Poof! The Bell oasis recedes into memory

For the past eight years, Charlie Zeihr has been turning steel into practical and whimsical products from a barn in Barrie’s north end. I’ve called on his skill to make cottage end tables out of iron floor grates. He made a beautiful chandelier for us in 1998. And I called on him this year for a 24″ hook to hold the chandelier in a different location after a furniture re-org. Charlie would finish an order and leave it outside the barn with the bill in his mailbox. I could pick it up, pop my cheque inside. Honour.

He makes barn gates, window bars, benches, beds and chairs. And when I called his business line this week, his voice message said he’s closing. Now. He’s referring his customers to another welder, and he’s packing up his tools.

Charlie’s industry is the last activity to occur in a barn that has held hay and grain, that provided stalls for horses, that was the hub of agricultural life at the Stewart Bell farm for almost a century.

Let’s go back. Just six years ago, if you stood in the driveway of St. Joseph’s High School, you’d look into a laneway, two ruts across the field. It lead to the Bell Farm and Charlie Zeihr’s wrought iron furniture company. Charlie and his wife, Bev Bell, carried their recycling and garbage bins down to Cundles Rd. An area farmer grew corn on the field to the east, and to the south of Cundles Rd, right up to Highway 400. Prior to that, Bev’s brother and sister, Larry and Donna, and their parents, Beatrice and Stewart, lived at the Bell Farm on St. Vincent St. Their 240 acre farm was in wilderness in 1940, and ran from Highway 400 to where the Barrie Country Club is today. From Duckworth to St Vincent, from the County Club to Highway 400.

On the south side of the 400 was the ‘other’ Bell Farm. It’s the one Stewart Bell and his brother Don moved to in 1916 as youngsters when their parents came by horse and surrey from Gormley to just outside Barrie to buy their farm. The farmhouse and barn were located right about where Fendley’s Flowers and Fancy’s Seafood are today. And when that Bell Farm was sold in in the late 60’s, a road was built to connect St. Vincent to Duckworth St and make way for the development of Georgian College’s first building. It made sense to call it Bell Farm Road.

But Stewart Bell continued to farm having taken over his uncle Tom’s farmhouse just north of Cundles. He grew hay and wheat, kept cattle and chickens, and gardened, too. But what he was most famous for was his horses. Bev Bell remembers riding everywhere in those days. She’d climb on her horse, King High, and ride down to Little Lake, which was full of quicksand on the southwest side of the lake. Bev and her siblings would ride for miles, up past the land that later became the golfcourse, and over to visit the Brown kids at their farm where the Kozlov Centre is now. When CK Chinese Food first opened, it was the ONLY building on Bayfield past Highway 400. Bev would ride over on her horse and order two egg rolls–to go!

Stewart Bell’s love of horses was matched by his ability to judge the hunter category and he was a sought-after judge at Royal Winter Fairs. Bit by bit, as finances and health dictated, he sold off lots along the Cundles St side of the property. A house here, a house there, in the wilderness, long before Cundles was developed. When the outside ridge of the property was sold, he went inward, and in 1970, just before Christmas, the family loaded their belongings on a wagon and moved down to the new house.

When the Atrium legal and medical building was built, the farmhouse stood just behind it for many years, finally falling. Stewart himself died in 1984. His wife Bea, a long loved teacher at Oakley Park Public School, is facing her own health challenges these days. And bit by bit development continued, until Bev and Charlie and Bev’s mother Bea had much less to cherish… their trees, their view of Little Lake, the fields of corn and the fallow fields where kids road bikes and people walked their dogs.

And then the entire property went up for development and bulldozers took out the trees, schools went up, streets filled with houses, and the Bell oasis shrank. As the land moved from agricultural to residential, taxes multiplied. Holding on to this pocket has become increasingly difficult, with development pressure now on all sides.

The final sale of the last bit of Bell land has occurred. The folks who’ve bought homes on Osprey Ridge and Pacific Ave and Lions Gate might not know of the tremendous history their houses are sitting on. They might not know that the family that farmed those fields and rode their horses on their trails is still living on a patch of land with their same view of the sky.

Everything else has changed.

This week, as Charlie puts the “closed” sign on the door and takes down the Wrought Iron Furniture sign that now sits where Livingstone takes over the laneway, a final pocket, a speck of land will disappear. It represents our strong agricultural past; it gives way to our emerging urban present. I feel their story, our heritage, should be shared, and celebrated.

The Bell name remains active in Barrie… Bev is a popular sales person for CHAY Radio. Her brother Larry is an Orillia chiropractor. The ‘other’ Bells, the Bell Farm Road Bells are represented by Don’s wife Olive, who lives in Midhurst, and her sons John, a Shanty Bay landscape architect and Doug, a self employed industrial supplier.

And for Beatrice Bell, thank you. Thank you for holding on, for enjoying your land, for keeping within our urban midst, a bit of yesterday. Thank you!