Government delayed post offices in 1909 and 1910

Last week’s column cover­ed the 1908 decision of the federal government to con­struct new post offices in a num­ber of towns, including four in Wellington County: Elora, Fergus, Harriston, and Mount Forest, and the purchase of property in Elora in late 1908, and Fergus in April 1909.

For some reason, or perhaps for several reasons, progress with the new post office build­ings stalled in 1909 and 1910.

By then Department of Public Works had developed standard plans for federal buildings. Civil servants esti­mated the costs of the style planned for the Wellington offices were in the range of $5,000. Some members of the public were appalled at that fig­ure: three of four first-class houses could be built for that amount. But when the first ten­ders were called elsewhere, the bids far exceeded that amount. Naturally, the government slow­­ed down the program.

The Department of Public Works indicated that it would proceed with the new offices, and in 1911 the Wellington Coun­ty offices moved to the top of the list. By then, other developments pushed for better accommodations. In particular, experiments with rural delivery beginning in 1908 had been eag­erly embraced by rural resi­dents.

There was no alternative but to extend the program to all localities, and that meant that the rural carriers would need room to sort their mail. Also in the works was the introduction of parcel post, planned for 1913 or 1914. That would also require additional space that was not available in the exist­ing offices, all of which were in rented space in former stores.

Though William Mulock had much success in molding the post office into a business-like operation during his term as postmaster general from 1896 to 1905, the old tradition of the post office as a means of providing patronage to local party supporters still lingered.

Most people suspected a political motive behind every move made by the post office, and local Members of Parlia­ment did not hesitate to exert their influence. Such interven­tions were not always success­ful. In the case of Fergus, local Liberals favoured sites other than the one chosen by the government, but officials dug in their heels because their chos­en location had the advan­tage of good access for vehi­cles.

The Department of Public Works standard designs bor­row­ed heavily from the neo-clas­sical and Scottish baronial styles. For towns the size of those receiving new buildings in Wellington, the design feat­ur­ed a clock tower on the corn­er of a two-storey structure, with the post office on the main floor and the customs office above.

The government issued ten­d­ers for the Wellington County buildings in the early spring of 1911. Wellington South MP Hugh Guthrie did make a suc­cessful intervention, persuad­ing officials to build the Elora and Fergus structures of stone, rather than the dark red brick that was the standard for the style. The sandstone came from a quarry near Caledon, and was brought to Fergus and Elora on the Canadian Pacific’s Elora branch.

During the course of con­struction the government aban­doned its plans to open customs offices in Fergus and Elora. Instead, the second floors were reconfigured as apartments, originally planned as living quarters for the postmasters. Both would be occupied, on com­pletion, by the buildings’ caretakers.

Later in 1911, only three years into his 1908 mandate, Sir Wilfrid Laurier decided to call a federal election as a ref­erendum on his policy to sign a free trade treaty with the United States.

That led many Wellington County people to con­clude that the new haste with the post offices was meant to influence the election. The decision to proceed with the buildings was made in 1910, long before the snap election in 1911 was planned. It is there­fore difficult to see a political motive in the decision to build in 1911.

To supervise construction of the Elora and Fergus buildings, the Department of Public Works hired W.A. Mahoney, of Guelph. He was the Royal City’s architect of the day. The deviations from the standard de­sign necessitated by the use of stone undoubtedly came from his drawing board. It is also probable that Mahoney is responsible for the variants in some of the details – particu­lar­ly the front windows – between the Fergus and Elora offices.

The exterior walls consist of quarry-faced sandstone, laid in a broken course pattern, with heavier quoins, often of darker stone. Dominating the build­ings is the clock tower. The original clock movements and 800-pound bells came from England.

The interiors featured quart­ered oak trim, stained dark. Both offices featured four wick­ets, two for general deliv­ery, and the others for money orders and registered mail, all featuring brass grill work. A dutch door offered convenient access to the interior office for picking up and delivering par­cels. Lock boxes provided mail delivery to local customers. The old Elora office had a small battery of boxes, but there had been none in the old Fergus location. Coal-fired boil­ers and radiators provided ample heat to the buildings.

Both offices opened to the public in January 1912, without any formal ceremony. The post­masters had hoped to move in time for the Christmas rush of 1911, but delays prevented that. By then, both Fergus and Elora already had an operating Rural Route, and others foll­owed in short order. New rout­es were set up into West Gara­fraxa and Eramosa Townships, served from Fergus. The last was RR3 Elora, established in early 1915. The three Elora routes totalled about 210 cus­to­mers, and the four from Fergus numbered about 170. After a time, RR2 Fergus was discon­tinued, and the customers add­ed to other routes. The new rural routes brought the closing of a number of country offices in the area, among them Metz, Spires, Cumnock, Ennotville, Ponsonby, Inverhaugh, and Pentland Corners.

The cost of the Elora and Fergus buildings hit the $16,000 mark for each. Critics considered them an inexcus­able extravagance. On the other hand, the same critics often pointed to the new offices with a sense of pride and an indica­tion that Fergus and Elora were towns of some importance.

Next week: The post offices in North Wellington, and the later history of the 1911 post offices.


Stephen Thorning