November 29, 2022

Old family photo tells of unlikely Guelph Mercury air delivery

The Guelph Mercury Tribune reporter found this photo of her grandfather and great-grandfather in a box of old photographs. According to the description written on the back, they were standing near a fire they had built to guide an aircraft carrying the Guelph Mercury during a snowy spell in 1948.

Imagine people wanting to read their Guelph Mercury so badly that a plane was used to drop it off when winter weather prevented other delivery methods.

I’m speculating based on an old photograph I found, but I find it interesting to imagine nonetheless.

I found the photo in a box of old photos that mostly belonged to my grandfather. The man on the right, I recognize, is my grandfather, although he is much younger than I remember. The man next to him, I discover, is his father. My mum said this photo was probably taken at their farm just outside of Elora, very close to where the entrance to the Elora Gorge Conservation Area is now.

Handwritten on the back of the photo: “My father and I beside the fire we built to guide the plane carrying the Guelph Mercury in February 1948, the year we were snowed in for a week.

My mom couldn’t tell me anything more, so I took my search to social media. A Facebook group for people who grew up in Fergus provided me with some additional information: a local resident – a member of the Beatty family – who had flown planes in WWII and was known locally for his aerial stunts may -being enlisted to drop paper from the air when the roads were impassable, a member of the group speculated.

While she didn’t remember the plane, another member of the group did remember the snowstorm. “We didn’t have electricity for a long time,” she said. They managed to make do with oil lamps, a wood and coal furnace, a wood stove for meals, and snowmelt for water. “Before, the snow was clean!” she says.

Another member of the group checked in with his mother, saying the “Beatty boy” had probably amused himself delivering bundles of newspapers to the snowy residents of Fergus, as well as other towns and villages.

There was probably some entertainment value in overcoming the problem of accessing information during snowstorms, just as there was entertainment value in reading the newspaper, at a time when most homes had no no televisions.

Finding the photo started out as kind of a cool historical connection to the newspaper I work for now, but as I thought about it, my thinking evolved into contemplating the changing ways people consume information.

I can’t imagine that, in a hypothetical epic snowstorm in 2022, much effort would go into delivering newspapers to snowbound families. Instead, efforts would be focused on restoring the internet as a lifeline and connection to the outside world.

But are we too dependent on wireless networks?

When the Rogers network went down last week, it took me a while to figure out what was going on. My phone, internet, and cable TV all use Rogers services, so I found myself in the dark. My husband went for coffee and confirmed debit was not an option at the store.

I was relieved to be able to get cash from an ATM, and once I was sure I had some cash in my wallet, I relaxed, assuming the communication would soon be restored. And it was, but not before impacting businesses, services and individuals across the country.

Fortunately, other mobile phone companies were not affected, but the situation revealed some vulnerability in the way we do business and communicate with each other.

Technology is great, until it fails.

While the weather conditions of 1948 isolated people in rural communities for a week or more, this Rogers blackout lasted only about a day. But it has touched more people and reminds me that we are perhaps just as vulnerable as my ancestors who all those decades ago lit a traffic light to guide the delivery of the newspaper.

Jessica Lovell is a reporter for the Guelph Mercury Tribune. She has had ties to the Fergus, Elora area for several generations. Contact her at jlovell@guelphmercurytribune.com.