Storyteller, volunteer, athlete, family man and a proud Canadian turns 94
Almost everyone around here knows Doug Garrett as a dedicated sportsman, one of the finest golfers to ever challenge the town’s historic golf links.
Certainly, he is a consummate golfer. At five feet six inches and 120 pounds, his golf swing is so smooth and efficient, he was once described as a left-handed Ben Hogan. Garrett, who turns 94 on Thursday, has won over 20 club tournaments in his eight-plus decades of golf.
But you would be missing the essence of Doug Garrett if you stopped at his golfing prowess.
It would be hard to find someone more dedicated to his community. Twenty years as a volunteer firefighter. Sixty-five years as a local Legion member, including decades as its sergeant-at-arms. Fifty Years as a Mason. Lions Club member. Fundraiser for the Heart & Stroke Foundation and the Cancer Society. It’s a long list.
It would also be hard to find someone more engaging and funny — a life-loving storyteller:
I got to play hockey up to Senior B. For a little kid in Niagara-on-the-Lake, it was pretty good. We were playing a game against the St. Catharines Saints and they had this big guy. I got around him two or three times. He hollered at me: “You’re not going to get by next time.” When I woke up, I was on the dressing room table looking at the ceiling. That was the end of my hockey.
Garrett is a fourth generation Niagara-on-the-Lake resident.
He comes from a proud United Empire Loyalist family. His great grandmother, a Thompson, originally of Perthshire, Scotland, fled with her family from New Jersey to New Brunswick during the American Revolution. The family later moved to Niagara.
His great-grandfather on his father’s side, Capt. Alexander Garrett, was born in 1785 in Ireland and fought with Sir Isaac Brock in the Battle of Queenston Heights. He married Amelia Thompson in 1813, settled in Niagara-on-the-Lake and raised three children. The couple is buried at St. Mark’s Anglican Church.
Garrett chuckles as he describes his first Niagara-on-the-Lake ancestor: “He was not killed, or I wouldn’t be here. He was a lieutenant, but after the battle he was promoted to captain.”
Garrett was born in 1927, on the dining room table of the family home on Simcoe Street. His mother was unable to make it to the old Cottage Hospital just a couple of blocks away on Queen Street.
“The house was tiny,” says Garrett. “It was the height of the Depression. We were as poor as church mice.”
“My father was one of the lucky men in Niagara-on-the-Lake to be able to feed his family. He worked for the owner of what is now the Charles Inn, as a gardener for 10 cents an hour—10 hours a day, seven days a week. That’s seven dollars a week! He considered himself lucky he could put food on our table.”
His mother took in laundry.
We had a wringer washing machine and lines out in the backyard. We had a mulberry tree in the backyard. When the wind blew and the birds were after the mulberries, you know where some of the poop went — all over the sheets. My mother just got so mad.
“There wasn’t anything to do in town,” laughs the nonagenarian. “I did a lot of reading. We played outside all the time.”
He admits he sometimes got into a little bit of mischief. “Nothing bad. If we did anything wrong, the police chief would just take us home and let the parents sort it out. Oh boy, my dad was a disciplinarian. Out came the strap. You didn’t do it again.”
“My father flooded the backyard in the winter. He made a rink for me and my brother. We had to be outside. None of this sitting in the house. All we got for Christmas was a hockey stick and a puck and out we’d go.”
Garrett remembers waiting for the Niagara, St. Catharines and Toronto Railway train to steam down King Street from Niagara Falls on its regular schedule.
We loved to watch the train. We looked forward to that train coming in. It used to stop at the Prince of Wales. It came down from Niagara Falls. If we were lucky the conductor would take a couple of us up into the engine and take us down to the docks. They had a big turntable down there. It turned around and headed back. Parts of the turntable are still down by Ball's Beach.
Garrett went to school in the four-room red brick schoolhouse on Platoff Street, now a bed and breakfast. “There was a wood stove in the corner. My favourite subject was girls.”
Garrett’s high school was built in 1875. It is now part of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum, facing on Davy Street. The Memorial Hall was the gym. There were 85 students in five forms.
In the old days there was the Prince of Wales. Down at the dock area there was the American Hotel and then right on the waterfront was the Riverside Hotel. We used to sneak into the Riverside because there was a waiter who would serve us two beers each — 10 cents a glass. He said, “When you’ve finished those, get out.” We were 16.
Garrett remembers the town’s chief of police taking particular notice of his little group of buddies.
We had a chief of police, his name was Lewis A. Warner — LAW. And he’s the chief of police! The two-man force had an office and a jail cell in what is now the Court House. We would be standing around on a Sunday afternoon in front of Bates Drug Store across the street. We were there for cherry Cokes and the girls. LAW would see us standing around. He would come out of his office, down the steps, cross the road, down the sidewalk and he’d stand right in the middle of us. He’d look each one of us in the eye. “Boys, I‘m going for a walk. And when I get back, I don’t expect to see any of you here.” And we weren’t.
Garrett grew up fast. His father died when he was 17, forcing Doug to leave high school to help support his family.
At the same time, we wanted to serve his country. He joined the 44th Field Artillery Regiment in St. Catharines. “We were lucky, we never got sent overseas. The war ended six months later.” He was a reservist for five years.
“From the age of 17, I was never out of work.”
He worked as a labourer on the canal.
He was a meat cutter for nearly a decade, starting at McClelland’s Store on Queen’s Street. For three years he worked on the construction of the switchyard behind the Sir Adam Beck No. 1 Generating Station, on the Parkway adjacent to the Flower Clock.
He drove a school bus for 14 years. For three years he and his horse-drawn carriage delivered milk on a regular St. Catharines route.
In 1960, he started a 28-year career with the LCBO, retiring as a store manager in 1988.
“My starting salary was $3,200 a year. I developed a reputation for straightening things out — a fixer — at several stores across the region.”
Garrett married his first wife, Dorothy, in 1956. They had two sons. Dorothy died of cancer at the tragically young age of 42.
He later married Christine, currently a resident at Upper Canada Lodge. She had four children by a previous marriage. After 25 years on Shakespeare Avenue in Chautauqua, Garrett now lives with his stepdaughter in Queenston.
Along the way he has successfully battled colon cancer and, more recently, survived the implantation of a pacemaker.
As he thinks about the past, Garrett seems to have a twinge of melancholy. The people in almost every picture in his photo albums are gone.
“I miss the sleepy old town. Every year the main street changes. There aren’t many of us left that can remember things.”
“It's sad. But it makes you kind of lucky that you’re still here.”
And waiting for the golf course to reopen.