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Valley Lives - Harry Fairbairn

The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the February 02, 2010 issue. Reprinted with permission.

Wakefield loses last in pioneer family line

by Anita Rutledge

For nearly a century Harry Fairbairn was a fiddler. He played at events near and far, in his own neighbourhood around Wakefield and in others, or just by himself at home, or to entertain his guests. Wherever Harry went, his fiddle was not far away, and he loved to play it.

His music was smooth and sure and true, handed down to him from his ancestors. A story often recalled by his family is of Harry at two years of age playing an imaginary fiddle made up of two small sticks.

Then Harry grew up in a home where music was always present. All members of the family knew and loved the old Irish and Scottish tunes and they often played music together. A piano, purchased in 1924, was shipped by train to the Wakefield station and then on by horse and wagon over muddy, rutted roads to the Fairbairn farm on the east bank of the Gatineau River, not far from Farrellton. There, it had been eagerly awaited and soon added a new dimension to the family's concerts.

Valley Lives
Harry Fairbairn, great grandson of Wakefield Mill builder William Fairbairn, died peacefully Dec. 18 at the age of 97. Photo courtesy Anita Rutledge.

It was also in that year, when Harry was 12, that he began to take banjo lessons from a teacher in Alcove village, about a mile from his home. This led to greater things, and soon he began to play in an Alcove band with friends. The band, known as the "Alcove Corn Huskers", played for house parties at a dollar for an evening's music; later it was increased to $5. It was at such a party in Farrellton in the 1930s that Harry met his future wife, Dorie Sykes, from Ottawa. Harry attended the one-room school on the hill near his Uncle Albert Fairbairn's farm on Fairbairn Lane, completing all seven grades available there. During his time at this little school he learned to love reading and in the years that followed he learned all he could from many books. But, as he approached old age he still treasured some of the early readers from this school, kept in his bookcase for their sentimental value.

When telephone service was supplied to the farms in his part of the Gatineau, Harry was about 14 years old. He often told his children of the part he played in getting this new means of communication installed in the local farm homes. Using his rowboat, he was employed to carry the connecting lines from the west to the east bank of the river. The conveniences of electrical power would not come to the farm for another 25 years.

In addition to his work on the farm, Harry liked carpentry and eventually decided to build his own boat, asking an experienced boat builder to help him. The resulting large wooden rowboat provided many hours of pleasure for family and visitors alike, as they embarked on river excursions from the Fairbairn home. Grandson Steven Moodie remembers Harry as a quiet and comforting companion in the Moodie home for three winters after he and his two brothers had lost their father while they were still young boys. Other treasured memories are of Harry's cottage, and fishing trips with him, and of trying to win a game of pool or darts with a grandfather who was an expert marksman with the Wakefield Rifle Club.

Steven describes his grandfather as a peaceful person, very consistent in his habits and lifestyle, who enjoyed simple pleasures and the nature he found around him. When family members arrived for one of their frequent visits to Harry's cottage they would usually find him sitting in his rocking chair on the veranda, or working in his large vegetable garden, which he continued to plant every year until he was 91. And he liked to play a game of crib or euchre, but eventually he always got around to his favourite pastime, playing the fiddle.

At age 88 Harry went back to school in Hull. He wanted to take a wood-working course and learn how to construct a fiddle. He excelled in this subject, spending many hours, with much determination and inborn knowledge, to meticulously make a fine-looking violin that produced a great sound. This homemade violin became his pride and joy, and a constant companion in his later years.

Harry and Dorie and their two children, Ted and Emilie, lived in the homestead farmhouse on the Gatineau until the farm was sold in 1976. Later, as a widower, Harry lived on there in one of two family cottages on the farm, not sold with the farmhouse and fields. And still later, he moved to the Le Manoir retirement home in Wakefield village, but continued to spend his summers at his cottage. Then after a long life in his beloved Gatineau, his last years were spent with his daughter, Emilie Moodie, and her sons in Kanata, Ontario.

In September 2009, Harry was drawn back to the Gatineau and his cottage on the river for what was to be his last visit. On the way he stopped by at the old house of his first ancestor in Wakefield, the old William Fairbairn House in Hendrick Park. He knew that the house had been moved to this park and was about to be transformed into a heritage centre for the Gatineau Valley, a project that held much interest and satisfaction for him.

Harry died peacefully at Kanata on Friday, Dec. 18, 2009, at the age of 97. The family pictures on display at his memorial service spoke of his long journey and of the many changes he had seen as the years rolled by. Also on display was an object he had cherished all his life - his beloved violin.

And, as was always the way with this Fairbairn family, there was much music. And there was music by his fellow fiddlers, too, as everyone said good-bye to Harry, son of Henry and Addie, grandson of George, and great grandson of pioneer William Fairbairn, well remembered as the builder of the Wakefield mill and of his farm home, the old Fairbairn House now situated in Hendrick Park near the Wakefield Covered Bridge.

Harry was the last of his generation still surviving in the Wakefield branch of the large William Fairbairn family tree.

Flashback to Saturday, Nov. 30, 1912, before there were bridges across the Gatineau at either Wakefield or Farrellton, when a young Dr. Harold Geggie made his way cautiously across the river on recently frozen ice to a farmhouse sitting on the east bank. He came here to deliver a baby for Addie Fairbairn and her husband Henry: the new baby was a boy they named Harry.


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