The life of blacksmith William ‘Billy’ Baker
By Stephen Hill
This write-up is based largely upon information provided to the Haliburton Highlands Museum by former Haliburton resident and well-known personality Lloyd Alexander “Buck” Baker (1922-2004), son of “Billy” Baker. It is not a technical article concerning blacksmithing but, rather, an historical sketch of a father and son blacksmithing operation in Haliburton. If the article appears to lean more toward Buck than his father, it is only because Billy had passed on by the time the research was being compiled. The Haliburton Highlands Museum is grateful to Buck for sharing his memories.
William Alexander (Billy) Baker (1885-1961) was a typical product of the rugged Haliburton County environment. The son of Alex Baker and Maggie Morrison, as a young man he worked in season to eke out a living on his Guilford Twp. farm, while working in the bush as a lumberman from fall to spring. In 1910 he married Lauretta May “Laura” Curry (1894-1978) from the local Harburn settlement, who was a daughter of Albert Curry and Maggie Watt. Billy and Laura’s marriage produced five children. Their sons were Carnel (Carl) and Lloyd (Buck); their daughters were Hazel, Jessie and Viola. While their birth order and dates are not at hand, Buck was the youngest of the family. It was initially through farming and lumbering that Billy Baker struggled to raise a family and support it.
In his younger days Billy learned the blacksmithing trade from Richard (Dick) Fry (1868-1942) of nearby Carnarvon. Fry was a successful blacksmith and wagon maker, and it was said that “he could weld anything with two ends.” While details of Billy’s training are unknown, it is more than likely that he learned from Mr. Fry while working in the lumber camps. Most of the larger camps kept a resident blacksmith on the payroll during the lumbering season.
The Billy Baker farm was out on the Irish Line of Guilford Twp. Billy would farm all day, then blacksmith at night. There was a decrepit wood shed on the property and he had one corner set aside therein for shoeing horses. Most farms had a workshop of sorts, although not every farmer was a skilled tradesman in matters of woodcraft or metalwork. Many farmers knew the rudiments of various trades, however, in order to keep their farms operable and their equipment serviceable; skills necessitated by economics and rural isolation. Still, not every farmer could shoe a horse, and Billy could supply this need. A typical example would be a farmer or lumberman coming to Billy’s place with a team of horses, needing their caulks sharpened. The caulks (pronounced “corks” in Haliburton) are the projections on the base of the horseshoes which provide traction. A team is two horses. Billy would have to remove each shoe, re-dress the caulks, and re-install each shoe with new nails, at 10 cents per shoe. That would be two horses at four shoes each, thus eight shoes at 10 cents apiece, for a total of 80 cents. It was not much, but it helped feed the family. Caulks were frequently changed according to season, with the blunt ones for summer traction and the sharp ones for winter.
In 1927, Billy moved his family into Haliburton Village from the farm. As Buck stated, “I was five years old when we moved into town, and I was born in 1922. You figure it out!” At this time, Billy took over the blacksmith shop formerly occupied by Herbert Coleman (Bert) Fry (1879-1945), a brother of Dick Fry, on the East side of present-day Dysart Avenue. It was Baker’s first purpose-built blacksmith shop, and he approached this endeavour with much enthusiasm. The reasons for Mr. Fry vacating the shop are unknown; it is believed that he subsequently set up shop in the vicinity of the back lot of Sammy Zalkin’s store (now Bernstein’s) on the north side of Highland Street, the village’s main thoroughfare. The buildings on the East side of Dysart Ave. were relatively new when Billy Baker arrived. In the Fall of 1923, a devastating fire had cleared out most of that stretch of the street, with the exception of the Fry house, which was located uphill and escaped the flames. Losses included a woodworking shop, and a blacksmith shop, believed to have been Horsley’s and Fry’s respectively, along with three houses.
Baker’s shop on Dysart Avenue was ideally situated. That street was then the industrial heartland of the village. While the lots on the West side were primarily residential, they included the Masonic Hall (North Entrance Lodge No. 463 A.F. & A.M.). The lots on the East side were chiefly industrial, and backed onto the Drag River which flows through the village. The lots included the woodworking shop of Jack Horsley, along with his house, the Baker blacksmith shop, and a house belonging to one of the Fry family. The woodworking shop and blacksmith shop were single storey frame structures, but their yards were filled with their respective raw materials and work-in-progress, which essentially dominated the east side’s streetscape. The Bakers lived in a house on the west side. Regarding the neighbouring householders looking out on the workaday clutter of the Horsley and Baker shops, Buck claimed that “Nobody ever complained about the mess. They knew it was our bread and butter, it was how Dad and Mr. Horsley made their livings. If it did bother the neighbours, they could always close their curtains.”
Economics were limited in Haliburton, with lumbering being the mainstay of the local economy, mixed with subsistence farming. People then believed in “making do,” repairing broken items instead of discarding them and buying new replacements, which they could ill afford. Times were generally hard and, consequently, many of the tradesmens’ tasks were repair work. In the blacksmith shop, Baker made and repaired wagon wheel tires, sleigh runners, sleigh and wagon hardware, logging chains, cant hooks and peaveys. He and Mr. Horsley plied their respective trades, but also worked as a team when circumstances dictated. Between the two of them, they could build a wagon, or a sleigh; one to do the woodwork, one to do the metalwork, and both to lend each other a hand. Buck Baker remembered his fascination, as a kid, in watching Mr. Horsley turning out work on the long bed lathe in his shop. Buck said to himself “I’m gonna do that too when I’m older!”
In 1935, Jack Horsley passed away in his 70th year. Billy Baker felt somewhat lost after Horsley’s death because the two men had worked so well together. Horsley’s woodworking shop closed out, and the family subsequently added a second storey to the building, converting the premises to a double apartment. At this time, Baker obtained Horsley’s lathe and moved it over to his blacksmith shop, where he set it up for turning tool handles. Later, the Horsley family moved away and Ab Schrader of Haliburton ended up with the Horsley buildings –house and apartment. Schrader then traded the Horsley buildings for the Baker property across the street, and the Bakers shifted residences. The move gave the Bakers a string of three buildings on the East side of the street, viz. house, apartment, and shop. This occurred shortly before the Second World War (which ran from 1939 to 1945).
Baker, like all good blacksmiths, was a resourceful man and knew his materials. He stockpiled steel from broken tools and implements for various jobs, practicing “recycling” before that word was even in the dictionary. Good steel was necessary to produce quality work in anything from an axe wedge to a cant hook bail. Since Haliburton was not an affluent district and cash was scarce, most of his services were paid for in barter. Buck recalled that even in the lean years of the 1930s Depression the Baker family was well fed because his father accepted potatoes, turnips and chickens in payment for a job, sometimes even a side of beef, or pork. (“We actually had so many turnips, I began to hate them, and still do to this day! Yet I give the farmers credit for paying with what they could. They were honest. They may not have had cash, but they knew we had to eat. We never went hungry.”). When the Bakers’ larder was full, Billy would accept payment in scrap metal, salvaging axles, rods, and brackets from broken implements on a customer’s farm. Broken truck parts such as axles and drive shafts were a coveted commodity because of the high temper of the steel, perfect for producing crowbars and skidding tongs at the forge. To augment his income, Baker also served as an agent for farm implement sales. He represented two well-known and highly respected Canadian firms: Massey-Harris and Cockshutt. In the shop, Baker had their latest catalogues and brochures available for perusal; he could also arrange to order replacement/repair parts, and accessories, and install them for the customer.
As Billy Baker laboured away in his blacksmith shop, sons Carl and Buck were naturally expected to follow in their father’s footsteps. Billy had various helpers over the years, but as Carl came of age, he began to get increasingly involved in the work. He became a fairly good blacksmith in his own right, but did not stay with the trade, and eventually moved from Haliburton to pursue other interests. The onus shifted to Buck, and he worked alongside his Dad until joining the army in the Second World War, circa 1943. Of note is Buck’s statement that despite all the time he spent in the shop, his Dad was actually too busy blacksmithing to take the time to teach Buck the full trade. Buck never considered himself a blacksmith, just a helper. By his own admission, it bothered him that he could never grasp his father’s apparent ease in estimating material, which is an important part of the job.
Billy Baker knew exactly where to cut off a piece of rod stock for the correct amount of material needed to form a ring, or harp, or whatever, and forge a perfectly matched set of any item required.
See next week’s issue of the Echo Oct. 13, for the second installment of the story.