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Seemingly impromptu sleigh rides made for fond childhood memories

A photo from decades ago shared in a local online group brought back many memories of winter nights on a sleigh captained by the former mayor and local teacher, Harry Bell

If you grew up in Collingwood in the 50s, 60s, 70s or even the 80s, there is a good chance you remember Harry Bell. 

A photo of Bell's famous horse-drawn sleigh posted to a Facebook group, Collingwood’s Past, garnered over 50 comments from people of all ages sharing their memories and personal experiences with the Collingwood man over the years. 

Bell was an educator and a politician, but to the children of Collingwood at the time, he was known as the man with all the horses. 

“I don’t really remember his personality so much because I was so little,” said Sacha Talbot, the woman who shared the photo on Facebook. “But the feeling was that he just loved all the kids in town and wanted to do nice things for them.”

The photo is of Talbot and her brother, Shaun, as children, bundled up on a snowy day with Bell and his horses in the background. 

“The picture I shared was one of those moments when it was really snowing around the holidays and he would — what appeared to me anyway as a kid — just show up with the sleigh and horses and take us all for rides,” laughed Talbot. 

Talbot grew up on Leslie Drive back when it was a brand new subdivision on the outskirts of town. The street backed onto Bell’s farm, and Talbot recalls growing up with the horses, fondly remembering feeding them apples and carrots through the fence. 

One time, she was even woken up in the middle of the night when Bell called her father for help, and Talbot got to see a foal being born. 

About a dozen people could fit in the flat-bed sleigh, and as Bell would take it around town, children could hop on and enjoy the ride for a few blocks before being sent home. 

It was a “classic 1980s Collingwood winter scene,” Brett Gabbatt commented. 

“He was just the most amazing person. To the kids it was this magical experience,” said Talbot. “Horses and a sleigh showing up and taking you around town.”

Sandra Cooper, who was born and raised in Collingwood — as were her parents — said both her and her father were taught by Bell during his time as a teacher. 

“He was certainly an influencer. Both politically and through education in Collingwood. But he never brought politics into the classroom,” Cooper said. 

Cooper attended Victoria Public School in the 1960s, and remembers her family hiring Bell and his horses for birthday parties and other family gatherings. 

“If somebody was walking along, he would slow down the horses and jump on and ride for a couple of blocks,” she recalled. 

Bell would also build a big outdoor rink on the land where Our Lady of the Bay Catholic High School now stands. 

"It was a big community skating rink that everybody could go to," said Cooper. "There were a few skating rinks around town at the time." 

Alexina Heron-Reid, who was born in Collingwood in the 40s and is an administrator for the Collingwood’s Past Facebook page, also remembers hiring Bell for family gatherings. 

“My siblings and I would have "family sleigh ride" nights and even my parents would come along. There would be about 18 of us and afterwards we would go to my sister's for hot chili,” she commented. “So many fun memories.”

Sharing stories and photos and seeing the different memories people have, such as the ones about Bell and his horses, is exactly why Reid wanted to create Collingwood’s Past in the first place. 

“It’s about the history,” she said. “And the connection.”

Talbot has stayed in touch with a lot of the children she grew up with on Leslie Drive, and some families still live there to this day. 

“Everyone knew each other,” Talbot said. “We were all just best friends. I don’t know of anybody in town who speaks as highly as we all do about our love of how we grew up.”

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Maddie Johnson

About the Author: Maddie Johnson

Maddie Johnson is an early career journalist working in financial, small business, adventure and lifestyle reporting. She studied Journalism at the University of King's College, and worked in Halifax, Malta and Costa Rica before settling in Collingwood
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