This story is part of our partnership with Maryboro Lodge The Fenelon Falls Museum and was written by Glenn Walker.
KAWARTHA LAKES-Growing up as the daughter of an unmistakable local legend was an unusual experience. In the last decades of Garnet Graham’s life, Elizabeth recalls, “Going anywhere with him was somewhat tiresome, because he would walk in, and the crowd would be coming. It was like he was Elvis Presley. He would pull his hand out of his pocket and say, “have you seen my three sponges” and then it was goodbye, catch you later, because he would be busy with the crowd for hours.” In Kinmount, Fenelon Falls, Cobie or Minden, Garnet was sure to have a following. But life had not always been so easy for Mr. Yip.
Garnet was the second youngest of 13 children, born in Kinmount in 1909. His father Jim Graham worked at the Stave Factory just north of town. When Garnet was 7, the family moved to Coboconk, so Jim could work at the Gull River Lumber Company’s Sawmill (now the Buck and Up), where he ultimately became the general manager. Just as Garnet was reaching adulthood, the Great Depression hit, and it was a difficult time in the lumber business—as the last drives were coming down the Gull River. His father nonetheless tried to set him up with a job working in the sawmill—though it might have been a dependable job that paid, it was nonetheless deafening and dangerous—in those days the men had to communicate with hand signals, because no one could hear anything over the noise of the machinery.
Garnet did not enjoy working at the mill, so he got himself a job as a delivery driver for Shields’ Store (it was then a general store, selling groceries, china, clothing and hardware). At that time, driving a truck was a sign of technological progress. In 1940, his father died of a heart attack and he had to help his mother and younger sister Emma (who later married Maurice Windatt). While he was working for Shields, his older sister Violet was renting a house on Francis Street, Fenelon Falls across from the present-day fire hall. While he was visiting her, he met Helena Burgoyne who lived just down the street, in the house east of the lake, on the south side.
Helena’s mother, Lib (Austin) Burgoyne did not approve of the young suitor. The Burgoynes were among the wealthiest and most prominent families in Fenelon Falls, owning a general store on Colborne Street. Lib had her eye on Max Brandon, an insurance agent working on the main street, who was wealthy and lived in a beautiful home. But Helena saw something special in the delivery driver—he was outgoing, knew a lot of people, loved sports and had a lot of personality, while she had been sheltered as a member of the Fenelon Falls elite. Garnet sold his canoe, one they had used to paddle to his family’s cottage, to buy the wedding rings. Much to her mother’s chagrin, Helena eloped with Garnet. They were married in the St. Paul’s Anglican Church office in Lindsay. Their honeymoon took them to Toronto, staying at inns along the way, including the grand Uxbridge Inn.
The newlyweds moved to Coboconk where their children were born, Elizabeth and Charles. Garnet kept busy, volunteering at Christ Church and joining the military auxiliary during the Second World War, training in the field where Ridgewood Public School stands today.
When Elizabeth was six, the family moved in with Helena’s parents in Fenelon Falls to help Lib who had fallen ill with lung disease. Lib had not gotten over her daughter’s decision to marry a delivery driver and became depressed. Garnet moved on to working as a salesperson for York Trading, a distribution company. He then started the physically demanding work of road maintenance on highway 35. He was having a very difficult time supporting his family, which was all the more noticeable because of his in-laws’ high standards.
Once again, Garnet had a fortuitous encounter while visiting his sister, Violet. By that time, she lived in Lindsay, and her neighbour, Mr. Gleason, was an executive with Confederation Life. Mr. Gleason took an instant liking to Garnet, and signed him up to be an insurance salesman. Garnet was dyslexic, and had trouble reading, so he had to memorize practically everything. But Garnet worked extremely hard to succeed in the insurance business.
Garnet worked out of Peterborough, and he was constantly on the road meeting customers. He was naturally shy, but he overcame it out of necessity. For his whole adult life, Garnet was a restless soul. He did not like to be home, he always had to be on the go, was always doing something productive, and he became a tremendous success for Confederation Life. Garnet won many awards for sales. Consequently, little time was spent with his family. In the end, Helena did marry a very successful insurance salesman, but her mother did not live to see it happen.
Garnet was a Gemini, and it is often said that these twins have split personalities. His kindness and generosity often knew no bounds, but at the same time he had a temper, especially when he was frustrated at his inability to get something done. As was fashionable in those days, Garnet smoked and drank socially, conducting a lot of his business in local taverns. With tricks in hand, he would walk into a bar and entertain patrons. He also used his tricks as a way to get in the door of his customers. Before long his customers remembered him for his antics, as much as the life insurance policies he sold. He would entertain families, as he checked in to see if they had thought to take out a policy on their latest child.
While he was working for Confederation Life, he was already deeply involved in providing opportunities for youth in his community. In 1960, he wanted to sponsor a swimming competition through the Rotary Club, with $25 as a first prize. But he didn’t have the $25, so he practiced and prepared to go into a race himself. When he won it, he then had the funds to donate, so that the Rotary Club could host a swimming meet for local kids.
At the age of 65, he retired from Confederation Life, but retained the work ethic that had made him so successful in business. Though he enjoyed curling, waltzing, shuffleboard, and played cards well, especially bridge and euchre, tricks took up practically all of his spare time. In retirement he turned his attention to improving his community and entertaining friends and neighbours. It was obvious he had an unusual knack for engaging with children. Even in retirement, he found it difficult to be at home, and worked practically all day every day.
Dick Bulmer, Fenelon Falls’ famous trickster, showed Garnet a Yip Stick. Once he saw the Yip Stick, Garnet soon made it his own, becoming known as Mr. Yip. With his boundless energy, by the 1980s, Garnet had transformed the Yip Stick into the most popular souvenir of Fenelon Falls, and a trick that almost every local knew. One year he sold over 1000 yip sticks, donating all the money to local charities. While at a trick store in Toronto he came across a plastic snapper trick, which he called a “Goes-Into” and reproduced out of wood. He came up with many other fundraising ideas including a 3-piece chicken dinner for $1 (consisting of 3 pieces of corn to feed a chicken) and antique water (a bottle said to contain the actual water that Champlain paddled on, nearly four centuries before). He had Bill Shosenberg and Jim Taggart making his tricks.
Garnet was also remembered for walking into a room and pointing his finger at someone, then he would start to laugh. And as he continued to laugh, everyone else would join in laughing and the whole room would end up laughing until they were crying. He was also known to pull hankies out of his pocket—a long chain of what seemed like 100 handkerchiefs, all tied together.
Garnet raised enough money that he could support practically every charity in Fenelon Falls. He donated to the museum, minor hockey, baseball, and of course, the beach park beside his house. He funded a slide, swings, lifeguards, sailing classes, swimming lessons, swimming piers and the swimming tower. One of his pet projects was painting the arena interior (then located at Bond & John Streets). He also donated a hockey trophy. He was part of the Rotary Club’s annual event, when they put a car on the ice, and people would guess which day it would fall through. Garnet was a huge part of the Fenelon Falls Winter Games. He was a strong supporter of St. James Anglican Church, though he typically slept through Sunday service—“He would say, ‘if you can’t sleep in church, where can you sleep?’ and mother wouldn’t say anything about it.”
When he was at home, he spent much of his time at Ye Olde Curio Shoppe (AKA his garage) where he always had his box of tricks at the ready. It was special indeed for kids to stop by and see Garnet on the way to the beach park.
In 1974, while Elizabeth lived in Toronto, she was gifted a black terrier-poodle that they named Bobby. While Bobby was a good dog for the apartment they occupied, once they moved to a home on Donlands Avenue, Elizabeth worried that it was such a busy road that it was not safe for Bobby. One day she took the pooch to meet her father, and Garnet instantly fell in love with the little dog, who was probably about six months old at the time. Garnet managed to persuade her to leave Bobby with him for a week, but it turned into a permanent home.
Garnet “put his whole heart into making the dog obey him so it could become a star, his sidekick, Bobby Beau (pronounced “Boo”). To someone without Garnet’s touch, Bobby Beau could be a holy terror—let him out for a pee and he would come back 3 days later. But before long, Garnet had Bobby climbing trees, counting and even adding. He had actually trained the dog to bark when he gestured, so he would ask what’s two plus two, gesture with his hand, and Bobby would bark 4 times.
Garnet and Bobby Beau took to looking after the ducks who visited the beach. Garnet applied his customary energy to the project, and before long he was buying farm feed bags of corn, three at a time to feed the ducks. He would venture down to the park with a plastic pail and Bobby would help herd the ducks to him, as they ate. While he was on council, he even dreamed about bringing swans to Fenelon Falls, but his co-workers nixed his plan.
Garnet served as the village’s Santa Claus. He was Town Crier for both Fenelon Falls’ Homecoming (100th Anniversary of Incorporation, celebrated in 1975, the year after the actual anniversary) and Lindsay’s 125th Anniversary in 1982. He would perform in theatres, at practically every school from his home to Haliburton, and informally just about everywhere in between. He even had his own show on CHEX TV. They made film after film of Bobby Beau counting backwards. Once he retired and worked full time on his tricks and improving his community, his celebrity personality really grew.
Garnet loved to spend his retirement as an entertainer. “The more people laughed, the more he enjoyed them laughing, and on it went. He really enjoyed doing it, and he carried on because he really fed off other people laughing and being happy. He had to go to his garage every day. He had to get his coffee and sit out there and talk to people. He had to get his corn and feed the ducks, because it made the ducks happy…. He had no wants for himself, his only want was to make everyone else happy, that was what he lived for.”
In 1982, artist Alec Sailamaa moved to Fenelon Falls. He was a unique talent, he would paint furiously as he transformed the canvas into something wonderful. He painted the mural on the side of J’n B’s (now the General Store), and would produce brilliant work, then you wouldn’t see him for 4 days. He was quiet, reclusive, and always walked with his head down. He also ended up homeless. When Garnet saw what Alec was dealing with, he had to find a way to help. So he bought a trailer for Alec to live in and hooked it up to his garage—so right behind Ye Olde Curio Shoppe was the community’s best-known artist.
Garnet Graham ran for council, and given his immense popularity, was of course elected. He was a very active councillor, always trying to do something to improve the town. In addition to numerous schemes to put Fenelon Falls on the map, including the Miss Fenelon Falls (a plywood photo set of a boat he commissioned for the beach park), he took a real interest in securing a second crossing. He tried to arrange for a bridge crossing from Clifton Street, and connecting to a road passing through the Industrial Park, but ran into significant opposition from landowners near the proposed route. But even though he was not always successful, he had enthusiasm and a positive outlook that few others could match. In recognition of all the money he raised for the beach park (and countless other charitable causes), Reeve Barclay Taylor renamed it in his honour in 1986.
The previous year, Garnet had a close brush with death. On one of his daily trips to the beach to feed the ducks, Garnet came down with encephalitis and ended up hospitalized in a coma for nine days. With their dad unresponsive, his kids knew that the way to wake him up was to bring Bobby Beau to see him. Though they were not allowed to bring the dog into the hospital, they held him up to the window. “we didn’t think he was going to live until we started bringing Bobby Beau every day.”
With a new lease on life, Garnet carried on being the unforgettable character that was beloved by so many in Fenelon Falls. Even when he had dementia, he would take his walker downtown, visiting his favourite store, or stopping by at the Falls or Canal, to talk to people and show them his tricks. Even then, he was not home much.
Garnet was always thinking about other people, and how to make things better—that was the essence of his being. For a man who grew up with so little, he wanted to make sure that no one would go without if he possibly could help them. Garnet often came across as not having the time for people—Helena had accepted years before that she would spend much of her time with her own activities and friends. While Garnet was at Rotary Club meetings, she would go to church meetings, bowl or play euchre with her friends. Though he was so famous as a trickster, her reaction was often, ‘oh my, not this again.’ Having seen the act so many times, “I often had the sense that she thought it was ridiculous.” But it was because he spent so much time trying to improve the lives of others, that he often neglected building close personal relationships.
When Garnet was at home, he was typically distracted. “He wouldn’t ask me about my life, he would never say I love you, would never ask if you needed help, or if you were happy, he would just take you as you were. He didn’t come across as being interested in what we did, his mind was always somewhere else. He was always trying to make other people’s lives better, and trying to make sure that others had the best of everything.” It is an unusual person that does such wonderful things for people, but often does not take the time to form deep personal relationships.
Garnet loved big parties with his dependable wife, who he always called Honey. For Helena’s 90th birthday, the family hosted more than 150 people at the house, but the Grahams’ 50th wedding anniversary was perhaps the biggest of them all. For the occasion he rented 3 halls, the curling club, Salvation Army and Seniors hall, “and it seemed like there were thousands of people.” For the occasion, Garnet arranged for a giant cardboard cake and had his son Charles drive to Orillia to rent a red convertible. Charles took Helena across town in the red convertible “and she was in her glory, driving around in that car. She was more enthralled with the convertible than the giant cake.”
After being in the coma, Garnet was not able to drive anymore. Helena, who had never driven, decided she would learn how to drive so she could take him around, though she was over 75 years old. She tried 5 times but never passed, but it showed her remarkable love and devotion to Garnet.
As he was nearing the end, Garnet had terrible emphysema from his lifetime of smoking, had dementia and had suffered a stroke. But he would never let on how sick he really was. So he would take a puff of oxygen, and go out to sell Yip Sticks at Ye Olde Curio Shoppe. Then one day, he went out and bought a teddy bear, so that Helena would have a friend to hold. Elizabeth was in Fenelon Falls to visit her dad. She asked how he was, and he replied, “oh, not bad.” But when she got back to Toronto, she heard that Garnet was in the hospital. He died in 1995 at the age of 86. To the end he was a happy man. He recognized that he didn’t accomplish everything on his own and was grateful for everyone who helped him along the way.
Growing up as the child of a local celebrity, a man who had the aura of a rock star, made for a very different experience for Elizabeth and Charles. Having seen (endured?) the act countless times, “we would enjoy seeing everyone laughing and having a good time. But it has turned into something for young and old that I could never have imagined then. I would never have guessed that people would still be interested in him 30 years later. But people do still come back, they will never forget him as long as they live.”
Garnet Graham was unusually public-minded, the namesake of the beach park where he spent so much time entertaining children and doing everything he could think of to make his community a better and more enjoyable place to live. He loved larger than life ideas, and in the process of sharing all the joyous things that he found, he touched the lives of practically everyone in his community. Mr. Yip lived to see everyone else be happy, and as he worked day after day to enhance Fenelon Falls, it made his life wonderful too, together with his sidekick Bobby Beau.
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Maryboro Lodge Museum
50 Oak Street
Fenelon Falls, ON