A small-town Christmas over a half century ago

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.

In the imaginations of most people, Christmas should be observed in an old-fashioned small-town atmosphere.

For some, the small-town image is one of nostalgia for an earlier time in their lives. Others have been influenced by motion pictures and television programs that depict the holidays in ways that seldom existed in reality.

The old-fashioned Christmas – where shopping was almost exclusively local and social activities centred on the community – survived in Wellington County well into the late 20th century, and still persists here and there.

One need only go back a half century to see the old-fashioned small-town Christmas in full flower.

The village of Arthur, with a population of a little over 1,000 back then, serves as an example, but the types of activities there did not differ greatly from what could be found in Wellington’s other towns and villages in 1960.

Few homes were without television in 1960, but the new medium in its early years maintained a strong local favour, particularly the stations closest to Wellington County: CKCO in Kitchener and CKNX in Wingham. Both produced a large amount of local programming, often featuring performers from small towns within their broadcast range.

The Wingham station, carrying on from its radio sister, had an extremely popular act in the CKNX Ranch Boys. In addition to their broadcasts, members of the group performed around the broadcast area at concerts and dances. They were in Arthur on Dec. 10 of 1960, headlining at a Christmas dance at the Arthur Legion. Admission was a modest 75 cents.

The era of the supermarket had to arrive in small-town Wellington in 1960. There were a couple in Guelph by then, and Fergus had one that was very modest by today’s standards, but in every town, there was a plethora of shopping opportunities. Arthur had six of them on its main street.

All advertised specials in December 1960, many of them directed to the Christmas market. Greig’s Groceteria offered mixed nuts for 49 cents per pound, and Rose Brand margarine at four pounds for 89 cents. The Red and White sold four cans of pork and beans at 59 cent and celery for 19 cents per bunch.

Specials at Barnes Groceteria included Colgate soap at three bars for 25 cents, marmalade at 29 cents for a 12-ounce jar, and grapefruit at 10 for 59 cents. Givens’ Marketeria priced Ogilvie cake mixes at two for 33 cents, grapes at 10 cents per pound, and a good selection of seasonal nuts and candies. Jack Van Ek made a big deal of his assortment of Canadian and Dutch cheeses.

Sussman’s Mens Wear offered a wide range of clothing, though the store had not yet become the retail powerhouse it is today. Arrow and Forsyth shirts were marked at $5.95, and flannel shirts at $1.98. Good men’s winter coats began at $12.95.

Those looking for a deal when gift shopping might find something appropriate at Honest Al’s Bargain Centre.

There was no need to leave Arthur to find most consumer items. Indeed, there was probably a wider range of items available then than there is now, a situation that also exists in other small towns. McEwen’s Hardware had Eureka vacuum cleaners at $77.88, skates at $9.95 a pair, and hockey sticks for 98 cents. The Arthur Canadian Tire offered toasters for $19.95, electric frying pans for $11.98 and electric drills for $19.98.

There was much to do in Arthur as well as shopping. One diversion was municipal politics. The annual municipal elections fell on Dec. 12 in 1960. The nomination was one week earlier. That meant a very brief but spirited campaign. About 125 people attended the nomination meeting, a high figure given Arthur’s population.

There was much talk of various civic improvement projects, such as rebuilding Charles Street and a new bridge, most of which could be financed with 50% federal and 25% provincial grants. Ken Elliot challenged Allan McCullough for the reeve’s chair, and five contestants vied for four council seats. Elliot provided a surprisingly strong challenge, losing by 326 votes to 263. The turnout hit the 80% mark, the highest by far in the county.

With their gardening tools stowed away for the winter, members of the horticultural society ran a Christmas beautification contest. Heffernan’s Variety had the best commercial decorations. George Gowland and Marvin Howe captured the prizes for residences.

Perhaps the biggest event of the Christmas season was a party on Dec. 10 for children under 12, sponsored by the Lion’s Club. That event drew from an area far beyond Arthur, and attracted about 700 children. The event began with a parade led by the high school band. Children attending met Santa and received gifts of candy. There was a showing of the film Treasure Island. While it played, Santa slipped out to visit children who were sick and could not attend.

For adults, the Lions had a separate event: a Christmas bingo on Dec. 16.

One-room schools still operated in 1960, and most scheduled Christmas programs and pageants during the week before Christmas. Most churches also had Christmas programs and concerts. Monck church offered a seasonal program on Dec. 18, for example. The Women’s League of St. John the Evangelist held a party for the group’s members and friends on Dec. 31. Swelling the numbers was a contingent of about 30 from Kenilworth.

An unfortunate event of the 1960 Christmas season was a barn fire near Kenilworth. Both Mount Forest and Arthur brigades responded to the blaze. With the help of neighbours, they managed to extinguish the fire, spending more than three hours on the scene. The biggest problem was keeping fire hoses from freezing up. The combined efforts reduced the loss to $1,500.

Christmas fell on a Sunday in 1960. Surprisingly, few churches offered candlelight services the evening before, but most embellished their Sunday services. St. Andrews took the most time for a special service, with a 46-voice children’s choir. At a special point during the service, 24 communicants joined the church. Most of the churches still holding Sunday evening services had a special candlelight program.

The Arthur Enterprise-News, in its Dec. 22 issue, offered readers a very special feature: a story titled “The Christmas of the Lost Partridge,” by Arthur old boy H. Gordon Green, from his forthcoming book, A Time to Pass Over. Though not well known today, Green was a household name in 1960 through his work with the old Family Herald, his syndicated newspaper column, and his radio broadcasts. Everyone had a chance to view the author on television Christmas Day, when Green broadcast a Christmas television special from his farm south of Montreal.

Travel to Arthur by old-timers was heavy that Christmas, as it had been for decades, though most people arrived by car rather than by train as would have been the case in previous decades.

They, along with natives, enjoyed a small-town Christmas of the sort that was gradually disappearing and changing as chain-store shopping, malls, mass entertainment, and air travel became the staples of the Christmas season.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Dec. 24, 2010.

Thorning Revisited