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 Bala

Henry James Bird

Henry James Bird during his later years.

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.   

His father, 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 Columbia.

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.

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Woodchester Villa is located in Bracebridge, Ontario, Canada.