market Garden.
Then, the fire occurred.
Since he moved to the new apartment at 7 Rochefort Drive at Don Mills Road, Rae Hopkins and wife Sheila were in the habit of stopping at the roadside vegetable stand to purchase fresh produce, foregoing the Dominion store in the new plaza when possible.
Over time, Hopkins and the elderly proprietor became friends. Old George could rely on the civil servant to lend him a hand when needed.
On a chilly Saturday afternoon in January, with light snow falling, Hopkins drove past Old George’s place under the hydro lines. The market garden was closed for the season, so he was surprised to see white curls of smoke wafting from the sooty metal stack pipe poking through the snowless roof of the shack.
A week ago, during a previous visit between Christmas and New Year’s, the old man told Hopkins his plan to take a room at the Wallace House until the cold snap broke.
That could be a while. It felt like this cold would stay put for weeks. Hopkins expected not to see his acquaintance before March.
A few hours later, he stopped in to see the old man on the return drive home. Trekking through snow up to his shins, Hopkin’s wrapped on the door with his cold knuckles, “George? You in there?”
The desiccated voice of someone who had not spoken for a long time replied, “Come in, Rae, but leave the cold outside.”
A hot, feral stench walloped Hopkins when he entered the low-ceilinged, insolated seven by ten shack strewn with food containers, drinking vessels, tattered magazines, clothing and empty bottles. A potbelly stove glowed red. Furniture was sparse. An iron bedstead. A transistor radio, windup clock and a kerosene lamp on a side table beside a shabbily upholstered chair, armrests pocked with burn holes. Kindling and split wood around the stove spilled out onto the plywood floor. Hardly any daylight passed through the grimy window. A wall calendar tacked above the bed opened to August 1957 displayed a red Massey-Harris combine harvester at work in a golden field of prairie wheat.
George wore a buttoned flannel shirt, wool trousers, winter boots and a toque. He lay on his back on a lumpy mattress puffing a cigar, head propped against a stack of soiled pillows.
Hopkins asked, “Aren’t you staying a spell at the Wallace?”
George puffed the stogy, his weathered face lost in a haze of grey smoke. He slurred, “I am. I was on my way to the bank.” He rifled through a shirt pocket, producing his old age pension cheque. “Stopped in here for a pinch.” He reached for the mickey beside him on the bed, three-quarters empty. “I was feeling a bit tired, so I took a short kip.”
Hopkins glanced at his wristwatch, concerned, “Bank closes in under an hour.”
“Can you deposit it then, Rae?” George sighed. “I’d be grateful.”
Hopkins grinned at his friend. He took the cheque, refolded the slip and placed it in the pocket of his green parka. “Certainly—” Hopkins winked, “If you’ll promise not to smoke in bed.”
The old man’s rheumy eyes danced. “Promise.”
Before departing, Hopkins added, “Latch the door, too. You’re alone out here in the back forty.”
Near closing time, the bank was empty. This wasn’t the first time Rae had done banking on George’s behalf. The pleasant teller was accommodating and deposited the cheque. Instead of heading home, he tucked inside the tavern next door to get a bite for his friend and maybe something for himself.
Pulling off Don Mills Road, Rae saw billowing smoke and flames snapping up from the shack. He felt a tightening in his chest. Panicked, he jolted the gear shift into park, and, leaving the carton of takeout on the bench seat, he leaped from the vehicle without closing the car door.
He dashed toward the fire, shouting George’s name. The snow came harder, blowing sideways at him. A circle of melt ringed the shack. Up close, the heat was furnace-like and unbearable.
The doorknob, hot to the touch, was locked.
Hopkins desperately threw his full weight against the door, again and again. Smoke stung his eyes. Inside, George pleaded feebly, “I’m on fire. Help me.”
Hopkins heard fire reels. The door gave. He snatched the old man by the shoulder, and hauled him outside, roiling flames licking at their backs. George was burnt all over, his skin oily and taut. Carrying George far from the inferno, Hopkins dropped to his knees and rolled his friend in the snow.
George’s small, clenched fists relaxed. He was gone. Power lines hummed like angels coming to collect one of their own.
Thank you Michael Bell, Barry Bell and Leslie Henderson for their contribution
Additional material from the Globe and Mail; January 5, 1970; pg.1
Tales of the Don; Charles Sauriol, Dundurn Press, 1984
Ed Brown lived in Flemingdon Park at 58 Grenoble Drive from 1969-1991