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The strange case of the Willie P. Bennett couch

BACK IN OUR university days my friends and I lucked upon a cheap housing deal – a rural house situated on an abandoned farm just north of Trent University near Peterborough, Ontario. The digs had been passed down from student to student, with the university as landlord, and carried the name “Total Loss Farm” – taken from a 1970s back-to-the-land memoir.

Along with the $250 per month rental came some fringe benefits: a vegetable garden, a ginger cat, a chicken coop, the stone remains of a barn and silo – and of course, some well-worn pieces of furniture.

That’s how we inherited the Willie P. Bennett couch.

It seems the popular Ontario folk singer had once slept on the old green couch, while traveling the university coffee house circuit. Between us, we owned most of the Willie’s albums, so we proudly retained the couch, even as it began to fall apart. After a couple of years we had to retire it to the front porch, where our dogs happily adopted their new bed, oblivious to its pedigree, but grateful for its comfort.

One spring night our smoke alarm started shrieking at 4:00 a.m. David and I hustled downstairs, where nothing seemed amiss … until we saw sparks blowing by the side window. We scurried upstairs to raise the alarm, then quickly identified the problem: some old wood stove ashes, left in a bucket on the porch, had blown over, igniting a fire under the dry porch. Helped by the wind, it entered through a basement window and into the cedar sub-structure of our house.

We all escaped unscathed, but could not halt the blaze. We called the fire department, then saved our dogs, our current school projects, our coats, boots, and nothing else. Our two cats could not be located in the panic and were lost.

We retreated to a neighbour’s house down the road, leaving the fire fighters to battle the blaze. But with no hydrants nearby, they didn’t stand a chance. When we returned two hours later we could identify only the twisted, hulking skeletons of the metal appliances in the basement. Nothing remained – as Total Loss Farm lived up to its peculiar name.

Nothing, that is, except the Willie P. Bennett couch.

It was the first thing the fire fighters rescued, not because they loved folk music but in order to clear the porch of combustibles. We turned away from the smoking embers to find the couch sitting proudly in the middle of our mucky driveway, the sole durable goods survivor of Total Loss Farm. I’m not proud to say that we abandoned the couch that day, having nowhere to store it in the short-term.

I’m not sure of its eventual fate, but lore is that the couch survived two more fires at Total Loss Farm – one in the chicken coop and another one in a squatter’s trailer – before it was finally thrown into the basement of the house and bulldozed over by the university.

Willie P. Bennett is still playing great folk music, but his namesake couch is no more.

This story was first read on CBC radios Richardson’s Roundup about 10 years ago. Willie P. Bennett died in 2008, in Peterborough. The Canadian band Blackie and the Rodeo Kings was formed for a 1996 recording of Willie P. Bennett covers.

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