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March 9, 2002

John Argo left behind memories, stories, friends

The story of a true Argonaut from Mattawa

The dictionary states that an Argonaut is one in Greek mythology who sailed on the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece—or more simply, one involved in the search for gold or in a rewarding and challenging quest.  This definition suits John Argo, the Mattawa iron man who died recently.  I have written about several of Mattawa’s local heroes—Gordon Dafoe, Mike Rodden and Gertrude Bernard (Anahareo), all of whom have books telling their story.  I never met any of them, but I did meet with the Mattawa Argonaut John Argo on several occasions.

John’s interests did not include writing about himself, but his history is well-recorded including stories in Community Voices by Gerry Therien last week (which I have not seen) and Cindy Cameron in the first issue of Community Voices in April 2000.  The Nugget and the Mattawa Recorder also had recent stories, as did Bill Steer in a 1996 feature article in the Nugget.  Leo Morel’s book on Mattawa has a profile on John, and Wayne LaBelle’s Sturgeon Falls book has a picture of John shaking hands with NHL legend Doug Harvey after John won a 26-mile marathon in Sturgeon Falls.

While working at the Mattawa Museum in 1987-88 I took on a project with John to establish a display of his squared timber skills.  This involved having him participate in a log squaring demonstration as a part of the museum’s Labour Day program, where I took a series of photos showing the steps in the lost art of timber squaring and making dovetailed joints. Knowing the steps is not, of course, enough.  You have to have a sharp broad axe and an adze, and the strength, stamina and skill to use them.

John Argo demonstrates log squaring as a part of the Mattawa Museum’s Labour Day program

The museum project involved mounting the photos, explaining the process and placing the finished log in the museum.  I also decided to add a written profile on John as a part of the display.  The profile was one of the first pieces of history writing that I did.  I visited John and his wife Rose on their 230 acre farm in Mattewan Township and we chatted for several hours and looked at some of his scrapbooks and awards.  As a former log builder I was impressed by his log home, built by himself with squared timber and dovetail joints much like the pioneers did it. More remarkable was the fact that he did it single-handedly over three years while in his 60s.  On another occasion John showed me a second log building he was completing for his daughter using the same methods.  I caught him at 75 years of age, working alone installing the roof rafters.  Both buildings remain in the family today.

John could be remembered for his log building skills alone, but as I found out, there was much more—a remarkable amateur athletic career showing incredible focus, strength, and durability.  He did some successful bicycle racing in his early 20s before going overseas for six years.  He won the Dominion Bicycle Racing Championship in 1939.  On one occasion he rode his ordinary bicycle to Toronto and back to compete in a race.  He did some competitive running while in the army.

After the war he worked cutting pulpwood, began farming, and with his wife Rose, raised five children.  He eventually began to train for walking competitions, which were common in those days.  He went into a few races and began to win when he heard about the Centurian Club, where you became a member if you walked 100 miles in less than 24 hours.  John was hooked, and was soon competing in the Untied States while in his early 60s.  He competed the race a couple of times in under 24 hours. Sports Illustrated magazine wrote enthusiastically about him as the oldest man to complete the race in under 24 hours.

On one occasion, he went into a 25-mile challenge race with students in the Royal Military College in Kingston.  After five hours and over 20 miles, he was so far ahead that they stopped the race.  His last walk was 63 miles, from Sturgeon Falls to Mattawa, as a part of a Canadian Legion track meet promotion.  He was 67 years old.

Like a true Argonaut, to keep in shape in the winter and to challenge himself, John began to enter snowshoe competitions, including 10-mile races in Temagami, which he won nine years in a row.  On one occasion he agreed to snowshoe from his home to North Bay to celebrate the opening of the winter carnival.  He left unescorted at one o’clock in the morning, following hydro cuts in the bush and back roads all night.  He arrived after 43 miles and 14 hours, in time for the opening.

Among the trophies and memorabilia that John showed me where awards for being the best amateur in the Mattawa and North Bay canoe race–-one each with each of his twin sons Jim and John.  He was involved several times in the 122 mile, three day, Ville Marie to North Bay canoe race.

In a recent conversation with John’s daughter Helen, she said that he was always in competition with himself, always trying to finish the race whether he won or not.  She also pointed out that her father, in spite of all of his achievements, was best remembered as a good family man. Her son Jeremiah was with John in his last canoe race at age 76.  Helen has indicated that she will be making some of his memorabilia available to the museum to add to his logging display there.

In my conversations with John, I was aware that he was a gentle, unpretentious man without a big ego in spite of his successes.  I also discovered that he was something of a civic leader currently at the time, as a Mattewan Township councilor and former Reeve.  He was also active in the Legion and served as its president on several occasions.

A couple of years ago while interviewing a resident at the Algonquin Nursing home in Mattawa, I discovered that his roommate was John Argo and I was pleased to see him a gain and shake his hand.  I was saddened, as were many, that this athlete, craftsman, leader and family man had passed away on that day when love and affection were in the air—Valentine’s Day, 2002.

For more information on John Argo, log onto www.museum.mattawa.on.ca and click on the top icon.

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