Hillburgh’s Exchange Hotel became a local landmark

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.

I recently received a brief email from Peter Stewart. The message was, “what light can you shed on the Exchange Hotel in Hillsburgh? It seems to me to be one of the most interesting buildings from the horse drawn era.”

Mr. Stewart raises the key question. The old Exchange certainly is a fascinating building, and it is intriguing why such a fancy hotel building should have existed in a small place like Hillsburgh.

For a town that never exceeded a population of 700 in the 19th century, Hillsburgh has a very rich history of hotels. The old Exchange Hotel was the last to close, outliving the other major one, the Grand Central, by almost 20 years.

These two inns were the last phase of the hotel business in Hillsburgh. Wellington County voted itself dry in the spring of 1886. A referendum three years later reversed the policy. In Hillsburgh, only the Exchange and Grand Central operated after the restoration of the bar rooms.

In the early years of Hillsburgh, though, there was a good handful of others: Kirk’s Hotel, the Hillsburgh House, the Wellington, the Mobile House, and the International Hotel. It appears that there were never more than three in operation at a time. The history of these older hotels is somewhat confusing, and available records on them are sketchy.

Hotel history – Hillsburgh’s Exchange Hotel in 1967. In its day, it was the best in town. The most outstanding feature, the arched passageway, once had the lettering, “Good Stabling” painted above it. Such passageways were once common in commercial cores, providing access to rear courtyards and stables behind stores and hotels, but they were not often found in places as small as Hillsburgh.     Wellington County Museum & Archives ph. 2827

Hillsburgh’s hotels rose and fell with changes in the transportation network over the decades. In the 1840s, Erin Township possessed a greater agricultural output, mostly in grain, than other townships in Wellington County. Most of this grain went to market at Oakville, where it was loaded onto vessels plying Lake Ontario.

Hillsburgh might be regarded as the top of the funnel for this traffic. Establishments like Hiram Hill’s Hillsburgh House catered to this trade, offering accommodation, meals, drinks and stabling for the teams of horses. The little village reached a peak in the early 1850s on the strength of this trade.

The Hillsburgh flour mills, established by William Gooderham and operated in later years by George Worts, and then How & Sons, increased the level of local business, and added flour as an export from northwest Erin Township.

A secondary daily stage line, operating between Reading and Georgetown, served post offices on its route and added to the patronage of the Hillsburgh hotels. With a small but solid economic base, the population passed 400.

Hillsburgh, and the village’s hotels, suffered a period of decline after 1856, with the opening of the Grand Trunk Railway. Freight traffic from Erin Township diverted to the railway stations at Georgetown, Acton and Rockwood, superseding the old route to Oakville. As well, improvements to the Orangeville Road (later Highway 24) brought Hillsburgh and area increasingly into the orbit of Guelph. Hillsburgh, located off this highway, suffered a real decline, as traffic diverted around it.

Though the population dipped below 250, there was still sufficient local business to keep three hotels open, if not hugely prosperous, in the 1870 period: the Wellington, operated by John Kirk; Sam Leeson’s Mobile House; and the old Hillsburgh House, under the management of Bill Lang.

The commencement of regular train service in the first weeks of 1880 on the Credit Valley Railway changed the economic outlook for Hillsburgh. The branch line from Cataract Junction to Elora passed through Hillsburgh, changing the village from a minor service outpost to the major shipping point for sections of Erin and East and West Garafraxa Townships.

Incoming travellers found the Hillsburgh hotels convenient. A steady stream of itinerant salesmen used Hillsburgh as a base, while making their calls on country storekeepers and farms. Cattle buyers and produce merchants added to the registers of overnight guests. At the same time, increasingly strict standards for hotels in Ontario forced many of the older ones to close. Overall, the increasing business of the village pushed the population up again, eventually to the 600 mark.

This was the economic climate of Hillsburgh when Bill Dwier decided to build a new hotel. The exact date for his Exchange Hotel is unclear. Erin’s assessment records are incomplete and ambiguous for the 1880s. It is likely, on the strength of the sketchy evidence, that construction took place in 1883.

I have not been able to determine the name of the designer, but the building is a most unusual one, incorporating details normally found on much larger commercial buildings in cities. The features combine details from the Italianate and Second Empire styles which were then popular.

A small tower-like entrance porch near the centre of the building lends an Italianate flavour, reinforced by the slight forward protrusion of the left hand side of the structure. The latter feature makes the right side of the building seem like a wing. The main feature here is an arched passageway, originally providing access to the yard and livery stable at the rear of the hotel. There is also a second doorway, undoubtedly serving originally as the way to the bar room.

Third floor of the building is in the form of a mansard roof, with windows in dormers. This style was a feature of Second Empire buildings, perhaps the dominant commercial style in the 1875 to 1890 period, and which still adds flavour to downtown Fergus and Guelph. The rounded windows are also consistent with this style.

In other respects, the Exchange Hotel is a curiosity. There is an overall lack of symmetry in the placement of the windows, which rarely line up from one storey to the next. There is decorative brickwork on the corners, but it has not been carried into the window treatment. The arched passageway is lined with some beautiful cut stone, but the opening itself is too large for the scale of the building.

Many of these design details suggest that the Exchange Hotel may have been remodelled and expanded from an older building. Nevertheless, and despite its curiosity of design, it is a striking building, and one of the great assets of Hillsburgh’s main street.

In the 1880s the Exchange outclassed the other hotels in Hillsburgh, until only the Wellington remained. A popular feature was the sample room, located above the passageway. Travelling salesmen would set up shop here, and the owners of country stores would stop by to examine samples of their goods and place orders.

Other salesmen used the space to sell goods directly to farmers. Erin Township council favoured the Exchange for its council meetings. Successive reeves called the monthly meetings to order for years in the hotel’s main parlour.

The Exchange reopened its bar room in 1889, following the three-year dry period in Wellington County. The old Wellington Hotel managed to struggle for a couple of years, but was soon converted to a duplex residence. Bill Dwier continued as owner and operator into the late 1890s, but then moved to Guelph and rented the hotel to a succession of operators on one-year leases.

Meanwhile, more competition appeared. As the Wellington was expiring, the Grand Central Hotel opened in a former store building owned by Donaldson & Carmichael, the dominant Hillsburgh storekeepers. They rented the new hotel to John McCarthy, who purchased the property in 1900.

According to property and business tax records, the Exchange was a slightly larger operation than the Grand Central. Beginning about 1900, and up to the early 1920s, the Exchange served as the headquarters for members of the Caledon Mountain Trout Club, located near Hillsburgh. Many of the members, drawn from the ranks of the well-heeled elite of Toronto, came by train to Hillsburgh for a weekend or a few days of fishing.

After an absence of about 10 years, Bill Dwier returned to Hillsburgh in 1908 to resume management of his hotel, assisted by his wife and young son Herbert, who took the helm in 1913 at the age of 21.

The opposition hotel, the Grand Central, had in the meantime fallen on hard times. John McCarthy sold it to W.J. Wall in 1911 and moved to Ballinafad. Wall operated it for less than two years.

In 1912 Hillsburgh merchant William Donaldson bought the property and refitted the interior as a banking office. The village’s branch of the Union Bank moved in as tenants. In 1921 the Union Bank purchased the building, and it continued as a bank after the Royal Bank absorbed the Union Bank in 1925.

Herbert Dwier left Hillsburgh during the First World War. Old Bill Dwier, then nearing 80, again took over management. It appears that he died about 1920. His widow then took over. Mrs. Dwier managed to keep the old Exchange Hotel through the prohibition period and into the late 1920s.

With the resumption of liquor sales in Ontario, and with it much stricter standards for hotels, it is probable that necessary renovations were not economically feasible, given the potential for the hotel business in Hillsburgh.

Instead, the Exchange went through a conversion common to many small-town hotels: a restaurant with apartments above.

The building remains as one of the outstanding structures of Hillsburgh, and as Peter Stewart notes, one of the most interesting buildings from the horse drawn era.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Dec. 10, 1999. 

Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015