The chicken barns on Townline Road wouldn’t have looked like much to curious outsiders who checked out the property after the $2.5 million fire that destroyed them, but those who rented shops or storage units and know the value of what was going on behind the scenes are grieving the loss of a community.
“It didn’t look like much from the outside,” says Gavin Young, one of the many who had vehicles stored on the property. “But what was going on inside was a community of people who had a place to gather together, help each other and learn from each other. That’s the tragedy — the loss of an awesome community.”
Young is the president of the Niagara Military Vehicle Association, an incorporated, not-for profit group for people who own, restore and exhibit vintage military vehicles dating from the First World War to the present.
Members of the group stored about 20 to 25 privately-owned military vehicles, some of the largest and most valuable — the ones they can’t park in their driveways — in a portion of one of the three former chicken barns. The association had 100 feet of barn, and one of the greenhouses between the barns, for storage.
Darren Werner, owner of the property, is a member of the association, and also had some vehicles stored there.
Werner and Young both describe a community of those in their early 20s to the 70-plus age group, with shared interests in vehicles, repairing and restoring them, many with skilled trades. They all took pleasure in helping each other, especially some of the older, retired members, who would offer their assistance to the younger generation when they were stuck.
Most of the members of the military vehicle group are older, many former military, and some would visit the site daily, chatting with others and helping out when asked. Their vehicles were mostly restored, and might need a tune-up or oil change occasionally, but not a lot of work was involved, so they were always happy to assist anyone who could use a hand, says Young.
He is not a vet, he says, but was a sea cadet and is a master mariner in the Merchant Marine, a sea captain on the boats.
A lot of former military, once they’re separated from the service, find it leaves a hole in their lives, he says. “They find us at our shows, and we find them. A lot have vehicles they can drive, and together we do fundraisers or causes such as the Wounded Warriors and the Rankin Run, or for local legions. We don’t often say no to a fundraiser.”
Their space on Townline Road has provided a meeting place, and became the “heart and soul of our operation.”
On Feb. 9, he and a 72-year-old member of the group arrived soon after the fire had started, because of where their unit was located, managed to push almost all of the vehicles outside to safety.
They display their vehicles for many fundraisers, and are well-known for their annual participation in the pre-pandemic Friends of Fort George Timeline event, when they parade their First and Second World War relics through the main street of town.
Someone who sees them at a show might have an item in their basement or garage they want to donate — a radio, uniform or canteen that belonged to their grandfather, and they can’t throw it out. They’d stop by the shop, and occasionally one would decide to join, says Young.
“It was a place for a lot of people to use as a get-away, work in their shops, and our vets liked to help out.”
Some of the vehicles are still stored outside, and some of the smaller ones members have taken home for now.
Young says he’s not sure what they’ll do long-term.
He’s concerned about the older members, who would putter around at the shop every day. “I just hope this doesn’t turn out to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” he says, concerned about how they will move forward from the loss of their gathering place.
At least each vehicle is privately owned and insured, so they’re not worrying about financial losses, he says.
Not all on the site were so fortunate.
Some of the younger guys who had cars that were “projects,” being rebuilt or restored, were not insured — they would have waited until their vehicle was road-ready, he says.
Allen Gilleta was another of the not-so-fortunate. The 70-year-old owner of Gilleta Flooring worked with home builders and hotels in Niagara-on-the-Lake for 35 years, and for about the last 15 years, his hobby has been collecting vehicles — first antique cars, then hot rods and motorcycles. Werner is a friend of his, and when he got out of chicken farming, Gilleta asked if he could convert part of one of the barns to store some of his vehicles. He was Werner’s first tenant, he says, and in the intervening years, says he spent so much time there he may as well have lived on the property. Over the last five years, he’s had a team of two drivers, his son, Allen Jr., and Shaun Sliter, racing sprints. He builds the cars, and they compete at Humberstone, Ohsweken and Merrittville Speedways, which he says have all been very supportive of him and his team, at other Ontario tracks as well, and in the U.S. In addition to the cars, and one vintage racing car, he also had tires, a tire machine, and all the tools and equipment that goes along with restoring and maintaining the racing cars. When he got there that Tuesday of the fire, the firefighters were already on site, and wouldn’t let anyone around the back where his shop was located. He lost everything, even a car on a trailer outside the shop. “There was so much heat from that fire it was unbelievable.”
He estimates his personal loss at about $300,000. It’s hard to find a company that will insure racing cars, and he had no insurance, he says. “This was my hobby. It was what I did in that community.”
A week after the fire, he was planning on rebuilding his team, but not sure how, hoping support from a GoFundMe page — search Allen Gilleta — would get the team up and racing again.
“I’m going to have to start over, replacing every single nut and bolt. We didn’t have a chance to get anything out at all. It was too dangerous.”
Gilleta Sr. says he has spent a lifetime collecting vehicles, and was at his shop every day. There was a coffee pot by the office, he says, and many of the guys, from the military vehicle storage unit and others, would start their day there chatting over coffee. A former member of the association, he says he supports the military and has held fundraisers at Humberstone for Wounded Warriors, which helps injured veterans.
He loved hanging out at his shop, and enjoyed having some of the younger racers, who also stored vehicles on the property, stop by to chat and ask questions.
“There was always a lot going on,” he says, agreeing with the others that it was more than a place for storage — it created a community for like-minded people of all ages. “There was a lot of camaraderie. I’m going to miss that.”
Werner, who lives in a house on the property which escaped damage, says he can rebuild the wood workshop, where his son Michael operates Reclaimed from Roots, creating custom-made furniture from fallen trees.
He might even be able to put up a canvas covering for some of the military vehicles. What they are doing helps tell the story about this country and the people who fought for it, he says, and also provides some pleasure for veterans and their family members, as well as some who have PTSD and find value in being part of the group.
But he has no illusions about rebuilding the storage units, which were a non-complying operation on Ontario Greenbelt property.
A 57-year-old industrial mechanic and millwright by trade who also ran the chicken farm for 21 years while he worked at a day job, Werner says when he decided to give up raising chickens, which is not the healthiest way to earn a living, he didn’t set out to turn the barns into a storage business.
One friend, and then another, would ask about storing items on his property, and he had the space, so he agreed. As a member of the military vehicle association, he was happy to help the other members, he says, who were looking for indoor space for their most valuable vehicles. At each step of the conversion over a period of many years on the 10-acre site, he always made sure work was done properly and to code, and before he knew it, he had this great community of people who gathered on his property.
“I wasn’t getting rich from it, and I never intended to be running a commercial business,” he says, “but it was a really cool thing for everybody who was there. It was a business model that worked, and I really liked what I was doing.”
He loved to walk around and talk to people, enjoying their presence as much as they enjoyed being there. He loved that the older people with skilled trades would help out the younger ones, and with a complete machine shop on the site, he often helped them himself. He could have charged a lot more for the 30 units he rented out, he says, but the model he had created gradually, over time, became something that worked.
Although the cause of the fire hasn’t been released by the office of the Ontiario Fire Marshal, Werner believes it was electrical, and started near his office. His property was fully insured, and he’s considering the possibility of creating something similar on a commercial property.
“It was a model that was needed. It’s something we’re meant to have in our lives, helping each other and learning from each other. We need more of that in our society. Everyone had each other’s backs. We always said we had the best security, because everyone treated it like it was their own. It’s not the loss of the buildings that I lose sleep over. My sleepless nights are because of the loss of the community. It meant everything to these guys over so many years, and now it’s gone.”
He talks about the site as a village unto itself, with most people outside the village not aware it existed. But for those who were part of it, “it was huge. If it takes a village to raise a child, that’s what was going on here. It gave a group of young people a place to learn, a place to see what they could accomplish, a purpose. It gave them something they could believe in, something they could see that was tangible. There was a lot of talent here, a lot of skills and a lot of good people. Everybody who was here needed to be here.”
He’s trying to remain positive, feeling it’s his responsibility to remain strong for others, and says despite the loss of something that has been a huge part of his life in recent years, above all else, he’s extremely grateful nobody was hurt. He misses what was going on, as does his two-year-old German shepherd, who goes out each day “looking for his buddies. This was an awesome community. We used to say, all roads lead here, although not a lot of people knew about it. It was a labour of love.”