SC Rewind: The First John Campbell
Published: May 14, 2011 11:19 am ET
Last Comment: May 14, 2011 9:26 pm ET | 4 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments
In this week's Rewind, Robert Smith talks about a man named Jack Campbell, the head of a noted racing family and a bit about his lengthy career in the sulky sport.
June of 1931 was a joyous time at the farm home of Duncan and Bernice Campbell in rural Middlesex County between Nairn and Ailsa Craig on the Argyle Line. They had just welcomed a new son on the 28th, John Trafford, a boy with a slightly unusual second name in honour of his paternal grandfather. He was eventually the middle child in a family of five with brother Raymond and sisters Mary, Patricia and Margaret. The Great Depression weighed heavily on the world, but farm folks like the Campbells forged ahead. Their future like many others was not to be gained in winning a lottery or digging for gold; it would come about through a lot of hard work, most of it on the farm. Part of their work though included a little "dabble" in a game of chance known as harness racing. It was a pastime the senior Mr. Duncan Campbell had taken up years before, and as time went on his children seemed to love it too.
Young John (who has always been "Jack"), made up his mind early in life what he wanted to do. Undoubtedly after mastering the first words any child utters, his first full sentence was probably had to do with "I want to drive racehorses." And thus it has been for he and his offspring for well over 65 years. By the age of 13, Jack was capable of taking a horse as far away as Stratford for a day of racing and doing everything but the driving; all he needed was a ride with a neighbour.
At the age of 14 an enthusiastic Jack donned his driving silks in public for the first time; they were extra special, made by his mother. The time and place had been chosen as the Ilderton Fair, some 15 miles away. By this time licenses were in effect but Jack hadn't applied just yet as he was still a bit under the minimum age. Besides he said "they didn't check too much in those days." He was pretty sure he could make it around those almost square turns without any "papers".
His first drive was behind a mare named Margaret B Grattan; his brother Ray was in the race too with stable-mate Mary Volo. The race was a three-heat affair with a purse of $100. It turned out to be a rewarding and productive first day as a driver, but not without its perils. Jack and Margaret B. finished 1-2-1, two wins and a second. Above all, it was also a learning day and now one well remembered. It was a scenario that was to play out many times in the years and decades ahead, as family members often duelled it out with each other at most of the dusty ovals across Southern Ontario. Jack recently recalled what it was like striking out for the day with a one horse trailer behind the family's 1929 Durant car. “At 25 miles per hour, a trip to Goderich or Listowel which were 60 miles away was a major journey, and we left plenty early in the morning, sometimes the day before." He even recalls the horses being homesick and having to be walked to soothe their "nerves."
Jack's first day in the sulky may not have been in front of a capacity crowd or for a huge purse but it was exciting. He had often envisioned what this day might be like, what he would do in a given situation, but he could have never imagined what his first challenge might be. As the starter sent the small field of horses away, everything went well as each driver looked for a place "on the wood". It somehow was too good to be true and as the saying usually goes. . . . . As the field circled the track and approached the half-mile marker, something unthinkable happened. An elderly gentleman driving a Model A Ford car towing a small trailer had made his way onto the track. He was intent on delivering his prize show pig who was riding in a crate on the trailer. Thankfully the old gent maintained his path and the horses circled the car and the race continued. Jack knew about perils on the track and the proverbial "road trouble" a driver might encounter, but this?
For many years Jack combined a very busy life of farming and racing a mid-sized stable of horses. He was a very capable driver and trainer who campaigned a mix of his own along with outside owned horses. He was a familiar figure at all of the major Ontario tracks and occasionally ventured to the U.S. I can personally recall some of the most exciting races I have ever witnessed involved Jack driving (and most often winning) with Argyel Chester. He is quick to dispel any feeling of "greatness" associated with being part of such a noted racing family. His answer to "Were you there for some momentous occasion?" is usually "Somebody had to stay home and do the work.”
Married at a fairly young age to his childhood sweetheart Florence, the couple took up residence just down the road "a piece" from his parents. As time went on he began to involve their sons John and Jim. By the time each reached about the age of six, they both started to jog horses on their own at the farm track. An old gelding named Argyel Tommy was often their tutor. Today their careers speak for themselves. Their sister Joanne's son Wm. McLinchey has benefited from the family genes on both sides as well, and currently works in the WEG race secretary's office.
I have had the pleasure and the privilege of knowing the senior Campbells for many years. To say we are close friends would be misleading, but our paths have oft crossed; our fathers were friends. I have counted on Jack's accurate and lengthy memory as a reliable source of the tales of bygone days. Our chats have often been on the phone, sometimes leading in directions and subjects not planned, but nevertheless "time well wasted" as the play on the time honoured saying goes. I have a special section in my notebook reserved just for him with a running list of questions.
His info is far better than anything found on the internet, much more interesting and usually more factual. The personal recollections of Jack Campbell are an ongoing testament to his deep and abiding love for the sport. I for one certainly do appreciate his reminiscences. Jack recently told me about his philosophy about the human memory and the passage of time. "My memory isn't getting any better and maybe isn't as good as it once was, but I'm finding there are less and less people around who can prove me wrong."
Jack and Florence Campbell have much to be proud of; they have been fortunate to see their children's children and even beyond as they approach their 60th wedding anniversary as great grandparents. They have seen the fruits of their labour in the most rewarding way. They are humble and kindly people, the kind our world does not have enough of. When I see an interview with John Campbell or read a story about a family member, I am not surprised at how they handle themselves. They reflect their solid and fundamental upbringing; led by example and encouragement, they are all just good solid people.
The travels of Jack Campbell have taken him far and wide but his roots and his principles have never changed. Thankfully, lo those many years ago at Ilderton he was watching and "swerved" or who knows what the last 65 years might have been like without him. Will Rogers the great humorist of the 1920's once said "I've never met a man I didn't like." I tend to agree with his line of thinking and will add that I have met a lot of people known and remembered for many things. The ones I like best are like Jack Campbell, best known for just being themselves.
Thank you Jack; thanks for the memories.