Drill shed was Elora’s own ‘theatre on the Grand’ prior to LCBO store

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.

Visitors to Elora often remark on the village’s unique liquor store, located in the former armoury hall or drill shed.

For the past 151 years, this building has been a local landmark.

A drill shed was first proposed in 1861, soon after the formation of the Elora Rifle Company. Such volunteer militia companies appeared in many small towns at this time, as a result of fears of an American takeover of Canada, and anticipated raids and unrest by Irish Fenians. These militia units scheduled weekly drills, and they desired facilities that could be used in inclement weather.

The first proposals for a drill shed in Elora were for a simple frame building about 100 feet long and 30 or 40 feet wide. By late 1862, the consensus in the village was that such a building might be useful for other purposes. Reluctant to add the cost to the tax burden, village leaders proposed various schemes of voluntary donations, subscriptions and a joint stock company.

Andrew Geddes donated a building lot, which is now part of Hoffer Park, for the site, but the project stagnated until early in 1865, when Wellington County council provided a $400 grant.

J.M. Fraser, of the Elora Mill, was elected reeve in 1865, and he was determined to push ahead with the building. He decided the structure would be built of stone, and that it would serve the community as a multi-purpose hall. Fraser’s abrasive, argumentative manner soon precipitated the bitterest political controversy in Elora’s history.

One group of people wanted the location to be on the market grounds, which at the time spread over the land that now contains the post office, cenotaph, township Civic Centre, and Hoffer Park.

Fraser ran roughshod over the group, locating the building on the south side of the river on Clyde Street. A third group favoured a four-acre site in Pilkington Township, which would contain the drill shed and relocated market and fall fair grounds.

Personal financial interests inspired the leaders of the various factions. To resolve the stalemate, Fraser, supported by two other members of council, appointed a committee of his own choosing, a move that further inflamed his numerous political enemies, and then called for tenders for a stone building at the Clyde Street site. The controversy had not died down when construction began in the last week of June 1865.

There was further grumbling when the tenders came in higher than expected. The masonry work was awarded to George Sutherland, and the carpentry to A. McDonald, for a total cost of about $1,500. Both had been involved previously in major construction projects in Elora.

No record remains of who did the design work. The tenders had included some design options. The building contains remnants of a ventilation system that may have been the work of John Taylor, the Elora architect and engineer. Taylor had a fetish for ventilation systems, but his experiments rarely worked properly.

As the masonry work was nearing completion in September of 1865, Fraser presented the contractor with a carved stone featuring a rooster. Because of his diminutive stature and self-important strutting posture, Fraser had long been nicknamed the “Elora Bantam Rooster.” With the stone rooster crowing over his north-side enemies, Fraser had the last laugh.

The Elora Rifles began using the building in late 1865, just as the Fenian troubles were coming to a head. Construction had not been completed when the council began making plans for an addition at the rear for a council chamber.

By the time the contract was awarded in the fall of 1866, the addition also included an armoury room and space for the fire department’s pumper. This work was done by Elora mason William Gray and carpenter Peter Simpson.

The drill shed quickly became the favoured location for entertainment, political rallies and dances. Reform leaders such as George Brown and Oliver Mowat packed the hall on several occasions. Big-league entertainment began in 1867, with a magic lantern show by Dr. Bowman, and an evening of songs and recitations by Gaston Smith and the most famous Canadian poet of the day, Alexander McLachlan.

In July of 1867, G.F. Bailey’s circus used the drill shed and the grounds to the rear for his performers, animals, and exhibits of curiosities.

After 1870, entertainment and social functions eclipsed the military role for the drill shed. The completion of the railway to Elora made the village accessible to travelling troupes and performers.

The fare was certainly varied. For example, in a two-month span at the beginning of 1871, the drill shed hosted performances of the plays Ten Nights in a Barroom and Cousin Joe’s Visit, a dance sponsored by the Irvine Lodge, a New Year’s Day performance by Fairburn’s Scottish musical troupe, Howarth’s magic lantern show, a musical evening in aid of the Catholic church building fund, ventriloquists, and a recital by Jean Watson, billed as “The Scottish Nightingale.”

The village made some alterations to the building in 1875 to make it more useful for entertainment. The work included new lighting and a heating system, and a permanent stage. The stage was improved in 1879 with an elliptical front, footlights, and walls and doors at the sides and back.

In the 1880s, the village hired David Ritchie to be caretaker and manager of the drill shed. A versatile entrepreneur, Ritchie operated a tour boat on the Grand River between the two dams. Local merchants hired him to act as a town crier, advertising their bargains on the streets in his booming voice, and posting sale bills on fences and posts.

Ritchie also worked as an auctioneer and travelling salesman. As manager of the drill shed, Ritchie brought in many touring groups, and kept Elora on the entertainment circuit until his death in 1909.

By 1900, the drill shed was showing the consequences of deferred maintenance. Electric lighting had been installed in the 1890s, but major repairs were also necessary. Income from the various events covered the operating costs, but council was reluctant to make expenditures for repairs and improvements.

In 1908, the council turned the building over to the federal government’s ministry of militia, which agreed to maintain the structure. Elora leased the building back on a 99-year agreement, with the provision that the ministry of militia could take it over at a time of national emergency.

The federal government completed major work to the building in 1909. It included a new roof, a hardwood floor, new window frames, and interior decoration. The building acquired a new name at this time: the armoury hall. It was used largely for military purposes during the First World War.

The building continued its former role as a community centre under the new ownership. Travelling troupes and performers appeared less frequently after 1920. Local amateur group performances and dances, augmented by school assemblies, flower shows, and political rallies, became the normal events in the hall.

After years of disputes with the federal government over repairs and expenses, Elora council concluded the arrangement with the federal government was unsatisfactory. Elora regained title to the building in 1949. Some improvements were soon made around the entrance, and the building continued its long-established role as a community centre.

By the 1960s, the building was used much less frequently, particularly after better facilities became available at the Elora community centre and the Legion extension.

For several years, the village rented the building to the Simmons Company for its sewing department. The building became vacant when the Simmons Company moved to its new furniture factory in 1970. The building was also used about this time as a second-hand furniture store.

The village works department used the space at the rear of the building, and in 1972 the Liquor Control Board of Ontario signed a ten-year lease for the front portion for a liquor store.

The old drill shed/armoury hall was designated a heritage structure by the village in 1983, and it is listed as a building of national significance by the federal government.

It appears to be the only surviving drill shed of the 1860s in Canada.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on June 22, 1993.

Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015