Fergus streetscape changed dramatically in 1920s

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.

Appearance of downtown Fergus changed dramatically in 1927

The towns and villages of Wellington County experienced some dramatic changes in the 1920s.

Over the past couple of years this column has concentrated, though not exclusively, on that decade. For a historian, it was a fascinating decade.

The introduction of motor cars and trucks necessitated improved streets and roads, and introduced a whole new industry in selling and repairing motor cars that employed hundreds of men.

For a time, the railways tried to compete with cars and trucks before largely abandoning the battle in the 1930s. Street and road improvements changed the appearance of towns. Offsetting those trends was the decline of local industry.

Increased mobility allowed people to go to larger centres, where they could peruse larger selections of merchandise than at home. That, along with the popularity of catalogue shopping, hurt small town merchants, who also had to contend with the first wave of chain stores.

Overall, though, there was a sense that life was improving. Almost everyone believed in progress, and cheered new innovations and improvements. A notable example of those trends was evident in Fergus in the summer of 1927.

In many ways, Fergus was the exception that proved the rule in the evolution of Wellington’s towns and villages between the two world wars.

While other places lost industry, Fergus was buoyed by the success and constant expansion of the Beatty Brothers firm.

By 1920 the company totally dominated Fergus, both economically and socially. The firm bolstered the village through the darkest years of the 1930s depression, and it would maintain that position until after the Second World War.

In 1927 the town councillors, with an ample tax base to support them, undertook a number of projects. One of those was the improvement of streets. A major project that year was the opening of Colquhoun Street, to the west of the downtown, near the north bank of the Grand River.

That street had been surveyed back in the 1850s, but had not been opened to the public because of the terrain. In the 1920s the Beatty firm, through a subsidiary that built housing for employees, undertook the construction of new residences in that area of town for its employees. That required major work in regrading the terrain. In June of 1927 Fergus council awarded a tender to local contractor Roy Cassie to undertake the excavation work at a price of 44 cents per cubic yard.

The provincial Department of Highways was also busy in the Fergus area in the summer of 1927. Paving of the gravel road to Guelph, designated as Highway 6 a few years earlier, was paved that summer with concrete.

The provincial contract, which covered the work as far north as the corner of Tower and Union Streets, was completed earlier in the summer.

In June, at the request of Fergus council, a senior official of the Department of Highways visited Fergus to consider a council request to continue the highway along Bridge Street and over a new St. David Street bridge over the river, already tendered, and on to the north. The highway originally crossed the river at Tower Street, and then proceeded along St. Andrew Street to St. David Street.

The province accepted the proposal, and the Bridge Street route became part of Highway 6, which it remains to this day.

As well as those major projects, Fergus undertook gravelling and grading on a number of other streets. With motor car ownership rapidly increasing, there was constant pressure to eliminate muddy holes, narrow routes and rough portions on the streets.

Much of the work was done on St. Patrick and St. George Streets, paralleling the main street to the north. Water had been a problem in several areas of those streets for years. One major project resulted from the decision to build a new arena on the old brewery property, between St. George and St. Patrick, a short distance west of St. David Street.

That property had been the location of the old Fergus brewery, a ruin in the 1920s, but a major industry 40 years earlier.

The brewery boasted of the fine water it used from a creek running through the property. The village had tried over the years, to divert that creek into a culvert (some of those efforts were described in this column a few months ago).

The new arena would be built on the eastern portion of the brewery property. But before that project could begin, something had to be done with the creek.

Council decided to construct a concrete culvert to carry the creek beneath the new building, and under St. Patrick Street and the railway siding that ran alongside it.

The local firm of Quinn and Wilson had the contract for the work. On June 8, 1927,

while work was under way, a severe rainstorm hit Fergus.

Storm water in the creek undermined the concrete work and washed out the footings for the lower portion of the project. That set the work back a few days. When finished, though, the new culvert more than doubled the capacity of the old wooden one, and it completely removed the creek from view, unlike the older one. The additional capacity allowed the creek to become a permanent part of the storm water system of Fergus.

While Quinn and Wilson finished up work on the culvert, other crews prepared the site for building. There was also work under way on the west side of the property. Some of the creek originated from a spring that had been inside the brewery building.

Fergus council decided to cap the spring, which was still filling an old cistern. An earlier council had installed a pipe from the spring to a drinking fountain on St. Andrew Street.

This was the water that had built the reputation of the old brewery, and there were many in Fergus who boasted of its fine taste and quality. The work in capping and protecting the spring would preserve the water supply for future generations. The overflow from the creek went into a catch basin on St. Patrick Street. Fergus contractor Charles Mattaini had the contract for the improvements to the fountain and its water supply.

Yet another project in the summer of 1927 was the removal of the huge chimney at the old Fergus coal-powered electrical power plant, on the north side of the river on the upstream side of St. David Street. The plant had been idle for two decades, following the introduction of Ontario Hydro to Fergus. Originally a mill, the property was being readied for yet another life in 1927.

Demolishing the chimney turned out to be a money-losing proposition.

On the evening of June 13, 1927, the contractor placed four sticks of dynamite in two holes made in the upper side of the chimney. They exploded as planned. But nothing happened. After some head-scratching the crew tried again. Still the chimney stood. Two more tries that night loosened a number of bricks, but the chimney stood defiantly as night descended.

More determined than ever, the crew returned the next morning. The first two tries produced nothing but a few loose bricks and some cracks in the chimney. Finally, on the next try, and after the crew used more than 30 sticks of dynamite, the chimney came down. At first it appeared that the third blast that morning would be futile. Nothing happened for about three minutes. Then the chimney shuddered, and crumbled down into a pile of bricks, demolishing a stone wall as it collapsed.

Locals considered that the stubborn chimney was a tribute to its builder, Charles Mattaini. He had built it with a double wall for its first 40 feet. At that height the taper of the chimney brought the two walls together for its final 30 feet. The initial blasts had left the inner wall largely intact.

There were many other projects in Fergus during the summer of 1927, including a new high school, that changed the appearance of the town dramatically, and sustained a general trust in progress and ever-growing prosperity.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Nov. 8, 2013..

Thorning Revisited