By Mark McNeil
Hamilton is a city of great character, but it also has a great many ‘characters.’
They are the raisins in the oatmeal, the rhubarb in the clover, the whoopee-cushion on the sofa. They’re the flash of sudden surprise that gives Hamiltonians something to talk about and Spectator reporters something to write about.
Today we centre on the eccentrics, query the quirky and praise the peculiar as we celebrate a dozen of the city’s most wacky wanderers.
To take up this task, I have deputized three keen observers of the local psyche – Hamilton history author Margaret Houghton, Spec columnist Paul Wilson and Hamilton Cemetery tour guide Robin McKee. Each will offer three of their favourites and I will add another three to make it an even dozen.
So have your tickets ready for a magical history tour of a cast of characters that only Hamilton could produce.
Paul Wilson is a long-time Spectator columnist who is the city’s foremost chronicler of oddballs and oddities.
Percy Leggett — 1892 – 1965
Canada’s oldest beatnik
With a reputation for hurling bricks through liquor store windows in various communities in Ontario, Percy Leggett rolled into Hamilton in the late 1950s calling himself the country’s oldest beatnik. Through the ’60s he was well-known in the community, walking the city in shorts in all seasons, telling people that his care-free lifestyle and non-conformity would allow him to live to be 100. “When I got my pension I resigned from the human race,” he used to say.” Clothes confine…let the air get at you, massage you. ”
He was frequently featured in The Spectator in articles, photos and even cartoons on the editorial page. He became the talk of the town after a well-publicized dustup between Percy and the Over Sixty Club that kicked him out because his shorts were too revealing. Then one summer day in 1965 he decided Hamilton was too hot, smog-ridden and full of conformists. So he gathered up his stuff in a cart and headed northward. But sadly, in June 1965, he was hit and killed by a station wagon just outside of Orillia. He was 74 years of age, more than a quarter century short of his centenarian goal – but a non-conformist right to the end.
Rev. Ron Burridge — Died in 2013 in his 60s
Hair colourist, exorcist and slum landlord
In Toronto, his job was colouring hair, but when he moved to Hamilton in the 1980s he diversified himself by investing in rooming houses and hosting holy roller sessions that featured exorcisms and speaking in tongues.
As a landlord, well, let’s just say he wasn’t winning very many Trillium Awards. His nest was the old Hamilton Hotel on James Street North, not the kind of place that catered to tourists.
But he could put on a show. During his flamboyant soul-saving sessions, he was known to shout “Devil, you’re not taking her with you” while standing over client writhing uncontrollably on the ground.
In 2006, after two decades in Hamilton, he sold the hotel and made his way to Mexico. Then in 2013, word came back that he had been murdered in Acapulco. He was hit over the head with a blunt object and then stabbed several times with a bottle. A group of teenagers was arrested.
Pete Coletti — ca. 1934 –
Former Beach lighthouse keeper
Pete Coletti was Hamilton’s last lighthouse keeper. He kept the light at the Beach Canal Lighthouse and lived at a nearby lightkeeper’s cottage for 23 years.
Coletti looked like pirate and shared the cottage with a parrot named Gasbag, a Doberman named Dogface and different women over the years. At one point late in his tenure his answering machine greeted callers his deep-throated voice saying it was “Peter, Peter, the lighthouse keeper and Mary the Mermaid.”
His job entailed checking the equipment three or four times a day, making sure lights to guide ships into the harbour were burning bright. He would do painting and general maintenance. But by 1990, Ottawa automated the light and transferred Pete to a lighthouse near Point Pelee that some called Little Alcatraz. That facility got automated as well, sending Coletti to Gannet Rock Light, off New Brunswick’s Grand Manan Island.
These days at the age of 82, he’s retired, living close to the spray of the Bay of Fundy, near Saint John.
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Margaret Houghton is an archivist at the Hamilton Public Library and author/editor of several local history books including The Hamiltonians, 100 Fascinating Lives. She is a co-host of the Cable 14 program Flashbacks.
Nora Frances Henderson — 1900 – 1949
Hamiltonians know the name Nora Frances Henderson because of the hospital on Concession street that used to bear her name and the controversy when it was changed to the Juravinski Hospital. But that, by far, is not the most interesting thing about her.
She was spunky and feared no one. Henderson, who died in 1949, took on the man’s world of politics of the day by becoming the first woman alderman on Hamilton city council and the first woman elected to a board of control in Canada. She is particularly remembered for the hard line she took against the infamous Stelco strike of 1946. “I will not bow to mob rule,” she exclaimed the day she walked through the picket line to make a point.
Later, after a raucous municipal meeting about whether the city should call in the OPP – something she supported – a crowd of 2,000 chanted “We’ll hang Norah Frances from the sour apple tree.” They didn’t. Henderson crossed the line with steely-eyed determination but without incident. After leaving politics, she finished her days working as executive secretary of the Children’s Aid Societies of Ontario.
Matt Hayes — 1894 – 1943
People in Hamilton are generally familiar with the radio host and former CHCH weatherman Matt Hayes. But there was another Matt Hayes – apparently unrelated — in Hamilton history who lived from 1894-1943. He was known as Canada’s Diamond Jim Brady and owned the International House Hotel on James Street North and Barton. He was a bookie, who loved to lavishly entertain. He had a big appetite for feasts and cigars and according to a contemporary “was full of pranks and inclined to corpulency.”
But he also had big heart. He had scouts keep a watch for particularly hard hit families in the north end. He would send them food and coal to keep warm.
Shortly before he died, he tipped the scale at more than 400-pounds. A doctor said he would not live more than two years going on as he was. And sure enough, two years later Hayes died at the age of 49.
Today, in a touch of irony, the address of his former watering hole on James is used for Mission Services.
David Chambers — 1818 – 1874
David Chambers (1818-1874) came to Hamilton in the 1840s as a bricklayer by trade. But when it came to building his own house on Bay Street, for some reason, he decided to use the butt ends of bottles around the doors and windows instead of bricks. It was known as the Bottle House.
But his other passion was taxidermy, weird taxidermy. One of his creations featured two toads on their hind legs with swords, as though they were fighting one another. Another was kind of ornithological collage of pheasant, chicken and something else.. He stuffed a horse once for a saddler’s shop.
But he is most remembered for a walk he took through town pulling a wildcat on wheels down the street. That story got exaggerated in the next day’s paper to day “Mr. Chambers ran down King Street pursued by a wild cat.” He died of a “fit of apoplexy” on May 11, 1874.
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Robin McKee hosts “Stories in the Stones” cemetery tours at the historic Hamilton Cemetery. Over the years he has dug up all kinds of fascinating tales about people buried in the city’s largest burial ground.
Ben Kerr — 1884 – 1929
Ben Kerr should have lived a comfortable middle-class life. He came from a good home. He was handsome, well-scrubbed and well dressed. He was good with his hands, having proficiency at plumbing and honky tonk piano player. He also had a boat storage and rental business as well as a wharf on Bay Street North. But when he ran into financial problems in the 1920s, he recognized that prohibition in the U.S. afforded a great business opportunity – especially for someone who had access to fast boats.
Kerr became known as the King of the Rumrunners. He was on top of the most-wanted list by the U.S. coast guard. But Kerr was fearless. He used to say “I can outrun the feds at anytime.”
But he couldn’t outrun cold February weather conditions in 1929. His boat, loaded with beer, broke up in the ice and Kerr and a companion perished before they could make it to shore.
Sara Calder — 1846 – 1914
It’s been noted many times there were actually two battles of Stoney Creek — one that was won by the British in 1813 and the other more than 80 years later when rivaling factions of history buffs squared off over the best location to commemorate the first battle.
In that second skirmish, “Victorian Dynamo” Sara Calder was its most stunning victor. Different to the male- members of the Wentworth Historical Society, she wanted the battle commemorated on lands around the former James Gage homestead rather than Smith’s Knoll, the site of the American artillery battery during the battle.
And through sheer tenacity and relentless fundraising she managed her quest, building a ten-storey monument in Battlefield Park while her rivals could manage only a modest memorial at Smith’s Knoll. It was all managed in time for the centennial of the battle in 1913 and Calder even arranged an unveiling by Queen Mary via transatlantic cable.
Adam Brown — 1826 – 1926
Hamilton’s big cheese
To modern eyes, Adam Brown bears a striking resemblance to Grandpa from the 1960s sitcom The Munsters. But in his day, a century ago, everyone knew Adam Brown for who he was. He was frequently seen in his glistening carriage with a big smile and a flower in his lapel. At various times he had his fingers in everything from groceries, to railways, to waterworks, to post offices, to politics. But most of all he knew how to make a point. To promote the virtues of Canadian cheese during his grocery-business days, he took a giant, stage coach sized boulder of “Mammoth Canadian Cheese” to the Chicago World’s Fair. People said he faked it. No cheese could be that big. So he bored a hole to the centre of it, gave people a taste to prove the cheese was for real and tasted good.
They used to call him Hamilton’s Grand Old Man. And old he became, retiring at 95 and finally passing away at the age of 99 in 1926. He packed a lot of life in that living. As water commissioner he brought clean water to downtown. He built the Gore Park Fountain to celebrate it. He built railways, and shipped hogs to the U.S. and cheese to England. He was an MP and founding member of he Canadian Humane Assoc.
He landed a plum job as vice consul to the Kingdom of Hawaii. And for the last 30 years of his life he was the postmaster of Hamilton.
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Spectator reporter and songwriter who writes about local history among other things and is co-host of the Cable-14 program Flashbacks.
Troy Hurtubise — 1963 –
Grizzly protection suit creator
Troy Hurtubise grew up on the east Mountain but his heart was in the deep woods where the big bears roam. After a chance encounter with a grizzly on a camping trip, he decided his destiny was to invent a bear-repellent spray. But he realized such a product would have to be field tested with bears in the wild. And if the spray didn’t work, well, that could be a problem. So he put his energy into developing a bear-proof suit that could be used for this purpose.
Ah, but how do know the suit will stand up to a mad bear? That’s where it got really interesting. With video tape rolling, Troy suited up in his Robocop-inspired outfit and got pushed over cliffs, pummeled by Hells Angels bikers with baseball bats and slammed by a pickup truck driven by his father. As time went on, and repeated bankruptcies, he migrated from his initial plans and tried to sell his bear suit for military use. That didn’t work out, as did suit sale attempts on eBay. At last report he was living in North Bay and has been rather quiet about Project Grizzly in recent years.
Ed Hughes — ca. 1935 – 2009
Swinger becomes saint
To say that Ed Hughes became a changed man would be an understatement.
In July, 1981, more than 50 police officers swooped in on his giant swingers’ club tent in Flamborough and arrested nearly 100 people indulging in various forms of sexual indulgence. The cops cut through the tent with knives and fired off all kinds of pictures as part of the investigation. A year or so in the courts, Hughes and his wife ended up with a fine and sweltering indignance over their sense that the state – and especially the cops — had no business in the sex-tents of the nation.
But then by the 1990s the Hughes went their separate ways and Ed followed a pathway to salvation. The self-confessed “retired scoundrel” went after a sense of higher purpose. He ended up in Haiti, running an orphanage and pressed on in the face of incredible dangers. He got kidnapped and shot in the arm, which led to it being amputated. Then, in 2009, he fell off a ladder and died.
Ted Grizzly — 1943 – 2009
Wrestler and Santa Claus
He was a fall guy for Hulk Hogan in the wrestling ring, played Santa Claus at Lime Ridge Mall and was so crazy about Christmas that he kept his tree decorated year round.
But the big, wild-bearded east-ender known as Ted Grizzly (or Gary Wolfenden, as his birth certificate said) struggled with alcoholism, his anger management and the rare nerve disorder Guillain-Barre Syndrome that kept him from walking in later years.
In the years leading up to his death in 2006 he was frequently seen riding his scooter on the pathways of Gage Park, and by then he was following the bible pretty closing, quoting passages when the opportunity arose.
“He really had to struggle to find himself and get to where he was, spiritually and emotionally,” his step-daughter Alexandria Wolfenden once told The Spectator. “He wrestled many demons himself to finally get to the Lord and get to the healing.”
He died at the age of 66.
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Watch the Flashbacks episode: