Gilbert “Gib” James Weatherhead was born on a dairy farm in Upper Rawdon in Nova Scotia’s Hants County during haying season on Aug. 10, 1930, to Ruth and Thomas Weatherhead. Along with his younger siblings Ronald, Keith, Bessie, Wilma, Verna and Dick, Gib was expected to milk the cows and help on his father’s woodlot on land that had belonged to the family since the early 19th century (the family had come to the region as United Empire Loyalists). According to his sister Bessie, Gib was a quiet child who loved math and was an “above average” student at the one-room schoolhouse where the Weatherhead children received their education.
At 19, his father died. “Gib was the one who found him in the back field after he had a heart attack while plowing,” says Bessie. “Our mother was left with seven kids ranging from ages two to 19.” After taking over his father’s dairy and woodlot business, Gib had little time for girls or fun, except for winter afternoons spent bobsledding down hills with his siblings.
Bessie describes her older brother as a stubborn yet kind person. “If I did something he didn’t like, I knew it,” says Bessie. “We all looked up to him. Everything was centred around him. If Gilbert was happy, mum was happy. He had that special bond with her.” To keep Gib content, his favourite meal of corned beef and cabbage was often on the table (if he had to cook for himself he’d make a cheese sandwich). Gib rarely drank alcohol, and only occasionally allowed himself a small piece of pie with lunch for a treat. He began working in the barn most mornings at 5:30, and went until dark before going to bed by 9:30 each night.
Gilbert never married or had children, although he acted as a mentor to many of the Rawdon youth he hired to help run the farm. Some families in the area had as many as three generations work for Gib, who sometimes taught the kids to drive, too. His nephew Dale Weatherhead began working with his uncle each summer beginning in elementary school, and describes Gib as fun to work with. “When he was older and his teeth were bad, he once reached into his head and pulled out a tooth,” says Dale, 51.
“He handed it to a kid and said, ‘Here lad, hold onto this.’ ” (Dale also recalls his uncle nonchalantly handing him a dead squirrel a few times while working.) Gib only once missed milking the cows, when he slipped on a doorstep the winter he was 47 and dislocated his shoulder. Dale did the milking, although Gib finished his other chores before going to the hospital.
Dale says he respected his uncle for his determination, and remembers how Gib, who stood only five foot six, once rescued him from a bad-tempered Holstein bull. “I was four and playing in the barn even though I shouldn’t have been,” says Dale. “It broke out and was coming after me. Where it came from I don’t know, but Gib had an eye on me. He grabbed that bull and yelled at me to get out. He was dragging that thing sideways somehow right back into its spot!”
Gib remained sturdy into his senior years. He didn’t have a family doctor or take medication (except for Tylenol), but he did indulge in some pipe smoking on the sly, although never in the house. Bessie sometimes saw him walking outside with the pipe dangling from his mouth (when she did the laundry, she discovered that he also sometimes forgot to remove it from his pants). When Gib retired two years ago, he began reading more, mostly stories about woodsmen. He also began to sleep in—until 7 a.m.—and watch the news, as well as Judge Judy occasionally.
For the most part, though, Gib still hated being indoors. “He liked being in the woods,” says Bessie, who had long ago moved home to help care for their mother (she died last March in her sleep at the age of 101). Although a lifelong friend recently warned him not to work in the woods alone anymore, Gib even volunteered to manage a neighbour’s woodlot, where his border collie Gus sometimes tagged along. On Wednesday, Oct. 6, after a ham and scalloped potato lunch, Gib took his chainsaw and returned to the back lot to take down a hemlock. He executed the cut perfectly, but a dead tree tangled high in the hemlock’s branches came loose and struck him. He was found by Dale, less than a mile from where his own father had died. Gib was 79.