Elora firemen hosted huge convention in 1934

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.

Since 1995 people have enjoyed Elora’s old-fashioned Dominion Day celebrations on July 1.

Those festivities are a resurrection of the elaborate July 1 programs of the 1950s, which were the major activities of Elora’s Lions Club in those years. There were earlier Dominion Day celebrations in Elora, but just as often the day passed, unmarked by any public activities.

During the 1930s Elora was quiet on July 1, with no service club stepping forward to plan events, and a tight-fisted council unwilling to spend a dime if it could be avoided. The one exception was 1934, when Elora’s volunteer firefighters staged a huge convention that included many public events.

In the 1930s the Elora Volunteer Fire Brigade was a member of the Ontario West Fireman’s Association, a group that included many of the brigades in the small towns between Toronto and Lake Huron. Beginning in 1930 the group gathered annually – usually on the July 1 holiday – for a convention in one of the member communities.

Events consisted of parades, sporting events, concerts and socializing. It was something of a misnomer to describe those events as conventions. There were some business sessions, but they involved only a small portion of those attending. They met several times, beginning on the Saturday evening, and continuing through the weekend, discussing organization affairs and arranging future training sessions.

In 1933 the Elora force volunteered to host the event in 1934. Planning began 14 months before the event. By early 1934 some 19 brigades had stepped up with commitments to come to Elora on July 2 (July 1 fell on a Sunday that year, so the holiday was pushed forward a day).

Public participation was both welcomed and sought by the firemen. In June they received aid from editor Samson of the Elora Express, who printed hundreds of large posters, which the firemen distributed widely. They also mailed out illustrated promotional folders, advertising both their convention events and Elora in general. Surviving copies are valued collectors items today.

The convention was a big event for Elora. There had been no large celebration of any kind since the Old Home Week reunion in 1919. The events began on the Sunday afternoon, with a parade of firemen to Knox Church, where Rev. E.A. Thomson preached a special sermon.

The big crowd did not arrive until the next morning. Many out-of-towners rose at an early hour for the drive to Elora. Twenty years earlier most of the visitors would have come by rail, probably on a special train or two, but in 1934 car pooling was universal.

As they came into Elora and up the main street, visitors were dazzled by the elaborate decorations of flags, bunting and evergreen branches. Most of the merchants pitched in, with special displays in their windows.

The day began with a parade, which formed up shortly after 9am around the Armoury Hall (now the liquor store), and proceeded up the main street, and then down David to Irvine Park. That venue was then a race track and included grounds for field lacrosse, bleachers for spectators, and a baseball diamond.

The parade consisted of floats, cars with decorations, many carrying local dignitaries. Local children participated, dressed in grotesque costumes. The firemen offered prizes for the best floats, which went to Burt Brothers store and the Beatty factory of Fergus. There were prizes for the oldest car and the oldest horse-drawn carriage. The list of prizes was a long one, and some were awarded by popular ballot. A half dozen bands marched in the parade, the award for the best of them going to the Guelph Bugle Band.

The morning featured competition in various field events, but the most popular event was a girls’ baseball game between Owen Sound and Burlington. It was an intense nail-biter until the 12th inning, when Owen Sound broke a 12-12 tie.

More people poured into Elora during the morning. The afternoon began with a second parade featuring firemen and firemen’s bands, led by the Burlington Fire Drill Corps. A prize for best equipment in the parade went to Fergus. At Irvine Park there was a round of competitions for firemen.

Elmira took first prize for the hose reel race, with second place going to the Tavistock brigade. The rescue race was also taken by Elmira, with Milverton the runner-up. The winner of that competition received the Bickle Trophy, donated and named for the leading manufacturer of fire trucks in the 1930s.

There were relay races, a tug-of-war, and a fire chiefs’ foot race, which was won by Chief Moore of Fergus, followed by Chief Conrad of Elmira and Chief Omand of Wellesley.

Foot races for rank-and-file firemen were divided into under-30 and over-30 classes. Other awards went to the oldest firemen participating, the oldest equipment and the best maintained equipment. Members of the public enjoyed looking over the equipment and hearing explanations from proud firefighters who maintained the trucks.

After the competitions the Burlington brigade gave a rescue demonstration in the park, and repeated the performance in the evening. In late afternoon the Owen Sound girls, after their morning victory, took to the diamond again, this time against Dundas. Marj Rayner, pitcher for the Owen Sound team, held the mound for both games, pitching 21 innings. Then, batting in the ninth inning, she secured the second game with a home run, breaking a 9-9 tie. It was a performance that impressed the most chauvinistic of the men in the crowd.

During the afternoon there was a continuous program of music, featuring brass and pipe bands from Fergus, Tavistock and Guelph. The MacGregor Concert Band of Caledonia gave the final musical offerings at the park, assisted by a sound amplification system, the first ever used at Elora for an outdoor performance.

MP Paul Munro, who had donated the trophy for the most successful fire brigade, had planned to present the trophy himself. He died in a tragic motor car accident the day before. Elora Reeve Art Badley filled in at the ceremony in front of the town hall. Chief Conrad of Elmira laid a wreath at the cenotaph in memory of the popular MP.

Then, as now, most Dominion Day programs ended with a fireworks display. This one was different. At 8pm firemen erected barricades to keep traffic off the main street for a huge street dance. It was a warm and clear summer evening and few wanted to go home. The music continued until 2am. For the hardiest in the crowd it had been a long day.

There was no registration of attendees, and people came and went during the day, making an estimate of the crowd difficult. Several people put the number at 3,000, a huge turnout at a time when Elora’s population was not quite 1,200.

The 1934 Elora firemen’s convention served as a model for the Lions Club 15 years later, when that group began its run of successful Dominion Day jamborees, and is the ancestor of the continuing July 1 celebrations in Elora.

It is fitting that Elora’s firefighters continue with a major role, serving breakfast to hundreds of local residents and visitors to the village.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on June 11, 2010.

Thorning Revisited