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.
During the 1920s, Wellington County’s communities varied in their approach to the concept of a war memorial. Some charged full speed ahead with the project.
Others dithered and debated for years.
Mount Forest was among the latter. A memorial to honour the fallen of Mount Forest and portions of the adjoining townships was proposed several times in 1923 and 1924, but neither the local service clubs nor town council got behind the idea.
In the summer of 1927, Mount Forest staged a huge Old Boys Reunion. Many visitors wondered why the town had no war memorial and no plans for one. Many Canadian towns dedicated such monuments that summer.
As well, the federal government had made commemorative services for the fallen of the Great War, 1914 to 1918, a theme of the general celebrations for the 60th anniversary of Confederation.
A.W. Wright of the Confederate gave the idea a major boost that summer, with a couple of pages in his paper’s July 1 special edition devoted to veterans and the casualties of the war.
Those developments put the concept in motion during the fall of 1927. Mount Forest’s council – or at least a majority of them – proposed to take on the memorial as a municipal project. The result, though, was a major controversy. Public debate stalled progress, and the project became the major election issue in late December 1927. The opposition wasn’t over the idea, but over the cost, and subsequent impact on the mil rate.
The results stunned everyone. Opponents of the memorial triumphed. All the advocates of the memorial went down to defeat with the exception of two. The memorial seemed dead in the water.
This most recent development embarrassed many people in Mount Forest, and even a few of the newly-elected councillors. By 1928, there were not many towns the size of Mount Forest without a war memorial. Harriston had constructed theirs in 1921, and Drayton in 1927, for example. Even the much smaller village of Arthur had built a memorial five years earlier.
In the spring of 1928, Mount Forest councillors, despite their previous opposition, considered the idea again. They would not pay the whole bill, but offered to start the fund with a $1,000 contribution.
Soon a Memorial Committee convened, with representatives from across the community, plus Mayor Beacom, and councillors McKellar and Murphy. The group decided that they would aim for a budget of $2,500, $1,000 of which had already been promised by town council. By early June, everyone agreed that the ideal location was in Riverview Park. A.J. Corbett, a contractor with considerable experience building war memorials, submitted the winning tender for the design work and construction.
A week later, a surprise contribution came from the Ernst family, proprietors of the long-lived local firm that built Mount Forest’s famous threshing machines. The gesture, from a family with a German background, surprised and delighted the community. As well, it made achieving the balance of the budget, $500, seem a lot easier.
Things now began to move quickly. On June 11, 1928, the Memorial Committee attended a council meeting, and ironed out the final details concerning the project. The next evening, the committee met on its own to plan the fundraising drive. They decided to accept the offers of the bank managers and the postmaster to collect subscriptions at their offices.
Two nights later there was a site meeting. Committee members met with the contractor in Riverview Park and selected the precise site. The decision was that the structure could be built without the terracing originally thought necessary, but that the foundation should be put below the frost line, and some drains installed around the monument.
Corbett the contractor had the location graded and the foundation installed by mid-August. The large blocks of grey granite for the monument itself arrived by rail on Aug. 21. The largest was the central shaft, more than 20 feet high and weighing over a ton.
Later that week, the Memorial Committee met again, to plan an unveiling ceremony and deal with financial matters. As is often the case with such projects, this one ran over the initial budget, but contributions made up the difference. Largest of these were $200 from Northgate Women’s Institute and $80 from the Women’s Patriotic League. Members of the committee agreed to do a canvas of the town. Any funds in excess of the construction costs would go into a perpetual care fund for the monument.
A subcommittee then dealt with the most contentious task: deciding which names should be inscribed on the monument. Five weeks later, they were still wrestling with the list.
Meanwhile, Mount Forest’s veterans started to meet informally through the summer. On Oct. 3, they gathered to form a branch of The Canadian Legion of the British Empire League. The provisional executive included Rev. H.B. Scudamore as president, Dr. A.R. Perry and H. Steele as vice presidents, and B.C. Sisler as secretary-treasurer.
The new Legion scheduled a second meeting for the evening of Oct. 15, the date set for the unveiling of the memorial. The Memorial Committee, despite some setbacks, put together an impressive ceremony. Initially, they had wanted an honour guard of active soldiers from London, but the Army advised that no funds were available for transportation or accommodations.
Although scheduled for a Monday afternoon, the ceremony drew a huge crowd – between two and three thousand according to estimates.
The program began with a parade along Durham and Main Streets to Riverview Park, led by the Mount Forest Band. “C” Company of the Wellington Rifles, from Fergus and Elora, followed next, and then the Mount Forest veterans, augmented by visiting veterans. Public school pupils and the Mount Forest Pipe Band brought up the rear of the procession. The paraders formed a square around the monument, which was draped in Union Jacks.
Mayor Beacom led the service, which began with O Canada and a prayer from Father Ryan of St. Mary’s Church. Following brief remarks from the mayor, Col. C.R. McCullough of Hamilton delivered the main address. He had much to say about the late Capt. F.W. Campbell of Mount Forest, the first Canadian to win the Victoria Cross.
Capt. Campbell’s widow performed the actual unveiling, pulling the ropes to release the Union Jacks, and revealing the names inscribed on the monument. A full truckload of floral tributes were then placed around the base.
The Memorial Committee met a week later to wind up its business. In addition to the major donations, subscriptions and the canvas had raised $590. The committee agreed to pay A.J. Corbett an additional $50 for engraving. The number of names on the monument totalled 25. The committee had originally expected only 12. After all the bills had been paid, there was a surplus of $200. Dr Allen and J.F. Noonan suggested that the committee continue, and consider lighting and flagpoles for the site.
The Legion branch, meanwhile, got off to an active start. On Nov. 10 they organized Mount Forest’s first Poppy Day. That was a Saturday, and the town was filled with farmers and shoppers. The following day, Mount Forest had its first Nov. 11 service. The veterans marched to the new monument in formation, where they heard a couple of brief speeches and appropriate selections from the Mount Forest Brass Band, and then laid wreaths in front of the memorial.
Later that day, they had a little fun, raiding the house of the Legion president. He had not been at the service, and they asked him to explain himself, under threat of a court martial.
Nov. 12 was a social night for the Legion, following a brief meeting. They turned down a proposal from the Elite Attraction Company to run a midway. Most Legion members thought such an event to be undignified.
Instead, they planned an evening of films at the Maple Leaf Theatre as a fundraiser. The veterans spent the rest of the evening playing cards and socializing.
Instead of the usual “delicious lunch” served at meetings, the veterans sat down to an army-style meal of pork and beans, spinach and bread, all washed down with mugs of strong coffee.
*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Nov. 7, 2003.