In the early 70’s maybe around 1974, the Duffy family moved from the comfortable suburb of Oakridge in London, Ontario, to the wide open country surrounding Glencoe, Ont. It felt like we had moved to the other side of the universe! Half way between Strathburn and Woodgreen as it became to be known to us new settlers. A well kept property purchased from the Cartier family, that was relocating to a larger farming prospect on the other side of the tracks in Mosa county.
Our first taste of rural living was experienced when we met the neighbours. Betty and Stew Simpson and their daughter Mary, and two adopted children; Peter and Margaret. I don’t remember the circumstances exactly but to me it was not unlike geographical historians meeting with the natives from some foreign land for the first time. I remember that Betty spoke in almost song-like rhythm, a giant smile with kind eyes and a welcoming tone, Stewart was much quieter and focused his attention to the males in our group. Stewart spoke with a slow, steady confidence as we exchanged pleasantries and mentioned on this initial meeting that he would have plenty of work for us on the farm across the road. We often joked after this meeting that Stewart must have been doing backflips in his brain when he realized an immediate work-force had moved in right across the road. Patrick, Shawn and I were all taller than average, thin as rails but all of us about the same size. ‘Husky’ was the the common GWG blue jean style we all wore. Stewart immediately looked beyond our lack of experience in the ‘poultry arts’ and enlisted all of us into his steady work crew for moving chickens.
My very first employer was Stewart Simpson. The very first time that I was paid for any labour came from Stew Simpson. Stew paid all of us in cash at the end of each job/task that we performed. I learned at an early age (12 years old) that if you work hard, you will be rewarded fairly for your efforts. Showing up on time, being careful with the product (from day old chicks to aged laying hens) it was important to care about what you were doing. Stew took the time with each of us new recruits to explain the practiced methods and technique for everything that we were asked to do. He didn’t loom over you, he let you make mistakes and calmly corrected you if you stepped out of line. It was never drudgery or forced on you, I felt that we were guided and learning from a master without even knowing it.
My brothers and I moved a lot of chickens, along- side Peter and Margaret and many other local kids enlisted for various jobs. Peter had the confidence of a seasoned professional and was treated the same as the rest of us. Marg pulled her weight in the barns as well carrying the same loads as all of the others. There was no favoritism or special consideration given to anyone. If Stew hired you; you were expected to work as hard as the crew you were with. This work ethic was ingrained in me at an early age and I continue to strive to meet those standards in my life and work environment every day.
I held many other jobs in the Glencoe community but if the call went out for help moving chickens you just stepped up. My Mother, Lillian who just dreaded our return from the barn in our ‘soiled’ clothes, made all of us strip to our skin in the back kitchen and drop our clothes in the laundry immediately and dash through the house naked in a sprint for the shower. My mother and Stewart developed what seemed a ‘love/hate’ relationship. Mom was trying to run her antique business in our barn, then after a huge investment in renovating the house and barn; a gift shop/antique/pine furniture business flourished. The friction began when Stew would spread the fresh funky smell of chicken manure over his abundant fields releasing the pungent aroma that my mother could barely manage. I believe there was a late night round table meeting which would draw out the agreement to which Stew was ‘allowed to make his stink.’
The previous meeting may or may not have happened, but Stewart was always considerate of my mom’s sensitivity to the smell of the country. We would often joke about it and Stew would pretend that he could actually forecast wind direction as it pertained to the level of importance of the guests arriving to ‘Duffys Farm.
As I mentioned earlier, Stew taught us a lot about working around a farm, he recognized that we were really ‘city kids’ and didn’t have the foundation that some country kids have when it comes to machinery and such. He was always patient when we would wander over and allowed us to observe from a safe distance. We watched as the grain leg went up. Knowing our skill set, we were relegated as spectators to the erection of the giant augers and towers. He spoke of the dangers involved with this equipment and will swear to this day that I never climbed that thing and avoided all temptation to conquer it, based solely on his ‘fall-warning’.
Time flies by and we all move on. When we finally moved away from this area, which I still refer to as home; I would return as often as I could to stop by the Simpson farm to check in with everyone. Peter and the boys were always busy, but would stop and take the time to shoot the breeze for a few minutes, and on occasion I would bump into Stew and chat like we had never been apart. He was always keen on hearing where we all were and how Mom and Dad were doing. Life tosses all of us curve balls and sometimes we have to adjust to the changes. I never delved into the reasons why the family dynamic changed or how it came to be that Stew moved to the old river farm. I don’t ever really want to know.
In classic Stew Simpson style he adapted to the change and embraced the new challenge. It didn’t surprise me that he was involved with Devon cattle, or the fact that he was educating himself and others on the importance of this breed. I am sure that there were many people that were drawn in by his excitement in this new venture including good people like Ross Snider that I am sure poured hundreds of ‘volunteer’ hours into supporting Stew on his goals. Part of the problem with all of this is that you couldn’t say ‘no’ to the man. He spent years building his farming empire, to pass it on to the next. His methods, education, and knowledge of his farm was vast. I am sure that there was a council somewhere that monitored Stewart’s activities on the farm, when Stew planted-everyone planted, When Stew sprayed, suddenly everyone would spray. It’s as if silently they followed his every move, mimicked his success and followed the leader.
I will always have immense respect for this man, life lessons that I carry with me today and a work ethic that I am sure he would be proud of. When I hear the word ‘farmer’ the first person I think of is Stewart Simpson. When I hear people speak of hard-work, respect for the land, sustainable crops, animal husbandry and humane care and consideration for farm animals, Stew will be there on top. I have met many farmers, some are friends to this day and I group all of them in this elite group of individuals.
The farming community lost a great man, but the lessons that he spent years passing on will show great value to those that stopped to listen.
Finally, in hearing the news of Stewart’s passing, initially I was saddened, then almost immediately I remember saying in my head one of Stewart’s almost famous exclamations…
Thank-you for everything Stewart