Celebrating Dominion Day in Wellington County in 1900

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.

Readers will recall that I have several times taken a glance back to the year 1900 for a view of celebrations and public holidays.

Dominion Day, or its current permutation, Canada Day, presents another and rather obvious opportunity to look once again to Wellington County of 1900.

The first Dominion Day, on 1 July 1867, could hardly even be described as a holiday in Wellington County. Many stores remained open that day, as did some of the factories.

Major celebrations of the coming into force of the British North America Act took place primarily in the larger centres. Some people marked the day with a picnic. One of the few organized celebrations was a shooting competition between the Elora Rifle Company and its Peel Township counterparts.

Unlike other holidays in the 19th century, Dominion Day was purely Canadian, with no religious ties or connections with holidays in other countries. As a patriotic holiday, July 1 took second place to Victoria Day as the major celebration. Not until the late 1880s, when growing nationalism bubbled in Canada, did July 1 take precedence.

The culmination of 19th century Dominion Day celebrations occurred in 1897, with the dual marking of Queen Victoria’s 60th year on the throne and the 30th anniversary of Confederation. Most of the towns and villages of Wellington staged celebrations that year, with an uncustomary blatant patriotic tone. Printed images of that year show how much the British identity had become entwined with Canadian symbols: portraits of the queen surrounded by maple leaves, and beavers alongside the Union Jack.

The exuberance of 1897 did not last. The following year, July 1 celebrations in Wellington reverted to a more subdued nature. Canadians eschewed the mindless patriotism exemplified by American July 4th celebrations, and in general preferred to mark the day with sporting games, music and perhaps a parade. There were seldom any speeches in July 1 programs of the 1890s.

This was the tone of July 1 ceremonies in 1900. As had been the case for a number of years, some villages in Wellington planned a full day of events, attracting visitors from other nearby centres which had little or no public events. The railways frequently co-operated by offering special excursion fares.

The major 1900 Dominion Day festivities that attracted Wellington residents were those in Guelph, Orangeville, Grand Valley and Mount Forest. All attracted visitors by buggy and train. Others came to these towns by bicycle, some peddling 10 miles or more to do so.

The 1900 Grand Valley program centred on sports, with a morning football game (Laurel defeated Waldemar 1-0), and afternoon baseball race (Belwood trounced Hillsburgh 12-6), horse races, and evening fireworks. The local committee charged admission to these events, and did well financially on the deal.

As the largest centre in the north, Mount Forest staged a more elaborate ceremony. Evergreen trees festooned the main street, with red, white and blue bunting draped over store fronts. In late morning a lengthy parade, led by the Mount Forest brass band under the direction of Prof. Raynor, wound its way along a course from the high school to the fair grounds.

There were cyclists, horsemen, and “decorated vehicles,” as floats were then known. Thousands lined the streets, and a committee of judges awarded prizes for the best decorations.

At the conclusion of the parade, “Prince” Stanley, a celebrated high wire performer who billed himself as “the most daring aerial performer in the world,” dazzled the crowd with his feats.

Competitive events followed, consisting largely of foot races and a bicycle race.

The program continued with the Wood-Darnella troupe, a group of gymnasts and acrobats.

In Mount Forest the highly anticipated lacrosse game between Mount Forest and Walkerton failed to meet expectations when Walkerton fielded a team of inexperienced players.

The evening featured a minstrel show at the Mount Forest Opera House, headlined by a local group, the Mount Forest minstrels. They had given popular performances previously in 1900, and put together a program of new songs, jokes and routines for their Dominion Day performance.

The 1900 Mount Forest Dominion Day festivities, combining sports and entertainment, and local with imported talent, set the tone that July 1 celebrations would take in the years up to World War I.

In many cases, organizing committees used the holiday as a centrepiece for an Old Home Week, or a school reunion.

Though Orangeville was outside Wellington, many residents in the eastern part of the County went there for July 1 in 1900. The program there was similar to that of Mount Forest, centred on a game of field lacrosse. More than 1,000 spectators were watching the high-pitched battle between the Orangeville Dufferins and the Tuscarora Indians from the Six Nations reserve, when the unmistakable sound of pistol shots rang out.

Ottaway Hunter, seized with jealousy, shot Gertie Nixon in the back when he saw her watching the game with another young man. The bullet severed her spinal column. Hunter then turned  the pistol on himself, and died within minutes. They were both only 19.

Hunter had dated young Gertie when she lived in Mono Township. She had soon grown weary of him, and moved to Toronto and a job at Eatons to get away from him and start a new life. Hunter followed her to Toronto, securing a job in the CPR freight sheds and continuing his unsuccessful pursuit. Gertie had returned to Orangeville for the July 1 festivities.

The tragedy cast a feeling of profound gloom over the Orangeville area. Thoughts of July 1 festivities ended immediately, with everyone expressing sympathy for the two families.

The Orangeville Dominion Day shooting is, to my knowledge, without an equivalent in this area. It shows that the somewhat abstract ideas of a patriotic holiday were far less important to the people of 1900 than a local tragedy, and the importance of support and sympathy with bereaved families.

Casting a shadow over the 1900 Dominion Day festivities was the uncertainty of the war in South Africa.

Some Wellington County men had already volunteered, and many more would do so in future months. Early June brought news of the taking of Pretoria by the British, but later reports left little room for optimism and much for apprehension.

The war brought out a small group of loud patriots, but most people had only lukewarm enthusiasm for the military venture. There was widespread fear that Canada would be dragged into the war in a major way.

The war did reinforce ties with England, but Canadian optimism had elevated the Dominion to a state of equality with the United Kingdom. Several years of economic prosperity and a growing belief in Canada’s future as a strong and buoyant nation had eradicated much of the older colonial mentality.

This was a patriotism that foreigners frequently had difficulty understanding: independence combined with British loyalty; Queen Victoria as a symbol of unity for Canada. It is a product of the evolving nature of the Canadian constitution, and the step- by-step path to full Canadian independence, from the Quebec Act of 1774, through the 1791 Constitutional Act, the 1841 Act of Union, the 1848 achievement of Responsible Government, the 1867 BNA Act, the 1931 Statute of Westminster, the 1947 Citizenship Act, down to the constitutional changes of 1982.

The British North America Act of 1867 is the one which is honoured by a holiday, but the symbolic importance of the day has never been well focused.

The move several years ago to disregard the historical origins of the day and change the name from Dominion Day to Canada Day underlines the somewhat tentative nature of Canadian patriotism. The surprising thing is, that while the symbolic meaning of the holiday has changed, the actual celebrations have not.

This year (2000), there will be fewer sporting games than in 1900, but otherwise the day’s festivities will not differ greatly from those of a century ago

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on June 30, 2000.

Thorning Revisited