Summer of 1954 a lively one for north Wellington

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.

Since the beginning of 2004, this column has focused on some of the major developments in Wellington during 1954, the county’s centennial year. 

Not every item deserves a full column of space. This week looks at a handful of developments during the summer of 1954, ranging from social gatherings to business, conservation and the introduction of the mutual aid principle for firefighting.

The county’s centennial celebration in July put Wellington in a mood for celebrations and social gatherings in 1954. Local events, for the selection of entrants to the Miss Wellington competition, preceded it, and helped to stir interest in large gatherings.

The Fergus Highland Games, held in August three weeks after that town hosted the county centennial, were the largest and most successful in the nine-year history of the event. Other towns jumped on the Celtic bandwagon in 1954, with events both before and after the Fergus festivities. On Aug. 21, Listowel’s Legion Branch 259 hosted a pipe band tattoo that attracted bands from Brussels, Fergus (under pipe major Percy Gibson), Arthur (led by Mel Howatt), Palmerston (under pipe major Clayton Bridge), Kitchener and Listowel. The bands paraded down the main street to Memorial Park, where they played singly and in massed formation.

Arthur Legion’s Pipe Band also sponsored a tattoo, on Aug. 6, advertised optimistically as the “first annual Highland Pipe Band Tattoo.” That one attracted pipe bands from Brussels, Kitchener, Owen Sound, Fergus, Arthur, Palmerston and Listowel. Led by the High School bugle band, the pipers paraded around Arthur on their way to the agricultural grounds, where more than 1,000 spectators had gathered for the program of pipe music. Harry Parr of Alma, the celebrated auctioneer, acted as master of ceremonies. At the conclusion, the bands, followed by the spectators, paraded back to the Legion for refreshments.

Elora’s Gorge Park opening, held in July, was not the only development on the conservation front in 1954. A few weeks later, a portion of the Luther Marsh was designated a game preserve. The area consisted of the northern section of the marsh, in both East and West Luther townships. Hunting, trapping, or molesting in any way the wildlife within the area would be strictly forbidden. The game warden acquired additional staff to patrol the area during the fall duck hunting season, and to enforce hunting regulations generally in the areas where it was still permitted. During the previous year there had been major problems, with locals ignoring all regulations and visitors rampaging over private property. Both the townships and the provincial government intended to avoid a repeat of 1953, which conservationists described as “a slaughter.”

Elora’s economy suffered setbacks early in 1954, with the burning of the Mundell Furniture factory and the bankruptcy of the Fleury-Bissell firm. But other towns held and expanded their industrial base.

Harriston received some good news on Aug. 19, when Harold Chadwick, manager of the Model Spinning Company’s plant, announced that the firm would be closing its Milton operation, and moving the machinery to the Harriston factory. Chadwick expected the payroll to increase by 20 or 25. To install the machinery, a hole had to be punched through a second-floor wall. A crane lifted the equipment, and swung it inside.

Elora Street, Harriston’s main thoroughfare, gained a new appearance with a street widening project. Hugh Bell & Sons secured the contract for the work. Beginning on Aug. 23, workmen removed the curbing on both sides of the street, and extended the pavement from the existing roadway to the sidewalk. In some places, new construction was required due to the terrain. In front of the Royal Inn, a new curb, three steps high, was necessary due to the slope. Overall, the work added about three feet to each side of the street. The additional space permitted angle parking, to the delight of Harriston’s merchants. The town’s retail sector was enjoying its most prosperous period in memory. Parking, especially on Saturday nights, had become a frustration for shoppers. A few residents, though, lamented the loss of the attractive boulevard.

In nearby Mount Forest, the business sector suffered a major loss on Sept. 2, when fire destroyed the farm implement business of Russell Thompson. A passerby, Rod Truax, noticed the blaze about 11pm and summoned the fire brigade. Soon reinforcements from Harriston and Durham were on the scene, and the combined efforts of the three forces continued their battle until 6am. They failed to save the building, and the flames also claimed a neighbouring house, occupied by Minnie Scott. Harriston’s new pumping equipment was a major factor in preventing the blaze from spreading farther. With 800 feet of hose and their new high-pressure pumping equipment, the Harriston force saved the nearby Brandon Casket factory.

Thompson lost his entire indoor stock, including a motor car, three tractors, various implements and a $40,000 inventory of parts. The building, dating from the early years of the 20th century, had once been the home of the Mount Forest Curling Club. Built of wood, it measured 200 by 100 feet. Thompson had acquired the property two years earlier, and renovated it as a home for his implement business.

Firefighters considered the blaze suspicious, and suspected arson. The provincial fire marshal was on the scene as the ashes still smouldered. Findings were inconclusive.

That fire was the first one fought in north Wellington under the new mutual aid system, which had set up earlier in 1954 in the Wellington County area. Harriston had officially joined only a week before the call to Mount Forest. Chief Minnie of Guelph co-ordinated the program, under which fire brigades from one town would assist at a major fire in a neighbouring town. Had there been a local call when the Harriston force was at Mount Forest, the Palmerston brigade would have responded in Harriston.

Arthur’s Legion held a community picnic on the last Sunday afternoon of August, for friends and family of members. The branch had been hosting a summer picnic for several years, but the 1954 version was the first that had run flawlessly. A major problem in previous years had been estimating the food needed for those attending; they never seemed to get it right. For 1954, the legionnaires asked those attending to bring lunch to share with others.

Gerald McNabb offered the use of part of his farm adjoining the river, and Jim Wilson allowed one of his fields to be used for ball games between local minor softball teams. The event featured various contests and races. One novelty was a “pop drinking contest,” in which Ira Colwill and Rosemary Gibson burped their way to victory, to the amusement of the crowd.

During the afternoon the Arthur Pipe Band played from across the river, interspersed with old-time fiddling from Nick Fitzpatrick, John Lang and Wilf Burns. More than 200 people attended.

Biggest of the late summer community events of 1954 was the Labour Day celebration in Palmerston, put together by the local Lions Club, with Canadian National employee Spike Nichol in charge. Members of the club spent weeks organizing and publicizing their program. The day promised rain and frustration to the Lions, but everyone was relieved when the clouds moved off in mid-morning. Lions members scrambled to assemble several refreshment booths in Lawrence Park. They did a brisk business in red hots and other snacks from the time they opened.

The program began at 9am with a baseball tournament at Lawrence Park, featuring six teams from the Inter County Rural WOAA league. Games were scheduled until 6:30pm. For later in the morning, Nichol and his assistants organized Palmerston’s first soap box derby, an event that had been successful earlier in the year for Elora’s Dominion Day festivities, sponsored by the Lions Club there.

The soap boxes competed in two classes: locals and out-of-towners. Harry and Jerry Donegan of Listowel, with their sleek, ball-bearing carts, captured the prizes in the latter class, while Charlie Carr of Palmerston led the locals, and his younger brother Bert placed second.

In the evening the Lions tried something new: a chicken barbecue, held at the arena where there was seating for diners. Eph Gray, the school principal, was in charge, and reported more than 500 meals served.

The only disappointment of the day was the bingo at the arena, which drew only a small crowd. At its conclusion, the Lions held a draw for a brand new Plymouth motor car. Mrs. Lees of Palmerston held the winning ticket.

The popularity of events such as the Arthur Legion picnic and the Palmerston Lions Labour Day festivities were at or near their peak in 1954. More and more households were acquiring motor cars. Increasing mobility weakened the ties people had with their local communities, and the process would accelerate during the rest of the 1950s.

Perhaps the biggest change of 1954 for the social fabric of Wellington came with the novelty of television. Residents of the southern part of the county received CBC broadcasts from Toronto beginning in 1952, and Buffalo stations had been on the air since 1947. 

Locally, 1954 was important with the startup of stations in Hamilton, London, Kitchener and Wingham. A staff member of the Harriston Review counted 43 antennas in town early in September. There had been less than a half dozen six months earlier. Local appliance dealers reported that three or four TV sets were being sold in Harriston every week.

Those sales provided a shot in the arm to local business, but the impact of television on community life, entertainment and social organizations would be one of the profound developments of 1954.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Aug. 20, 2004.

Thorning Revisited