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is Mighty - Harry
December 3, 2005
Harry Corker was not a tall man. His height was four feet, seven inches when he pulled himself up to impress. James Henry Corker’s history is a bit vague. He was proud of the fact that he’d been born in 1842 but he didn’t ever say where in England that birth took place. We know that his name was officially James Corker and that he added “Henry” because he thought that the gesture would give more prestige to his presence. He eventually abandoned “James” and became known, not as Henry, but as “Harry”- and “Himself” when James Henry was referring to himself. Clara Young felt that perhaps by changing his name, J.H. didn’t particularly want anyone from England to find him. Around about the time that he adopted the name “Harry”, he began to say that his birthplace was Ireland but his slight British accent gave him away. He did speak of other members of his family on the odd occasion. What is known about the J.H. is that sometime during the 1880's, possibly after his mother and father died, Harry came to Upper Canada. He spent some time east of Toronto before coming to Lower Nichol in Wellington County.
Harry was a stonemason by trade but became what is known as an itinerant tradesman, a fellow who did odd jobs where he could find them. During the time he resided east of Toronto he took up whitewashing barn stables and doing casual farm labour when his talent as stonemason was not required. While working, he usually lived as a “hired hand” with the family who had engaged him. They provided room, board and a bit of pocket money. Harry’s first place of employment in this areas was in Lower Nichol, on the Clark farm, owned first by Alexander then his son, George.
Despite his small statue, Harry could work hard. He was strong, a mighty little man who would tackle any job. He had a “way” with horses and was known for his ability to calm a nervous animal by talking to it. Although he weighed no more than one hundred pounds, during his younger years, Harry could carry a load that weighed as much as himself. He made extra money by painting rooms, spading gardens and shoveling snow - for the Miss Youngs and the Miss Deans. Clara Young wrote that he was quick-witted and always “a pleasure to have in the house when he hadn’t been imbibing”- more about the imbibing later.
Harry showed a great knack for carpentry. One of his jobs was to build more shelving units for the Ennotville Library. Another was to repair some of the windows in the library building. The man was quite used to being teased about his size and didn’t often let the jibs of others get to him about his diminutive height. Mother told a story that involved Harry repairing a window at the above mentioned library. He was being watched by some local boys, one of them Stanley Graham. As Harry worked the putty, he explained that his father had also been a tradesman and used to have he and his brothers roll putty for him. He mentioned that he would take the time to make some little men out of the soft putty. Stanley, tongue in cheek, said that one of the little men must have came alive and come to Canada. Harry was not pleased by the remark coming from such a young sprout as Graham.
Mr. Corker had a beautiful tenor voice and once that talent became known, was a lively, and much appreciated entertainer. Many barn dances, soirees and social events benefitted from his participation. To enhance his slight figure he wore an old fashioned formal suit of clothing with a brocade vest made for him by the Miss Youngs. A cravat, gloves and beaver top hat completed the outfit. Harry was so proud of his formal wear that he had a picture taken of “himself” and then handed copies out to all his friends. Mother was quite the photographer and took the picture with her Kodak bellows camera. A cane was also part of Harry’s dress on stage. For as long as mother and dad knew him, he wore a mustache. He had, Miss Deans wrote, very expressive eyes and a voice that was far greater than his size. As both the Miss Deans and the Miss Youngs had baby grand pianos they were treated to “private” recitals. Apparently James Henry Corker could also play the piano and had some knowledge of the violin, although these talents he didn’t display in general public and couldn’t after losing a few appendages. To explain the loss . . . .
Unfortunately for Harry, he had a penchant for “the bottle”. His drinking problem was legendary. He had periods of time when he professed temperance but “himself” said that they were between Monday and Friday every week. Harry would receive his pay after supper on Saturday - “just in time for the collection plate at St. Joseph’s” he would say. Harry got into the habit of walking into Fergus of a Saturday evening to imbibe at his favorite taverns. He had a great choice of taverns as there were at least five that welcomed his money. Before 1900, Harry’s drinking caused him a great loss. While making his way back to the Clark farm on a cold Saturday night in the middle of January he collapsed in a snowbank on Thomas Shea’s hill which was approximately two miles from the village. By the time he was found, his fingers and some of his toes were so badly frost bitten that they had to be amputated. Harry had only the thumb and part of the forefingers of each hand. Grandmother spoke of this tragedy, saying that Dr. Groves did the amputation.
Despite this handicap, Harry carried on and became quite dexterous with what was left of his hands. He did walk with some difficulty, having to stuff the toes of his shoes with sheep’s wool. A shoemaker eventually took pity on Harry and made a pair of smaller shoes for him, ones which fit toeless feet”.
As Harry grew older his strength diminished and he concentrated on doing what jobs he could for the ladies of the house. He chopped wood, carried firewood and coal, carved small wooden bowls and animals for the children. By the time he was 75, he spent most of his time at the homes of Michael Bergin in Fergus, Thomas Shea and James Cunningham in Lower Nichol. In January of 1927, at age 85, he reluctantly signed himself into the Wellington County Home for the Aged - the Poor House now Wellington County Museum. He was not a model inmate as he quite often slipped out for a wee tipple. Harry told dad, that he spent more time in the tunnel than in the house, meaning that he was confined to the jail cell at the Poor House on many occasion for his misdemeanors. Some residents of the County Home did enjoy Harry’s recitals. In good weather, he would apparently sit near the wash house and sing his repertoire for the benefit of whoever could hear him. This of course, irked the matron who was of a mind to toss him in the cell again - and did on many an occasion, especially when he launched into a rather risque number - just to “get her goat”.
Harry is probably best known for his escapade during Fergus’ centennial celebrations. He donned his precious suit and beaver hat, escaped the confines of the Poor House and spent a day on the streets of Fergus, surrounded by folks who knew him. No one turned him in - ratted on him in today’s terms. And when the Matron finally did realize that Harry was missing and came looking for him, some fellows, one of them dad, spirited him back to the Poor House where, eventually Matron found him tucked in his bed.
James Henry (Harry) Corker died in the Poor house in June, 1934 at age ninety-two. His friends insisted, as soon as they heard that “Himself” had died, that Harry be buried in his formal suit and beaver hat. And he was. Now here’s the mystery. No one can tell me where James Henry (Harry - Himself) was buried. Some folks thought that it was in the Catholic Cemetery in Elora and that the funeral expenses were paid by Michael Bergin. Several people said that he was buried in a pauper’s grave in Belsyde Cemetery in Fergus but there’s no record exists that supports that fact.
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