By Sarah Ryeland and Pamela Steel
In 1854, the Ontario government reached a decision that changed the face of the landscape forever: Muskoka was opened up for settling and free land was now available, up to two hundred acres per family. A route had to be built so that the Europeans could find and claim their land.
– W. David Johns
And the rest, as they say, is history.
David Johns is an accidental author, his book Pathways to Highways; The History of Huntsville’s First Roads and Automotive Industry, a labour of love.
A self-proclaimed “bad student” and retired Kimberley Clark employee, Johns never dreamed he’d become a published author. But after eight years of research, he’s done it.
“It’s a great accomplishment,” says Johns, whose first shot at writing is getting rave reviews from the community.
The book reads like a conversation across the kitchen table over coffee, moving back and forth through time and stopping to comment on interesting hometown characters along the way.
“It’s not just about cars,” says Johns. “The history of Huntsville is in there.”
The author spent four years on the Huntsville heritage committee, where he met fascinating people and learned much about the town’s past. He has had a lifelong interest in cars, going back to the time when his father, Wally Johns, worked at a garage only minutes from the family home.
“It was right there all my life, but Dad never really said much about work to us. I can’t blame him though, he had a tough job and wanted to leave his work at work.”
For the book, Johns was aided in his research by an army of people who knew his dad.
“The nice part of the working on the book was that people would invite me in for a coffee or a tea,” says the author. “They would get their pictures out and we’d be there for three or four hours.”
He says there are many photos in the book that have never been seen outside of the families that shared them with him.
And a good deal of the art and information in the book was found through the microfiche records of the Huntsville Forester at the library. Muskoka Heritage Place was also an invaluable resource.
At 106 pages, the book is a delightful walk down the roads of Huntsville in the last century, and each page is illustrated with historic photos – something Johns insisted upon.
“History can be boring if you’re not into the topic,” says the author, recalling his days as a student. Bored with picture-less history books, his favourite part of the school day was “recess and when I got to go home.”
He knew he wanted to have plenty of photos and illustrations, even though gathering them was often time consuming. Putting personal stories with the photos was top priority, too.
“If you throw in some funny stories and characters along with the information, that’s when you’ll really enjoy it,” he says. “You’ve got to liven it up. The most fun was writing about the characters like Vic Johnson. He was a real local character; he did hand-painted signs for truck doors. He was an unbelievable artist. At 12 years old I sat down and watched him do it – I was frozen there.”
Johns also remembers a more carefree and laid-back era – at time when Huntsville residents might find the very same Vic Johnson having a snooze in the snow bank outside of the garage.
“These guys would get away with it,” he laughs.
Johns begins his tale with the Muskoka Colonization Road and a time when it took two days to travel to Toronto.
He features Huntsville’s first car, a McLaughlin-Buick owned by Dr. J.W. Hart in 1910.
He tells the stories of the first gas stations and auto dealerships, the people who owned them and worked at them and, in most cases, what sits on the property now.
Automotive pioneers Seth Grimes and Percy Mulveney get their due coverage and he takes a trip back in time with Clifford Snell and Westmount Wheeler. Readers are also introduced to Gordon May, Huntsville’s first certified auto mechanic; May travelled to Detroit to earn his mechanics’ diploma in 1921.
He tells the story of the Lupton boys, Dave and Don who decided in 1956 to turn their dad’s old Plymouth from a sedan into a convertible. Mother Lillian was not thrilled with the result. There is a photo in the book of the “convertible” where it sat in 2011 on the Lupton property on Britannia Road.
And he tells the tale of Dick McKenney who lived in Novar and at 71 still walked along Highway 11 into Huntsville picking up bottles and exchanging them for provisions, before turning around and walking home again.
“When asked if he needed a ride by a passing motorist he would always answer, ‘I have walked this far, I may as well keep walking.’”
Perhaps the most exciting part about publishing this book is the feedback Johns has been getting from readers.
Not only has the book become wildly popular in Muskoka – it has sold over 420 copies since Johns self-published it in November – but new stories and photos are flooding in from readers every day. So much so that Johns is working on a revised edition of the book that should be finished and ready for sale by November 2012.
“I get two or three phone calls every week with people giving me knew information and statistics,” says Johns, who is excited to share the fascinating new stories he’s discovered.
The author also says that the experience has been gratifying. He originally printed a mere 20 copies of the book, but after his daughter began promoting it through Facebook, sales took off.
“It’s a lot of word of mouth too,” he says. “One person buys a copy and shows their friends. Next thing you know, they’re calling and asking for three copies each.”
At $18 per book, it’s an affordable keepsake. And when so many local families make an appearance on these pages, purchasers are likely to buy extra copies to send to friends and relatives in Muskoka and beyond.
With that in mind, it’s no wonder the book has become such a sensation.
“It’s about ordinary people in Huntsville,” says Johns. “The average person can really love this book.”
To get a copy of Johns’ book, contact him at 705-789-5349 or firstname.lastname@example.org.