Collecting is about connecting across time and space. We use our knowledge and our networks to seek out objects that embody important stories in the history of science and technology in Canada. But sometimes, when we don’t even know we should be looking for it, an object finds us and forces us to look beyond our established collecting priorities to discover a genuine treasure.
In September 2014, I received a forwarded email from a colleague at the National Gallery of Canada. He had seen a “lovingly restored” Canadian-built house trailer and wanted to know if we were interested in acquiring it. The trailer was a late 1930s Brantford travel coach made by Canada Carriage & Body Limited. Interesting but, on the face of it, a bit too close in age and type to our Nash motorhome to make acquisition an easy decision. I looked at the photos and opened a file for the trailer and consigned it to the “more research required” pile on my desk.
I was still mulling over the merits of the Brantford trailer in December when the owner called me directly to find out if I was interested in purchasing the trailer. I told her that I needed to do more research before I could make a decision and asked her what she knew about the trailer. Though English is her second language, she offered an animated and compelling story that forced me to reconsider the assumptions I had made about what the trailer represented. Using the names, dates and technical details she provided, I began to pull together the Brantford’s history and discovered some of the richness and complexity of life in Depression-era Canada.
Canada Carriage & Body Co. Ltd. was a long-standing manufacturing enterprise that had survived the decline of the carriage market and the rise of the automobile. Looking for ways to diversify its product line during the lean mid-1930s, it bought Fred Knechtel’s small trailer business. Knechtel was a gifted cabinet-maker who had once built radio bodies but then decided to try his hand at designing trailers for the emerging automobile tourism market. Canada Carriage produced Brantford Travel coaches for a few years leading up to the Second World War under the careful supervision of Mr. Knechtel.
Meanwhile, in the comfortable Montreal suburb of Outremount, Wallace Anderson MacLaren decided that he should take advantage of the growing network of roads around him to explore Canada. He purchased the Brantford trailer around 1937 and, for the next decade, indulged his appetite for adventure by taking his family on the road and discovering some the many remarkable places the country had to offer.
The MacLaren family retired the trailer in 1949 but stored it safely in a garage at their cottage on Lac-Lousia in the Laurentians. There it stayed for 50 years until the MacLarens’ neighbours expressed an interest in restoring and using it. When the Desjardins family took possession of the Brantford, they became not just its owners but also the keepers of its stories and, eventually, advocates for its place in Canadian history. By taking on all of these roles, they maintained a crucial connection with the past and helped me to make a strong case for collecting this unique piece of Canadian automotive history.