Old photo offers glimpse of development of Elora

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.

A couple of weeks ago, Bonnie Callen, archivist at the Wellington County Museum, called to tell me about an interesting Elora photograph.


The picture has been in the archives for about 15 years, but no one seems to have looked closely at it before. It was catalogued simply as “Geddes Street, Elora,” probably by someone who did not realize its significance.

The view shows Geddes Street north of Colborne, looking toward Salem. The photographer used a telephoto lens, making buildings and objects appear closer together than in reality.

The photo is a superb, and perhaps unique, look at this part of Elora at an early stage of development.

The large open area to the left of Geddes Street is now occupied by the post-office and library. Henderson Street can be seen in front of the buildings at the rear of this open area, which was used by farmers and cattle dealers on market days. A section of fence, or perhaps a gate, is lying in the foreground.

Historians enjoy the challenge of dating pictures such as this. The first step is to look for recognizable buildings that can be dated, and for vacant lots, that were later occupied by buildings that can be dated.

The three-storey stone building, on the right side of the street still stands (233 Geddes St.). It dates to the early 1850s, and was built by James Philip, a distiller and an ambitious entrepreneur in the 1850s.

On this side of the Philip building, the Sheppard house can be plainly seen (203 Geddes St.). Mary Sheppard operated her jewelry store from this building for several years. The building was constructed in 1863.

Moir Street is visible at the side of the Sheppard building, little more than a cow path.

Thomas Connon, the Elora photographer, began work on his building on the vacant lot across Moir Street from the Sheppard building in November of 1867 (195 Geddes St. – currently Aquarius Water Treatment and the laundromat.). This date is mentioned in the Connon family papers and is confirmed by contemporary newspaper accounts.

This narrows the date of the picture to between 1863 and 1867, but we should be able to do better than that.

The sign in front of the building at the extreme right reads “Maw and Fenwick.” This was a firm of tailors. I have an advertisement that announces their move to a new building on Geddes Street in December of 1864. Since this is a summer picture, the date cannot be before 1865.

It is often useful to consider where the photographer was standing when he took a picture. This one is obviously from a fairly high elevation. Taking height and perspective into account, it must have been shot from the third storey or roof of the Gordon’s Block portion of the Dalby House (143 Metcalfe St., currently the Family Health Team). This building was completed in the summer of 1865, and the third floor was occupied as a studio by John Gordon, a photographer.

We have almost certainly identified the photographer, but have done little to nail down the date more precisely. A slightly different approach can now be tried.

Civic improvements can sometimes help in dating pictures. The sidewalk on the east side of Geddes Street looks very new. The wood has not weathered; nothing has heaved; and there appear to be no replacement boards.

A sidewalk is a major project, invariably discussed by council. Elora council minutes show discussions of a sidewalk from Elora to Salem began in 1863, but it was not built for another four years, when an agreement was made with Nichol township.

In April of 1867, Nichol township contracted for 4,400 feet of wooden sidewalk from the northern limits of Elora to Salem. Elora did not let a contract for its portion, north on Geddes from Colborne Street, until late in July.

Peter Simpson, an Elora carpenter, constructed 825 feet of wooden sidewalk on Geddes Street in August and September of 1867, and received $225 for the contract. A close look at the picture may indicate the sidewalk is under construction near the top of the hill at David Street. This pegs down our date to late summer of 1867.

Windows are open in several of the buildings, and the shadows indicate that the picture was taken in early morning, so the weather must have been warm. Based on all the data, I propose the last week of August 1867, as the date of the photograph.

Photographs often can provide new information, or clarify things already known.

This picture provides new information about the Sheppard house: one of the side windows was originally a door, and the front part of the house, which once contained a regular store front along Geddes Street, was in fact an addition built after this picture was taken.

Newspapers from the 1860s contain continual complaints about livestock running at large in Elora. The fences around virtually every yard confirm that roving cattle must have been a problem, as does the absence of high grass or weeds, which would be expected to be found in late summer.

There were once annual complaints about water and mud on Geddes Street between Henderson and Moir. The picture shows a pronounced low spot in this area, in front of what is now the parking lot for Little Katy Variety. The sidewalk is carried about two feet above the ground here. Elora council continually deferred measures to fix the spot, and it eventually more or less dried up (175 Geddes St., currently Sante).

On Henderson Street, facing the camera, is a small house, probably log in construction. This type of building was the most common residential style in the mid-19th century. The residence of the late Mrs. W.C. Murray is now on this site; it may incorporate portions of the building in the photograph (168 Geddes St., currently St. Johns Anglican Church office). The end of a similar house can be seen at the extreme left of the picture, on the lot now occupied by St. John’s Church.

Due to the effect of the telephoto lens, the large barn appears to be adjoining the house. It is actually on the next lot (currently the Bell Telephone office), and the sign at the front reads “Elora Carriage Works.” This was the wagon factory of Cuthbert and Noble. When the partnership broke up, George Noble took over the business, and Sandy Cuthbert set up his own shop across Geddes Street, just beyond the Maw and Fenwick building in the photograph.

A striking sight is the dense forest north of Salem. The trees must be at least 125 feet tall. There are a few scattered large trees in Elora, and the beginnings of some horticultural plantings in back yards. Some of these are probably fruit trees.

The photograph shows that, although a sidewalk to Salem had been built, Geddes Street was not improved north of David Street. Traffic from the north came into Elora either over the David Street bridge or down the Bon Accord Road (Irvine Street).

Much changed in the 10 years after this picture was taken.

The direct route to Salem was made passable, and the east side of Geddes Street sprouted a row of commercial buildings. At the top of the hill, the new Roman Catholic Church graced the skyline in 1870. And many of the fine trees fell to the axe.

The rediscovery of this photograph greatly enriches our knowledge of early Elora.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Feb. 11, 1992.



Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015