Sunday, 11 April 2021

Hanlon Creek, Horace Mack and the Kortright Waterfowl Park

("The only breeding pair of Whistling Swans in captivity in the world. These birds are among the more than 2,000 waterfowl on display to the public year around at Kortright Waterfowl Park located in Guelph, Ontario. Photo by Paul Ferris." Published by Peterborough Airways Ltd., ca. 1970. Courtesy of the author.)

In 1948, Horace Mack purchased a property at the mouth of Hanlon Creek in Puslinch. There, he set up what he called the "Niska Farm" with a specific mission (Aviculture Magazine 1951, v. 57, n. 5):

Here at Niska (Niska is a Cree Indian word for Canada Goose) Farm, we keep a collection of approximately a hundred wild geese of fifteen species, as well as some ducks, swans, pheasants, and peafowl.
The object of the Niska Farm was to find out how to breed wild geese for, as Mack pointed out, this process was not well understood and, "the more experience one has, the more one realizes how little one knows."

The term "Farm" was something of a misnomer. It is true that part of Mack's plan for the property was to continue his interest in breeding geese, swans, ducks, and other fowl, often for sale other zoos or collectors. However, he had a broader, more public purpose in mind: To prevent threatened birds from following the Passenger Pigeon into extinction. The purpose of the Niska Farm was focussed on conservation of waterfowl throughout the region.

Protection of wildlife was a novel concept in the use of this farm. Its history began over a hundred years earlier with Felix Hanlon. Hanlon's early life is not well recorded but he emigrated from County Monahan, Ireland, to Upper Canada (now Ontario) in 1825. He arrived in Guelph in 1827, only a couple of months after the founding of the town by John Galt and his party. It seems that he worked in town until 1833, cutting trees to clear up lots and roadways.

(Felix Hanlon, ca. 1860. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 2012.45.1.)

That year, Hanlon decided to go into farming. One story has it that he walked down the Speed River looking for a good location. Upon finding a creek that flowed into the River and tracing it to its source, Hanlon purchased the surrounding 500 acres. In due course, the creek was called Hanlon's Creek in his honour.

Roads were not plentiful in Puslinch in those days, so early settlers had to walk a great deal. One story that Hanlon was known to recount involved venturing out alone on foot (McPhatter 1897/1991, p. 23):

... when carrying flour home from Guelph, and how the wolves overtook him in the bush and treed him up a tree and kept him there till the next morning, leaving the flour at the bottom of the tree, and the wolves trampled and destroyed the flour so that it was of no more use.
Accounts of settler life in Puslinch are replete with similar stories. Wolves were constantly in pursuit of people's sheep and cattle, not to mention their owners, while bears seemed to favour pigs. There are also several mentions of Indians in Puslinch, both passing through the area and living in it. Deer and trees combined to provide plentiful food and lodging, as recorded by Martin Cassin (McPhatter, p. 8):
I can remember when the Indians would camp in the district and I have seen as many as 65 deer laying dead in their camp, on their return from a hunting tour and we would trade a loaf of bread for a whole carcass of deer after the hide was taken. The Indian wigwams were very large that I can remember. Where the hole in the centre went out was built of poles and shingled with hemlock brush, and the fire in the centre of the wigwam.
The settlers had a more antagonistic relationship with the bush and cleared trees as fast as they could. The letters make frequent mention of logging bees, in which a groups of settlers would converge at a farm and cut down as many trees as they could. Indeed, "improving" the land in this way was one of the conditions that farmers had to meet in order to assume full ownership of it. As an experienced tree cutter, Felix Hanlon would have done quite a bit of logging himself on his new farm.
(The Hanlon Farm house, ca. 1995, by Fred Dahms. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 2013.51.649.)

(As I noted in an earlier post, this is exactly the sort of deforestation that conservationists like Edmund Zavitz tried hard to reverse in the following century.)

In the 1970s, a highway was built across part of Hanlon's old property and named the Hanlon Expressway in his honour. This may be considered a fitting or ironic tribute to a man who so often walked (or climbed) through the sylvan trails formerly located there.

In the early 1860s, the farm lots near the mouth of Hanlon's Creek were sold to a Mr. Ramsey, who operated a sawmill there. The property passed through a few other hands until it was purchased by Horace Mack. Of course, Mack was not looking to cut up any more trees but rather to set up a waterfowl sanctuary and had identified the mouth of Hanlon Creek as a promising place to situate it.

Born in Guelph on 6 December 1895, Horace Mack began his working career in 1911 with the Gilson Manufacturing Company. Located on York Road (across from where the Owens Corning plant now stands), the plant opened in 1907 as a branch of an American firm headquartered in Port Washington, Wisconsin. The company was then noted for its small engines, which it promoted with the motto, "Goes like sixty!" The American manager, Ed Barelman, bought the Guelph operation after the Gilson family sold the firm in 1914, which he ran until his death in 1927.

(Edward Barelman, n.d. Courtesty of Guelph Civic Museums 2009.32.932.)

Although starting out as an office boy, Horace Mack quickly climbed the corporate ladder, ascending to President after Barelman's death. An article in the Globe (28 April 1927) notes that Mack was a "close associate" of Barelman, which is amply affirmed by the fact that Mack inherited $52,399.61 of Barelman's $64,800.61 estate. No doubt, this legacy helped Mack materially with his wildlife protection plans. The Globe article does not provide any comments by the Barelman family on this arrangement.

("Horace Mack stands proudly (about 1922) beside the Gilson car he helped build. All told, three of these cars were built in Guelph: one wasn't finished, one burned in a garage and the third was driven by Gilson executive, Mack" (Coulman 1977, photo 129). Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 2009.32.3233.)

The Gilson company itself reflected Mack's pet project. Mack's obituary (Mercury, 26 May 1956) notes that the lawns of the factory were graced by an aviary for many years. Besides rare birds, there is an old photo of "Barry" the white wolf in a pen on the factory's grounds, who shared the zoo with dingos, black bears and other exotic creatures. Who's treed who now!

("Barry the white wolf at Gilson Co.," 1933. Courtesy of Guelph Public Library F5-0-3-2-1-5.)

Up to a point, Mack was following in the footsteps of industrialists like James Goldie, who had an aviary that included two swans that used to swim on Goldie Mill pond. Such animals were kept for pleasure and display. Mack's collection of wolves, black bears, exotic geese, and similar animals can probably by understood in this way.

At some point, Mack's ambitions become too great for the company zoo. He next purchased a property near Eden Mills. It served as a rescue farm, housing and nursing injured animals, as well as a destination for educational excursions for local schoolchildren. It also seems to have been where his breeding program got started in earnest and where Mack began to learn about the challenges of protecting his own flock, not to mention regional bird populations (1951):

In 1927, I acquired a pair of European Gray Lag Geese from a New York importer. Doubtless they were wild caught, and I never expected them to lay. However, in 1938, after 11 years, the female laid in an elevated steel barrel and started incubating. Unfortunately an Egyptian gander escaped from his enclosure and finding the Grey Lag Goose on the nest, promptly killed her. When discovered, the eggs were spoiled.
Two years later, in 1940, I was fortunate in getting another female. She mated the following spring, and has been successful in rearing a brood in at least five of the succeeding years. The old gander, “Clarence,” is not less than twenty-four years old, and quite possibly much older. He is not very nimble any more, but he and his mate “Lizzie” are still inseparable, and I am hoping he will be spared for a few more seasons to father some more fluffy yellow goslings.
In the end, Mack decided that his ambitions required a new farm, specially designed for breeding waterfowl, which became the Niska Farm at the end of Hanlon Creek. There he built a dam to create a system of waterfowl-friendly ponds and protective pens.
(Horace Mack. Detail from "50th Anniversary Booklet & Envelope, Gilson Manufacturing Co. Limited," 1957, p. 3. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 1980.1.7.2.)

Mack applauded federal efforts to protect migratory waterfowl and had the Niska Farm declared a federal waterfowl sanctuary in 1952. We learn something about the birds being bred there in descriptions of an attack on them by three boys on 26 August 1958 (Globe). Armed with home-made spears, the boys climbed fences around the bird pens and attacked a number of birds:

In one pen, a Chinese mandarin duck was killed, the leg of another broken and three carried off; four escaped.
A rare South American ashy-headed goose was stabbed to death in another pen; one Canada Goose was killed, two others had their legs broken and another was slashed. The ashy-headed goose is one of a pair believed to be the only breeding pair in North America. Its mate and 12 Canadas survived.
A young swan, one of four being raised by a breeding pair was left with its back broken and another was injured.
The boys carried off at least two dead birds to roast and eat at a nearby campsite. They were located by RCMP officers and charged with violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1916. They were fined and placed on probabation.

It will surprise many readers to learn that Canada geese ("Niska") were among the birds whose population Horace Mack sought to increase. By the early twentieth century, hunting and habitat destruction had made the birds uncommon in southern Ontario. Efforts to conserve and reintroduce them in the region were sanctioned under the Migratory Bird Treaty and by conservationists such as Jack Miner, founder of the Jack Miner bird sanctuary in Kingsville, Ontario in 1904, and likely a model for Mack. Efforts to regulate hunting, to breed and reintroduce birds, and to provide migratory sanctuaries bore fruit, allowing Ontarians to enjoy the fulsome flocks of Canada geese that the province features today.

Establishment of the Niska ("Canada goose") Farm contributed materially to that effort.

On 25 May 1959, Horace Mack died. His many contributions to local conservation efforts were summarized in his obituary:

His advice was sought by authorities at Stratford when the now-famous swans were given a home on the Avon River when the Canadian cultural centre was developed.
Mr. Mack represented the city of Guelph on the Grand Valley Conservation Authority since it was organized. He was also a member of the Speed River Flood Control committee, which brought out the great improvement at Royal City Park.
As a member of the Grand Authority he was also prominently identified with the development of the Elora Gorge Park and in planning for the Rockwood Park area now under consideration by the authority.
... His game farms in this area have been visited by most Guelph School children.
The question of how the Niska Farm would continue was answered when it was purchased by the newly-formed Ontario Waterfowl Research Foundation in 1961. Executive Secretary A.T. Crignan, Professor of Zoology at the nearby Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, explained their plans for the new Niska Waterfowl Research Foundation (Journals of the Legislative Assembly 1962, Appendix p. 57):
This will serve as the Foundation’s physical headquarters, and will be developed to support a wide range of research activities. A library, a laboratory and demonstrations of waterfowl management, all essential to the organization’s ultimate objectives, are planned for the future.
As a non-profit organization, the Foundation depended upon donations for its funding. In addition, it planned to further develop the site as a tourist attraction, with proceeds to support research. To this end, it maintained a sizeable stock of exotic birds and designed parking and other facilities for visitors (Globe, 22 September 1962).

On 21 October 1965, the Foundation renamed the farm as the Frank Kortright Waterfowl Park (KWP). Francis Kortright was founder and President of the Toronto Sportsmen's Show. The popular annual exhibition generated a substantial amount of money, which Kortright was keen to spend on waterfowl conservation measures. So, the Niska Farm was a good match.

("Geese bathe in spring-like weather at Kortright" 1968. Courtesty of Guelph Public Library F45-0-15-0-0-37.)

Kortright's friend, former Ontario Premier Leslie Frost (the "Silver Fox") helped to cut the ribbon and explained the need for systematic waterfowl study (Globe, 22 October 1965):

In this day of mechanization, of planes, outboard motors, new types of fire-arms, and in view of increasing water pollution, the question is whether wildlife can survive.
Prospects for the survival of the Park seemed good. Research undertaken there began to appear in academic journals. Writers began to publish favourable accounts of the KWP and to recommend trips there to others. For example, the Hamilton Naturalists' Club commented on how much they enjoyed their tour ("The wood duck" 1967, v. 20, n. 9, p. 126), despite a recent flood. The tour was led by none other than Robert Bateman, the noted naturalist and painter, who was a supporter of the Park.
(Robert Bateman, 2014. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

On 12 June 1971, Guelph Mayor Norm Jary officially opened the new Royal City Kiwanis Club Lookout Tower at the KWP (Daily Mercury, 14 June 1971). Feeling more optimistic than Premier Leslie, Jary commented that the existence of Parks like the KWP expressed a "great vote of confidence" in the ability of people to preserve the environment and its denizens. He added that the city, which had encompassed the park in a boundary extension, planned to preserve the KWP itself:

“I hope that his Kiwanis Lookout Tower will stand as a warning to those who would desecrate the environment that they had better look out.”
Unfortunately, tensions that surrounded the Park since its inception could not be denied indefinitely. One such tension was the use of the KWP for research and as a public attraction. Gate receipts provided crucial funding but the needs of visitors for space and exotic birds to gander at competed with room and calm needed to conduct local waterfowl research.

In addition, the expansion of the City of Guelph intruded more and more on the KWP. In 1966, the city annexed a section of Puslinch that contained the KWP for construction of more housing and roads. In preparation, the city made plans to install a storm sewer system that would empty into Hanlon Creek (Globe, 12 November 1969). Such a system would increase the already troublesome risk of flooding there (such as 22 May 1974), rendering the site unusable. A letter-writing campaign disuaded the city but development in the area could only bring more environmental woes to the Park.

An engineering report for the Grand River Conservation Authority (GRCA) on the Hanlon Creek watershed proposed that much of the watershed should be incorporated into the city as a conservation area with the KWP serving as "a general nature or zoological park," an attraction rather than a research facility. The city and GRCA agreed to acquire lands in the area with this sort of scheme in mind. It seemed that the change was in the air for the waterfowl.

On 11 June 1975, Chairman R.T.D. Birchall announced that the Ontario Waterfowl Research Foundation could no longer operate the KWP (Globe):

He said the Canadian National Sportsmen’s Show, which provided two thirds of the park’s operating costs last year, has announced it can not continue its extensive support of the park. The show has provided more than $550,000 to the park since 1965.
Birchall said the foundation would like to sell the park to a public organization such as the Grand River Conservation Authority.
The GRCA did acquire the property while the KWP was operated by the Niska Wildlife Foundation (NWF), a citizens' group supported by grants and donations.
("Kortright For Sale—Foundation Can't Afford To Operate Sanctuary," featuring Mrs. Eileen Hammill—Horace Mack's daughter—Executive Director of Kortright Park, 10 June 1975. Courtesy of Guelph Public Library F45-0-15-0-0-55.)

To raise money, the Foundation continued to operate the KWP as an attraction. It continued sales of waterfowl to other zoos and conservation groups. It also sought grants and held regular art auctions, which frequently included prints donated by Robert Bateman, among other artists. It also sold postcards such as the one heading this post. This approach sustained the KWP for many years, during which the Park played host to picnickers, school trips, and bird watchers.

(Map of Kortright Waterfowl Park, ca. 1980. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 1997.16.17.)

However, attendance tended to drop off through the 1990s. On 23 June 2005, the Park closed its doors. Long-time Park manager Rick Ortlieb explained that he was no longer able to operate the facility. Decline in his health made his job difficult. Also, intruders were attacking birds in their pens. Although two men were caught attacking geese with a home-made spear, apparently to feed them to their pet iguana, attacks continued that Ortlieb was unable to stop (Mercury; 24 April 2014).

It was hoped that the KWP could be re-opened the next year but Niska Wildlife Foundation was unable to do so. Control of the property reverted to the GRCA in 2014. At that time, Rick Ortlieb and his wife Jeane Kannenberg left the site. Buildings and other structures were removed in 2016 with the object of "re-naturalizing" the property. In 2018, upon an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board, the GRCA agreed to a robust public consultation about the future of the lands, after an inventory of the property.

The GRCA Niska website provides a map of their Niska land holdings.

There the matter stands today. What public purpose the old "Niska Farm" might next serve remains to be seen.


The following works were consulted for this post:

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