Knock, knock… it’s hollow

By Willa Wick in Places, Events, & History

“Knock, knock, who’s in there?”

A weak voice answered below me, “It’s Arnold.”

“And how long have you been in there?”

“About a 134 years.”

“Are you ok?”

“Yes, about as well as one could expect for an old guy. But aren’t I beautiful on the outside?”

“Yes, I must admit, your markings are exquisite.”

“I stand out from the crowd. I like that. And when you come back in another 134 years I’ll still look the same. Ha ha, they said I was a cheap imposter and wouldn’t last, but look at me now—far from home, looking better for my age than most of the others. And you can’t get one like me anymore. Good to see you, very seldom does anyone stop to talk.”

Sounds a little far-fetched, doesn’t it? But if stones could talk, that’s what a small number of them would say—and that bunch are few and far between.

It was never my intention to become a cemetery seeker, somehow it just happened. Cemeteries are for the living, not just the dead. It was drawn to my attention that in the Harriston Cemetery was a very unique tombstone. Indeed it was distinctive, the only one of its kind. On the back was inscribed “White Bronze Monument Company, St. Thomas, Ontario.” Metal? Tap, tap. Yes, it sure isn’t stone. Knock, knock. It’s hollow. And just like Arnold said, there aren’t any more here.

The White Bronze Monument Company existed in St. Thomas beginning in 1883 to about 1918. The company obtained the sole Canadian franchise for products from the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport Connecticut. At the same time as its grand opening day in St. Thomas, the company was awarded first prize at the Canadian National Exhibition for its display of memorials and other sculptures.

The name “white bronze” is a little misleading in that the material is actually pure zinc. The markers were advertised as almost indestructible, would not corrode, would not change colour, and would not support the growth of mould, moss or lichens. Because metal does not absorb water they would not be affected by frost. The distinctive pale bluish grey colour was achieved by applying a chemical oxidizing agent.

These grave markers are usually obelisk shaped with individual embellishments so that no two are identical. They are often adorned on top with a cross, urn, or small statue.

Creation of monument sections involved a wax model followed by an exact copy in plaster. Finally a sand mold was made to form the panel.  The zinc castings were mass produced and the pieces fused together to become the memorial of choice.

Over time, a skin of zinc carbonate developed which gave them the distinctive and protective patina. Customers designed their own name and decorative panels from pictures. Stock panels were available with inspirational quotes, Bible verses, flowers, crosses, drapes, and other popular motifs. These individual panels were attached by screws with special ornamental heads. This allowed the name plate to be removed and replaced when other family members died. With everything being in panels fused together these memorials were obviously hollow. The base was often finished to resemble rough cut rock.

Surprisingly enough, these monuments were sold by agents carrying catalogues and a few sample plates. The price ranged from $2 to $4,000. A good selling point was that shipping was a lot cheaper because zinc was so much lighter than regular stone. Ultimately, the continual sale of the less expensive monuments was one of the factors in the demise of the company. During World War 1 the government took over production to use all available zinc for guns and munitions. The St. Thomas company never fully recovered after the war. The success of the salesman in Southwestern Ontario is reflected in the number of markers in any given cemetery.

In retrospect, these almost indestructible monuments were a good idea; however, at the time they were regarded as a cheap imitation of stone monuments. People did not believe the claim that they were superior to stone; some cemeteries even banned them. In reality, the white bronze markers have stood the test of time. Their carvings and embossing are still highly legible, which makes the memorial look as though it had been placed within the last few years.

Recently I attended a funeral in St. Thomas. The burial was in Parkside Cemetery where all the markers are flat to the ground (a boon to grass cutters, but not so much to someone trying to find a particular tombstone). Directly across the highway was a huge Catholic cemetery. From where I was standing I could immediately pick out a few of the tall, tell-tale pale bluish monuments.

The next day on my trip home, I stopped for a walk. It made perfect sense that the city of St. Thomas would host the largest number of white bronze memorials. Indeed, in the old part of the cemetery there were about a dozen (but I only visited one of three cemeteries in the city). They are beautiful, such clear embossing and statuary, and no two the same. Because of the size and amount of decoration, each one had a different tone when tapped.

As it goes, one thing leads to another, and I stopped at every town and village on the way back to Harriston. I did skip London for reasons of my own sanity. Even though I was on a mission I buzzed through Bryanston and Ballymote without seeing a cemetery from the highway, but next trip down I will stop to check. I was surprised not to find anything in Kirkton (what I consider the half way point between St. Thomas and home). Mitchell has a great well laid out expanse, and I quickly found quite a few of the monuments. Listowel has several.

As with anyone who stops at a cemetery, I wander. You can’t help yourself. After finding what you’re after, you start noticing intriguing stones and walk over. Then something else catches your eye and you walk farther. Up on a little knoll shaded by branches of big trees was a large monument with the inscription in part “she gave her life fighting for her honour.” A mystery story of the town that so many have forgotten and the younger generation have not even known.

Very close was a spectacle I had not envisioned finding. It was a white bronze monument with the name plates missing. Was it vandalism, or were the name plates removed to add another deceased, and for some unknown reason never returned. Naturally, with the opportunity presenting itself I looked and felt inside.  It was as I expected—the hollow insides of a tall piece of metal. But maybe this was one of… Over a century ago it was rumored that these memorials, because the plates could be removed, were hiding places for stolen goods, or for bootleggers to stash quantities of booze during prohibition. Truth or myth is the question, but I found nary a cap, cork or coin. The big mystery remains – who is buried there, why were the plates removed, and when?

Taking a long detour I found no white bronze markers in either Fergus or Arthur. Palmerston, Clifford, and Mount Forest cemeteries have none, yet Harriston has one. Interesting. From Mount Forest I flipped on up to Holstein. There was no cemetery in sight, so I asked someone about it. “I’m not sure, but probably all the burials are taken to Mount Forest,” they said. I wasn’t content with that explanation, so when I saw a lady walking on the outskirts of town I stopped and asked again. “Oh sure, turn around, go across the highway and straight down a few miles on the left.”

Sure enough, there was a tranquil little cemetery enclosed by a black, wrought-iron fence. I could see at a glance there was nothing in the white bronze configuration, but for some reason, even though it was almost dusk, I went in.

A lone elderly gentleman was also there. When our paths crossed we stopped to chat. He showed me where his ancestors were buried and told me a bit of history. Then he showed me stones from the other side of the family. The name caught my eye, Drimmie. “I remember my father talking about a Norm Drimmie,” I said. That was his uncle.

What a pleasant encounter. It was obvious this man was just basking in the serenity of the quiet little country cemetery before he closed the gates and called it a night.