Q. What do grandfather clocks and bees have in common?
A. Virgil Garrett
This past summer there was a construction project on Road 38 at the northern edge of the village of Sharbot Lake. For a time there was a stoplight for southbound traffic in front of Virgil and Beryl Garrett's house. One afternoon while a half dozen cars were waiting for the light to change (an unwelcome novelty in this part of the world) Virgil Garrett was standing on the sidewalk, waiting for all the cars to clear the scene before slowly and serenely walking across the road to get his mail, just as he has done since 1949.
In the rear view mirror driving away, Virgil was in the foreground and the sun lit up the landscaped north end of the Garrett property, where Virgil has spent hours trimming, mowing and planting for so many years. Whether on his own property, or in groups such as the Masons, the Sharbot Lake 39ers, the farmers’ market or the school, Virgil and Beryl have been fixtures in the community for longer than anyone, other than Virgil, can remember.
Virgil Garrett was born on April 3, 1922, on a farm on the Zealand Road in what is now Central Frontenac Township. The Zealand cemetery is located on the Garrett farm.
He was the “center” child as he puts it, between older brother Roscoe and younger sister Billie.
Virgil’s grandfather was in the British military and was offered a land grant in Bathurst Township in Lanark County in the 1840s. He eventually moved to Zealand, which was a community at that time, later in the 19th Century. Since that part of Frontenac County was settled up to 50 years later than nearby communities and farms in western Lanark County, the Garrett homestead, which is in the former Oso Township, is one of the oldest in Central Frontenac.
Virgil's father was raised on the farm, did some work in the lumber trade in his youth, and eventually settled down to farming. His mother was a Drew from Long Lake, one of a long line of teachers, a profession that was eventually taken up by Virgil and his wife Beryl.
As a child, Virgil helped out on the farm as much as he could, and attended school at SS #3 Oso Township, about a half mile from his house.
Not only was there no electricity in the school, there was no well on site either, and students had to go to a nearby farm to ferry back pails of water. The school had a woodshed and two back houses, which were stocked with Eaton's catalogues for student use (there was no Frontenac News in those days).
The only light in the school was provided by three small windows on each side of the building, and coal oil lamps. Virgil was a small boy, which came in handy on occasions when the school was accidentally locked by the teacher. A couple of bigger boys hoisted him up and he climbed through the small window on the side of the school porch. He then unlocked the door from the inside.
One of Virgil's first jobs was as the school's caretaker, for which he was paid $11 a year. His responsibilities included daily routines such as cleaning blackboards, sweeping the floor, filling ink bottles on students' desks, and keeping wood available for the stove, as well as keeping the fire burning throughout the day when needed.
In 1937 Virgil was sent off for a summer to Napanee to help out a beekeeper, and that got him started on keeping bees at the farm in Zealand, which he continued even after moving to Sharbot Lake in 1949. At one time he was producing as much as 1,000 pounds of honey in a season, “But at a price of ten cents a pound I never became that rich from it. I don't think I know a single wealthy beekeeper,” he said. Although he only keeps a small operation going now, he has kept bees almost continuously for about 78 years. Virgil has supplied honey to local stores and markets for most of those years, and has apprenticed many beekeepers over that time. When the Sharbot Lake Farmers Market started up a few years ago, he was one of the first to sign up, and although he does not sell a lot of honey any more, he still frequents the market. This past summer he served as a celebrity judge at the first ever Great Butter Tart Challenge at the market.
When the Second World War came along, Virgil was the Garrett who stayed home on the farm because his parents were quite elderly. His brother Roscoe and sister Billie both joined the armed forces. After the war he worked for the railroad in Toronto and elsewhere, coming home on the weekends.
He married Beryl and they built their house in 1949, but Virgil kept working on the railroad for a few years, and Beryl began teaching. In the mid-1950s Virgil went back to high school at the new school in Sharbot Lake near his house, and then took a teaching course in Toronto. In 1959 he took on a job that combined his love of wood-working with his interest and training in education. He became the Industrial Arts teacher at Sharbot Lake High School, a position he would keep for 25 years until he retired in 1984, partly because the dust in the shop had begun to affect his lungs after so many years.
During his years as a teacher, one of his major goals was to find projects for his more advanced students that would motivate them to develop more wood-working skills.
One year he decided to spend the spring break building a small grandmother clock.
“When the students came back to school after the holiday there was the clock, standing on the floor. They asked me where that came from and I said 'when you were on vacation I was doing some work'. About six of them asked if they could learn to make one, and that's what they spent the fall doing when they were in grade 12.”
Virgil and his students became known for the grandfather clocks that were made in the shop, and he has a number of them in his house to this day. Other advanced cabinetry projects followed, and thanks to Virgil the school developed a reputation for craftsmanship.
“Once a student got the idea that they were capable of making something and they wanted to get it made, nothing was going to stop them,” Virgil said of the students he taught in the 1960s and 1970s.
He takes pride in the fact that a number of the best carpenters in the region got their start in his class.
After he retired in 1984, Virgil carried on with his beekeeping and his activities with community groups and the local Masonic lodge, where he has served in a number of leadership roles.
He also, almost accidentally, acquired a 1916 Canadian-made Ford Model T in the 1990s. It tweaked his memory of packing into Model Ts to get to ball games and other events when he was young and he was compelled to get this one on the road. He spent years finding parts in “old barns, flea markets, garage sales” and got the Model T in running order. Although it hasn't been driven recently it still sits, intact, in Virgil's garage.
With some support from family and home help, Virgil is still a fixture in the local community, and, as always, he is as quick with a joke as anyone else.