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The Ernie Simmons Story

Ernie Simmons poses with one of his YALES in the early 50's

        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 items.

    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. 

    The government 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 the pound.

    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.

    Another scrap 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.

    Ernie Simmons 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.

    Unlike 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)

One of Ernie's Swordfish (before it was TOO badly deteriorated)

    Why did he do this? 

    Theories 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.

    There were 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.

    A collector's paradise!

    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 vehicles.

    Potential 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.

    People 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 can get the hell out the same way!"

    There were 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 license!

    Ernie wasn't 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.

      He 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 common people.

     Simmons 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."

     Other 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. 

    He 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 them."

    An 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"!

    Passers-by 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.

    There were 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 Parasol")

    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.

    Poignant diary 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 equipment?)" 

    His father, John Edward,  died that year at the age of 86,  in the dead of winter.

    By the 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.

    Grace's 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......


Article 2002 by Lance Russwurm





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