EMAIL mj.morris@live.ca


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Richard Brownlee quiet and unassuming citizen but staunch believer in future of Chapleau starting in 1886

Richard Brownlee
Despite being a quiet and unassuming person, Richard 'Dick' Brownlee, who was one of Chapleau's first citizens, was always a staunch worker for anything progressive in the community.

Mr. Brownlee arrived in Chapleau on February 4, 1886, and two days later, established a barber shop in a tent on the site where the Lady Minto Hospital would be located in 1914, at the corner of Elm and Queen Streets. 

Writing in his book "Pioneering in Northern Ontario", Vince Crichton noted that in early 1886 was "nothing more than a large camp" on the Canadian Pacific Railway, and that Mr. Brownlee's barber shop was in the vicinity of the original townsite.

Born in 1868, Mr. Brownlee had worked at several jobs as a young man, then decided to become a barber, setting up shop first in Biscotasing which  was a busy and important place on the CPR in the early 1880s.

In 1887, he married and he brought his wife Ellen to Chapleau. She was one of the few women there at the time. Both were 19.
First shop in the lean to

Around the end of 1886, T.A. Austin Co. who had established a store on the site which later became Smith and Chapple Ltd, now Village Shops, built a lean to shop on the east end of their store which became known as Dick's Barber Shop.

Vince wrote that he did a "roaring business, trimming the bushy beards, large moustaches and many a lock of unruly hair."

From his earliest days in Chapleau Mr. Brownlee gained a reputation as a person who helped many in trouble, and supported projects that benefited many not just a few.

But, "a quiet and unassuming person, the hand was more often hidden than seen".

Like so many of Chapleau's earliest citizens, Mr Brownlee was involved in many aspects of community life. Apparently he was a good lacrosse player and played on a Chapleau team as early as 1890. He became a member of the Chapleau Volunteer Fire Brigade and was made an honourary member in 1931. He was also treasurer of the Chapleau Town Band for 13 years.

He became a charter member of Lodge 266 of the Independent Order of Oddfellows when it was established in the community.

A faithful worker for St. John's Anglican Church, he served as Rector's Warden for 12 years when Rev. P.R. Soanes was at the parish.
Brownlee Block

 In 1907, Mr. Brownlee purchased property at 22 and 24 Birch Street East which came to be known as the Brownlee Block. He established his new barber shop there and lived in an apartment upstairs.

Arriving in Chapleau in 1911, at the age of 17 from Thouars, France, Alf Comte became the Chapleau boys' best friend from childhood up, joining Mr. Brownlee in the barber shop. 
Alf Comte

He decided to stay. "It was young, it was colourful, it was growing," he said of Chapleau. It became known as the Four Chair Union Barber Shop -- but I only remember three chairs?

Mr. Comte became Mr. Brownlee's business partner and in 1928 they petitioned for a liquor store. Citizens voted in favour and in later 1928, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario opened store at 24 Beech Street. Robert McEwen was the first vendor (manager) and George Hunt, my grandfather, the assistant vendor.

Mr. Brownlee retired in 1931 and Mr. Comte took over the business, retiring in 1961.

He built the first real summer home at Mulligan's Bay on what came to be known as Brownlee Island, later Card Island. He also had the first steam powered boat to cruise the two rivers, going down the lake to a bay. He always enjoyed hunting and fishing.

In 1936, Mr. Brownlee's wife Ellen died, and in her memory he built the Brownlee Chapel and Vault at the Chapleau Municipal Cemetery. He had been a member of the cemetery board too.

In 1938, Mr. Brownlee married Marie Jeanne Leclerc.

Richard Brownlee died at age 83 on August 8, 1951, and his funeral service was conducted by Rev. E. Roy Haddon at St. John's Church. 

He had seen Chapleau grow from its earliest days to the opening of its boom years in the !950s.

He was most impressed with the first diesel engine to arrive in December 1949, pulling CPR passenger train Number 3. In 1950 upon hearing the news that Chapleau was to be on the Trans Canada Highway, he commented "If only G.B. Nicholson (Chapleau's first reeve and his friend) was alive to hear this."

Mr. Brownlee, along with other pioneer citizens were strong believers in the future of Chapleau.

As I was researching this column about Mr. Brownlee, it struck me that outside of family, he was my first real friend.Let me explain. After my father Jim Morris went overseas in World War II, my mother, Muriel (Hunt) Morris and I stayed with my aunt and uncle, Elsie (Mom's sister) and B.W. Zufelt at their home on Beech street.

For a time before returning to teach at Chapleau Public School, Mom worked in the liquor store and I would wander over to Main Street, and join the 'oldtimers" including Mr. Brownlee where they met daily to chat in front of the barber shop.

In due course, Mr. Brownlee started taking me for car rides around town and even down the highway to the diversion. Quite a thrill for a little boy as there were not many cars in Chapleau in the mid 1940s. And after we moved to Grey Street in 1945, I was able to chat with my friend each Sunday at St. John's.

My most sincere thanks to Michael McMullen, Doug Greig, and to the late Vince Crichton for writing "Pioneering in Northern Ontario". My email is mj.morris@live.ca

Photo credits Chapleau Post, Comte family collection, Vince Crichton collection courtesy of Dr Vince Crichton

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Michael J Morris

Michael J Morris
MJ with Buckwheat (1989-2009) Photo by Leo Ouimet


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