Eric Vettoretti and I made some last-minute travel plans at the end of June so we could try out the new Bonfield Automotive Flea Market, which is hosted by the same people who hold the spring and fall Barrie markets.
Ever since the market founder Don Hanney sold his land (he passed on not long afterward), the market organizers have been forced to pay rent to hold the Barrie markets at the usual location of Burl’s Creek. The new park owners have sunk a lot of money into many upgrades of the property, so naturally, renting the park will be very costly. So, the market organizers purchased a new chunk of land with fields and a drag strip, ostensibly in the hope that a third market will become popular enough to pay dividends.
Sounds good, in theory. But the new location is in Bonfield, which is in Nipissing District, between North Bay and Mattawa. The town itself is about two kilometres south of the Trans-Canada, at the end of the very-short Secondary Highway 531. I’ve passed by that highway many dozens of times over the past 20 years, but have never once turned south and ventured into Bonfield. Until this weekend, that is.
One advantage for us Ottawans is that Bonfield is closer to home than Barrie… 3 ½ hours in the car, as opposed to five. Totally doable on short notice! Eric and I brought our third-grade sons along for the ride. I lived in North Bay when I was doing my Bachelor of Education, so I’m familiar with the area and the drive. There are lots of interesting bygone highway artifacts and abandoned inns along the way, and if the market turned out to be less than stellar, we’d have lots of time on the way home to explore.
We left at about five o’clock, which put us right in the middle of the Friday afternoon commute. That wasn’t ideal, and it took a while to escape the city’s sphere of influence, but the weather was gorgeous. Before long, the commuters had disappeared and we were on the two-lane ribbon that makes up Highway 17 as it stretches out into the Canadian Shield. Solstice had occurred earlier in the day, so not only was it a Friday, but it was officially our first road trip of the summer. My favourite time of a summer drive is the early evening, when the sun comes in shallow, and the meadows and forests erupt in a surprisingly bright shade of green. It was mesmerizing to us all. Eric was driving, so that freed me to roll down the window and take some pictures along the way. They’re never random. Each time, I see something——a situation, mood or nuance——that I want to capture.
The sun set just before nine o’clock as we were coming down the hills into Mattawa… the latest sunset that place will ever see. The sky remained light for much of the remaining drive to North Bay. We would be overshooting Bonfield so we could stay someplace comfortable for the night. When we arrived at our hotel, the last remnants of daylight were still lighting the scene enough that the highway lights were still off. There were a few railroad-themed vehicles with US plates that were parked outside. One truck from Illinois was fitted with high-rail adaptors at its wheels. Another from Indiana was hauling an old CP Rail speeder on a flatbed trailer. We figured there might be a hobbyist event going on, but we were too tired to find out. We took the boys for a swim in the pool and retired for the night.
By 8 am the next morning, we were on the road back eastward to Bonfield. We really didn’t know what to expect. Would it be worth the trip? Would it be a disaster? Would it be a first step with room for improvement? We turned down Highway 531 to the town proper, and we were pretty much the only vehicle on the road. The route was well-marked with flea market signs, but it looked like there weren’t many early-birds. In Barrie, by 8 am, there’s a steady procession of vehicles heading to the market grounds, but that didn't happen in Bonfield. We were alone. We found the laneway into the event park, which led us up a knoll, where we were directed to park. The vendors were hidden on the far side.
We disembarked from the car into a field of dragonflies, which were busy feasting on the season’s blackflies, which tend to peak in northern Ontario at this time of year. The field was breezy enough to keep most of the blackflies from biting us, but we were equipped with a can of bug repellent, just in case.
We walked over to the vendors. There weren’t that many of them. It’s hard to guess exactly how many there were. If you’re familiar with the Barrie market as it is now, imagine one half of the Barrie field… that’s about how long a vendor row would be in Bonfield. There were maybe five rows in total, but not all the spaces were filled, so my estimate is maybe 80 vendors in all. It was typical auto market fare, with garage sale items, antique vendors and some car parts. There were some rerun vendors from Barrie, and since we’d seen them barely two weeks before, there were plenty of plates that we recognized. The Bonfield market was a little bigger than the first Lindsay market when the AACA relocated there from Stirling a few years ago. Lindsay has since expanded as it picks up steam a little more each year. It’s quite possible that Bonfield may experience something similar.
There were three or four food trucks as well… ample eats for the size of the market, and plenty of portable outhouses, so when the kids became hungry or thirsty, or had to pee, we had them covered. There was a drag strip nearby, capable of holding races, but the organizers had specifically said via Facebook that the track still had to be prepped, so there would be no racing that weekend. Racing would definitely be a draw for years to come. I remember when the Barrie Speedway was still standing next to Burl’s Creek. The drone of stock cars going around and around the oval continued through the afternoon, and it drew lots of people to the market.
But really, the buck stops with the vendors. If the Bonfield market can attract vendors, customers will come. But with roughly 80 flea market vendors (including a couple that were still sleeping in their campers with their tables covered), it only took us about an hour to really see everything. We knew that the event might be smaller than we hoped, so by bringing our sons along and being ready to do other things, we’d keep the journey as a whole from being a disappointment.
The rumour mill, according to the BAFM Facebook page, has been producing stories that the Barrie markets might be discontinued in favour of Bonfield. But having been to both now, I'm not so sure. The vendor area in Bonfield is nowhere near large enough to act as a replacement for the Barrie market, particularly the fall one. If every Barrie vendor upped and moved to Bonfield, there wouldn’t be enough room for everyone. So when the organizers say that they’re simply adding Bonfield as a third event for each year, I’m inclined to believe them, although the spring Barrie market seems to be losing steam from what I've seen. Bonfield was pretty small, but could grow in popularity. I would have to try Bonfield out again next year to really make a call as to whether I’d want to do it again for year three and beyond. One thing I found very disappointing is that they sent a bunch of cars down the drag strip, after the organizers explicitly stated on their Facebook page that they wouldn’t be doing so. They even posted videos of it on their official Facebook page. Our third-grade boys would have loved to have seen that, but we had already left the market, and missed the drag runs entirely. Boo.
The most interesting “new meat” find we made was an old OPP police station road sign. It was easily 50-60 years old. It was non-reflective, with the logo and legend hand-painted. The sign was a very large square, four feet across. It would have been attached to two posts back in the day. It was made of a thinner gauge steel than one might expect for a sign of this size, so it was light enough to pick up. The price? $150. For such an uncommon item in clean condition, that was a fair amount. Both Eric and I wanted to buy it, and figure out its eventual ownership later. The price wasn’t the problem, though… it was the size. With our boys in the back seat of the wagon, there was no way we could fit a 16-square-foot sign. It wasn’t even close. It would be resting on their heads for the whole drive home… so we had no choice but to leave the sign behind. One thing that I think is important as a collector is to know when to admit defeat. You can’t have it all. I suppose we could have driven into North Bay and bought some foam and ropes to strap it to the top of the car, but in the end, it’s just a sign. Neither of us has the wall space to display something that large (it would take up the same amount of area on a wall as 32 plates).
I found a pretty good 1935 Ontario truck plate that I would use to upgrade my truck run. I also bought a natural bus plate with a brown March 1984 expiry sticker. On the back of the plate was written in marker that it was used on a 1968 Chevy bus, fleet number 44. Chevrolet manufactured the B-series bus chassis starting in 1966, and they were mostly fitted with school bus bodies. With this plate being intended for a bus (as opposed to school bus), the vehicle was probably used late in its life as a shuttle. The plate is still quite glossy and the sticker has no evidence of having anything applied on top of it, so this 1968 Chevy bus was definitely off the road by 1984.
We fed the kids at the food trucks and made our way back to the car. Eric and I had a deal to finalize. He had recently made a trip to Oshawa to buy a whole bunch of plates, and as part of that, I was taking on a stack of PCV plates going back to 1942. Eric had already organized the plates and had a bunch of traders for me to flip through. We were just in the process of putting it all away when a couple of older gents came by to get into their truck, which was parked next to us. They were eagerly interested in having a look, so Eric plopped the boxes on the tailgate and let them have a run through. They were choosy, but one gentleman bought a nice flat plate from the late teens, and was pretty happy with it. It was the only time Eric had ever gone to a flea market, bought nothing, and came away with new revenue from other market-goers.
It was only 10:30 in the morning. We’d been there for just over two hours in total. There was nothing much else going on——not even a classic car show, that we could see. We left the market and decided to stop at the Bonfield town park, which features a small rail yard, library, town hall, a caboose, a small river, and various other “hey-look-at-thats”. We spent nearly an hour letting the boys explore. They wandered around the deserted rail yard, looking for old spikes and looking at the chunks of Sudbury slag that are used to make the rail bed. We checked out the river that runs northward from the lake and through the park. For a place in the middle of nowhere, there was a lot for curious boys and geeky dads to find.
Eric noticed that the bridge that crosses the river was built in 1917. It features the ornate concrete barriers that were used by the department of highways for the then-nascent highway system of the time. The bridge joins the westward Maple Street to the eastward Trunk Road. Out of curiosity, we took Trunk Road homeward. It was fairly straight for the most part, and its bridges had similar antiquated concrete barriers. There were a couple of jogs in the road, and a level railroad crossing, until it reached Rutherglen, where it ran into the current highway.
We theorized that this road may have been the original alignment of what would eventually become Highway 17 between Mattawa and North Bay. According to my 1927 Ontario Motor League manual, the turn-by-turn directions for that route, going from Rutherglen to Bonfield, were:
Jog left at cross roads then straight ahead
Curve left - railway on right
BONFIELD station on right
...which pretty much matches everything we experienced heading in the opposite direction toward Rutherglen. All we needed was more time and a good metal detector… could be some old shield signs to find, buried in the ground!
On the way home, we took another former alignment of Highway 17 that’s now maintained as a residential road just west of Mattawa. We stopped in Mattawa itself to check out the railway line that passes directly underneath what is now the traffic circle in the middle of town. Until Eric showed it to me, I had no idea that it was there. I’ve driven through Mattawa countless times in the past 20 years, and I’d never noticed it from the roadway.
Further along the journey, just past Deux Rivieres, is a well-known abandoned segment of Highway 17. It’s nearly five kilometres long and cuts a straight line through the hills. The up-and-down nature of the highway produced some inclines that were fairly steep, which probably made for risky driving for big rigs. The highway was rebuilt in a slightly longer alignment that curves around the old one, but has a single gentle decline down the hills, as opposed to several blind crests stuck between steep drops. It’s possible to access this abandoned section from both ends. I had driven on it once, about 17-18 years before (which is when the rightmost "NOT MAINTAINED" sign photo was taken). At that time, the pavement was fairly good, although I had to dodge downed trees. I became overconfident in one section where the road suddenly undulated where the bed had settled, and I bottomed out (the crunch was startling, but no damage done).
Eric’s car has a higher ground clearance, and was well-suited to do a little light-duty offroading. Eric hadn’t ever had the chance to drive this part of the road before, so we jumped at the chance to try it out. There were no obstacles to impede us, probably because ATVers use it as a trail, or maybe Hydro One uses it to maintain the power lines that run alongside the old alignment. It was a really cool drive. The dividing line was still visible in the middle of the road. The stripes were painted white and not yellow, which means this section of road had probably been out of service since the 1960s, and no later than 1971. The road runs basically straight, and climbs up and down a rollercoaster of hills. It ends at a small access laneway by Gibson Lake, which is marked by a very old painted sign, advising adventurers that the road wasn’t maintained and they’d be taking their chances. I remember seeing this sign for the first time in 2000, and at that time it was still legible. Overgrowth and exposure to the elements have turned this sign into just as much a relic as the former highway over which it stands guard.
We checked out one more abandoned section of the highway, just east of Bissett Creek. This section was very much overgrown on one end, and submerged on the other, so we didn’t get to see as much of it as we’d hoped. I checked it out once many years ago, and there was still an old “ROAD CLOSED” sign attached to a post, marking a spot where a former bridge was out. The sign has since been picked (photo above of said sign was shot in 2001). We got out to have a look, and were rewarded with a swarm of blackflies. They followed us back to the car. A few dozen entered the car during the two seconds that we had the doors open, and we spent the next half hour swatting them.
We arrived in Pembroke, and we detoured into town to try and find a junk shop that Eric noticed years before. We drove through an older and stately section of town, when I noticed an estate sale sign directing us up a small residential street. We make a quick turn and parked. It was a contents sale… it looked like an elderly lady lived there previously. Everything in the house was up for grabs. We started in the basement. I found a couple of minor items for a buck each. I was about to move into the furnace room, when Eric emerged from there, carrying a speed limit sign, made by Rosco in Toronto, with the maker's stamp on the back. It was an old sign to be sure——a signed speed like 25 could only be in miles per hour, but the sign itself actually said “SPEED LIMIT” as opposed to the bilingual “MAXIMUM” that would come later. My guess as to its era would be the late 1950s or early 1960s. The family was interested in dispersing the contents of the home quickly, as opposed to haggling over collectibles, so we bought it for a cool $15! We love Pembroke.
We fed the kids some late lunch and found a couple of junk shops on the eastern end of town. One place had friendly vendors, but no plates. The other place had plates, but the vendor wanted $50 for a set of rusty 1930 plates. We tried to reason with the guy.
“1930, you sure don’t see that very often. That’s worth a premium,” he said.
“Why?” I asked. “There’s no paint left. I’d have to repaint them to display them.”
“There you go; they’ll be great, then.”
“You’re charging for the work I’m going to do on them?”
He shrugged. “Yep,” he said.
“Nah, forget that,” I said.
This guy was infatuated by the age of the plates, and not the condition. Haggling was no use. Eric picked out a plate, for which the price was just $20. It wasn’t that old, hence the lower price. But it was a valuable Canadian Forces in Germany plate, some kind of variant, with intact expiry sticker. Ironically, the shopkeeper had the values backwards——the Canada plate should have been $50, and the 1930 rusties should have been $20.
We drove out of Pembroke along Highway 148, which is now the highest-numbered King’s Highway in the province (Highway 169 was downloaded over 20 years ago). We found an older 148 shield in use as a junction sign, and it looked to date to the 1970s, with the “MTC” legend down at the bottom. There was a newer 148 shield nearby in an assurance position on the highway itself.
That was pretty much it for our trip, which lasted a hair under 24 hours, with us taking our time the whole while. It’s accurate to say that we had more fun on the journey than we did at the destination.
Bonfield has an opportunity to be better next year, but only if they can lure more vendors. The guys with all the car parts in southern Ontario are probably less likely to spend fuel lugging them all the way to Bonfield, where there are fewer shoppers. How to lure more vendors?
Get a judged car show going. Or, if there actually was one, make it obvious.
Get the drag strip working with actual scheduled races through the day.
Start a beer tent. One more reason for patrons to stay longer.
Talk to local Bonfield businesses——the motels and restaurants out by Highway 17——and get them on board and advertise their services to people who may be travelling from out of town. We stayed at a Holiday Inn in North Bay because we couldn't figure out any closer options.
Talk to North Bay classic car owner groups… there was no mention of them in the verbiage leading up to the market date. Were they invited?
Provide more field site info. I couldn’t find anything useful about the site before I got there… didn’t know if camping was available, the layout, how big, etc.
Kill the spring Barrie market. It happens only two weeks beforehand, which makes Bonfield largely redundant. I saw several vendors in both places, offering the same stuff I saw two weeks earlier in Barrie. Besides, with the AACA moving the Lindsay meet two weeks before spring Barrie, that’s going to take a big bite from the spring Barrie meet. (Keep the fall Barrie meet though, that’s the big draw.)