Valley Lives - Irwin Stewart

The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the May 07, 2014 issue. Reprinted with permission.

Wakefield farmer 'a horse man from the word go'

by Joel Balsam

Lifelong Wakefield farmer Irwin Stewart died on April 5 peacefully at the La Péche Nuring Home in Masham at the age of 92.

Thirty years ago on a weekend in Wakefield, long before the existence of the restaurants and B&Bs, for a bit of entertainment you might jump on for a sleigh ride led by Irwin Stewart and his troop of stallions. Stewart took excellent care of his horses and gave them as much exercise as he could. After all, there was always the next horse draw to prepare for.

Valley Lives
Irwin Stewart, on the right with a dark shirt and hitcher Kenny Greer race to the finish in a horse draw competition. Photo courtesy Glenna Greer.

"He always kept his horses in good shape," said long time friend Doug Nesbitt who - along with five others - started the Gatineau Valley Horse Association in 1963 with a simple $5 investment. "One of the first horse draws that I judged, Irwin won," added Nesbitt. And Stewart won a great many competitions in the Gatineau Valley and in horse draws across Ontario and Quebec.

For those unfamiliar with the horse draw, it's a 'horse strongman' competition where the horse pulls more and more weight until a victor emerges.

For those unfamiliar with the horse draw, it's a 'horse strongman' competition where the horse pulls more and more weight until a victor emergesing head to head all the time, the stare-downs on the playing field were always friendly. "Irwin was a good neighbour. If you wanted a hand or needed something, he was there," said Kidder, adding that he was "a horse man right from the word 'go'."

Valley Lives
Irwin Stewart. Photo courtesy Glenna Greer.

Kidder recalls the jampacked Gatineau Valley competitions, which brought in thousands from miles around. But fewer people have horses these days, which has decreased turnout and the original vibrant spirit of the event. "Today it's almost pathetic the horses we do have," said Kidder.

Back in the heyday of the competition, when kids rode on ponies and fell off, they weren't corralled by their over-protective parents, as they are today, explained Kidder. There was also plenty of food, drink, and music to be had, and the party went on until morning. "Now it seems like at 10 o'clock everyone goes home," said Kidder.

Like Kidder, Stewart was more fond of the way Wakefield was when it was a farm community. "I think he wished it would stay the way it was," said one of Stewart's four daughters, Doreen Daly, who now lives in Hallville. Ontario. "He never really adapted to modern things."

Valley Lives
Irwin Stewart stands by two of his beloved horses. File photo.

Daly, who spent her life working as a cattle farmer, said Stewart was a quiet and very hard-working man. Back then, there was no heavy machinery, so Stewart did all the hard labour himself. A tractor was a last resort, especially because the horses needed exercise. "I remember going out with him to Wakefield with a load of wood on the sleighs," recalled Daly, who said they sold logs in town for $4 a cord.

Stewart's other jobs included shovelling snow under the Wakefield Covered Bridge so sleighs could get through, loading up two boxcars a day full of logs for shipment by rail, and thrashing wheat in Wakefield and, some summers, out West.

When he wasn't busy providing for his family, you could have found Stewart at one of the local pubs such as the Chateau Diotte (precursor to the Chateau Pearson, later to become the Black Sheep) chatting and eating free sandwiches. "He is a man that would go to the pub, but I never did see him having a drink," said Nesbitt, who added that Stewart only wanted to talk about horses.

"He was not a real big talker, but it was like fishing - he'd tell you enough to keep you coming," said Kidder, who also met Stewart at the local pubs.

Stewart also enjoyed playing the card game called '500' and listening to fiddle music.

A practicing Christian, Stewart was very well regarded as an elder at the Wakefield United Church. As such, he and his late wife, Marjorie McClinton, who was from the farm across from Stewart's growing up, were always at the church's turkey supper fundraisers.

Stewart's funeral will take place at the United Church on May 24. For more information about the funeral arrangements, consult mcgarryfamily.ca or call 819-459-1800.

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