High school, waterworks were big Erin projects in 1954

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.

Wellington’s centennial year of 1954 saw major construction projects and public works in most of the municipalities in the county.

For its size, the village of Erin led the list for new infrastructure.

The village’s largest project started in 1954 was the new high school. Increasing demands for more years of education, plus a growing population, resulted in demands for new high school rooms across the county. Many of the townships cooperated formally in district high schools by the late 1930s, and the rest came on board over the next few years.

Accommodation for the higher grades in Erin was substandard by any measure. Erin’s existing school building, constructed in 1923, contained six rooms, two of which were used by the high school. In the postwar years it soon became hopelessly overcrowded.

In the fall of 1953, the public school trustees rented the basement of the Presbyterian Church for the Grade One class. By then the trustees were planning the construction of a new high school building, to be built on Daniel Street beside the existing building.

The district high school covered a fairly large area, and one that was experiencing rapid growth in the postwar boom. The trustees were Don Kirkwood of Erin village, Bert Dyer of East Garafraxa, Garnet Lacey of Hillsburgh, Jim Leitch of Erin Township, Cyril McKinney of Caledon Township, and Goldwin Burt, representing Wellington County.

Early in 1954, the trustees agreed upon the construction of a new high school to contain three classrooms and a science laboratory. The Toronto firm of Barnett and Reider drew up the plans, which were ready by April 1954. Then came an agonizing wait for approval by the Department of Education and the Ontario Municipal Board, which had to review and rubber stamp all municipal borrowing.

Approval from the Education department came in July. By then it was too late to get the project completed for the September 1954 school opening, as the trustees had hoped. At the board meeting of Aug. 12, with nothing yet heard from the OMB, the trustees decided to fix up a basement space in the existing school as a classroom.

While the high schools drummed their fingers and waited, another major project surfaced. A new subdivision on Erin’s north side had been designed for a municipal water system, and now others in the village wanted water as well. At the Erin council meeting of July 30, Weir Winters and Walter Keeler presented a petition to council, signed by most of the residents of Erin’s north side, requesting that they be hooked up to the proposed new water system. At that meeting, council gave first and second reading to a $12,000 debenture issue to finance the water system in the new subdivision. It would be financed over 10 years, under the Local Improvements Act, and it too required OMB approval.

Councillors expressed enthusiasm for a larger project, covering all or most of the village, but there were no cost estimates or preliminary plans available.

Erin residents, though, became increasingly concerned with the quality of their drinking water. Every new house meant another septic system, and the danger of further groundwater contamination.

In mid-August 1954, Dr. B.T. Dale of the Wellington County Health Unit entered the fray, publicizing the dangers of bad drinking water, and advising that free testing was available through the OAC at Guelph or the Kitchener-Waterloo Hospital.

Dozens of residents sent in samples, and few were cheered by the analysis they received. Most homeowners had low levels of contamination, and a few more serious problems. By September, several petitions were in circulation in Erin. Everyone, it seems, wanted municipal water, and the sooner the better.

This was the fourth time a municipal water system had come to the Erin council table in recent years. Twice, the reason had been losses due to major fires. And since the end of World War II, at least a half dozen firms had wanted to build plants in Erin, but went elsewhere because there was no water.

Endless meetings and official correspondence led to the resignation of Rev. W. Gray Rivers, Erin’s clerk-treasurer, on Oct. 4, 1954. Rivers worked full time in Toronto, and the additional demands of his municipal work were proving too much to continue. An additional factor was his active role in the liquor plebiscite earlier in the year. In that campaign, he took the opposite side of the road from Erin’s merchants.

Subtle but lingering resentments strained his relationship with Erin’s business leaders. Those came to the forefront in working out the details of Erin’s third big project of 1954, the widening of a portion of Main Street.

OMB approval for both the waterworks and the high school came in the fall of 1954, and both projects got under way with a minimum of delay. On Oct. 4, council decided to proceed at once with the pump house. They pressured their engineers to provide the blueprints as quickly as possible. As well as the new subdivision, water mains would go in at once on portions of Main, Spring, Church, and Daniel Streets, at a cost of $18,700. Homeowners would pay $2.50 per foot of frontage, and $70 per hookup to the system. The plans fell far short of servicing the whole village, but it was a start. Reeve D.S. Leitch hoped to do more in 1955.

Erin had been authorized to borrow only $12,000 for the waterworks. The additional work was made possible by the agreement of all affected property owners, most of whom paid their entire assessments up front. That made a vote on the improvement unnecessary, and avoided the delays that would accompany a larger debenture issue. Councillors were delighted with the cooperation of property owners, and hoped to service much of the remainder of the village on the same basis in 1955. Engineering estimates for the water system to service all of Erin were in the $75,000 range.

On Nov. 4, council let the contract for the water mains to Scott Bros. of Ripley, with instructions to begin at once and complete as much as possible in 1954. At the same meeting, Mrs. Bruce Dickinson took over the duties of municipal clerk, with Rev. Rivers to continue as treasurer until the end of the year.

The school board, meanwhile, pushed ahead with construction. The contractors had the walls and roof closed in by Nov. 10, allowing the interior work to proceed during the winter.

Scott Brothers amazed everyone with the speed of their work. They had the pipes in the ground on Main Street and the other three streets in less than a week, and by Nov. 12 they commenced work on the Green Construction Company’s subdivision, commencing at Daniel and Pine Streets.

By then the pump house had been completed over the 62-foot well. Council avoided the cost of a water tower with two 1,000-gallon tanks and a new design for pumping equipment. The equipment provided a pressure of 60 pounds and had a pumping capacity of 21,000 gallons per hour.

Reeve Stan Leitch expressed delight when the work was all done before year end. On Dec. 22, he and the other councillors gathered for a ceremony at the pump house, at which they turned the valves to send pure fresh water through the new system. At the beginning, there were only 21 customers, but reeve Leitch hoped for at least 150 in a year’s time. Erin then had about 165 households, plus other potential customers adjoining the village in Erin Township.

Erin’s voters seemed to be pleased with their council and its ambitious goals for civic improvement. A large turnout appeared for the nomination meeting on Dec. 2. Following a lengthy report on the water system and other matters from Stan Leitch, the ratepayers returned the old council by acclamation: reeve Leitch and councillors Cecil Carney, P.J. Sinclair, Fred Steen and Jim Robertson.

The high school project dragged on longer, partially due to delays with some of the sub-contractors. The trustees abandoned plans to move in during the spring of 1955, and moved the opening date to Sept. 6. The school opened with three teachers: Isobel Waterman, Dorothea Sloan and Gord Curlew, with Bob Inkster as caretaker. The school still looked incomplete at the opening date. Due to hot weather and a drought, the landscaping and lawn were not complete.

Several of the trustees had stated that the school should be made bigger than four rooms. The opening day figures vindicated their fears. The roll contained the names of 115 students, 51 of whom were in Grade 9. With some difficulty, the high school freshmen squeezed into a single classroom.

The school had been constructed based on figures from 1953. No one seemed to look seriously at growth projections and demographic trends. The trustees spent the fall of 1955 planning a two-room addition to the brand new school.

But that’s another story, for another time, as is the further extension of Erin’s water system.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on June 4, 2004.

Thorning Revisited