A unique Minto event is back for its fifth year and what may be its biggest and most significant iteration yet.
John McVicar, manager of Harriston Superior Memorials has been organizing an annual Headstone Hunt since 2017. The month-long event — which McVicar says is the only one of its kind in Canada — invites participants to explore local cemeteries while locating and answering questions about significant gravestones and monuments.
Completed entry forms are entered in a draw for cash prizes donated by Harriston Superior Memorials. Hundreds of people have taken part over the years, with 212 entries in 2019 before the pandemic cut participation back to 95 in 2020.
This year will be the third hunt to focus on local veterans. Spanning cemeteries in Harriston, Palmerston and Clifford, McVicar estimates the fastest participants might complete it in four to five hours, but more than likely, the hunt will take a few days. For those who do finish it, McVicar hopes the experience expands their knowledge of local history and the sacrifices of Minto veterans.
“That they gain a better appreciation of the men and women who served this country at a time when they gave up a good portion of their youth,” McVicar said.
He notes some of the fallen soldiers who are memorialized in Minto cemeteries aren’t buried there. Only by looking closely at their headstones would someone see they were laid to rest overseas.
This year’s headstone hunt will culminate with a special event at the Harriston Auditorium on Oct. 24 from 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
McVicar and two other local history buffs have compiled hundreds of photos and nine-exhibits worth of information on Canadian World War Two history. Topics include the Canadian merchant navy, First Nations service personnel and stories of war brides in southwestern Ontario.
McVicar had hoped to hold the special gathering in 2020 to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, but the pandemic forced the postponement of those plans.
McVicar was initially disappointed. But in the intervening year, he discovered Jack Callowhill, one of the last surviving members of an elite commando unit known as the First Special Fighting Force, was living in Hamilton. McVicar knew the youngest member of the unit, which was popularized as 'the Devil's Brigade' by Hollywood, had lived in Harriston for a time.
He got in touch with Callowhill and the 98-year-old vet is now scheduled to draw the winner of the headstone hunt as part of the Oct. 24th event.
“Emotionally I can’t tell you what that means to me,” McVicar said. “I’m just happy that it’s coming together like this.”
Headstone Hunt entry forms are available at a number of local Minto retailers, listed below. Entry forms must be received by Thursday Oct. 21 at 5 p.m. at Harriston Superior Monuments at 60 Mill Street.
Alison Sandstrom, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, GuelphToday.com