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The Vagrant Went Home for the Night
 

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By Pat Mestern
 

Mario Landoni,  Police Constable, FergusThe village of Fergus was never a place where one had to worry about locking a door or closing a window on a nice warm summer's night. Policing was really a non-essential service in its early history. Who in a small village where everyone was known, would vandalize or otherwise break the peace? Stealing was the biggest crime, and the majority were committed by people who didn’t reside in the village.

Village fathers hired a constable on an "as needed basis". As A.D. Fordyce wrote, the feeling was that if crime was low, keeping a constable on village payroll would constitute a blatant disregard for proper management of funds. After all, should there be cause to break up a fight, the villagers themselves usually waded in to break up the fray?

Over the years a number of men were hired, some were more effective than others. Some were hired on merit and took their job seriously. Others were hired through "connections" and knew "squat" about policing. Three men stand out as being exemplary examples of what "old time" policing was all about.

There is some indication that the John Alpaughs – Senior and Junior - from Belwood were occasionally drafted into service as "auxiliary" constables for the village on a number of occasions preceding 1870. Were they not the best choice? They both stood well over six feet. Both were noted for their feats of strength. Most men would not go up against them. They were hunters and trappers by trade. Both had a sense of humour but were hot tempered when aggravated. In his prime, John Jr. could outrun anyone in the County.

Although not substantiated legally, it is generally known that John Sr. killed an Indian on one of the trails between Fergus and Douglas now known as Belwood. Senior never spoke of the deed so no one knows under what circumstances this alleged killing took place but John always had a healthy respect for Indians. For years he expected revenge. Being as skilled as an Indian in the bush, he wasn't too concerned when outside, but inside a building was a different story. Folklore has it that he built his home in West Garafraxa with two doors in every room, so that if a person came after him through one, he could escape out the other. He was a superstitious man, and believed the old Celtic tale about owning a mirror or pane of glass for every day of the year. His home had 365 small panes of glass, when all were counted in doors and windows.

Being of cautious nature John Sr. nailed a penny to his home’s doorframe to bring good luck. He didn't believe in banks and kept his money hidden away at home. Although the lake that formed behind Shand Dam flooded the property in the 1940's, there are those who still dig around old foundations and fence rows when water levels recede, especially after Mr. Broadfoot found a crock of coins along a fence line on the property in 1932. There were two graves on this farm. As was the custom of the time, John Sr. and his wife were buried on the property. The bodies were not moved when lake levels rose leading some to believe the area is haunted – but therein lies another tale. .

In February 1879 John Jr. was officially hired as Police Constable for the village of Fergus for the sum of $1.00 per day, Sundays included. By 1879 he had built a house on Tower Street S. and set up office in a front room, in effect making 505 Tower Street the first police station in Fergus. His responsibilities were wide ranging as the list shows.

Duties for the Constable for 1874:

  • To attend to all professional business
  • To take charge of the drill shed, foreman’s hall and engine house
  • To see that the fire engine is at all times in thorough working order and to take care of all apparatus, clothing and property belonging to the Fire Brigade
  • To take charge and look after all corporation tools and implements
  • To prepare and cut the wood required in the drill shed, fireman’s hall and engine house
  • To repair all side walks, clean and look after ditches and work upon the streets when required
  • To take care of Belsyde Cemetery and keep it in order as may be directed by the cemetery committee
  • To collect the young man’s tax and perform such other duties as the council may from time to time direct.
  • Duties also included the constable’s wife who provided meals for prisoners. The work could be contracted out to a local hotel when the Mrs. was not available.

In September 1880, the council purchased a dark lantern, a baton, a pair of nippers and a belt for use by the constable. In September 1882, Alpaugh was given a raise. In November 1884 Alpaugh asked for more money for lighting the street lamps, as that duty had been added to his rather eclectic list.

John Jr. was one of a few men in the area to ride a horse, as opposed to driving a buggy. The animal was kept in a small barn at 505 Tower Street S. One of his favourite boasts was that he didn’t know why he rode the horse, because he could easily outrun it.

Alpaugh did have use of a jail cell. It was located in the lower level of the drill shed that used to stand beside Melville United Church. The cell was approximately 5 feet x 6 feet in size with an iron bedstead, below one small window. Occupants were usually vagrants or drunks given overnight accommodation. One complained loudly afterwards about the river rat that shared his cell.

During the first decade of the 20th century, Mario Landoni was hired as Constable. He was outfitted in the latest uniform, kept clean, and free of vermin, by his wife. Constable Landoni had the right credentials. He was a tall fellow who could put up a good fight when necessary, and he had an intimate knowledge of sidewalk and street repair, having relatives in the business. Landoni also had a soft heart. By the time he took over the responsibilities of chief Constable the jail cell was less than adequate. He used to bring petty criminals home for a "good supper and a good night's sleep in a proper bed". As "home" was just across the street in an apartment at the back of the American Hotel, he didn't have far to "transport" the prisoner.

Written reports were important, but as Mario didn’t have a great command of written English, his reports were almost non-existent. He did have a list of the "usual suspects" on the back of his kitchen door. His wife maintained it and called the list Mario’s "hit di lesta", which was a twist on her name - "Celesta". Although he knew where every bootlegger had set up business, and where every "lady-of-the-night" practiced her trade, he never laid charges. His creed was to live and let live as long as there are no complaints. Mario said that he could tolerate just about anything but stupidity.

Landoni had to provide his own means of conveyance but had the right to commandeer, from private citizens, anything necessary to do his job including horses, waggons and people- power. The constable was expected to "walk the beat" and check all doors on commercial properties at least twice a night, before a night watchman was hired to assist him.

Justin Foreman was Chief of Police 1939 – 1961 He was known, tongue in cheek, as "Justice" and "Justify" Foreman. By 1949, along with police duties he was also Superintendent of Public Works with responsibility for roads, sidewalks, sewers and Cemetery. He issued licenses for radios and cars, and gave the Provincial driving tests. Chief Foreman was not too hard on the girls when they took their license but woe-be-tied the young lad who was too cocky behind the wheel. As Foreman was Chief before the days of an official village police car, he had to use his own vehicle for police duties, and had to keep careful records regarding mileage and gas consumption.

The Foreman family lived above the municipal office with the Police Station located on the lower level. A red light came on in front of the municipal office on St. Andrew Street when a call came in. The position of this light was appropriate, because for years, a lady-of-the-night plied her trade in a small house that was located almost behind the light – where the c1913 Carnegie Library building now stands. Abby "Trigger" Dowling was Foreman’s night watchman, so the Chief wasn’t on duty twenty-four hours a day.

Chief Foreman was proud of his uniform and position. If a call came in while he was on public works, he would run home and change into his uniform before attending the scene. While Foreman was Chief he had to investigate a number of serious incidents including two plane crashes at Lake Belwood. He was also in charge of the investigation when the first bank robbery in Fergus history. During the late 1940’s, the Imperial Bank that was located on the west corner of St. David and St. Andrew – the present day Rafferty Insurance building – was the scene of a gangster-style hold-up. Word spread quickly. As the robbery took place during the lunch hour, at the end of a Beatty pay week, there was lots of money in the bank, and lots of villagers on the scene before Chief Foreman, who stopped at home to change first. The thieves were eventually apprehended and as Foreman deduced early in the investigation, they were from "away".

Of course, there were other people who served the village well as Head Constables and Police Chiefs. A salute to them all, including Chief William Couling, Chief MacDougall, Chief Roy Smith, Chief Bernard Burns and Chief Rod Freeman.

 

 

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