Chapter Three My Father John Skilling

Agnes & John Skilling and his sister
c. 1878

My father John Skilling, the oldest son of John Skilling and Marion Cochrane, was born in Galt, Ontario on December 8, 1853. He was 11 years old when his father was killed and he had to quit school and get a job to help with the finances. I don’t know exactly what my father did at that time, but I’m sure there was a great deal of variety because, as I remember him, he could turn his hand to almost anything. He was a self-taught man and read everything he could in science, history and world geography.

As he grew up, he became a master painter of houses, not pictures, but re-graining of woodwork in houses, very popular at the time. He taught himself to sight read music using the “sol-fa method”, and in later years he conducted many “singing schools” around the rural areas. This was often the only way many people could achieve proficiency in music. His classes gave them the opportunity to learn music and brought pleasure to their lives. He was very musically gifted and had perfect pitch. He taught himself to play many instruments including the piano, organ, violin, trumpet and trombone.

My father kept his tuning fork in his vest pocket, the way men keep their Parker pens nowadays. One of my earliest memories is hearing him get out his tuning fork, tap it on the table to find middle C, sing ‘doh, so, me, doh’ and then start to sight read a pile of new songs just sent to him by various music publishing houses in the city.
My father used to be a choir leader in our Methodist church (now United ). But, by 1903 some larger churches such as Knox Presbyterian were eager for his services, not only in Teeswater, but in Wingham and other surrounding larger towns. When he was away, his pupils would take over in Teeswater. He was leader of the first ‘Old Boys and Girls Reunion Choir’ in 1905. His choirs were highly praised by visitors from other parts of Ontario.
All my brothers and sisters were very musical and sang and played in Father’s choirs and orchestras. By 1909 there was a Teeswater Methodist Sunday School Orchestra in which my brother Vernon, at 9 years of age, played the violin.
In addition to directing choirs and orchestras, John Skilling was an entrepreneur. His personal stationary letterhead around 1903 read as follows:
“John Skilling – Dealer in High-Grade pianos, organs, gramophones and records, small instruments, books and music, sewing machines, etc.”
He travelled to places like Gorrie, Bervie, Proton, and Port Elgin by horse and buggy. It is said that he had a horse, thin and poor looking, that he called ‘Ladysmith’. When eventually the horse died and was replaced by another similar one, the local men called her ‘The Relief of Ladysmith’.

In 1917-18 my father travelled by train to Neepawa, Manitoba, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and Calgary, Alberta to sell musical instruments. While in Neepawa visiting my sister Floss, he stayed for awhile working at tuning pianos and giving vocal lessons.

Teeswater Methodist Sunday School Orchestra
c. 1909

By 1917 John Skilling was directing a male chorus in Teeswater. His choirs and orchestras put on concerts in halls and schools in the Teeswater area. In 1917 he did a musical play called “The New Minister” which was performed in the Town Hall in Wingham as well as in Teeswater.
John Skilling died after a brief illness in Toronto in July 1937 at the age of 83.

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