Ernest Van Simmons was born in April, 1912 on his
family farm in the heart of tobacco country at RR. 6, Tillsonburg,
Ontario. He lived his entire life here. By the time he was an adult, he and
his father seem to have shifted their focus from farming to dealing in scrap
This is where
our story begins - in the immediate post war years. The years when everyone
wanted to enjoy their new found prosperity and do their best to forget about
the conflict they had just endured.
couldn't dispose of their huge inventory of war machines fast enough. They
sold huge lots at ridiculously low prices to scrap vendors who, in turn,
re-sold them to farmers who could use many items from these "hardware
stores on wheels". Precision aircraft parts could be used to repair
farm machinery. Wheels were always particularly useful, as were myriad other
components. Anson fuselages were said to make great chicken coops.
Prices were so low that, in some cases, airplanes were bought as
children's playthings and left to rot away when outgrown. No one dreamed that
objects so common at the time would ever have value beyond scrap to sold by
Ernie was one
of those dealers. In April, 1946, he responded to a local newspaper ad
advertising Ansons, Yales and Swordfish for sale. These had been in storage at
the former British Commonwealth Air Training Plan base near Brantford,
Ontario. The entire lot had been purchased by Amsco Ltd.. of Hamilton, who
again offered the collection for sale.
dealer, an ex RCAF engine mechanic from nearby Scotland, Ontario, named Cam
Logan, bought up many of the offerings. He purchased 19 Fairey
Swordfish, several Ansons and all the Yales that had instruments in the rear
cockpit for a reported fifty dollars each! Logan did what was considered the
sensible thing at the time...he cut up and sold his purchases for parts and
scrap. For years afterward, he was found at various locations disposing of
wartime aircraft. Hurricanes, Harvards, Lancasters, Mosquitoes and other more
unusual craft were liquidated.....even a Messerschmitt Me262 jet! He was a
source of scavenged parts well into the sixties, when warbirds finally gained
some respect and some people began to acquire them for restoration.
bought the aircraft that Logan didn't. Well over thirty Yales, the rest of the
Swordfish and 30 Cheetah IX engines from Avro Ansons found their way to the
Simmons farm. At some point, he also picked up some Westland Lysanders.
everyone else in the business, Ernie didn't cut his machines up. He parked
them in rows out in his fields where they sat, with no maintenance, for
decades. Aircraft, originally in perfect operating order, slowly rotted away
and sank into the ground. As they were recently de-commissioned warbirds, it
was illegal to fly them, and, in any event, Ernie wasn't a licensed pilot.
(letters he wrote show that Ernie was convinced that the R.C.M.P. had nothing
better to do than to constantly check his farm from the air to make sure
he wasn't flying his toys)
Why did he do
abound. The most often heard explanation is that Ernie was sure that another
war was imminent and that the government would need to buy back the airplanes,
making him a hefty profit. Other stories have him planning to convert the
Swordfish into crop dusters....(this, supposedly, to convince his father of
his astuteness in business)....or making secret deals with Nationalist China
that the Canadian Government wouldn't let him consummate.
It wasn't just
airplanes that Ernie liked. He also got his hands on hundreds of antique
motorcycles, including some very rare Indians, Hendersons, Royal Enfields,
and, of course, Harley-Davidsons. Most were from the thirties and forties, but
some dated back as far as the First World War.
also scores of old tractors and steam engines. Bren gun carriers, a motley
collection of other military surface vehicles, old trucks, and automobiles
...........all sat moldering in rows in the grass.
But Ernie, to
put it mildly, valued his privacy! He was paranoid about thieves trying
to steal his property. Perhaps, "Zealous about guarding his
collection", would be a better way of putting it, since later events were
ultimately to prove him right.
But, he was in
business, after all. He would sell parts, if not most of the complete
buyers had to be very careful, however.
The farmhouse was very isolated. It was in the middle of the property,
surrounded by old trees, with an extremely long lane in from the concession
roads on either side. Anyone wishing to visit him had to enter the long
lane slowly, blowing the car horn to announce their presence. Ernie would
eventually approach the car warily, with his ever present shotgun, to inquire
as to one's business. If the visitor was known to him, or, at least,
polite and respectful, it was all right. He'd do business. If he was in a good
mood, he'd even give you a tour of the place, giving a knowledgeable
commentary about each vehicle. Lookers, however, were not allowed to stray
from the paths he had made in the grass and were never allowed to climb on the
aircraft. He'd usually tell would-be buyers, if they asked about a particular
machine, "Sorry, you can't have that one! I'm gonna fix it up one of
these days." Sometimes, he'd charge fifty cents or a dollar for his
tours. He was even willing to pose for pictures with his machines. Many of
these survive....Ernie liked to strike self conscious poses. He was
obviously proud of his collection.
displaying the slightest bit of condescension or those who commented about
"all the junk" were immediately run off with a gruff,
"You know how you came in here...you can get the hell out the same
signs everywhere saying "Stay away from airplanes". There were
alleged to be booby traps too.
Many of the
airplanes had their wings removed. He thought that hiding parts in different
locations all over the farm would make it harder for anyone to steal things.
Propellers were stacked in piles, here and there. A multitude of engines and
thousands of other bits and pieces lay everywhere. He liked to take the
magnetos off everything.
At least once,
Ernie did decide to get a pilot's license. He made arrangements with a
nearby airport to start flying lessons. When the pre-arranged day came, he
showed up with a truck full of six volt batteries, which he wished to barter
for the training. Needless to say, he was sent away. Undaunted, he showed up
later with a Bren Gun carrier, also offered in trade. He never got that
much on social skills. He never married, claiming he was far too busy for such
things. He'd only go into town when absolutely necessary, to deal, or to pick
up bulk supplies.
and his mother were both inveterate diary keepers and they kept it all. They
wrote down everything, on any available writing surface...... notepads, old
envelopes, pieces of cardboard from boxes, whatever was handy. Every
little detail of day to day life.....what they did, a record of the plate
numbers of cars that came in the drive, what medicines they used for their
ailments...and, of course, the Government and its many plots against the
wrote many letters to the editors of local newspapers. Some, he actually
mailed, others not. A favorite topic was "Cattle TB testing and
vaccination- a vicious racket and highly dangerous". Ernie warned
of a conspiracy by the government, big business and crooked
veterinarians to introduce God-knows-what chemicals into small farmer's
cows... under the guise of vaccinating them. The nefarious goal was the
destruction of the family farm and the ultimate take-over by big factory
operations. If it was taken only one step further, he warned,
"...the demand for forced vaccination on people will begin through
a well planted or trumped up excuse. They then could liquidate any person or
persons because of their religious or political views."
subjects included Ernie's dislike of being compelled to do anything
by the government. As well as the previously mentioned livestock vaccination
he was opposed to compulsory automobile insurance, government mandated safety
checks on vehicles, and being told what he could and could not grow. He didn't
like the colors on the new Canadian flag and he was appalled by the health
risk caused by women and children following the dictates of fashion and not
dressing warmly enough for Canadian winters. He didn't drink or smoke....both
of these, he thought, have caused far more grief to society than
unvaccinated cows or uninsured, uncertified vehicles ever would.
hated to see, "...Properties and taxes forcibly taken from the public by
the government to build parks, colleges and memorials to the brewers names. If
the breweries must have memorials, let the prisons be named after
acquaintance of Ernie's recalls that, several times, Government
representatives came around to get his cow vaccinated. Every time they
arrived, the cow seemed to be unavailable. It was always "Way down in the
back pasture" or some similar excuse. After several fruitless visits,
they threatened him with legal action. Ernie then grudgingly produced the cow.
However, he pulled out a magnifying glass and insisted on inspecting the
needle and serum. He then watched every move by the vet through narrowed eyes.
No one was going to inject germs into HIS cow!
Ernie had a
way with machines and he was constantly "tinkering". Parts from
different vehicles were often re-combined in creative ways. If you lifted the
hood of a car, you might find an entirely different engine than the one its
maker intended to be there.
He liked to
"hop up" his guns too. A favorite method was sawing apart dynamite
for the TNT inside, which he used to make his own shotgun loads. He apparently
didn't think the stock powder was powerful enough! With the custom mixture, he
said, "a sparrow is not safe fifty yards away!" A local gunsmith
recalled seeing the chamber of one of his shotguns that had burst open. Ernie
told him: "I only got a few shot in my hand"!
recall hearing aircraft engines roaring back in his fields. They were probably
just being run up to keep them from seizing. Rumors of Ernie actually flying
are certainly just that - rumors. Although.....a friend recalls him tying a
Yale to a tree and revving it up occasionally. He ran these machines on
gasoline with much too low an octane rating....they made
horrendous pinging noises. Apparently the Yale broke loose once,
understandably causing a bit of havoc! It was decided not to do that anymore.
also rumors that Ernie built an experimental aircraft of his own design -
again, unsubstantiated. (Although, among his letters was a brochure for
a homebuilt plane design dating from the thirties.....a "Heath
Even as a boy,
Ernie had had a reputation as a loner. As the years passed, his privacy became
an obsession. Absolutely no one, including long time friends
and relatives were ever allowed in the house. Ernie's mother, Grace,
would sometimes chat with visitors on the porch, where most business was
conducted, but she would always turn and lock the front door first, and then
put the key in her apron.
entries paint a picture of a sad and lonely life - living like a hermit,
and caring for two increasingly senile parents. The burden must have been
enormous, but these were the kind of people who cared for their own. By
1961, Ernie's father was no longer capable of getting to the barn to milk the
cow. The old man had gotten lost and spilled the milk more than once.
Ernie sold the cow to a neighbor for $80. He writes of how he agonized over
having to break the news to his father....."He shocked", but,
"Thankfull [sic] he could go to bed and not have to go out to cold barn
and milk. Ma and I plenty glad too!" Sounds so normal!....but he ends
with: "Heard gnawing my bedroom door bottom (someone installing bugging
John Edward, died that year at the age of 86, in the dead of
late sixties, most of the collection was in very poor condition due to total
neglect. Ernie did actually sell a few aircraft. Westland Lysander 2346
went to California where it underwent a very major restoration to flyable
condition. It ultimately ended up in The National Air And Space Museum. One of
the Swordfish was purchased by the National Aviation Museum in Ottawa. A Yale
was acquired by MacPherson Airshows in Ohio, and was later sold to Challenge
Publications. This machine is now in the U.S.A.F. Museum in Dayton, Ohio.
Alzheimer's had progressed to the point where she was rarely fully there.
The house too,
was seriously neglected. It hadn't seen a coat of paint in decades. Hydro had
long since been discontinued over some dispute. Apparently, there was a
furnace in the basement, but it wasn't used. The only heat was from the
kitchen stove. Junk and artifacts were strewn everywhere, inside and out.
Of course, to
the people in the area, all the mystery was fascinating. Thieves were
constantly trying to steal things from "Crazy Ernie". The fabulous
motorcycle collection was particularly fancied by certain unsavory elements.
And, as there always is, in such cases, there were reputed to be large
amounts of cash hidden somewhere on the premises. Stories abound of Ernie and
his senile mother taking turns patrolling the farm at night with a flashlight
and a loaded shotgun. The windows of the house were covered with wire mesh to
keep out would-be intruders.
By this time,
also, the warbird movement was getting started, and there was a constant
stream of enthusiasts and journalists wishing to see the fabled collection of
old planes. Various write-ups appeared in print and there was at least one TV
special broadcast in the U.S.
It was all to
soon come to a head......