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THEN AND NOW: Gossling’s Animal Park on Sunnidale Rd.

Red foxes, coyotes and pups, several raccoons, black bears, a crow named Bob, and Jimmy the skunk were all treated as pets

The Gosslings were from Vespra Township. James Gossling and his wife, Jane Travers, started out in 1877 with two acres on the 8th Line, the same year their son, John William, was born. In 1882, they bought another 25 acres to add to their farm.

In 1906, their son John (J.W.) married Lucy Burridge, also of Vespra, although born in Lefroy. In 1910, he purchased 100 acres on Sunnidale Road between the 8th and 9th concessions of Vespra, an area sometimes referred to as Ferndale. He acquired another adjacent 100 acres just a few years later.

J.W. Gossling was a cooper. After renting space on Bradford Street across from the West Ward School (later Prince of Wales public school) he opened his own cooperage shop on Sophia Street in 1908, where he manufactured casks and barrels.

Partnering with James Vair about 1911, they built an apple-processing factory next to Gossling’s shop. Business was good: processing fruit, selling pesticides, pressing cider, selling crates and barrels … until it wasn’t.

The start of the First World War in 1914 impacted their exports to Europe, and the workforce needed to maintain orchards and pick apples was diminished due to enlistments.

Similarly, barrels were now half their previous worth on the street. After the war, in 1921, J.W. still could not get the volume of apples needed for his factory as the Vespra farmers, among others, who had previously supplied him had changed to other crops. The apple evaporator business closed and the building was demolished in 1922.

So in 1922, J.W. Gossling changed careers from apples to ranching, beginning construction of the Vespra Fur Farms on his Sunnidale Road land, starting his stock with a pair of silver foxes, purchased for $1,000.

Only two short years later at the Barrie Fall Fair, Gossling’s exhibit drew a lot of attention. J.W.’s eight silver black foxes, and other furry critters, stole the show. In addition to the silver foxes, Gossling’s exhibit included a miniature forest scene complete with a stuffed coyote, fawn, mink, duck and crane placed among the trees, with a bear trap in the centre of the setting and a live rabbit for added effect.

He also had enclosures of six red foxes, captured when young not bred on the ranch, as well as muskrats and baby raccoons. The Gossling exhibits were a huge attraction and considered the most interesting of the fur bearing animals at the fair.

In 1927, a pair of Gossling’s silver foxes took the championship at the Royal Winter Fair, the first time a breeder outside of P.E.I. had ever won that competition.

Eventually Gossling had three ranches on the west 100 acres of his property and as many as 400 foxes at times. His land had dense bush, two springs, a manmade pond and a dam stocked with speckled trout – a natural setting for all types of wildlife. Mallards, loons, herons and other water fowl lived peacefully at the ranches.

It also lured trespassers who ignored markers in order to hunt and trap on Gossling’s land. In 1924, Gossling’s lawyer, J.R. Boys, argued successfully against the defense council led by former mayor Donald Ross, resulting in two Minesing men being charged with trespassing on multiple occasions and fined $15 plus costs.  

But the Vespra Fur Farms attracted other critters as well: Gossling’s became a bit of a refuge for orphaned and abandoned animals. These animals were adopted and cared for by the Gossling family, starting with Tony, a fawn, who was bottle-fed until he could have the run of their 200 acres.

Red foxes, coyotes and pups, several raccoons, black bears, a crow named Bob, and Jimmy the skunk were all treated as pets. J.W.’s daughter Arbutis recalled the time one of the bears came into the house, cleaning out the butter crock and losing his freedom as a result!

Though not native to Vespra, the family also had a pair of monkeys, and an annual visitor from Florida sent the Gosslings an anteater, a small alligator and two possums for their park.

It goes without saying that Gossling’s Animal Park attracted visitors as well, welcoming as many as 100 people on Sundays. But the life and business J.W. loved so much was short-lived.

In 1929, his beloved wife Lucy passed away at the young age of 52, leaving John and six children ages eight to 20 to grieve. Lucy had been a member of the Gospel Hall congregation (husband John was a trustee of the property), the one-time church was located on Mary Street, in the theatre block area currently being demolished.

The Great Depression followed and was not kind to the fur business, and as his children grew up, married, left home or joined the Air Force, Gossling was unable to manage the Vespra Fur Farms by himself. J.W. Gossling, fur farmer, retired, moving to Marcus Street in Allandale.

These days, if you look carefully on Sunnidale Road near Friesen Place, you can still find the little stone building and the remains of portico pillars of Gossling’s Service Station and Animal Park and picture a friendly bear out front!

This ongoing series from Barrie Historical Archive curator Deb Exel shows old photos from the collection and one from the present day, as well as the story behind them.