I have had thoughts for quite some time of putting fingers to computer about old Niagara, for anyone who might have a slight interest in reading them. I finally surmised that as I grow older, with many cherished memories of what seems so long ago, it was fitting to make the attempt.
Niagara-on-the Lake is a town we all so dearly love. We hold it in high regard as a sacred treasure, and we all want the very best for it. With that in mind, I would like to share a few comments, memories and concerns. Points to ponder, if you will.
Born in the old Queen Street Cottage Hospital, I peddled my bicycle throughout town, delivering groceries to customers of my family’s store, which they operated for 50 years at 15 Queen Street. My parents had big hearts, allowing customers to charge groceries until they were able to pay. I recall one occasion when a customer’s young daughter wanted to charge an item while innocently commenting to my mother, that they couldn’t pay their bill that week because they spent all of their grocery money at Loblaws. No problem. Big-hearted Mom added the new charges to the existing bill.
Growing up in the Old Town with best buddies like Bruce Sherlock, Paul Albrechtsen, Ross Walsh, Walt Solenenko and the Bates and Dietsch boys was a real privilege. We were more like brothers than just friends. Sadly, many passed away much too early, while this old guy is still around. I deeply miss them.
The “old days” medical profession was blessed with caring physicians: Three Doctors Riggs, father and two sons, Bruce and Jack, and also Dr. Walwyn. Dentists Bannister and Tranter cared for our teeth. Old Town policing was handled by long-time Chief Lou Warner who was regularly seen walking the beat, ensuring everything was in order.
The old red brick Niagara Public School building, now a bed and breakfast, had dedicated teachers like principal Cecil Brunton, Misses Masters, Rush, Potter, and McGinn. They went to great lengths to ensure students were not only schooled, but also educated.
Niagara Advance newspaper publisher Doug Young and barber Fred Curtis were dedicated Scoutmasters. Harry, “Hike” Steele, another town barber, coached softball, and all three men instilled qualities of camaraderie and sportsmanship in the young scouts and athletes.
The year I was to enter secondary school was when Niagara High School closed and students were destined for busing to Stamford Collegiate in Niagara Falls. I opted to attend and board for five years at St. Michael’s College in Toronto, returning home for summer vacations, special holidays and some weekends.
On completion of school, and after several years of radio broadcasting in various Ontario cities, I was fortunate to return to my roots in Niagara with my wife Claudette and our three children, when I became news director at CHSC AM and CHRE FM in St. Catharines. Over the years, I have been privileged to serve as trustee and chair of the Lincoln County Separate School Board, alderman and lord mayor of Niagara-on-the-Lake, and on Niagara Regional Council.
I have seen many transitions in the town of my boyhood, teen and adult years. Niagara-on-the-Lake has gone from a sleepy, quiet little town to one of international recognition as the place to live, a garden of Eden or Shangri-La if you will.
While desirable to plan a smooth and passable route for the future, it is incumbent upon us not to forget the bumpy road of past years, experienced by many. They planted new seeds, nurtured them, and watched them grow into the bountiful harvest that present citizens have the opportunity to reap and enjoy.
An inaugural meeting of town council indicated the opening of a new chapter for Niagara-on-the-Lake. In opening any new chapter, stories and featured “characters” of the old chapter must always be remembered. For instance, long-time business characters like the Reids, Carnochans, Chambers, Pepes, Dalys, Howses, Marinos, Stewarts and McClellands who operated grocery and meat stores in the Old Town. Characters like Mulhollands Dry Goods, Albrechtsens Niagara Home Bakery, Bill Zoeger’s 5 to 1 Dollar Store, Iona Billings Shoe Store, Kyle’s Town and Country Clothing, McKenzie Plumbing, Greaves Jams, Harrison’s Lumber, Magder’s Family Store, Curtis, Tranter and Steele barber shops, Fields, Bates and Coyne’s Pharmacies, Connolly’s china gift shop and soda bar, Librock’s gift shop, Caughill’s, Richardson’s and Haines’ Coal Companies, Club 19, Parkview and Thistle Shamrock restaurants, Johnny Pappetti the town shoemaker, Carmen and Jenny Lepere who operated the Riverside Hotel, and the Prisko family who owned the Prince of Wales Hotel long before it was renovated and beautified by the Wiens family.
John and Nelson Campbell and their father bottled and delivered milk door to door from their plant on Platoff Street; Don Sherlock, the volunteer fire department chief, represented Silverwood’s Dairy; and a third milk delivery service was Baker’s Dairy. I vividly recall the transition from the old horse and buggy delivery days to those of motorized vehicles. Harry Sherlock produced and delivered ice blocks from his plant in the market square, and in wintertime, flooded and operated the skating rink in Simcoe Park.
We were fortunate to have commercial fishermen such as Jim “Pud” Patterson, Frank Currie and “Tooty” Sherwood. Sometimes in the late afternoon I would jump into their boats as they set out to cast their nets in the clear blue waters of Lake Ontario, and again in early mornings, to retrieve catches of fresh white-fish and perch, destined for sales at Bishop’s Fish Market. One memorable catch of the day was a gigantic sturgeon that was displayed at Bishop’s, and attracted hundreds of gawkers from all across the Niagara Peninsula.
Some of the best boats and yachts ever to ply the waters were built in town at Shepherd’s Boat Works, Hinterhoeller and C & C Yachts, where gainful employment was provided for many local residents. Town businesses appreciated the annual Camp Niagara summer military camp and the resulting positive financial benefits these summer soldiers contributed to the local economy. Military members had great times with horse back riding rentals from Jack Greene’s Livery Stable, dancing the night away at Jim Elliot’s pavilion, Fred Willett Band concerts and Sunday night sing-songs led by Archie Haines in Simcoe Park.
The local Canadian Canners factory was a major permanent and casual employer that created a beehive of activity when farmers delivered truckloads of fresh peaches and tomatoes that were meticulously processed.
Local government and school board authorities have been blessed by the community contribution of many individuals who were stalwart leaders at the Niagara Town and Township levels prior to, and after amalgamation. John Campbell, Fred Goring, Bill Greaves, Gerry Wooll, Walter Theobald, Jake Froese, Dave Dick, Leno Mori, Wilbert Dick, Harry Dawson, Mike Dietsch, Harold Clement, Bill Hunter and my brother Nick, to name just a few.
Blazing the way for a culture ingredient came the founder of the Shaw Festival Theatre, Brian Doherty, who, with the assistance of Calvin Rand, developed an international theatre attraction that many will say put NOTL on the map as the place to visit and live.
In carving out any further milestones, it is worthy to recognize and appreciate not only the notables of the town’s very early years, but also the day to day “ordinary” solid citizens of more recent years, whose names will probably never make it into the history books.
I have threatened to someday write a book about memorable Niagara experiences, but the most difficult problem in starting is jotting down the first sentence. Perhaps this is a beginning.