Now and Then: Len Harfield

Len at 18 months old.

Len Harfield

Len Harfield is an accomplished artist whose ancestral roots, and his own beginnings, are firmly established on Manitoulin soil. The ‘Perivale Gallery,’ on its Facebook site, states that, “Len Harfield is a painter in watercolour, acrylic, oil, and mixed media…painting in a traditional style with vivid colours and strong design. Len is very much influenced by the French Impressionist artists and some of the Group of Seven painters. Len likes to paint places and scenes he has experienced, Kawartha wetlands, Manitoulin rivers, European street scenes and floral gardens.” Len paints a minimum of three or four pieces each week. His work is mainly displayed at ‘Gallery on the Lake’ in the Kawarthas where Len makes his home and he has provided art lessons at the gallery and at weekly workshops in Bobcaygeon. 

Professional international judging of all canine breeds is also part of his resume. Len has specific expertise in ‘conformation dog judging’. “Judging dogs requires a knowledge of the blueprint of each dog breed.  Each breed has a detailed description of, say, what a good ‘Siberian Husky’ should be like.  Technical knowledge of canine construction and movement is part of the education required.  An in-depth study of canine shoulders, knees, tibia, fibula, scapulas, etc. along with knowledge about traits, mannerisms and faults.  All this makes for good dog judging. An all-breed judging license takes approximately 20 years to achieve.” Apart from judging dogs all over the world, Len still enjoys month-long trips to his Manitoulin cottage where he welcomes seeing long-time friends each summer and loves the Island ambience.

“Humphrey May, one of the earliest Manitoulin settlers here, (and said to be the first baby boy of European descent born on Manitoulin) is my maternal great-great-grandfather. In the late 1800s, my maternal great-grandfather, John Perkins Cooper, settled in Mindemoya. Grandfather Henry Cooper and my grandmother were the first ancestors that became influential in my life. They lived a mile away on 800 acres of farmland. Grandfather was very industrious, buying deer and cattle hides from Manitoulin farmers and then shipping them to Toronto. He grew acres of potatoes too, trading those vegetables for axe handles and more deer hides. “Later, when I moved to Bobcaygeon, a woman spotted me and approached. She asked, ‘Are you Henry Cooper’s grandson?”  When I said, “Yes,” she replied, “We would have gone to school hungry if it hadn’t been for your grandfather. He would quietly leave food at our gate.’” 

“My maternal grandmother, Violet Ludella Cooper, was a tallish lady who arrived in Mindemoya from Green Bay to marry Henry Cooper in the early 1900s.  She brought with her eight new gowns. She liked to wear these and walk up and down the verandah of her mother-in-law’s large house. A young, hired girl at Mrs. Wagg’s house, spotted grandmother across the street, and said ‘Come quick and see.’ Mrs. Wagg noticed Ludella and said to the young hired girl, ‘Fine feathers make a fine bird.’” 

“As it turns out, there was little time to don these lovely gowns as grandmother eventually had nine children. She also became the Manitoulin representative of the Provincial Women’s Institute Association and attended the yearly meetings at the Royal York in Toronto. She was a great cook and worked at Mountain View Lodge. Grandpa would drop her off on Monday morning and then get all dressed up to pick her up on Friday evening, so glad she was coming home. She was always kind to her 28 grandchildren. I adored her.”

Len at 5 years old.

“Two of grandfather’s sisters married Van Horne brothers and we soon had an impressively ‘extended’ family. I remember grandmother organizing about three big family picnics each summer, by the Big Lake Dam or at Pangburn’s sand beach. Lots of flat rocks lining the shore provided an adequate base for the cars. Our families would come to play games and dine on the shores. Manitoulin potato salad consisting of smoothly mashed potatoes, mixed with mayonnaise, mustard and eggs was popular. Fried chicken or salmon sandwiches and pies were enjoyed too. Grandpa Cooper was small and wiry, despite his easily eating three pieces of pie each time. These memories make me smile.”

Paternal Grandfather George Harfield was born in the 1880s. “This winter, I will be working on his biography, ‘To the Manor Born.’ As a young soldier in World War One, he was buried alive for a week in a trench. He was barely alive when they found him. He recovered in France and England and came back home to Canada. His first wife, Grandmother Priscilla, had died before the war so he wrote a letter to Wallace, ‘Wally,’ the nurse who had cared for him in both countries. He asked her to come to Canada and be his bride. She had affectionately called him, ‘Canada.’ She accepted and theirs was a great love match. His wartime trauma of being buried alive never left him. Although he had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, his life saw many hardships, shaping a very serious demeanour, not prone to laughter or merriment. Despite this, he was much-loved by all the family.” 

“Whenever a Royal arrived in Canada, Grandfather Harfield, a professional equestrian and Master of the Hunt Club in Montreal, was asked to provide all the horses for their visit. He owned 27 horses and he bred spaniels and hunting dogs too. One day I saw a photo in the Toronto Star of King Edward VIII on a horse with a horseman who, I realized, was my grandfather.” For $20, I got a good clear copy from the Toronto Star. They wanted to know more information about the photo, and I gladly provided the details.”

“My father Bernard was from Montreal. After the Second World War, he came to Toronto, still wearing his uniform. He said he wanted to meet some Toronto girls. He met my mother Jean at a dance at the Palais Royale in Toronto. In 1946, she was an instructor at the Marvel Beauty School. She had grown up on Manitoulin with eight siblings. At 26, she had decided she didn’t want any children. They married in 1946 and came up to Manitoulin, settling in Manitowaning. My father soon opened a Chrysler dealership and garage. Mother started a hair dressing shop. We used to live beside Ida Ham, Assiginack Mayor Dave Ham’s mother. The Morrisons and the Hembruff’s were our neighbours as well in Manitowaning. Ours was a big white house on the corner of Arthur and Queen Streets.” 

Len was born on November 12, 1948, to Bernard Lloyd and Daisy ‘Jean’ (Cooper) Harfield. He was named after his uncle Leonard, son of Henry Cooper. Younger siblings are May, who died as a small child, Gloria, Keith, Marnie, and Ann. “My dear mother had six children after planning not to have any children. Late in life she said we were her ‘greatest treasures.’ As far as I know, she contacted each of us weekly. My call always came Monday morning at eight o’clock. Most likely, my sisters got more calls than that. She once said to me, ‘always have daughters, they are good to you in your old age.’”

“An early memory, as a toddler, was being perched on the counter of the garage store, where cigarettes and chocolate bars were on display. I was often bribed with a chocolate bar to keep busy and quiet. I also recall playing with a toy Coca Cola truck with my friend Blaine Morrison.”

“One day when I was seven, an admired neighbour, Frank Van Horne, waved to me, ‘Sonny come here,” he insisted. I was reluctant to approach. He had a reputation of being ‘stern’ which was emphasized by his porch railing consisting of hand-carved guns. He was leaning against one of the guns. He was 76 with some disabilities, but I was very apprehensive. I took a chance. ‘Here is some money. Go get me some White Owl cigars.’ I got the cigars and earned 25 cents. After that, I was often summoned to bring food items too. Soon, I was pumping water and chopping wood for the kitchen fire which kept his arthritic arms more comfortable. I earned his trust to do his banking as well. I was his helper for the next 10 years.”

“I became very fond of him and I was there the night he died. He wasn’t feeling well, but he was chatty. He said, ‘Len why are people all dancing out on the road’? I told him nobody was out there. ‘No. They are out there I can hear them.’ I decided to go along with him and got him a robe to wrap around his shoulders. At home, mother asked me to go over at 9:00 PM again and see him. I sat with him again and said good night at 9:30 PM. Someone else must have come after I left. When grandfather visited Frank the next day, Frank had died and the whole house had been ransacked; a search had been made.  We never found out what happened that night. My grandfather commented afterwards that he was proud of me for keeping the Van Horne wood-box and water pail well stocked.” 

“We often had babysitters because both parents worked. Sadly, my older sister May wandered out onto Arthur Street one day and was killed by a car. It was a terrible tragedy for the family. I still have three living sisters and a brother. Eventually this early disaster caused the separation of my parents. Mom tried to run both the hairdressing shop and the garage, but it was too much for her. In time, we moved to Silver Bay then to Mindemoya in 1953.”

“I remember the flooding in Mindemoya when the original Big Lake dam broke. It was half man-made and half beaver dam. Long ago, Big Lake was smaller, but there was still plenty of water. The government inspected the dam and decided to replace it. When they removed the old dam, water from the lake poured into the river and flooded the roads and buildings of downtown Mindemoya. We woke up in the middle of the night and found our house surrounded with water. We ran to the woodshed to get logs to prop up our furniture. A rowboat came to the door, and we were taken away to safety.”

Public school was in Mindemoya. “Mrs. Morrow, who taught Grade 3 or 4, was liked by all. She was a great storyteller. Favourites were, ‘Big Red,’ ‘Beautiful Joe’ and ‘Black Beauty.’ We used to beg her to read one more chapter. She always complied and oddly, I remember, she wore red high heel shoes to school, most days.”

Len and George Harfield Equestrian, holding the horse he trained for the King.

“During my high school years, I spent my summers working at the Big Lake corner grocery store, owned by the Nighswander family. Lynn Nighswander is my cousin, and we are still good friends today. The Big Lake corner was much different back then. The store offered everything from ice cream to boat rentals, including gas, groceries, and mail; the latter two were also delivered. The family also had a school bus contract.  The store was the heart of that community. People would come in and pull a cold pop out of the cooler, sip it slowly and chat with us. This past summer, Lynn and I, along with the Moody girls, toured Silver Bay and enjoyed seeing local haunts from years ago.”

Len was a keen scholar at Mindemoya High School. “I appreciated those years. I was on the Blue and White School Spirit Committee and participated in the plays, winning ‘best supporting actor’ in ‘The Lottery,’ a play about superstition.” Len and Jean Brown did the school yearbooks together for four years.” In Grade 11, Len participated in a student exchange, with a school in Weyburn Saskatchewan.

After high school, Len started his career in banking. “I worked at banks in Mindemoya, Sudbury and Toronto.” Later, Len was promoted to the bank’s legal department in the Toronto head office. In 1970, he married an attractive Toronto girl, Carolyn Matts, who had German heritage. They have two sons, Paul and Mark, and three grandsons. Paul works for a restaurant supply company in Toronto. He and his wife Tanya, a nurse at Toronto General Hospital have two sons, Daniel and Justin. Mark, until recently, travelled the world working in computer operations. Mark and his former wife Kelly have one son, Sebastian. He lives in El Salvador. Len and his wife agreed to divorce in 1978.

In the late 1980s, Len decided to leave the rat race and move to the country. Along with partner and friend Rod Sawdon, they purchased a farm in the Kawarthas. Len’s eldest son Paul joined them in the new adventure. The 96-acre farm along Pigeon Lake Road was complete with horses, cows, ducks and chickens. “Most important were the dogs. We had beautiful ‘Harrowsmith’ gardens, and many visitors commented on how wonderful the farm was to visit. Vacation travels to Ireland, France, Italy were often tied in with painting.” 

Len at 21 years old. This photo was printed in the Sudbury Star when he was promoted to be manager of the savings department at the bank.

Len recalled his father telling him he had a son from a first marriage. “By good chance, we connected.   It was 2002 when I finally met my half-brother, Dougie, in Ireland. We were in constant touch by phone and in person, until he died.”

How would your friends describe you? “They might say I have a profound sense of humour and love to talk about my grandsons. I love photography, am broadminded with an artist’s temperament and have a lot of training through workshops.” 

How did you choose your dogs? “I made plans to get an Irish Setter at one time but settled on poodles. I have shown and judged dogs all over the world, including Australia, Canada, Europe, and South America.” 

“Recently a new puppy, born by C-section, is front and centre in our household.  He has his own baby play pen. He goes back many generations to a dog called Josephine from Manitoulin.  I have owned 125 canine champions. Some of the outstanding ‘bitches’ are Amy, Emily, Raven and Josephine.” 

Favourite pet? “Josephine, my 20 lb black miniature poodle. She lived for 17 years.” 

Is there something I might have done differently? “I might have become a vet and I suspect I would have been a good one, but I also believe things turn out the way they should.” 

Fond memories? “The birth of son Paul, an emotional event for me.” 

Favourite season? “Spring, when you can smell the Earth’s renewal and see all the new growth. The stream is running and there is so much life. It is also the time we open our cottage on Manitoulin.”

Any collections? “Stamps. George V started this hobby in England. I still have a small collection.” 

Favourite movies? “Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Colour Purple.” Favourite pastimes? “Horse-back riding and fishing when I was younger; we had four horses of our own. Showing dogs and poultry over the years was fun too.” 

Professional associations? “I was the founder of the Bobcaygeon Kennel Club and its first president, vice president and president of Kawartha’s Arts and Heritage Club, as well as Kawartha’s Artist of the Year. I belong to the Dog Judges Association of Canada and the Kawartha Artists’ Group.”

Strengths? “Collecting Canadian and English history as well as our ancestral history. When I was young, vagabonds or hermits like Frankie Sinclair and Sandy Fowler fascinated me. Frankie would arrive in town twice a week and leave with a bag of groceries slung over his shoulder.” What would you still like to do? “Visit Newfoundland and be invited to more dog shows, but nothing too big now.” 

What are you most proud of, besides your sons? “Some of my paintings. I started painting in 1993 and have completed about 3,000 paintings, small and large.” Len has been teaching art classes for 25 years, three of those years at the Loyalist College in Belleville. “Thursdays and Mondays are art days. I also head up an art group where we all contribute and work together.”

Did you realize your dreams as a child? “I believe so, but I didn’t anticipate living in such a beautiful place and having a cottage in an equally scenic location, connected to my childhood friends and memories. Coming up here is always a great ‘change’ for me. We eat out most nights on Manitoulin and our favourite restaurant is ‘Pierside’ at South Bay. It’s a great ‘every day’ kind of place and we always see people we know there. I just love the convertible drive down to South Baymouth.”

People who inspired me? “Teachers like Sam Bondi, Marion Seabrook, Dave Hambly and principal Ken Lee.” 

Legacy for the future? “I have written three biographies, short, succinct versions, about our family and two art books.” 

Recipe for happiness? “Laugh.” 

Three non-human things you could take with you to a remote location? “My paints, photos and one of my older dogs, probably Murella.”

“We spent 14 winters in Port St. Joe until the epidemic stopped us. We have decided that winters in Ontario are not so bad. We spend a week in the spring to get the Manitoulin cottage ready and then return to the Island for several weeks during July and August. Manitoulin was my early home. From the time I was a small child, I could walk down the street first in Manitowaning and, later, Mindemoya, and everyone knew me. Many children were raised with the oversight of other ‘village’ members. Grandfather Cooper was well-liked, and my mother was a popular hairdresser. Saturday nights, many neighbours would congregate on the Wagg’s store verandah. It was a glorious time. Our cottage today is on Big Lake, near the dam. We know our neighbours, like Shirley and Garfield Van Horn and Janice Phillips, a few doors away. Manitoulin is ‘the’ place to return to. It’s incredibly special for me.”