Friday, November 6, 2009

Chapter 39

A Sentimental Journey to Windfields Farm

As we approach the anniversary of his death in 1990 I wanted to jump ahead a few chapters. These pictures were taken at the beautiful Windfields farm in February and June 2006. You can click on the pictures to enlarge them.

Rewind to February 2006

It’s Saturday February 11, 2006. The roads are clear and we are supposed to see some sunshine this afternoon. I went to work for a few hours and would decide later this morning if I would make the trip to Windfields Farm in Oshawa to visit the grave of our Dancer. I would like to take some photos and see what the farm is like 34 years after our hero was born there and some 30 years after he retired there, to stud.

We like to spend every weekend of the summer at the beach and our trailer in Grand Bend (Ontario’s best kept secret). In just over a month we will be getting away from the dreaded Canadian winter for two weeks in Florida, returning just in time to say goodbye to winter and hello to spring in Grand Bend. If I could find a good weather day to visit Windfields in February, I would not have to lose one of my beach days in Grand Bend.

We are experiencing our mildest winter in years with no snow in January and almost tropical temperatures (above zero) since December. We have had some dustings of snow in the past few days and the temperature is falling so the snow has stuck. In fact it has made for some pretty scenes around our tree-lined streets where branches have been transformed into icicles. Meanwhile the roads and highways are bare and safe for travel. I could handle this kind of winter. As much as I was concerned about what I would be able to see at the farm in the winter, it was so pretty around Brantford that I thought it could be a special time to visit and after all it was our winters that had some experts tell E. P. Taylor he would never be able to breed quality horses in Canada. Maybe this would be a perfect time to make the trip.

It was here at work a few months ago when Gavin Tapp, the hardware expert from our ERP software supplier CMS, was in to do a hardware installation. Gavin is the guy you want when you have hardware issues. He is very patient, never panics and always gets the job done. I knew from previous visits that Gavin lived in Oshawa and on his most recent visit to Atlas I drilled him with a lot of questions about Windfields Farm. He had me concerned when he said the farm was shrinking and surrounded by new housing developments. I knew the grave and monument were still there along with some buildings but I had a vision of everything being squeezed into one or two acres. He said it was easy to find and that I should make a trip there while it was still a farm. He thought it was still open to the public. I started to think about it over the Christmas break and finally looked up some information about the current farm on the Internet.

I was really impressed with their website and thrilled to see it was still a vibrant breeding farm. Not only could I see the grave, maybe I could experience some of the magic of the historic farm. I didn’t want to make the 200 km trip only to find the gates closed so when the sun started to break through the clouds and make the snow glisten outside my office, I called Windfields to see if they were open. I got a voice mail message saying the office hours were Monday to Friday and whatever hours … now what?

I had the directions and phone numbers from the website along with a detailed contact list so I thought I would try the extension of someone lower down in the breeding end of the business, hoping that they would be around on a Saturday. I picked my target and tried the main number again, before I could spell the name for the directory, a gentleman answered. I apologized for bothering him on the weekend but he said there was always work to be done, even on a Saturday and they were open to the public today but they request it be between 1 and 3 pm. I thanked him and said those times were perfect for me. I let him know I was coming from quite a distance and wanted to take some pictures of the Dancer’s birthplace and grave, he said that would be fine. It was 10:30 am when I left my house with camera, spare batteries, notebook, pen, website information and my Muriel Lennox book (just in case I needed it for reference). I have read the book so many times, I didn’t think I would have any trouble finding my way around the buildings near the graveside.

I had lots of time so I thought I would detour by Woodbine to get some photos of the Dancer’s statue there as well.

It was the first day of competition at the Olympics in Turin, Italy. Morning was prime time but according to my schedule, I didn’t think we had any Nordic medal contenders today and our women’s hockey team should not have too much trouble with the host Italians in their early afternoon game. Mike Weir was leading the Pebble Beach heading into the third round but I should be home in time for some of that. I turned on the FAN 590 to keep up with the Olympic coverage and all else going on in sports while I was on the road. Traffic reports in Brantford are unnecessary but they help when you are heading to Toronto and the Fan came in handy today. There is a jackknifed tractor-trailer on highway 403, just past the Lincoln Alexander Parkway on Hamilton’s mountain heading in my direction. The OPP are just closing the highway and I am able to exit on the “Linc”.

I commuted from Brantford to the northeast end of Hamilton for my last 13 years at Westinghouse. We closed our plant in 1995 and I left Westinghouse the year they completed Highway 403 between Brantford and Hamilton (which would have shaved at least 20 minutes off my commute every day). It did shorten the trip to our friends and family, still living in Hamilton.

I had lots of options off the “Linc” but I decided to follow my old path, past Linda’s mothers house on the mountain and down the Kenilworth access to Burlington Street and over the Skyway Bridge, past my old house on the beach strip. It was a sentimental trip along the roads I used to travel every day but it had been a long time and how times had changed. Linda’s mom’s house had just been sold. She would be moving in a few weeks from the house where she had spent the past 55 years and Linda was born.

On the way down the mountain you get a great view of Hamilton, a city that is totally misunderstood. You see nothing but snow covered trees for almost as far as your eye can see. Far off to the northeast is the lake, Skyway Bridge and yes … a few of the smoke stacks that everyone thinks is Hamilton. I only see the trees.

You look down on Ivor Wynne Stadium nestled in the trees past Gage Park and St Peter’s Hospital where Linda worked the night shift last night. She was home, sound asleep when I kissed her goodbye. I make my way down Kenilworth Avenue towards Burlington Street. I drive past a Stelco building where my uncles Fred (Thompson) and Ted (Ward) worked and where my brother in law, Rick Blackborow still works today. Stelco is trying to emerge from bankruptcy protection and usually in the news every day. I drive by Dofasco, the other big steel company in Hamilton where two of my cousins work (Chuck and Rob Ward). Dofasco is being sold to a large European steel conglomerate. I drive past our old Westinghouse building on Burlington Street, where we used to build transformers and electric motors (my division).

In their day, Stelco, Dofasco and Westinghouse were the largest employers in Hamilton. Dofasco is the only large one left and they are on the verge of being sold. What would that do to the profitable steel maker? Tom Johnson, my old boss and friend from Westinghouse sent me an email this week about Toshiba buying the Atomic Power business unit of Westinghouse. I am not sure what manufacturing divisions are left in the Westinghouse family.

It’s been just over ten years since I made this trip for work but all was not lost in the steel city. Just up Burlington Street on Parkdale is, Carlo Dipietro’s small but growing Electric Motor business ETI. Carlo was our Engineering VP at Westinghouse and still a good friend. We get together with our Westinghouse buddies every year at Al Friday’s cottage near Mansfield ski resort. I made a few trips to Carlo’s plant early on when he was starting to fire up his systems. Carlo purchased a lot of his own Canadian designs, systems and tooling from Westinghouse when he started the business in 1995 and employs a lot of our old friends today. They are doing very well in their niche markets.

There is something about making a trip like this, to see a piece of Canadian history that makes you think about your own past and maybe this little detour was just what I needed. As I get onto the QEW and see the Burlington skyway in the distance, I can see our old house in the “lot” on the beach strip, my sister Wendy and Rick, live there now. There is Dynes tavern where we spent a lot of weekends. Ian Telfer and I would launch our many baseball road trips from Thursday night plans at Dynes. Going down the QEW, I pass the Culligan office where Linda’s uncle Jack Cunningham worked for 35 years before retiring as President. Around the bend I pass the Ford plant and offices where her uncle Carl Wilbur worked for 30 years as an executive and our cousin Pat Richards carries the torch today. This Ford plant has survived another major cut back as Ford continues to scale back.

The Fan 590 Olympic report says we have a freestyle, mogul skier in first place after the qualifying round. I am going to have to get a better grip on the Olympic schedule and our medal contenders if I don’t want to miss our medal runs.

It’s nothing but blue sky for the rest of the trip and I am happy I made the decision to do this today. I take the 427 north, going by the Humber Highlands curling club where our rink won the Westinghouse Bonspiel ‘B’ draw in 1985 (Tom Johnson and I shared the skipping duties on our ‘D’ team that year). We had some great curlers in our Westinghouse Motor Division. I was intimidated by some of them when we started by curling lead for the in this annual Bonspiel, especially Ernie Huget. Ernie hailed from Saskatchewan and seemed like a hard ass at work and on the rink but I think his bark was worse than his bite. The year we won the ‘B’ side draw, we were the only ones to bring home any hardware and we just entered our team for the fun of it, so we could skip a team ourselves after a few years of experience at lead.

The jets seem to be taking off every three minutes from the Lester B Pearson Airport and today they fly directly over Woodbine on their way up. You would get a great view of those take offs or landings from the Woodbine grandstand. I pull into the Woodbine parking lot at 11:30 and it’s already busy with the “slots” crowd. The slots are very much responsible for the resurgence of horse racing in Canada and North America.

I can barely see the statue above the old walking ring on the ramp up to the track’s main entrance. I wonder if they still use that ring on thoroughbred race days? The statue looks smaller but the plaque is more impressive than I remember. I want to take a few shots and head inside to see what else might be worth shooting before I head off to the farm. The snow on the plaque had turned to ice in spots and I could not remove it from the smaller letters with my glove or bare hand. Typically, I took a few more shots than I needed but I didn’t want to miss the perfect angle or shot. I take a few more shots of the Northern Dancer wall plaques inside and want to check out the bookstore before I leave. There are none of the new books I am looking for but there is a small, old looking book about Joe O’Brien that I make a note about but do not purchase (I am still a cheapskate). I will save the trip to the fifth floor restaurant (the Northern Dancer room) until Linda can make the trip with me. I am already thinking my statue plaque shots will have to be redone in better weather to capture all the words.

It’s back on highway 401 heading east to Oshawa. I am feeling kind of nervous and not sure what to expect. I am really out of my element. I don’t want to intrude and I desperately don’t want to be disappointed in the farm. The directions off the website were perfect and I was off the 401 heading north on Thickson for 10 kms then east on Conlin, looking for Simcoe Street. I see a beautiful paddock and sign for Windfields but it’s not Simcoe Street. I turn anyway and head down the small side road. There are half a dozen yearlings in the large paddocks with chocolate brown wooden fences and two beautiful green and gold colored barns. The impressive sign outside the barns say “Barns 14, 15” and no visitors. I turn around to get back on Conlin heading east for another few kilometers before I reach the lights at Simcoe Street. Obviously the farm is still pretty well spread out and much larger than I expected. On the south side of Conlin is what looks like a campus and on the North side a tennis bubble. It’s Durham College. I wonder if Durham is built on what was once Windfields property?

It’s barely 12:00 pm and I don’t want to be a bother at Windfields so I decide to go past all the entrances to the farm on the left, scope out its size and get a lay of the land. I need not to have worried, the farm was massive, sure there were new homes on the east side of Simcoe but the farm seemed to stretch for as far north and west as my eye could see. There were paddocks and barns on both sides of Simcoe further north of Conlin. The buildings were all the same green and gold colour and the paddocks all the consistent dark shade of brown, old but in perfect condition. I could see lots of good photo opportunities as I finally reached the northern boundary of the farm on Winchester Rd. I turned around and headed back towards the entrance and drove past, looking for somewhere to kill an hour and maybe grab a bite to eat.

The Macdonalds on the corner of Simcoe and Taunton would do. As I turned into the parking lot, I realized this was going to be a challenge. It was an older Macdonalds on a tiny lot and I grabbed one of the last parking spots near the nonstop drive thru exit. The lines were all five deep inside with kids in hockey uniforms and parents drinking their Tim Horton’s coffee. Everyone was happy and friendly and no one seemed to be in a hurry. Oshawa is the GM capital of Canada and GM is struggling more than Ford to hang on to market share and jobs but you would never know it by this crowd. I asked one of the employees if there was a card shop nearby but it was one of the other customers who quickly gave me directions. I went for a walk after I ate and got Linda’s valentine card in Oshawa. By time I got back to my car, it was 1:00 pm, the parking lot was starting to empty out and the drive thru exit was quiet.

I pulled out onto Simcoe, heading north to the farm. The main entrance is framed with two stone pillars about 12 feet high. There is a green carved wooden sign, with the chocolate brown trim, white lettering and a gold logo. Meticulous in detail it spoke volumes about the quality and history of the site I was about to visit. The sign reads, ‘Windfields Farm’ ‘World’s #1 Source of Stakes Winners’. On one of the pillars has a smaller sign with the same colouring that says ‘Public Visiting Hours’ ‘1-3 pm’.

As you pull into the entrance and through the stone gate, you are on a narrow, tree-lined driveway that stretches for a couple of hundred meters, past paddocks and barns with mares and their new foals. Most of foals are less than a month old and all legs. There are stop signs where paths cross the roadway and signs marking barn numbers and finally the route to the office and public parking. The buildings are old but very well maintained and you can feel the history surrounding you.

There are several cars in the parking lot by the ‘Victoria Park’ office building but no humans in sight. As I get out of the car and start walking around to get my bearings, I feel a little uncomfortable, like an interloper even though the sign implied, visitors welcome. As I walked west past the office building I could see the familiar stallion barn off to the southwest. The gravestone should be right there between the stallion barn and the foaling barn (off to my left) but I can’t see the stone. Everything is covered in snow. As I get closer, I can just barely see the back edge of the Dancer’s stone, which is slightly raised above its snow-covered front and now I can see the outline of the grave. It was almost like there was a ‘warmth’ coming from the grave to melt the snow around its outline.

I walk past a stallion who whinnies at me and seems to be the only living creature who wants to know what I am doing there. It was eerie, cars and horses everywhere but no people. I could hear an occasional hoof hit a board in the foaling barn, as I approached the grave. There were footprints going just past the grave and up towards the arena building. I recognized all the buildings from Muriel’s book and the website. I followed the footprints towards the grave and stone. There was a sign off to the right that said no unescorted visitors but I think it was meant for the stallion barn and not the Dancer’s grave. I could now see the other stones and graves but the Dancer’s was the only one I could read and all I could see was the top third of his name but I knew it was his grave by its location and position relative to the buildings.

I knelt down to see if I could reach the stone and brush off the 2-3 centimeters of powdered snow. There is no way I would let myself touch the grave with any part of my body but I felt it was ok to sweep the snow off the stone. I could only reach about half of the stone and uncovered the full name, Northern Dancer. As I stretched out to reach the last few letters, I slipped and my knee slid down onto the grave. “I’m sorry”, I said to no one … but the Dancer. I got up and started taking some shots from every different angle.

Between Woodbine and now the grave I had taken over half my 46 shots on the disk. I wanted some pictures of the stallion barn, the foaling barn (barn no. 6) and the arena but it was facing directly into the sun. I started walking towards the arena to get a better angle from the sun when I finally saw a person, I waved and he waved back. As he got closer, I asked if I was ok in this area to take pictures and he said it was fine. Except for a few more hellos, that was all I would say to any humans on the farm for the better part of two hours I was there. I saved a few shots for the entrance and sign and sat in the car out of the sun to have a look at the pictures. They all looked better than I expected and when I finished up at the entrance, I thought I had accomplished everything I set out to do but it was still only about 1:45 pm. I thought I would drive back to town, get a coffee and then return to the farm one more time before heading home, after all, I wasn’t bothering anyone except the horses and other than the one stallion they didn’t seem to care.

On the way back into town, I was trying to think of a way I could sweep the snow off the gravestone when I remembered the snowbrush for my car (pretty obvious now). It’s long enough and a brush, it’s perfect. I would grab a coffee to go and head right back. I could delete a few of my redundant pictures and make room for a few more shots of the swept off stone.

The FAN reports, Canada has won their first medal of the games and it’s a gold. Jennifer Heil from Spruce Grove, Alberta was a medal hopeful but gold sounded like a huge bonus. It has been a great day so far.

It was just cool enough outside to make the coffee feel great going down but I was so excited it could have been 20 below and I don’t think it would have bothered me. I was enjoying the coffee in my car back at the farm in the same parking spot by the Victoria Park office building when I started to delete my first picture from the disk. I had done this quite a few times before with redundant sunset shots over Lake Huron in Grand Bend but the screen didn’t look quite right when I hit enter to format. By time I realized what I had done it was too late. I erased everything. All my work was gone.

Anyone who knows me knows how much I hate to lose data. I guard it like it’s gold and I felt like I had some golden shots here that I would never get back. There is no way I would go back to Woodbine today but the shots here at the farm were special, even the ones of the snow covered stone. I did have my brush and I could probably do a better job on the gravestone but I had covered a lot of ground on the farm and now I would have to retrace my steps and do it again, only try to do it better.

The brush did a great job on the stone and by this time, I was a lot more comfortable walking the grounds. After my third shot of the gravestone, my batteries died. I take the long walk back to the car. I finish my coffee, which I had left in the cup holder in the car. The car smelled great from the coffee as I replace the batteries and gathered my thoughts … and feelings.

By now, I feel like I am part of the Windfields-Taylor family. I got a close up of my friend, the nosy stallion ‘Whiskey Wisdom’ and a mare called ‘Take Me Out’. I took more shots of some mares with their foals and could recognize another undeniable smell. There was a small group of stable hands mucking out the foaling barn and loading the manure into a wagon, what a great smell, I could feel my troublesome sinuses cleansing. I “soaked” up atmosphere until it was time to say goodbye and take the shots of the entrance on the way out. It was on the way back to the highway when I realized I could have brought my laptop and had enough battery power to download a disk of pictures without erasing any data. It did not matter now, I knew now I wanted to come back one more time in the spring, summer or even the fall and this time, I would bring Linda. I found another one of those favorite spots you like to share with someone.

What an experience, thank you Mr. Taylor for creating this wonderful piece of Canadiana and thank you Windfields for preserving it and making it available to the public.


  1. You may already know this but Windfields is now empty of horses. The auction is this Saturday March 6. Here's the link.

    Sad...I've known this place since the 60''s the only good thing in Oshawa.
    I even painted walls in some of the barns.
    I will miss the place.

  2. sorry christine - didn't see this comment - you can see we went last november to visit farm - tragic loss to canadiana next time i am in the area i want to see if they preserved grave like promised.

  3. Hi Frank,
    I'm really pleased that I found your blog....Northern Dancer seems to have struck a note with me and I cannot get enough info or read enough books...Your book will be next if I can get it sent to the UK.
    I am also trying to track down a good picture....Susan Crawford looks the best but so far impossible to get hold of.
    Is Windfields really shut?
    Andy Dean
    Berkshire, UK