Wiarton and Lion’s Head: Stephen Leacock Takes Notice

As far as I have been able to find, Stephen Leacock did not visit anywhere in Bruce County, let alone Bruce Peninsula where I live, but he talked about it, about two places in particular: Wiarton and “a small place, just a village, away out past Wiarton”, a small place called “Something-Head”. From my point of view Lion’s Head is not “out past” Wiarton; Wiarton is out past Lion’s Head. But that’s my point of view, and Stephen Leacock is entitled to his.

When Stephen Leacock wrote Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, beyond doubt the most famous of his 53 books, he tells us how he located the little town. In the Preface he says: “Mariposa is not a real town. On the contrary, it is about seventy or eighty of them. You may find them all the way from Lake Superior to the sea, with the same square streets and the same maple trees and the same churches and hotels, and everywhere the sunshine of the land of hope.” But anyone can see he’s stretching the boundaries, because in 1912, when he wrote that book, Stephen Leacock’s personal world of little towns was bounded by Montreal on the east, Strathroy on the west, and Muskoka on the North. He had by then visited cities to the east all the way to Moncton and Halifax, and beyond to New Zealand, but cities are not little towns, as we all know.

Now in those days Ontario had about 250 small towns, so that Leacock’s seventy or eighty represents somewhere around 30%. That’s pretty select company for Wiarton, even more so because in the entire span of his 53 books and hundreds of other pieces he only mentions a handful of others.

What he says about Wiarton is … not much. Here is the whole kit and caboodle:

. . . He didn’t belong to the city as Dannie did. He’d just come from a small place, just a village, away out past Wiarton . . . You know what fellows look like when they come from past any place like Wiarton.

“He” is Slugger Pethick, one of two main characters in a story called “Damon and Pythias” in a book called Happy Stories Just To Laugh At, published in 1943, the year before Leacock died at the age of 74. You can find that story on-line at http://www.fadedpage.com/showbook.php?pid=20160410. You won’t find it in the Bruce County Public Library, or the Owen Sound & North Grey Union Public Library, which is a pity, because reading these stories in a well-set-up book is much better than on-line.

. . . He’d had no advantages, brought up rough, away off in the country, somewhere back of Wiarton.

. . . when he met anybody he used to say, “Pleased to meet you,” and start to pull off his gloves, even if he didn’t have any on—the way they do back of Wiarton . . .

. . . Slugger’s father, I say, was just a little country clergyman . . . a “horse and buggy” clergyman, for on Sunday, after he’d preached in his own place in the morning—it was called, what was it? Something—Head—he drove out seven miles to take an out-of-town service at another place; seven miles out and seven back.

. . . The country clergyman was, of course—though he never saw the advertisements—the Rev. Arthur Pethick, of Something-Head beyond Wiarton.

. . . Success? Why, of course, no end of it. In the very first year the Slugger was able to send home to “mother” back of Wiarton a sewing machine—and a washing machine and an ironing machine—presents dear to the heart of people like “mother” . . .

. . . There was something about “nobility”—I mean about being connected with nobility—that hit Dannie and Pethick where they lived. It naturally does hit anyone who lives beyond Wiarton, or even anyone living above College Street, Toronto.

. . . Slugger Pethick pulled off gloves he didn’t have on and said, “pleased to meet you,” as clumsily as the day he left Something-Head. The phrase is, of course, not one to be used to a lady with a title. It should be kept for society beyond Wiarton where they take pleasure in one another’s society. People of birth don’t. (If you think this story may be getting dark don’t worry; remember: it’s a happy story, just to laugh at.)

. . . Mrs. Fordeck had said: “Doesn’t this heavenly night remind you of Capetown?” He had answered, “Wiarton is very much like this in September,” and she said, “I should just love to see Wiarton,” and he said, “I hope you will some day. I could give you a letter to Bill Furze, the postmaster, and he’d show you round,” and he had added, “If I was up there, I’d like to show you round myself . . .”

. . . Slugger in his dreams went through scenes in which a cross-examining barrister said:
“Answer the question, please, without evasion. Did you, or did you not, on the evening of September twelfth compare Capetown to Wiarton?

That’s the lot. It’s not much, I know, but it’s something. It puts Wiarton-and-beyond-to-Something-Head on the literary map in special company, probably one in a handful, since “seventy or eighty” is definitely a stretch. Lion’s Head would have got there too, if the elderly Stephen Leacock had been able to remember the name. “Something-Head” indeed!

I am curious to know the unknowable, which is, where had Stephen Leacock heard about Wiarton and Lion’s Head? Alas, he did not tell us. If he had only talked about Wiarton, I would have suspected a conversational evening with William Wilfred Campbell, who was active in literary circles in Ottawa when Leacock was sometimes speaking there. Campbell’s father was indeed a clergyman, although many years before this story, but not in Lion’s Head. In the years since the parish was founded Lion’s Head was served by many Anglican clergy; Leacock might have had a conversation with any of their sons and made his sketch from there. The most likely candidate for the clergyman father, given the dates, is the Rev. R.W. James, who was rector there from 1911 to 1934, and brought about the construction in the 1920’s of St. Margaret’s Chapel near Cape Chin, a few miles north of the village. Rev. James might have gone to officiate there in a horse and buggy, or he might not. This distance is, in fact, about seven miles.

Someday, when some graduate student writes her thesis on Stephen Leacock’s geography (a rather more circumscribed phenomenon than his imagination, just right for a master’s thesis), Wiarton and Lion’s Head will have to be mentioned, although probably only that. It’s interesting to me, however, that he does speak of these places, so close to home.

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