A backward glance at Elora’s Metcalfe Street

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.


A few months ago I acquired an addition to my accumulation of Elora postcards. This one is a photograph of the square and Metcalfe Street, taken from the second floor of the T.P. Smith Block, which once stood on the site of the present Bank of Montreal.

The card was posted in October 1914, so the photograph was probably taken in the spring of that year, or perhaps a year or two before. There is a large crowd on the street and in front of the town hall, and most eyes are directed at the procession of horses and wagons coming up the street and turning left at the post office. It is almost certainly the annual Elora Horse Show.

The picture is of greater interest than the few transient moments of the equine procession. It offers a superb view of the buildings at the corner of the square and Metcalfe Street. Many of Elora’s downtown properties have seen a succession of varying uses over the years.

This corner is a good example.

Although surveyed into lots in the late 1840s, this remained vacant land for 25 years, passing from one speculator to another. There was no real interest in developing the land until the late 1860s, when Elora’s cattle market became well established on the adjoining square.

In the early 1870s J.H. Downing, a wagon maker from Alma, purchased the property along Metcalfe between James Street and the square. At the time this consisted of three lots. Downing and his partners had the land resurveyed into 10 lots, five facing Metcalfe Street and five to the rear facing Margaret Street. An alley from James Street to the square, which is still in use and still unnamed, separated the two rows of lots.

Downing reserved the best lot, the one on the north corner, for himself. On it, he built a frame factory 28 feet by 50 feet and two storeys high. He placed it on the rear part of the lot, facing the square. The structure was raised in a bee; 25 of Downing’s friends heaved the timbers into place in the closing weeks of 1872. On the front part of the lot, facing the Dalby House (the flatiron building now housing a medical clinic), he constructed a one-storey showroom that in its later years was covered with sheet metal. It measured about 30 by 35 feet.

Elora already had two wagon and carriage makers. Despite the competition, Downing’s first months were full of promise. He hired a half dozen employees and built sleighs, farm wagons and buggies, and did repair work. The facilities included a small blacksmith shop. He took in a partner in 1873, but the arrangement lasted less than a year.

In 1874, Frank Dalby, brother of Robert Dalby of the Dalby House, placed an order for 16 carriages and wagons. Dalby shipped them all to British Columbia, where he had become involved in several business ventures. Downing also built a hearse for John Mundell, the Elora furniture maker and part-time undertaker.

In 1875, Downing returned to Alma to pursue some business ventures there. He rented the factory, by now known as the Dominion Carriage Works, to the partnership of Auger and Inkster. W.H. Auger continued the business in his own name after 1879, and then sold out in 1886.

A succession of proprietors operated the Dominion Carriage Works over the next decade. The business suffered from declining demand, and at the same time faced a price squeeze from larger, more efficient builders. All that remained was repair work, with the occasional custom-built wagon or carriage.

During the late 1880s the proprietors conceded to change, and accepted dealerships for larger manufacturers of wagons and farm implements. Peter Aitcheson was perhaps the best known of the later proprietors. He sold Massey-Harris equipment and Deering harvesters at various times.

Aitcheson sold the business in 1906 to the final proprietor, Jim Watson. He sold Massey-Harris implements aggressively. Watson sponsored delivery days for his supplier, when he paraded several carloads of farm implements up and down the main street. By this time the greatest problem with the business was the site: there was not enough room to store an adequate inventory.

The Merchants Bank purchased the showroom building in 1909 and demolished it. In its place the bank built a two storey red brick building for its office. It is at the centre of the photograph, at most five years old at the time this picture was taken. The shop of the old Dominion Carriage Works still stands at the rear, a little worse for wear, and occupied in 1914 by a blacksmith’s shop.

These two buildings represent two generations for part of Elora’s business section. The old carriage factory/blacksmith shop faces the square, where huge cattle markets once made this a prime location for farm-related business. The Merchants Bank faces Metcalfe Street, with the corner built at a 45 degree angle for the doorway, facing the stores on Geddes Street. By 1914 this, and not Mill Street, was indisputably the commercial heart of Elora.

There have been more changes since this picture was taken over 100 years ago. The Merchants Bank amalgamated with the Bank of Montreal, then moved across Geddes Street to the Smith building, immediately below where this picture was taken. A lunch room operated in the former bank premises for a few years.

In the 1940s Arnold Fuller dismantled the former bank building, and rebuilt it as a gas and service station about 20 feet to the rear of its original site, to provide space for gas pumps at the front. By this time the old Dominion Carriage building was gone.

In the 1960s, the gas station business included a GM auto dealership operated by Ross Dunn. More recently, Gord Smith converted the building back to commercial space, and replaced the original troublesome flat roof with a pitched one (this building is now the home of the Cork Restaurant).

Wagon factory, implement dealership, bank, lunch counter, service station, retail space, restaurant: the varied commercial activity on this corner has reflected the economic evolution of the country and of the village.

This photo captures well one stage in that evolution, on an early spring day more than a century ago.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Dec. 7, 1994.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015