All the villages and towns of Wellington County have suffered the loss of 19th century main street buildings through demolition and fire.
Arthur’s downtown core has perhaps lost a greater proportion of its older buildings than any other town in the county.
In the second half of the 19th century, Arthur boasted a significant retail sector with its role as the business centre of a large agricultural area. Among the businesses during at least some of those years were hotels: the Ontario House, the Wellington Hotel, the Commercial Hotel, and Green’s Hotel.
The Ontario House was the oldest of them, and the major one.
It was built by Peter Grieves, and changed hands several times. John J. Byrnes was the publican in the early 1870s. In 1895, E.J. O’Callaghan bought the Ontario House. He undertook a major renovation and expansion, and reopened as the Arlington Hotel, perhaps taking the name from one of the better hotels of that era in Toronto. It was a popular name for hotels all over North America at that time.
With the expansion and renovations, the three-storey yellow brick Arlington Hotel was one of the larger structures in Arthur, with some 50 bedrooms plus the usual bar, kitchen and dining rooms. The business volume, though, did not grow as O’Callaghan had anticipated.
He decided to sell the business to M.J. Brown and took over the Arthur Enterprise newspaper, hoping that publishing would bring him better returns.
There were several more changes in ownership over the next few years. The Arlington relied on its bar room receipts rather than room rentals to remain afloat.
In the early 20th century, Arthur rivalled Palmerston as the thirstiest of Wellington’s towns.
The Arlington’s bar was always packed on Saturdays when farmers were in town.
The Ontario Temperance Act of 1916 resulted in the closure of all the bars in Ontario. That doomed Arthur’s Arlington Hotel. The doors closed later in 1916. The building itself remained empty, and council fretted over the possibility that it might fall into the village’s hands due to unpaid property taxes.
In the spring of 1918, a Toronto businessman named C.H. Cooper began negotiations with village council to take over the building for use as a shoe factory.
By August they had an agreement: Arthur would loan Cooper $8,000, repayable over 10 years, to equip the factory. In return the village took a mortgage on the building. (The history of the Cooper operation appeared in this column in 2001).
Cooper promised to hire at least 25 people. Local people enthusiastically supported the new venture, which would be the first significant manufacturing business in Arthur.
The company did well at first, but it was struggling by 1922. Five years later, Cooper threw in the towel, and the village assumed ownership of the building to realize something on its security.
The structure sat empty for almost two years as village council sought a buyer, or at least a tenant. They found a buyer in 1929: Alex Chambers and Company. Chambers began the task of remodelling the building, but died before he completed the project. Members of his family stepped up to complete the work.
The old Arlington’s days as a hotel were long over. The Chambers family fitted up the first floor for use as an automotive service station, complete with repair facilities and an office. On the third floor were a couple of apartments, combining some of the old bedrooms into residential units by relocating some of the walls.
On the second floor was a large hall, a much needed facility in Arthur. People flocked from a wide area to attend the dances put on there, often on a weekly basis. The facility was known as the Arlington Hall, recalling the name of the old hotel.
Some regular patrons drove an hour or more to attend. The hall was comfortable, well lit and heated. There was no equivalent facility in the neighbourhood.
The Arlington Hotel, in its new role, lasted less than three years. About 2am on the morning of April 10, 1932, a motorist named George Jackson was driving through town, returning to his home at Cumnock. As he passed the Arlington he noticed flames and smoke spewing from a couple of windows.
He raised an alarm at once, and Arthur’s volunteer brigade was quickly on the site.
The firefighters were soon overwhelmed in their efforts to save the building, which contained much old dry wood and cavities in walls created during the renovations in 1929.
They diverted their efforts to saving nearby buildings.
When the roof caught fire, the breeze caught blazing embers and showered them on buildings a block and more away. Home owners dragged out ladders to make sure that the embers did not ignite the roofs of their houses.
The heat was intense, sufficient to crack the large window of the Royal Bank nearby. A.B. Brillinger’s store was in great danger, as were the Royal Hotel, Bunyan’s produce store, McDonald’s clothing store, and the premises of A.W. Buschlen. At the peak of the fire, a glow in the sky could be seen from the north end of Fergus and by motorists heading south from Mount Forest.
The loss of the building was a considerable one for Arthur, and the loss might have been much greater had the flames spread to other buildings. The Arthur firefighters acquitted themselves well that night.
They were grateful that there had been no strong winds that morning. Much of the downtown core might have been lost.
An inspector from the fire marshall’s office spent several days poking through the cinders, but he was unable to identify a cause for the blaze.
A portion of the old walls survived the fire. They were incorporated into a new building, a service station known as Murchison’s Garage. That business operated for about 40 years. In the early 1970s the Royal Bank purchased the property for a new building for its Arthur branch.
Most residents applauded the plans for a new bank building, which, they believed, indicated a belief in the growth of Arthur and a solid future. Others thought the design was progressive, and a step away from the old 19th century appearance of the older buildings on the main street. A few oldtimers lamented the loss of what remained of one of Arthur’s old landmarks. A bulldozer soon had the lot cleared of the remains of the old Arlington Hotel building.
The old hotel provides a good example of the reuse of a building for new purposes, something that was common in small towns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, even a major fire left remnants that could be reused for another purpose. Fire also claimed another of Arthur’s hotels: the Commercial.
But that is a story for another time.