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Developer saving some agricultural history

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Along the Sunset Strip, behind a hill which trucks are gradually hauling away to make room for development, stands a sentinel from the past.

It’s a curious looking, rustic two-storey square tower with a flared base, like that of an old light station or a fire watch tower.

Exposed after being hidden behind two farm buildings which have been removed stands what was a watch tower on a fox ranch which belonged to Ken and Elda MacDonald.

Their only child, Mary Jane Schenkel, recalls watching the animals from what used to be the tower’s third storey, before its poor condition necessitated reducing it to two.

Now it stands watch over car dealerships which dot the commercial strip on the western doorstep of Owen Sound.

It was hard to accept when the developer demolished two barns and the home where she spent her first 18 years, but the 60-year-old special education teacher, now living in Elmira with her husband Bill, was delighted to learn the tower had been spared.

That’s thanks to Bruce Thom, the local developer who is clearing the way to build more commercial buildings on the site once the hill is removed.

“It’s quite an interesting building. That’s why I did save it. I want to restore it,” said Thom, who bought the property from Schenkel about four years ago and demolished the buildings two years ago.

Thom is intrigued by the construction of the tower, the way the base is flared out. “That’s what makes it so interesting. It has a main floor wood stove in there. It had a bed in there.”

There were some 300 feet of mink cages on the property which were collapsing and were bulldozed, he said.

Schenkel said her dad started working for the ranch owner about 1925, when he and his mother moved from Jackson to the adjacent property to the east. That property was sold in 1986 to make way for the Honda dealership there today.

Her father bought the ranch about 1935 from the estate of a veterinarian, Dr. William Hodgson, who died in a car fire. Mink were added in 1946 as demand for fox waned. Her dad died in 1999 and the ranch property remained vacant until Schenkel sold it to Thom.

Donald MacDonald, Schenkel’s 78-year-old cousin, lives in Springmount, just down the road from the tower. Born in 1935, he spent many hours over the years in it from his boyhood until the last pelts were sold and the ranching ended in 1974.

A large, third-floor window used to overlook the fox breeding pens just to the south of tower. He used to sit in one of the old car seats placed there for those who kept watch.

It was the rancher’s job to ensure the dogs or male foxes were doing what came naturally, then were quickly chased out by MacDonald or his uncle, who entered the pen. Otherwise the males could become aggressive, putting the females’ lives in jeopardy, he said.

The rancher would grab the fox by the tail, dangling him to keep him at a safe distance, while it was moved to the next pen.

There was a cot in the “observation tower” as he and “Uncle Ken” called it. Every fox ranch had one, he said, to watch the mating proceeded smoothly.

The third storey was heated electrically, “but it was damn cold, let me tell you, as a little boy,” he recalled as he chuckled. “I remember crying, my feet would get cold.”

He also recalled that tower proved a convenient place to bring girlfriends later in his youth.

Horse meat was ground by a machine on the main floor of the tower, then was mixed with grains and fed to the animals. The meat came from an abattoir nearby along the Sunset Strip, Schenkel said. Furs were stretched in the tower, which provided storage for cages, stretching boards and nutritional supplements for the feed.

MacDonald thinks the tower has stood there since the late 1800s. The foxes were kept there until at least the 1950s. The tower had nothing to do with the mink farm, he said.

Once the pelts were stretched, they were usually sold to to regular buyers like Gorbets in Owen Sound or wholesalers from elsewhere, he said.

He recalled the ranch had been owned by a family named Lockwood, then was acquired by Hodgson.

MacDonald said the peculiar pyramidal shape of the tower, roughly 12 feet by 12 feet on the second floor, a little bigger below on the main floor, has been a mystery to him.

“I could never figure that out and neither could Uncle Ken.”

There were others fox ranches locally, including one in Burgoyne, Percy Noble’s ranch in Shallow Lake and one on top of the east hill with similar towers, he recalled.

Jon Radojkovic has written two books about barns and in the course of his barn inspection business, has seen hundreds of them. He examined pictures of the tower and concluded its timber-frame construction dates it prior to 1900. This construction method relies on bracing for strength and with such a small building, there’s limited room for that. The walls could have been splayed for added stability, he said.

Schenkel thinks the tower dates to 1878, when the now demolished farmhouse was built.

Thom doesn’t know when he’ll start refurbishing the tower or what might become of it.

“I don’t know, that’s why I say I don’t know why I’m doing it,” he admitted. “What’s going to become of it I have no idea. I’m open for any suggestions on it.”

scott.dunn@sunmedia.ca

 

 

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