Cycling through time: A few moments in Fleetwood

By Ian McKechnie

At St. Mary’s and Fleetwood Roads is the former Fleetwood School. Built in 1876–77, this red brick house has been a private home since 1967. Photo: Ian McKechnie.

In July’s issue of The Lindsay Advocate, associate editor Nancy Payne took a road trip to the “most sparsely populated part of Kawartha Lakes,” while contributing writer Jamie Morris travelled to Fenelon Falls via electric bicycle.

Thinking their thoughts after them, I elected to combine two passions of mine — cycling and exploring — and set out on my trusty Opus Porto bike at 10:03 a.m. on a Saturday in late June with a large bottle of water, two cans of Canada Dry ginger ale, a peanut butter sandwich on raisin bread, some slices of leftover pizza, and a large Granny Smith apple. Oh, and plenty of sunscreen, too.

It’s a long way to Fleetwood, after all.

Ian McKechnie, writer-at-large.

To where? Some readers might be saying, “Never heard of it.” Others, particularly those who live south of Highway 7 and east of Highway 35 in the former Manvers Township, will no doubt have driven, walked, or cycled along Fleetwood Road at one point or another. But some of them may still ask the same question: “Where’s Fleetwood?”

Perhaps that question might better be phrased as “Where was Fleetwood?” Little is left of this once-humming community about 23 kilometres southeast of Lindsay. It’s one of a handful of tiny hamlets across Kawartha Lakes that for all intents and purposes exist only on maps.

I arrive in Fleetwood around 11:30 a.m., sweaty and slightly out of breath after climbing the steep hills on St. Mary’s Road, which links busy Mount Horeb Road and the quieter Fleetwood Road. Rising before me on the northeast corner of St. Mary’s and Fleetwood Roads is the former Fleetwood School. Built in 1876–77, this red brick building has been a private home since 1967. The swing set in its yard is newer, but evokes memories of when such things were staples of many a rural one-room schoolhouse.

West of St. Mary’s Road there once stood a yellow-brick Methodist church which served the Fleetwood community for just over 70 years, closing in 1947 before being demolished in 1959. A cornfield obscures any trace of this one-time place of worship. (Both buildings replaced earlier facilities, and I’m told that this crossroads was colloquially known as Brick Corner for years thereafter.)

A two-kilometre ride east of Brick Corner brings me to the heart of “downtown” Fleetwood. Or, rather, what’s left of it. As I descend a slight hill and bring my bicycle to a stop, I am struck by the sound of sparrows and red-winged blackbirds filling the air — a far cry from the roar of lumber being processed in Thomas Staples’ sawmill, the sound of hammers echoing from one of two blacksmith shops, and the gregarious conversation transpiring in Grandy’s Tavern. The mills are long gone, the blacksmith shops a mere memory. Grandy’s Tavern remains in situ, a squat-looking frame building on the south side of the road, its siding peeling off, its interior eerily silent.

I take a swig from my water bottle, cognizant that stronger beverages were once on tap mere steps from where I am standing. (One can just about imagine local residents quenching their thirst by bottle or water pump in the summer of 1890, when the Lindsay Warder’s Fleetwood correspondent wrote, “The weather is excessively warm now, people are beginning to wish for rain as turnips are burning up, the fly is also eating them badly. The other crops are doing well.”)

Beyond Grandy’s Tavern, rising above the surrounding foliage, is an ancient-looking silo — a reminder that Fleetwood owed its existence to agriculture. It was initially populated by the Staples family, who likely named it after a community in their ancestral Ireland. By the turn of the 20th century, Fleetwood proper enjoyed a general store, a cobbler shop, and a cheese factory — all connected by side streets with names like Main, Mills and Mountfall.

From 1891 through the 1920s, visitors to Fleetwood would have enjoyed the smell of curds wafting from the aforementioned cheese factory and cheese curing building. Built by James A. Wood, it was later overseen by J.C. Cummiskey and in 1922 became a co-operative operation. “My Dad loved to go there, [and] said the curds were a real treat for him,” recalls Jan Johnson, who grew up in nearby Lifford and remembers playing in the curing building long after it closed. While the factory ceased operations 1929, the curing building lasted into the 1970s before being removed, leaving only scant foundations surrounded by lilacs.

In 1912, Canadian Pacific Railway freight and passenger trains began whistling their way through a level crossing immediately east of Fleetwood. Although this might have boded well for the movement of cheese and milk, Fleetwood’s population declined as roads improved and other communities outpaced the little village in their growth.

There are, to be sure, still a few folks living in Fleetwood. A beautiful red-brick house across from Grandy’s Tavern is well-kept, and the former schoolyard echoes once again with the voices of young children. Yet the stillness is haunting, the ghosts of once-thriving shops and streets fading from memory behind page-wire and rail fences. I take one last look at Fleetwood and —to misquote John Lennon — “imagine all the people” who once passed through this place in stagecoaches and horse-drawn wagons, before mounting my bicycle, carrying on, and bidding farewell.

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