James Mackintosh Bell

by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

The Millstone News“, the exceedingly popular e-newspaper of the Town of Mississippi Mills (combining as of 1998 the former Corporations of the Town of Almonte and the Townships of Ramsay and Pakenham) inaugurated June 4, 2011 by Val Sears (deceased) and the Almonte Press Club and now under the capable editorial direction of  Edith Cody-Rice and Brent Eades of Almonte, is currently running the following article about one of the brighter lights of Almonte; namely, James Mackintosh Bell:

JM BELL Poster

In June of 1976 shortly after I began working for Messrs. Galligan & Sheffield, Barristers &c. I was introduced to John Bell and his wife Halcyone who were clients of the firm. I, Janet Rintoul and Keith and Penny Blades were among those who were fortunate to dine on occasion with Mr. and Mrs. Bell. John Bell was the son of James Mackintosh Bell, who I understood was a noted geologist. John Bell informed me that when his father owned “Old Burnside” in Almonte he maintained a “skeleton staff of fifteen” (which I presumed was to attend to the many large wood burning fireplaces located throughout the mansion):

Old Burnside
Photo: © Erica Eades and BBCanada.com

John Bell told me that his late father had one room (which I believe was located on the second storey of a turret-like stone structure at the front corner of the mansion) dedicated to the display of his father’s geological collection.  John Bell also informed me of what I thought at the time was his father’s extraordinary connection with New Zealand as the Director of Geological Survey.

As these anecdotes were related to me and others while socializing with Mr. and Mrs. Bell in their delightful country residence located on 200 acres of land off the Clayton Road, it came as no surprise that John Bell had been raised in an undeniably comfortable milieu.  I had also learned that John Bell was an Old Boy of Upper Canada College, Toronto and I believe he was subsequently involved with either the school’s Foundation or Board of Directors.

Mr. and Mrs. John Bell’s residence on the Clayton Road wasn’t always the gem it was when I first saw it. My recollection is that Mr.and Mrs. Bell decided fairly early in their career to abandon the elegance of “Old Burnside” in Almonte for far more rustic digs in the country. I believe they built the initial structure of their home themselves, basically a log cabin.  The story was that they had resided there for approaching 30 years without electricity.  By the time I arrived on the scene, things had changed remarkably.  While the home still appeared moderately as a log home, it had a grand ascending entrance to the main living area in which there was a huge fireplace that consumed almost an entire wall.  It was easily imagined that an enormous log could be set upon the hearth. Extending off the back of the house was something in the style of a conservatory but it in fact more closely resembled a terrarium. The glassed structure housed a miniature pond with aquatic flowers, running water and exotic frogs of the most exquisite proportions and colours.  During the cooler months the windows were covered in condensed water; the room was always warm, reminiscent of a hothouse.  When Mr. Bell fed the frogs, some of them ate right out of his hand.

In the summer we refreshed ourselves (sometimes au naturel) in the magnificent in-ground pool located on the summit of a charming meadow adjacent the residence. The pool enjoyed a becoming aspect over a seemingly endless forested area where, in the winter, we sometimes walked through the deep snow after having eaten a hearty meal. Mrs. Bell was an exceptionally accomplished cook. Given the large number of people who attended for dinner we afterwards felt compelled to help with the dishes, much against the protestations of Mrs. Bell. We did however learn our lesson. One evening after our several courses of food and rich dessert we guests rallied in the country kitchen and began attacking the dirty dishes.  During the course of our enterprise we added to the merriment by singing and even faking some dancing, during the process of which we succeeded to bring a prized Lalique crystal vase crashing to the stone floor. We were naturally mortified by what we had done but Mrs. Bell dismissed it as a mere accident though I have never forgotten my dismay.

When I returned the social invitation to Mr. and Mrs. Bell they flattered me to accept my comparatively modest reciprocity. At the time I was living in Almonte in my first house which was so small that I quipped I had to back into it. Although my memory doesn’t serve me precisely, I suspect I am correct to surmise that it was Janet Rintoul who was the author of any favourable delectation we might have enjoyed in my humble residence.  Janet, like Halcyone, was a highly qualified cook.  John Bell, though he did everything decent to accommodate my circumstances, was clearly not entirely comfortable in the urban setting and he unquestionably preferred to hold court – as he effectively did – in his much more grand environment off the Clayton Road where he traditionally assumed a large comfy armchair at one end of the main living room and recounted his gripping tales accompanied by the crackling of the fire and the clinking of ice cubes.

I should add that the road leading to the Bell log home from the Clayton Road was deliberately constructed as a tortuously winding road.  It would have been impossible for anyone – owner, visitor or interloper – to have negotiated the path to the house at anything in excess of 10 kilometres per hour.  Once one gained admission to the vast cleared opening surrounding the house the only evidence of any other human habitation was that of the Leclaire family who had for many years been integral to Mr. and Mrs. Bell in the management of their property and farming.

One final personal observation, John Bell introduced me to what I have since learned is a not uncommon practice among country gentlemen – that is, voiding one’s bladder at the edge of the woods. This practice is useful for many purposes:  it permits one to take the airs following a heavy evening meal; one can redden a bowl or smoke a cigarette; relieve oneself of course (while sparing the septic system); and – something I hadn’t anticipated – create a sensory fence on the edge of one’s vegetable garden to dissuade racoons and other predators.

As this brief narrative is ostensibly about James Mackintosh Bell, following is a quotation from an article I found which gathers some related information:

A number of the men whose names have lent luster to that of the town of Almonte, notably including pupils of Dr. Peter C. McGregor (1842-1916), Almonte high school teacher of distinction, are found to have had their youthful years coinciding with those of the present Almonte newspaper. Among them were Dr. James A. Naismith (1861-1939) best remembered as inventor of the game of basketball ; Senator Andrew Haydon (1867-1932), politician, lawyer and author of the Lanark County history “Pioneer Sketches in the District of Bathurst” ; Dr. Robert Tait McKenzie (1867-1938), surgeon and sculptor, commemorated by an Ontario historical plaque at the Mill of Kintail near Almonte as well as by his sculptures (one is “The Volunteer,” located beside the Mississippi on the grounds of the Almonte town hall) ; Sir Edward Robert Peacock, born 1871, living 1961, financier, director of companies including the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, former head of the Banking firm of Baring Brothers and director of the Bank of England ; Dr. William Bennett Munro (1875-1957), American educator, historian and political scientist ; and Dr. James Mackintosh Bell (1877-1934), geologist, explorer, soldier and author, one of the noted descendants of the county’s pioneering Rev. William Bell.