Elora’s downtown north block was cheap land due to poor drainage

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.

Geddes Street between Colborne and Moir streets was the last section of Elora’s commercial district to be developed.

The lots here had been surveyed in the 1850s, but few buyers were interested in the land along Geddes Street. Interestingly, the developer, Charles Allan, did not at first expect Elora’s commercial district to extend north of Colborne.

Part of the reason for the slow development of this area was drainage. A small creek crossed Geddes Street about a hundred feet south of Moir. In the spring, water stood in pools on both sides of the street, and sometimes on the street itself. 

To the east, a small swamp made Princess Street impassable for several months a year, and provided a habitat for cattails, mosquitoes, and muskrats.

Because of the water problems, this land sold at prices below other land near the commercial core, and it eventually attracted some bargain hunters. The first of these were Sandy Cuthbert and George Noble, who purchased the land now occupied by the Bell Telephone exchange for their carriage factory in 1862.

Except for Mary Sheppard’s small watch and jewelry shop in the Sheppard house on the northeast corner of Geddes and Moir, Cuthbert and Noble had no neighbours until late in 1864, when Maw and Fenwick built a brick store across Geddes Street. Bob Maw and Bill Fenwick were skilled tailors, but lacked financial resources. The relatively cheap land they purchased permitted them to own their own building, rather than rent a store on Metcalfe or Mill streets.

No new neighbours appeared for another three years. In 1867, Thomas Connon purchased the land on the southeast corner of Geddes and Moir, and began construction of a building for his residence and photography business. He designed the building himself, and built it of concrete. He chose this material after reading an article on it in an American magazine, the Herald of Health.

Connon began excavation work in the fall of 1867, but the building was not completed until 1869. He did much of the work himself, assisted occasionally by hired labourers. They used wheelbarrows to move stone and gravel, and to wheel lime from the kiln near the David Street bridge. Connon paid 100 a bushel for the lime. While he worked on the building, his wife conducted the photography business from rented quarters.

All the concrete was mixed by hand. It is not surprising that the structure took almost two years to complete. The type of concrete used in this building is also known locally as grout. It predates modern concrete made of Portland cement. The Connon block is the oldest concrete or grout building in the village.

As originally built, the Connon block stood back from Geddes Street. Thomas Connon originally did not expect that this area would become a prime commercial area. The building was designed as a residence, with the photography studio occupying a couple of rooms.

In 1872, after several other businesses had moved to the street, he decided to extend the building to Geddes.

The addition contained space for two stores, with the second floor occupied by his photography business. A local labourer, William Dalgarno, did much of the work, under Connon’s direction. According to John Connon, Dalgarno used too much lime in the concrete, making it harder and more brittle than that in the original part of the building.

Thomas Connon encountered difficulty in finding permanent tenants for the stores, and after a couple of years he opened a small grocery store himself.

Although he lived until 1899, his health began to fail in the late 1870s, and the family had to depend on his wife, Jean, and son, John, for its income. John Connon took over much of the photography work in the early 1880s, while still in his teens, though Thomas continued to take studio pictures until 1891.

John Connon discontinued the photography studio after his father died, though he continued to take some pictures. For a short time after 1900, he operated a hardware store in the building, known as Connon and Carswell. The Carswell brothers, operators of a dry-goods store, supplied the working capital.

The Connons were never wealthy, and after 1900, John Connon struggled to earn an income. In addition to the short-lived hardware store, he was employed for a time as the local manager of the Bell Telephone Co., with the office and exchange in the Connon Block.

Connon lived in the building until his death in 1931. By this time, it contained his sprawling, immense and disorganized collection of photographs, documents and historical artifacts.

No building was ever built on the lot immediately south of the Connon Block, now the parking lot for Little Katy Variety. Through the 19th century, this lot remained wet, and served as the garden for the Connons. Oldtimers will recall the high stone wall that for many decades fronted Geddes Street.

The Little Katy Variety store is the third building to occupy the next lot. The first building was a sash factory and sawmill, built in 1869 or 1870. The building was put up by Isaac Modeland, who later operated a foundry in Salem.

This business had a checkered history. Modeland rented it to W.E. Hall in 1871. At the time, it contained a 16-horsepower steam engine, powering planers and lathes on the first floor, and some smaller equipment on the second. Hall supplied some wooden components to the Bell Piano Co., of Guelph, as well as making doors, windows and hardwood flooring.

In 1872 he took in John Thacker, an Elora carpenter, as a partner.

Hall and Thacker lasted only a year. The business eventually fell into the hands of William Sheppard and John Gibb, two prominent names in local construction. They used the planing mill to supply their own construction projects, then sold the property in 1876 to Sandy Cuthbert, following the breakup of the Cuthbert and Noble partnership.

Cuthbert set up the building as a blacksmith and carriage shop, under the name Ontario Carriage Shop, while George Noble continued in the old factory across the street.

Sandy Cuthbert continued the business into the 1890s, and was succeeded by his son, W.A. Cuthbert, who continued the blacksmith shop until at least 1910. The old planing mill/blacksmith shop came down in 1932, and was replaced by Joe McFadden’s farm-implement dealership.

McFadden handled McCormick and Deering equipment, with a number of sidelines, including binder twine, cream separators, feed, and coal. Joe McFadden remained in business until the early 1960s.

The McFadden building eventually became the location of Ken Taylor’s Little Katy Variety. He constructed the present building after the McFadden building was destroyed by fire.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on July 13, 1993.

Thorning Revisited