Henry Bird as a young man.
Henry J. Bird after his arrival in Bracebridge in 1872.
Henry J. Bird in his study at
Woodchester Villa, circa 1920. The study was decorated with many
family photographs as well as a panoramic picture of the 122nd
Muskoka Battalion, C.F.F. from World War I.
Henry James Bird with his dog
Henry James Bird
Henry James Bird during his later
Henry J. Bird was born in Woodchester, Gloucestershire,
England, on January 3, 1842. The son of Oliver and Catherine (nee
Lister) Bird, he was the youngest of eleven children.
Oliver Bird, owned textile mills in the Stroud Valley, England, and made
fine broadcloths, officers scarlets and billiard cloths. The mill
was awarded the bronze medal for billiard cloth at the Centennial
Exhibition in 1862.
In his early twenties, Mr. Bird left England to travel to Australia
and then to the United States. He decided to settle in Canada and in
1867 began working as a boss weaver for the Rosamond Woollen Company at Almonte, Lanark
Country, Ontario. He spent three years at Almonte and while there
married his first wife, Sarah Jane Fraser, on December 25, 1868. A year
later, in 1869, he decided to buy his own mill, one having been offered
for sale at Glen Allen in Peel Township, Wellington County, near Guelph
on the Conestoga River. The move to Glen Allen could not have been more
disheartening. In the spring of 1870 and again in 1871, the mill was
flooded out by a great rise in the river level. The Bird family decided
to move to Bracebridge, yet before this could happen Mr. Bird suffered
the tragic loss by death of his wife, their three year old daughter
Elizabeth (1880-1872) and six month old son who died from tuberculosis. In
1872, Mr. Bird relocated his woollen mill to Bracebridge.
In 1872, on the upper part of the north side of the falls at
Bracebridge, Mr. Bird established his mill building. The three-storey
structure, thirty by fifty feet, was of the hewn clear pine framed type.
The building housed the mill equipment, had room for wool storage and
there were upper rooms for a living apartment.
On June 4, 1873, Mr. Bird married Miss Mary
Matilda Ney, of Glen Allen, Ontario and the newlyweds made their
home above the mill.
A brother of Mrs. Bird, John W. Ney, also came to
Bracebridge in 1879 to work in the store of Thomas Myers, continuing
with T. Crompton when he leased the business and then in 1885 became
himself the proprietor of a general store, "At the Sign of the
Golden Beaver." Mr. Ney advertised that he was not proud and
"would take wood, tanbark, raw furs, oats, butter, eggs and even
money in exchange for goods." He was in business in Bracebridge
until 1904 when he sold his store and moved to Vancouver, British
As the woollen manufacturing business increased, it became necessary
to make more use of the floor space in the mill building and within a
few years, Mr. Bird set about planning a separate home for his family.
It is from his choice of the design for the
house which became known as Woodchester Villa and the way it was planned
and constructed that a view of the nature of Mr. Bird may be gained.
Other evidence combines to show him as a man keenly interested in
scientific innovation and in philosophy. As to the latter, while at
first he belonged to the Methodist Church, he later gave up church
attendance and disassociated himself from any organized religious
allegiance. "The foundation of religion is fear of the
incomprehensible!" Mr. Bird once remarked. This attitude prevailed throughout his life, as was to be
demonstrated in the wording of his last will and testament, prepared
many years before he died. Mr. Birdís views in this respect seem to
have had little effect on his relationships in the community and he did
not make his convictions a matter of contention.
Mr. Bird generally supported the Conservative party but kept his
friendships with those of different political views. He was keen to see
Canada develop as a strong nation and yet he seems to have been more of
an Imperialist than a Canadian nationalist.
In 1888, he was one of the promoters of a local branch of
the Imperial Federation League, which had the objective of giving
British dominions a greater voice in Empire affairs. This project
originated in Britain but lacked any strong response from the Canadian
or other dominion governments. When Sir John A. Macdonald, the long-time
Conservative Prime Minister, died in June 1891, a long letter appeared
soon afterwards in The Muskokan Herald signed only by the writer
as "Subscriber" telling of how he, his wife and son,
Robert, went to Ottawa to attend the funeral services there for Sir
John. The writer of the letter is now identified as Mr. Bird, who, it
was announced in the same newspaper issue in 1891 was the local
treasurer of a fund to erect a suitable memorial in Sir Johnís memory.
Mr. Bird was a careful business man, well aware of any developments
in the techniques of woollen manufacturing but beyond that he sought
explanations for new scientific inventions generally and wanted their
benefits to be widely enjoyed.
Testifying to this, though it may seem commonplace to mention the
same today, was Mr. Birdís determination that Bracebridge should have
the advantage of piped water for domestic use and fire protection,
something which began to be accomplished in the 1880s. He was the
captain of the first fire company in 1876 and he arranged a system for
the mill pumps to give added pressure to town water mains for fire
fighting purposes. Mr. Bird gave leadership in the decision of the
municipality to inaugurate the municipal electric system in 1894.
(Bracebridge was the first municipality in Ontario to own and operate a
water-power generating plant.) For $350, the town was allowed to draw
water from the head race at the Bird Woollen Mill power purposes with a
further sum of $10 per day in the event the mill should have to be shut
down during the work on the power plant. Before there was a telephone system in
the town, Mr. Bird had wired communication installed between his office
at the woollen mill and Woodchester Villa.
An indication of Mr. Birdís interest in literary and scientific
subjects is seen in his continued support over many years of the
Mechanicsí Institute, the forerunner of the Public Library. With his
help, the Institute was organized in Bracebridge in 1874. In 1908,
the Public Library was opened and Mr. Bird served on the Library Board
An avid walker, Mr. Bird owned one of the
first automobiles in
Bracebridge and was a member of the Ontario Motor League.
Mr. Bird was interested in the Native People and believed their
rights should be recognized. Whenever they sold their hand made
baskets door-to-door, Mr. Bird would always make a purchase.
Mr. Bird served as a Bracebridge Councilor, first for the village of
Bracebridge in 1878, then as a Town Councilor in 1901, 1903, 1904, 1906
and 1907 when he resigned after a brief period of time. At the
1907 inaugural meeting of council, Mr. Bird objected to the manner in
which council committees were formed since he wished to be on the power
and light committee. Unable to secure a change, he resigned and
declined to reconsider his decision. A new election was
held. He also served as a school trustee.
At the age of 94, Mr. Bird died
on January 7, 1936.