In search of Grass Hill

By Ian McKechnie

Photos: Ian McKechnie.

The evening of June 8, 1912, saw a typical scene play out in Grass Hill, some five kilometres east of Woodville. Train No. 31, bound for Orillia, was waiting at the Grand Trunk Railway’s diminutive station to take on commuters. John Staples, then the storekeeper at Grass Hill, had disembarked after spending the day in Lindsay.

A few horse-drawn wagons might have been waiting nearby, loaded with bags of feed or wool ready for Mr. Staples to weigh in his warehouse. For the passengers aboard Train No. 31, however, life would change forever within a matter of moments. At 7:37 p.m., a second train plowed into the train coaches waiting at Grass Hill — severely injuring three people and killing one. Lying dead amid the wreckage was Nellie Babcock, a 29-year-old mother of two from Lindsay.

Today, the site of this tragic railway accident is visible only as a barely discernible grassy berm dotted with dandelions and demarcated by a line of hydro transmission towers. It’s among the first things I see to my left as I pedal up the Woodville Road into Grass Hill (sometimes spelled Grasshill) on an overcast Saturday morning, eager to learn more about this charming hamlet.

At various points in its history, Grass Hill sported a blacksmith shop, a wagon maker and a grain elevator. These are long gone, and today “downtown” Grass Hill consists of a one-time general store, a few older houses and a couple of newer dwellings. Before exploring Grass Hill proper, however, I want to check out the schoolhouse which played such an important role in this largely agrarian community. I make a right turn onto the Grasshill Road and head north, passing a few peaceful looking farmsteads laden with fragrant lilac bushes.

About two kilometres in, I encounter United School Section No. 2, a red brick building which in 1911 replaced a school damaged in a tornado. This school played host to many a spelling bee, literary society meeting and Christmas concert over the years. “All of the neighbours would come to watch our recitations and skits,” recalls lifelong Grass Hill resident Don Myers, who attended U.S.S. No. 2 in the 1950s. “It was the only thing going on in mid-December.” His first teacher, Alice MacDonald, boarded with his family down the road and presided over a class of no more than 12 students. Today, this house of learning is, like its contemporaries, a private home.

I turn my bicycle around and head south, stopping to enjoy a picnic of barbecued chicken sandwiches, iced tea, shortbread and an apple at the side of the dirt road. As I sit atop a rock in the ditch, I think of students from long ago who walked along this route, perhaps planting saplings which might have grown into the very trees in whose shade I take shelter. What became of them? Did they stay in Grass Hill and work the land, or did they make their mark elsewhere? I think of Pearl Jordan, a Grass Hill native who went on to study at the Toronto College of Music, passing with first-class honours in 1909. She returned to the hamlet on several occasions to entertain her friends and neighbours — when they weren’t busy tobogganing down Jewell’s hill, playing baseball, or attending Maypole dances. (Grass Hill has long been home to musically talented residents; Myers reminisces about George Reed, a local farmer and plasterer who could sing in five octaves.)

The sun peeks through the clouds as I bring my bike to a stop in front of the squarish building once home to Harold and Annie “Nan” Belfry’s general store. Starting in 1949 and continuing for at least a decade, the Belfrys pumped gas, graded eggs and supplied the community with groceries. They lived upstairs and raised two children in this store. Mrs. Belfry (1914-2012), a member of the Grass Hill Women’s Institute, would eventually go on to serve as an administrative assistant to Thomas H.B. Symons, the founding president of Trent University, and later worked as acting executive director of the Anigawncigig Institute for Native Training, Research and Development, also at Trent.

Today, the delightful cacophony of cattle, chickens and goats echoes from an ancient barn behind the old store. The current owner tells me that she and her family moved to Grass Hill to escape the hustle and bustle of Toronto. As we chat, she expresses a keen interest in learning more about the hamlet’s history and muses about opening a coffee shop in the erstwhile store one day, catering to the many hundreds of people who travel along the Woodville Road.

When I set out in search of Grass Hill, I half-expected to find a partial ghost town. After all, it fell on hard times when the grain elevator burned in the 1960s, when the school closed in 1965, and when the railway took up its tracks a year later. Yet as my conversation with one of Grass Hill’s newer residents suggests, a community cannot be measured merely by what it has lost over time, but by what it continues to offer — namely, the hospitality, peace and quiet of the country.

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