||March 9, 2002
John Argo left behind memories, stories, friends
The story of a true Argonaut from Mattawa
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
For more information on John Argo, log onto www.museum.mattawa.on.ca and click on the top icon.
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