Volunteer efforts a major factor in building Erin arenas

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 few weeks ago, Charles Lewis of Erin Township dropped me a note with a few comments on this history column.

He mentioned that the Erin Community Centre was commencing a fundraising campaign to finance some renovations and improvements to their facility. It was obvious that this would be a good subject for a history column.

The original Erin arena, in common with most of the old arenas in Wellington County, did not begin as a municipally owned facility. Typically, these had their start under the ownership of volunteer organizations, sporting clubs, and businessmen. Over the years, all have come under municipal ownership and direction. Of those in Wellington County, I believe that the Erin facility was the last to do so.

The arena and community centre complex in 2000 is dated to 1978. Constructed with a large contribution of donations, it replaced a facility built by the Erin Agricultural Society and converted to a hockey arena in 1931.

Although the Erin Agricultural Society’s fall fair ranked as one of the larger and more successful ones in the area, financial strains appeared in the inflationary period after the First World War. With expenses rising faster than income, the Erin Agricultural Society began to seek ways to increase income or get better use of its grounds and buildings.

In 1920 and 1921, the directors considered adding a race track and horse racing, among other things. There was a proposal to sell the grounds, and move the fall fair to the privately owned Stanley Park, but the terms demanded by owner Harry Austin would produce no financial advantage to the fall fair.

Despite the financial pincers, the agricultural society found money in 1928 for galvanized sheathing for the old building, partially offsetting the cost by renting a portion of the interior to a paving company for use as office and storage space.

A much more practical scheme for the under-utilized fall fair building surfaced at a meeting of Erin hockey enthusiasts on Oct. 19, 1931. The fans wanted to enter the Erin Shamrocks in the Northern Hockey League for the 1932 season, and needed an arena. The hockey club had previously been doubling up with the Erin Curling Club.

The hockey club sought to remove various platforms and other fittings from the interior of the fall fair building, and build a lean-to addition on the side. The project would include spectator seating, two locker rooms, and office space, as well as a sheet of natural ice.

The Erin Agricultural Society readily embraced the plan, not surprisingly, as there were board members who were involved in Erin hockey circles. 

The Erin Agricultural Society and the Shamrock Hockey Club signed an agreement on Nov. 3, 1931. Major work was to be split between the two groups, with the hockey club financing the addition, and the society responsible for straightening a wall and putting in some foundations and abutments to stabilize the structure of the building.

Fundraising began immediately, with the entire project completed in less than two months. The renovations and new construction produced an ice surface 148 by 46 feet, which was under regulation size, but far better than any alternatives. Shortly before Christmas, George Horton and Leslie McAlister assumed their duties in running the facility.

Despite the depression conditions, public support for the project had been overwhelming. Early in 1932 the agricultural society ran an advertisement thanking residents for their support.

The Erin hockey enthusiasts had hoped to register a senior team from Erin and a junior one from Hillsburgh in the league, with players for both teams drawn from both villages. This did not happen, and when the Northern League drew up the schedule, both Erin and Hillsburgh had senior teams in Group 3, along with Alton.

The fourth team originally was to have been Grand Valley, but at the last minute the Inglewood Woodchoppers were substituted.

Because none of its clubs played on artificial ice, the Northern League did not start its season until after New Year’s. The Shamrocks kicked off their 1932 season at the converted Erin Agricultural Hall on Jan. 8, 1932, against Alton.

The Erin Shamrocks continued through the 1930s in the arena, which soon became known as “The Ice Palace” in the hockey season and “The Coliseum” during the summer.

In 1934, Group 3 shrunk when Alton dropped out. The Shamrocks filled out their schedule with exhibition games. Most popular were those against the Red Indians of Guelph, an industrial team sponsored by the McColl-Frontenac Petroleum Co.

After more than 30 years of service to the community, a series of improvements began in 1964, with the construction of a new front and hall. The major upgrade was the installation, as a 1967 centennial project, of an artificial ice plant, ending forever the vagaries and seasonal restrictions of natural ice. The Erin Lions Club spearheaded the project, raising the lion’s share of the cost. The club became a partner in the management of the facility during the skating and hockey season.

The series of renovations ended two years later with an addition of a concrete surface on the area floor.

Although it possessed an up-to-date refrigeration plant, the old building was living on borrowed time. The fellow with the scythe showed up in March 1976.

The agricultural society received a letter from the provincial government, stating that the structure failed to meet the requirements of the National Building Code. The engineering firm of Gamsby and Mannerow had inspected the building thoroughly. Their report raised alarms over the structural integrity of the roof. The building had to be closed for public use.

The Erin Agricultural Society discussed the problem at length on April 8, 1976, with representatives of the Lions Club at the meeting. The group agreed to strike a committee to see what could be done to have the building remain in use at the lowest possible cost, and to investigate any grants that might be available.

At the same time, the village of Erin and local service clubs formed an arena committee, with the ultimate goal of constructing a more modern facility. This group held lengthy discussions with the agricultural society and the municipal council through the summer and fall of 1976 to devise a plan for a new arena. Soon it was apparent that a majority of residents favoured a municipal facility.

Meanwhile, the agricultural society proceeded with work to strengthen the roof trusses in the existing building in the last two months of 1976. This work cost some $42,000, financed in the short term by a loan from the Royal Bank. This brought the roof up to minimum requirements, permitting hockey and skating in the 1976-77 season.

Ultimately, a Wintario grant covered about $26,000 of this work, and the Lions Club kicked in $10,000.

By the fall of 1976, preliminary work on a new area was in full swing. A fundraising committee with some 40 volunteers and a goal of $191,000, began a canvas of Erin village and the surrounding territory in February 1977. Provincial and Wintario grants made up the remainder of the $725,000 budget. Meanwhile, progress was under way with the design work on a new building, with a tender call for April 1977. The low bidder was Transway Steel Buildings. This firm completed the project in less than 10 months.

The new arena contained an ice surface 175 by 75 feet (about double the area of the old surface), seating for 750 spectators, four dressing rooms, and two rooms for meetings and public functions.

The facility opened with a series of special events and ceremonies on the weekend of Feb. 25-26, 1978. There were the usual speeches, greetings from visiting dignitaries, public skating, and two hockey games, one of which was a playoff game won by the Erin bantam team against Caledon.

After the new arena opened, the Erin Agricultural Society continued to use the old building, mostly, in later years, as storage for equipment needed for the Erin Fall Fair. The Lions Club did some renovations to the meeting hall in the building in 1977. A fitness club eventually used this space.

On the afternoon of Feb. 23, 1994, a fire broke out in the old “Erin Coliseum.” The Erin and Hillsburgh fire brigades, hampered by low water pressure, could do little to save the old wooden structure.

The staff of the public school across the street thought it prudent to evacuate the school, though it was never in real danger. Within hours, the structure, which had been the focus of so much of Erin’s social and recreational activities, was reduced to a heap of smouldering ashes.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on April 7, 2000.

Thorning Revisited