Now & Then: Austin and Bev Pickard

Mr. and Mrs. Pickard.

Arriving at the Pickard home on Fox Tower Road is a treat indeed. This family that boasts eight generations that have lived on the same land, hosts four of those generations in their home today. “We do most activities together, as a family,” Austin shares. Daughter Tammy, her children and their children share space in the cozy living room of the comfortable farmhouse that sits on the Pickard family farm. 

Austin has been a part-time farmer much of his life. His work was augmented with other jobs from time to time: driving a milk truck, as a deck hand on an oil tanker, a chicken farmer, but mostly as an auto mechanic. Bev has worked by his side all these years, including spending a few years as a food supervisor for both the Centennial Manor and the Manitoulin Lodge. She has nurtured her family, which now helps to look after herself and Austin in their golden years.

The fox tower is a prevalent feature, not far from the house. It resembles a small lighthouse. Canada`s Historic Places indicates Fox towers are a ‘rare example of a dedicated structure used in the fur fashion industry’ which peaked in the mid 1900s. ‘The tower’s height and minimal dimensions provided a convenient lookout from which farmers could observe and control animals below without disrupting their parenting cycles.’ Austin’s ancestors had been in the fox or mink trade in their time.

“My great-grandfather, Joseph Brandow, came here from Ireland and got close to 1,000 acres which included five gore lots that had chunks of their 100 acres removed by being on water. We had the whole corner here at one time. Joseph had three sons and a daughter, and each son got some of the land. Joseph’s daughter Elizabeth married Robert Pickard and raised nine children, including my dad, Norman. Robert was a farmer, blacksmith, well-driller, barn builder and also did stonework.”

Maternal grandfather Fred Noland married Phoebe who died when Austin was four. Fred was a schoolteacher in the States for a while before settling in the Burpee area. He knew six languages, including Odawa. He taught school near Indian Point where some of his brothers helped build the bridge in 1898.

Austin Charles was born to Norman and Ida (Noland) Pickard on January 28, 1939. He would have two younger siblings, Lorna and Stanley. Norman bought a small farm down the road from here, and he kept it when the family moved to Sudbury so Norman could work at INCO for seven years.

Austin as a four-year-old with his little sister.

“By the time I could walk and get around, I must have been a handful because fences could not keep me in. Even at four I knew how to escape through a gate or fence to explore the world outside. I would come back with pockets full of cherries after hanging in a tall cherry tree at Junction Creek, clinging with one hand and picking cherries with the other.”

Austin’s mother was shocked one day to find her adventurous son wandering at Kresge’s in Sudbury when dad was supposed to be babysitting. By then her young explorer was getting quite a reputation for operating at a higher level than the average four- or five-year old. Another task this young lad was dedicated to entailed borrowing Aunt Kathleen’s wagon and heading out in the neighbourhood to find sand and gravel deposits. After acquiring these construction materials, he would dutifully fill holes in the road. Aunt Kathleen had confirmed to others that Austin never played, he always worked.

Mum Ida stayed home with her son and tried in vain to keep him there. She would use a harness and lead if she had to go downtown. At home, if constrained, Austin always managed to break free to follow his instincts and his keen imagination. Once he took his sister Lorna downtown in the wagon, crossing the rails on Elm Street and enjoying his sister’s company until he was found. During the war years, Austin spent some time at his aunt’s place, so his mother could get some work done too. 

The first week of school was a both a sad time for a mother who was seeing her son enter a new phase, as well as an interval of respite. “She was so eager to have me off to school and out of her hair she even sent me there on the first Saturday, having forgotten it was the weekend. Of course, I found locked doors when I got there and returned home,” Austin recalls. “School was not my favourite place. I had a form of dyslexia and I found it was hard to concentrate. I wanted to use my hands and do practical things.” 

A young Bev with her mother and grandfather.

Austin left school after Grade 8. At 15, in 1954, he did some carpentry and clean-up work in Sudbury. At Christmas that year, he came back to the Island to help his dad on his Ice Lake farm. In April of 1955, his uncle alerted him to a job in Gore Bay, driving a milk truck. “I got my licence and was a milk man for almost a year.” After that, he worked for four months with Palm Dairies in Sudbury. “The pay was better.” 

“About that time, I heard back from a company in Montreal where I had put my name in to sail on the Great Lakes. My first cousin in Manitowaning had told me about it. I was to work on a big oil tanker, starting as a deck hand. After three months, at 16, I became a watchman, with four men to supervise for the next season and a half. Later, when the captain retired, a lot of unrest was seen on the boat. Seven of us decided to leave and I came home.”

The Pickard children, from left, Tammy, Mary, Ted and Danny.

Bev Johnstone was a schoolteacher in Pleasant Valley when Austin had met her a year earlier. Her grandfather, a red-haired James McIver, hailed from Ireland. He lived near Fort Frances where he met Bev’s grandmother, a Mormon from America. She had been through a lot of trauma with her first husband and had run away. In time, she met James and some time later, they married and had a child, Mary, who became Bev’s mother. 

Mary, a teacher in Muskoka, met John Frederick Johnstone during the war. His flat feet had excluded him from active duty. John finally did get into the Air Force, but he didn’t go oversees. They married and Bev was born on April 2, 1937. “My parents hadn’t picked out a girl’s name for me because they thought I would be a boy. A friend told them Beverly Ann is a pretty name and it stuck. Our first granddaughter was named Beverley, too.” Bev would have a brother Fred who now works as an accountant for the government in Ottawa. She would have a sister Linda who later died of breast cancer. 

Mr. and Mrs. Pickard.

During the war, Bev lived in Muskoka. “Candy was hard to get, and I remember a positive war-time memory of getting candy from our minister.” After 1945, the family moved to Sudbury where John worked for INCO. “I remember sitting on the rock cliff where the big nickel sits. We used to enjoy the view, as our legs dangled over the edge. I also remember having to carry Fred’s trumpet home after school. It was a big instrument for a little boy. He often left it on the bus, so it was easier for me to take it right from school. We were both in the band and I played the clarinet. We had lots of fun and we would visit other schools.”

Books were fascinating for Bev. “I become mesmerized when I am reading a book. I go to another place where I don’t focus on the background or interruptions. I enjoyed L.M. Montgomery books as a child and my favourite author now is J. D. Robb. School books were interesting too. My brother Fred’s schoolbooks all had my name in them,” Bev adds, smiling. After high school, Bev went to teacher’s school in Toronto for two summers.

“My first school was at nearby Pleasant Valley. I soon met a tall, handsome man with blond hair and that was that.” Austin was looking after chickens on Manitoulin for a Sudbury man. He had to feed, water and keep clean 2,000 chickens. “I was there one spring, summer and fall.” At that time there was an eviscerating plant in Gore Bay. 

Austin and his car.

Austin and Bev were wed on October 10, 1958. “It was a cold nasty weather day with a strong wind. People were nearly blown away from the little Ice Lake Church as they approached. The Billings Hall held 200 people for the reception. Apart from the inclement weather, all went well. After the ceremony, the groom had to resume his chicken care duties so a honeymoon had to wait. “My dad and uncle had fixed up a small house beside our current home and they handed me the deed, saying ‘sign here.’ I guess they wanted us to stay on the farm.” The newlyweds lived there one winter. 

Austin played hockey that same winter and he had a black eye for most of it. “I was tall and as a self-appointed peacemaker, I would be a target. That winter there was so much snow there were only five days of school and you could only get into town if you followed the ‘Big Huff,’ the big loader, as it was affectionately called.” At home, there were cows to look after, wood to cut, and an old car with a bad tailpipe, to get around in.

“By then we had a baby on the way, and I decided to fix the old car myself. I ordered a new tailpipe from Western Tire in Little Current and put it on myself. In the process, I broke the clamp but was able to get a new one from the Ford dealership. This task was my first success as an auto-mechanic, repairing a car with no help, and it opened doors for me.”

“Gordon Motors would hire me for a dollar an hour after I took some courses in Toronto starting May 1, 1959. I lived in Toronto for six weeks, coming home on the weekends; then took another four weeks of training to get my Class A mechanic’s licence for cars and heavy equipment.” The Pickards were living on the $26 cream cheque for 10 weeks and on the unemployment cheque of $28 for another 10 weeks. 

“I worked for Gordon Motors and then for Bill Smith when he bought the gas station in Gore Bay. In the day I worked on cars and in the evening, on trucks for Mr. Smith.” Austin’s main passion was fixing engines, starting with Gordon Motors, the Gore Bay Ford Dealership. He also worked for Manitoulin Transport for two-and-a-half years, in Elliot Lake’s Harrison Equipment and later, Dennison Mines for nine years. Austin’s dad continued to farm the Ice Lake farm until 1970. In 1971, Norman became overseer for T. Brush on Brushe’s Island.

Fox Tower from the front.

In 1984, Austin returned to Manitoulin, doing odd jobs where he could, and adding to his woodworking skills. “I liked farming, doing finishing work with wood and fixing engines for Manitoulin Chrysler for two years and Calvin Pearson for seven years.” Austin had his own customers as well. It added up to 61 years as an auto and engine mechanic.

The Pickards had four children, Ted, Mary, Danny and Tammy. Bev recalls how the boys liked to ride their horses home after the school bus dropped them off. They would leave them with a neighbour down the road where the horses liked to snack on the neighbour’s garden. Bev did some outside work too. She spent time as a food supervisor both at the Manor in Little Current and in the Gore Bay Nursing Home in the 1980s. “I liked working in the Gore Bay Nursing home.”

Austin and Bev have been great babysitters for their great-grandchildren. There is a photo of a very content and quiet Austin as he holds two little tykes in his arms. The little ones love their grandparents and great-grandparents. Austin Jr. was once asked to go on a trip outside of Canada. He declared boldly “I’m Canadian, I stay with Gran and Grandpa.” Last year, little Finn struggled in with a four foot 60th anniversary card. He showed it to us and promptly ran back in the kitchen with it until he was reminded that he was to give it to us. He turned around and struggled back in with it. We all smiled at his determination.”

Favourite television shows are NCIS, the news and hockey. “Trips? We had a wonderful family trip to Cuba and one excursion to the East Coast. In Ontario, we have been back to Huntsville to check on the graves of Bev’s grandparents. There is no family there now and we were worried the graves might be under water, but all was well.” 

When Austin does a small job for someone, and they ask about cost, he responds, “just beer and cigarette money will do.” He has a great sense of humour and as most people are aware, he neither drinks nor smokes. Old cars and trucks have been a bit of a hobby for him. A charming 1950 Ford half-ton, one of two, sits in the driveway and is also depicted on the mailbox. He also has two-door Ford Custom car. 

Beverly and her family Mary, Mum, Fred, John, Dad, and Linda

Austin remembers a phone call from Harold Clarke of Manitowaning to ask about fixing a 1963 Ford Galaxy convertible. Austin gave instructions for the repair, but never heard back if it was successful before he wound up in the hospital with heart issues. Despite the gravity of his own situation, he laid in the hospital bed wondering if Harold’s car was working now. One of his nurses happened to be Harold’s wife Faye who assured him the car was now functional. “Over the years, I got lots of older car calls. One 1950 Plymouth was fixed up and the proud owner showed the ‘after’ photos to the person he bought the car from but sadly, the owner died before he could take it out for a spin.” 

A 10-pound dog called Hercules follows Bev everywhere. He is nice when Bev is there but apparently, a little more ‘opinionated’ when she isn’t. He will bark if the phone rings, so Bev knows to answer it. She has a hard time hearing the phone. One time he barked, and Bev couldn’t tell what was wrong. It wasn’t the phone. Finally, she saw that there was a car in the ditch and a woman needed help. After help came, the woman came to thank Bev who suggested she thank the dog as he had alerted her. The lady did not believe that a dog had instigated this rescue mission, but indeed he had.

“This property has seen the lives of eight generations, starting with my great-grandfather, all the way to our great-grandchildren.” That makes the Pickard generation true Haweaters. But life hasn’t been easy for the family. Sadly, both sons and one son-in-law have died. The family cherishes its history and celebrates its ancestors. Kelsey, who is here today, is expecting later this fall. Her baby will be called Shawn, after Shawn Aube, the baby’s grandfather. Danny’s daughter was a one and a half pound ‘preemie’ when she was born. Today she is a beautiful lady and a graphic artist. 

“We have been married for 61 years, and that is worth celebrating. This has been as good a marriage as anyone could possibly ask for,” adds Austin proudly. “Special events are celebrated with the family and they help to create a strong family bond.” Favourite season? “Fall,” Bev explains, “it is a quiet, beautiful time.” Fall is also Austin’s favourite time, along with spring. “Spring is the time for the sugar bush, another eventful time for family. We boil hot dogs in the sap and they are delicious. We clean the syrup with milk and eggs and then strain the finished product. This is how my great-grandfather finished the maple syrup too.”

“What am I afraid of? Nothing. I have had a good life; I have done a lot that others may not have had the opportunity to do and I have a lovely family with a comfortable roof over my head. Our recipe for happiness? Try to look after each other, help each other out and do as many things together as possible.” Austin was a member of the Gore Bay Lions Club at one time. Bev has also helped her community, as a prior member of the Women’s Institute.

Bev had a stroke about 10 years ago, but she is doing well. Both Austin and Bev rest in comfort knowing that family is near and will help when needed. Austin has had knee surgery recently and his leg is still quite swollen, but he gets around. Nothing can yet hold him down for long. He still uses his ‘good imagination’ to make wooden structures, a bookcase for the living room, a large table for the kitchen and toys for his great-grandchildren. “We are also making some items to be sold to help restart the Ice Lake Picnic that originated in the 1800s.”

“Manitoulin has always been our home base. When Dennison mines shut down, Bev said to me, ‘Let’s go home.’ I had another job offer but I turned it down and we came back home to Fox Tower Road. Manitoulin is our special place. I wake up in the morning and thank heaven for living here. We have no snipers, no gangs and few forest fires.” Austin shares. “To sum up, this particular spot is ours. Eight generations were born and raised here. We feel safe on this land surrounded by our family and friends.”