Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Flag fight at the O.A.C.

Each September, new students at the University of Guelph are led through a series of activities, known as Orientation Week, designed to welcome them to campus and familiarize them with its ways and means. Events include campus tours and friendly greetings from more senior students.

At the Ontario Agricultural College of an earlier era, the reception of new students included activities decidedly at odds with current practice. The central ritual of this earlier initiation was the flag fight, a pitched battle in which the Freshies (freshmen, or first-year students) defended a cloth fixed to a pole against attacks from the Sophs (sophomores, or second-year students) and a barrage of noxious missiles.

The event is well described by the students themselves (O.A.C. Review 1908, v. 21, n. 2, p. 96):

On a certain day in September sundry and seemingly unaccountable visits were paid by the acolytes of the Second Year to both the poultry department and that fair city of Guelph. The object of these visits was but too plainly felt, or shall we say tasted, by the Freshmen towards nightfall. At supper time preparations were also going on apace in the southeast corner of the campus, and by 7 p.m. there was incorporated in that peaceful scene a twenty-foot pole with the Freshmen emblem lazily flapping in the evening breeze.
Alas! The face of this earth is ever changing and this was but too true when applied to our present scene.
In the brief space of one half hour that flag pole was the centre of a mass of seething, surging humanity, and the sweet fragrance of the nocturnal air was polluted by the “foul” smell of “incubator eggs.”
The struggle had been raging for some time; the Freshies manfully up holding their colours—if this is not too elite an expression for that jaded apparition of an emblem; the Sophs with equal tenacity endeavoring to raze them to the ground, and the spectators growing dubious of the result. Suddenly, however, a Soph shot up that pole like a streak of lubricated lightning, and with lusty shouts from his comrades below he rent it from its staff.
It was “Scottie Lawson,” and to say that he was cheered would ill describe his reception. He was carried round the college on the shoulders of his classmates to the symbolic music of Sophomore yells, and was well nigh killed before regaining terra firma.
From this gay sight let us glance at the returning Freshies. They were glad it was over, but were indeed a sorry, spectacular sight. Some bore the sanguinary stains of decomposed tomatoes and others the more golden lustre of eggs in the last stages of putrefaction; again some were divested of raiment, especially in the matter of hats and shirts. In all they were in a deplorable condition, but had the consolation that they were little worse than the Sophs.
Welcome to school!

Hazing rituals had been part of student life at the O.A.C. since its inception (as was the case at most colleges of the era). Each year, the sophomore class was expected to devise novel torments for the incoming group. These usually involved some combination of combat and assault with unpleasant substances and often occurred at night. In 1907, the sophomores came up with the idea of the flag fight, such as the one described above (O.A.C. Review 1913, v. 26, n. 1, p. 22).

The contest proved popular and became the central event in initiation for many years afterwards. It also became an attraction for the townsfolk of Guelph, who seem to have enjoyed watching it. It was also attended by the girls of Macdonald Hall, which may have added to the humiliation of the losers. In addition, the fight was the subject of a series of postcards, which exhibit each stage of the event.

First is "The challenge." On the left, the freshmen surround their flagpole ready to fend off attacks from any side. On the right are the sophomores, considering their strategy.


Second is "The attack." A sophomore attempts to climb the pole while freshmen try to drag him down.


Third is "The repulse." It seems that the attack was beaten off, while wrestling matches between pairs of first- and second-year students have broken out.


Fourth and last is "The finish." The contest is over. A student stands, facing the camera with his shirt in rags. Many more items of shredded clothing dot the landscape.


Rending of shirts and hats was considered an indispensable part of the event.

The postcards were printed for prominent local druggist, A.B. Petrie, who perhaps took a particular interest in it. The earliest postmark that I have seen for a card in this series is January 1909. This suggests the photos were taken in either 1907 or 1908. My guess is that it is the 1907—and first—event that is depicted. In his recollection of the 1907 flag fight, S.J. Neville, who was one of the Sophomore organizers, recalls that no weapons or projectiles were allowed that year (O.A.C. Review 1913, v. 26, n. 1, p. 22):

We called the newcomers out in the afternoon, gave them a flag to defend, and ruled out all forms of dirt or weapons, even to water and knotted towels.
In contrast, the 1908 event was characterized by the use of rotten tomatoes and eggs, as noted above. The pictures in the postcards show no evidence of such weapons, so they most likely show the 1907 edition.

There are many possible reasons for the origin and appeal of hazing rituals of this sort. These reasons include (Cimino 2011, pp. 243–244):

  1. Fostering group solidarity,
  2. An expression of dominance, or
  3. Selection of committed group members.
In his recollections, Neville clearly views the object of the flag fight at the O.A.C. in the first year, as a way of quelling inter-year rivalries. He notes that the sophomores of 1907, including himself, lost the fight but did not feel dishonored since the fight was conducted without meanness. They went on to have a good relationship with the freshmen class of that year.

Neville contrasts that situation with the relationship between his class and the preceding one due to their initiation in 1906:

My first knowledge of initiation was, as was natural, gained at the expense of personal suffering, mostly mental, I admit, on a stricken field. In the forefront of battle, at the elbow of the strong man, Chinky Moorhouse, I undoubtedly received my full share of the good things, including two eyes-ful of flour and molasses, which signally failed to render the dark and stormy night any brighter. That was the last of the old-fashioned objectless dirt-battles. It was common-place both while in progress and in results, and we Freshies were duly humbled—for the time.
Evidently, the sophomores of 1906 were bent on a display of dominance.

Neville notes that the flag fight of 1913 was particularly brutal, featuring dousing of the freshmen with a mixture of water, tar, and carbon disulfide, a noxious chemical whose physical effects include, "tingling or numbness, cramps, muscle weakness, pain, distal sensory loss, and neurophysiological impairment." Not surprisingly, this precocious use of chemical warfare did not sit well with the vanquished freshmen, and the two sides engaged in a series of reprisals throughout the rest of the year.

Authorities gradually sought to curb initiation rites. Nocturnal events were disallowed in 1916 (OAC Year book 1920, v. 6, pp. 41, 44). In 1922, the flag fight alone was the only form of initiation allowed (Globe, 5 Oct. 1922) although this restriction was relaxed in 1925 (Globe, 23 Sep. 1925).

Initiations were banned in Ontario universities in 1926 but the flag fight at the O.A.C. continued (Globe, 1 Oct. 1926). The O.A.C. was held to be exempt from the rule, perhaps because it was officially a part of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, which had not issued such an instruction.

The last flag fight that I am currently aware of took place in 1929. However, I have not made a search specifically for later occurrences, so it may have gone on for many years afterwards. If you know of any later ones, or of similar events at other colleges, perhaps you could leave them in the comments below.

The flag fight is a curious development in college initiation rituals. It was introduced, in part, as an alternative to "object-less" dirt fights that took place in earlier years. It is in some ways like a tug-of-war in which two teams compete to move a flag tied to a rope into their territory. Unlike a tug-of-war, the flag fight still involved direct physical combat. This fact may explain why some later fights featured the re-introduction of weaponry by the sophomores, as a way of overcoming their numerical inferiority and to ensure their dominance over their first-year rivals.

Walking across Johnston Green today, it may be fun for freshmen to imagine a tall pole with a flag flying on top, along with the sophomore class, eggs and tomatoes at the ready, preparing to charge. Or, not.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Officer 666 plays in Guelph!

The Edwardian era was the golden age of postcards. Also, as Anthony Vickery (2010) points out, it was the golden age of theatrical touring in North America. From 1896 until the Great War, hit plays produced in New York would tour the United States and also Canada. From Montreal as far west as Windsor and Sault Ste. Marie, plays produced in the Big Apple would tour from city to city while riding the rails.

Vickery explains that there were two ways in which this would transpire. Producers in New York owned or controlled theaters throughout the region and scheduled traveling shows at their convenience. These theaters were mainly sited in larger cities such as Montreal and Toronto.


Theaters in smaller towns were usually locally owned. Tours of these theaters were often negotiated through local entrepreneurs. In the Edwardian period, the local circuit in Ontario was managed by one Ambrose Small of Toronto. New York productions that played in Guelph were typically booked through him.


One such production was "Officer 666". This play was a "melodramatic farce" written by Augustin MacHugh and produced by the noted team George M. Cohan and Sam H. Harris. It played at the Gaiety Theater on Broadway starting in January, 1912, and was a hit. A review in the New York Times (30 Jan 1912) praised it for being comical and absurd:

All of which is carried out in broadest farcical spirit, with plenty of humorous situations, a large number of surprises, and considerable bright dialogue. At the conclusion Helen says to this effect: “I feel as if it couldn’t have happened except in a play,” and Gladwin replies, “It couldn’t.”
Popular and in keeping with the spirit of the times, it was sure to be a hit on the road. Naturally, a touring show was speedily arranged.

Ads for the performance of "Officer 666" in Guelph began with this photograph in the Mercury (5 March 1913):



The caption reads: "'Officer 666' gets himself in many a fix in the play of that name. The accompanying scene occurs in Act III when the now famous sleuth is discovered minus his uniform and other insignia of his office. 'Officer 666' is a melodramatic farce as full of surprises as is the small boy just home from an ice cream festival."


An interesting simile! What could that refer to?


Advances in printing technology meant that newspapers were able to print halftone photographs in any issue; no doubt, an agent of the touring company sent the plates ahead to the local rags in advance of the show. By 1913, it was common for the Mercury to print such pictures to promote upcoming shows. However, "Officer 666" did seem to merit special treatment. A whole half-page ad, featuring another photo, was printed on March 6. Another photo appeared in the top middle of the front page on March 8.


Promotion for the play was not limited to the newspaper. The following postcard was also in circulation:


(Courtesy of Andrew Thomson.)

It was printed by the Dana T. Bennett Co. of New York and likely depicts the New York stage production. The message space on the back identifies the play and is also stamped with the local showtime, "Royal Opera House, Guelph. Monday, March 10." It seems that the play's promoters were going all out!

The Royal Opera House opened in 1894. It was built to supply a notable, cultural landmark for Guelph and to replace the inadequate old City Hall as a venue for dramatic and musical performances. (Sited next to the Grand Trunk Railway tracks, patrons at the City Hall had difficulty hearing performances over the throaty whistles of the G.T.R.'s steam engines.) However, with a capacity of over 1,200 seats, it was a rare night when the theatre was in the black.

It can be seen in the following postcard printed by the Pugh Mfg. Co. of Toronto:


The building was razed in 1953 and today is the site of the less dramatic Guelph Community Health Centre, as can be seen in the Google Street View scene below.



In 1911, the Royal Opera House was sold to the Griffin Amusements Corporation, which brought it solidly into the orbit of the Broadway play touring system.


Finally, the big night arrived and bums filled the seats of the Griffin Theatre. It appears that the full-on advertising campaign worked. The review in the Mercury the next day was entitled, "Packed house greets a clever presentation at Griffin's last night." It praises the wittiness of the writing, the strength of the acting, and the frothiness of the plot:

The blue pencil might do a little effective work on one or two sentences, but otherwise the show is clean, funny, and has the requisite of all successful plays, nowadays, the thing couldn’t happen anywhere outside of the stage or a book.
In a nutshell, the plot concerns a youthful millionaire New York art aficionado named Travers Gladwin. He returns to his old haunt on Fifth Avenue after a trip to Europe to find that he is being impersonated by a slick thief who is in the process of purloining his art collection. The thief has also used his usurped identity to win the affections of Helen Burton, a lovely debutante. Rather than expose the deception, Gladwin impersonates a police officer—Officer 666—with the inducement of a $500 bill. With the help of his friend Whitney Barnes and valet Bataeto, Gladwin cleverly outmaneuvers the thief and wins the hand of the lovely Helen.

If you want to learn more, you can read the whole book at the Gutenberg Project. Or, listen to the audiobook at Youtube!


What I find curious is that the story reminds me of the end of the Odyssey: Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca to find suitors besieging his good wife Penelope. With the aid of his son and his old swineherd, he slays the suitors and wins back his bride. Happily for the cleaning crew at the Griffin Theatre, "Officer 666" ends without bloodshed and the actors instead "slay" the audience.


As was usual for these New York touring shows, the company put on only the one performance, departing the next morning for the next small town along the rails. In their wake, they no doubt left many Guelphites repeating their favorite lines, as well as some promotional postcards as testimony to the Royal City's small part in the gold age of theatrical tours in North America.

(From the book cover for "Officer 666", published by the H.K. Fly Company, New York, 1912/Wikimedia commons.)




Admiration for "Officer 666" outlasted its turn on Broadway and along the American railways. It was adapted as a silent film in Australia in 1916 and in Hollywood in 1920. A still from the Australian version can be found at the Australian National Film and Sound Archive. There is also a short clip to see:



This appears to be how Gladwin gets the uniform of Officer 666 in the film.

Oddly, there also appears to be a tin wind-up toy of Officer 666 which you can see here:


It seems the character was still good for a laugh in the 1930s, long after its appearance in theaters.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Guelph's postcard producers: Chas. L. Nelles

Anyone who has looked at many postcards of Guelph from the Edwardian era will be familiar with this caption:


Dozens of Guelph postcards of that era bear the imprimatur of Charles Lonsdale Nelles of Guelph. Some of my own favorites were produced by Nelles and sold in his bookstore. Among Guelph's vendors of mass-produced postcards, only Nelles had his name displayed prominently on the front of each one. From this, you might conclude that Nelles took special pride in his cards and that he took the photographs himself. However, the truth is somewhat more nuanced, as it often is.

Charles Lonsdale Nelles was born on 16 November 1867 in York, Haldimand County, third of eight children of John A. Nelles and Caroline Nelles (née Turner). In 1878, the Nelles family moved to Guelph and bought out John Anderson's book store there (Mercury, 25 July 1904).

It did not take long for young Charles to find trouble. He threw a stone at a locomotive from an abutment of Allan's bridge, which flew through a window pane and struck engineer Nigh on the cheek (Mercury, 15 August 1879). Nelles ran away, telling the other boys present that his name was "Smith." The subterfuge was unsuccessful—Nelles was nabbed by police chief McMillan and brought to police court. Mayor Howard was satisfied that the act was not malicious and Nelles' father offered to pay for the damage. Charles was let go.

The next winter, young Nelles had a skating accident while playing "crack the whip" on a rink (Mercury, 21 February 1880). He was flung into a rope and fell backwards to the ice on his head. Despite this injury, a few days of bed rest seemed to restore the lad.

In 1889, young Charles left town for Chicago to "push his fortunes" (Mercury, 20 July 1927). Quite what he did there is not clear. However, he was back in town to take over his father's store in 1891. In its special section on Guelph the following year, the Toronto Globe described Nelles' business as follows (6 August 1892):

Charles L. Nelles, the leading book-seller and stationer, has been in business a little over a year, having bought the well-known and old-established business of his father, Mr. J.A. Nelles. The City Book Store, as it is familiarly called, is very centrally located opposite the post-office, and is one of the prettiest and neatest that can be found, besides carrying a very extensive and complete stock of books and stationery, wall paper and fancy goods.
The first floor is filled from the ceiling down with the newest and finest lines in books and stationery, while the second storey is used as a showroom for carriages, toys, wall paper, etc., and everywhere the most complete appointments for displaying goods will be found.
They make a special line of novels, magazines, etc., and travelers will always find the latest American, Canadian and English publications on hand. Last, but not least, Chas. A. Nelles gives every one a hearty welcome at all times to the City Book Store, Guelph.
From this description, we get an idea of what goods a bookstore of the era carried.

In fact, an illustrated map of Guelph from around 1900 provides a lively drawing of the City Book Store, with C. Nelles as proprietor:

(Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, 2012.29.1)

Today, this is the site of Royal Gold Jewelry in St. George's Square. Compare with this image from Google Street View:


The building now has "Skyline" rather than "WALL PAPER" on the roof.

On 15 September 1898, Nelles married Alice Mary Pipe, daughter of Dr. William Pipe, who had been the first mayor of the town of Berlin, now Kitchener. They were married in St. James' Anglican Church on Paisley Street, in what was regarded as a "fashionable wedding."

The following year, Nelles moved his business to bigger digs at 101 Wyndham Street, now the location of Vicane's maternal clothing store, seen in the Google Street View image below.


A view of the interior of this store, as seen from the back, was printed in the June 1906 edition of Bookseller and Stationer magazine (p. 22).


Having married and managed a successful business, Charles Nelles became a respected Guelph merchant, and well-placed to respond to the imminent postcard mania.

Happily, Nelles was an active member of his trade. He was an officer of the Booksellers and Stationer's Association, even its president in 1907. He wrote many letters to Bookseller and Stationer, the trade magazine, from which we can learn much about his views on the trade and about postcards in particular.

Nelles makes mention of postcards in the January 1904 edition, reflecting on the previous year and looking ahead to 1904 (v. 20, n. 1, p. 12):

Calendars and cards had as great a sale as ever and the annuals were even better than usual, for which we are very thankful. I had a nice range of private postal cards with Guelph views made up in November, comprising 12 in the series. The sale of these reached nearly 3,000 for the December month and were considered just the thing to send to friends abroad.
The marked Nelles postcard with the earliest date I know of is the following one, entitled simply "View in Guelph, Ontario" (24 May 1904):


It is a view of Eramosa Road taken from the top of the Wellington Hotel. The card is of the old type, with a space for the message on the front, which is "Here today, JBS" in this case. The back of the card was reserved for the recipient's address exclusively. A set of similar views of roads and significant buildings were sold until (and including) 1906.

In March 1906, Nelles made the following assessment to his trade in postcards in Guelph (Book and Stationer, v. 22, n. 3. p. 10):

The post card business has reached its limit, in fact it did that a year ago, and now it is more of a staple line than a novelty. The sale was created from the album business and the rivalry of procuring the greatest number of different cards from all parts of the world, but it has become so cheap and extensive that the collecting has become tiresome and the number so great that they are too common.
As far as our business is concerned, they will always be kept for transient use, this being the easier way of reminding those at home of your whereabouts, but we do not expect the volume of trade we had last season, and within a short time it will be restricted to local views and cards for the seasons such as Valentines and Christmas ones.
Four or five years ago we put up our own cards. Special photos were taken, half-tones made, cards cut from cream Bristol boards and printed by local men. These we sold in thousands until the Canadian manufacturers got the craze, and now we have special views put up by them. The sale last year would be from 20 to 30 thousand in my store. We also have an exclusive book of Guelph views made up by the Albertype Company, Brooklyn, and which retails for fifty cents. Of these we sold 900 in three months.
Do not think I am pessimistic and that the post card business is finished, as it is not, but I consider that it has reached its highest point. Besides, the cheap comic lines, some of which are too nasty, have helped considerably to bring down the tone of the whole line, and also to reduce the price. At present I have an order in for twelve thousand, which goes to prove that I am not yet quite out of it.
Here, Nelles describes the initial phase of the picture postcard craze, in 1901 and 1902, in which vendors sold homebrew cards. Subsequently, this business was taken over by bigger printers in larger centers, who could supply cards in larger volumes at cheaper prices.

Nelles also remarks that the postcard collecting phase reached its peak in 1905. That is, saturation of the postcard market then overwhelmed many people who set about collecting whole sets of cards. In fact, postcard collecting became more focussed, with people collecting around particular themes, e.g., postcards of train stations, bridges, or places like Guelph.

Besides collecting, picture postcards found a niche as a quick and inexpensive means of rapid communication—"transient use," as Nelles calls it. Priced at a few cents and mailed for a one-cent stamp, postcards were delivered quickly by the post office. Mobile post offices in train cars processed them as trains went from one town to the next. People could count on next-day (or sometimes same-day!) delivery in many cases. Postcards were used in a way reminiscent of text messages today.

Nelles also mentions a book of postcard pictures made up by the Albertype Company of Brooklyn. The book is also mentioned in the Mercury (13 Sep. 1905):

A copy of the new Souvenir Book of Guelph has been presented to the Mercury by Chas. L. Nelles, who deserves great credit for his enterprise in putting such a splendid production on the market. The cover of the book is very artistic, and the views, to the number of fifty, have been taken this summer, and are the best that have ever been shown. It comes in a cardboard box, ready for mailing, and every citizen should send them broadcast throughout the world. The price is only fifty cents, and they are for sale at all the bookstores...
Copies of this book are held in local museums and archives today.

The introduction to this book credits the photos to one J.E. Runions of Cornwall, Ontario. So, it appears that Nelles was not one who took the pictures in his postcards. In fact, it was common practice for postcard producers to contract with professional photographers to take the pictures and arrange them for publication.

The remarks above were also the last ones that Nelles made about postcards in the Bookseller and Stationer that I have been able to find. It seems that Nelles was not a postcard enthusiast but rather a businessman who regarded them simply as something in his line of trade that it would be profitable to sell. And sell them he did! I have seen postcards with Nelles' name on them postmarked as late as 1924.

Many of Nelles' cards are notable for the window that they provide on Edwardian Guelph, and the quality of Mr. Runion's photography. Here are a few:


This card offers two views, one of the Carnegie Library and the other of Exhibition Park. It is also hand-colored, as noted in the bottom, right corner. It is a divided-back card, having separate spaces on the back for a message and an address, thus making it possible to fill up the front with an image. It was simple to take advantage of this new format, only recently permitted by regulation, simply by inserting two half-pictures from older cards.


This card is a favorite! It gives a fine view of Jubilee Park, facing City Hall, before the Park was replaced by the new Grand Trunk station. Here, the City Hall is seen with its old clock tower, the Church of Our Lady has yet to acquire its towers, and Northumberland Street still connects with Norfolk Street instead of ending at a pedestrian overpass.

The card is exceptional in the sense that it provides a good view of the citizens of Guelph, at their leisure, instead of a just a seemingly deserted building.


This card is notable both for the newly renovated Post Office, featuring its third floor but before the clock was installed, and the decorative frame. The frame is a standard Christmas motif into which scenes from any place could be set for quick sale in the holiday season. This card is postmarked at 22 December 1904. It shows that Nelles continued his practice from 1903 of stocking special cards for the Christmas trade.


With the advent of the Great War, Nelles appears to have stopped selling postcards, perhaps entirely. In 1920, a new line of cards appears, such as the view above. It displays the Wellington Hotel and Opera House in the middle ground, with the Church of Our Lady and the old Central School behind, as seen from Queen Street. These cards were printed in England and had a nice, glossy finish and a raised frame around the photo. Very classy! I have found cards from this line dated as late as 1924. At that point, it appears that Nelles got out of the postcard business.

Nelles did have a brief flirtation with banking. In January 1907, he took the job of manager of the Metropolitan Bank in St. George's Square and put his bookstore up for sale. However, in spite of receiving about 100 offers, he was unable to complete the sale on account of the "stringency" of the money market at the time (Mercury, 7 Feb. 1908). Nelles found it too difficult to manage both his bookstore and the bank. In February 1908, he resigned as bank manager and resumed his former profession full-time.

In September 1920, his bookstore was damaged by fire to the tune of $10,000. However, he evidently carried enough insurance and managed to re-open it the next month, fully renovated and re-stocked (Mercury, 7 Oct 1920).

Ever active in his trade, Nelles became the first President of the Booksellers' and Stationers' Association of Canada when it was re-formed in 1921. A portrait of him appears in Booksellers and Stationers magazine (May 1921, v. 7, n. 35, p. 31).


Nelles was highly involved in local affairs. He was a founder of St. James's Anglican parish in Guelph, serving as a church warden. He was an officer of the successful Victorias hockey club of 1897, President of Guelph's Fat Stock Club, and a member of the commission that renovated Woodlawn Cemetery, among many other things.

In 1920, the Nelles family moved into "Hadden Cottage" at 83 Paisley Street, a lovely home that is a designated heritage structure today.

In 1927, he was appointed Registrar of Deeds for Wellington County South. This appointment seems to have marked his retirement from business.

On 3 April 1939, Charles's wife Alice died at home. Charles, who was seriously ill at the time, passed away 36 hours later in the General Hospital (Mercury, 5 April 1939). They are buried together in Woodlawn Cemetery.

The couple had no children. However, Charles Nelles is remembered today among local postcard enthusiasts for the many exceptional pictures of Guelph that he sold in his store over a century ago. Look for the "Chas. L. Nelles" at the bottom of the card!

Friday, 30 June 2017

The Goldie Mill grounds

A section of Goldie Mill Park was recently closed due to detection of contaminated soil. The trouble started in June 2016 when sinkholes began to open in the vicinity of the great chimney. Environmental testing subsequently detected the presence of hydrocarbons, some due to incomplete incineration, so the area is closed off while the nature and extent of the contamination is further investigated.

It is strangely appropriate to find that incineration remains an issue at Goldie Mill. Since the founding of Guelph, fire, along with water and stone, were always at hand there. The site has seen many changes over the years, changes that are not always evident today. Happily, old postcards, maps, and photos can help us to envision how Goldie Mill used to be, especially as it was developed by James Goldie himself.

David Allan (1939, pp. 38–39) notes that the story of Goldie's Mill begins at the founding of Guelph in 1827. David Gilkison, a cousin of John Galt, and Gilkison's partner Captain William Leaden bought the site (for a total of 25 acres) after having failed to obtain the site of Allan's Mill next to the Priory. There, they built a dam and a sawmill. However, the business never made money and the pair discontinued operations in 1829.

It was sold to Captain Henry Strange in 1833. It seems that Strange operated the mill with more success but died in 1845. Besides operating the mill, Strange also built a house at Cardigan and Norwich streets, as related by Tatham (1983, pp. 6–7):

About 1837 Captain Henry Strange built a house on the property and operated the sawmill. The house, a long low building with arched windows and doorways in a latticed porch at the centre front, is well remembered in some photographs (usually with a little dark dog on the lawn!) still in existence, and by a painting which was in the possession of “Alex” Goldie and was given to Riverslea by his widow, Mrs. Marjorie Goldie. This house was occupied by James Goldie and his family from 1868 to 1891 (and was torn down about 1925). Thus this house, often called “Captain Strange’s House,” was home for James and Frances Goldie and their children, Thomas, John, James Owen, and later Roswell, born in Guelph on March 26, 1862, and Lincoln, born in Guelph in 1864. Baby Margaret probably never saw this house, because she was born in Guelph on February 26, 1867, and died two weeks later, on March 11th.
Strange Street was named after Captain Strange, comprising the blocks of what is now Dufferin Street from Kerr to Division.

(The "Old Goldie Home" AKA "Captain Strange's House", complete with lawn dog, ca. 1895. Courtesy of Guelph Public Library Archives, item F38-0-14-0-0-126.)

Local potentate and wheeler-dealer Dr. William Clarke, and his partner Dr. Henry Orton, bought the mill from Strange's estate. To the sawmill they added a flour milling operation that they called The Wellington Mill. This frame structure was the first of several structures to occupy the later Goldie Mill site.

Fire destroyed the mill in 1846. Mills of that era were quite prone to fire and burned down with regularity. So, this event was no surprise. However, the blaze may have been more than a simple accident. As Stephen Thorning has explained, Dr. Clarke was an unreconstructed Protestant who had engendered more than a little contempt from local Catholics during the heated religious conflict of the time. As Justice of the Peace, Dr. Clarke could make life difficult for those whose religion he looked down upon. So, the blaze that consumed his mill may have been sparked by the religious friction of the era.

A determined man, Dr. Clarke bought out his partner's share in the mill privilege and built a new mill in 1850, which he called The People's Mill. This time, Dr. Clarke had the building made from stone, at least some of which was quarried on the property itself.

Over the next few years, the property went through a succession of hands, until it was leased to Charles Whitelaw, a successful businessman from Paris who operated several mills in the Grand River valley, among other concerns. Whitelaw, it seemed, had the touch and the mill apparently operated at a profit.

However, fire returned again on 8 June 1864. Although some of the stores and equipment, and the cooperage across the river, were saved, the mill was a total loss. Stephen Thorning noted that suspicion fell on local cooper Bernard Kelly, who had threatened to burn down the mill before because he did not get orders for barrels from Whitelaw. The coroner's inquest found the the blaze was indeed arson but deemed that there was not sufficient evidence to accuse anyone in particular. Even so, Kelly was convicted in the court of public opinion and hastily left town.

On 8 June 1866, the property was bought for $15,000 by James Goldie. In 1860, Goldie had built the Speedvale Mill further upstream, at the current site of the Speedvale Fire Station. He sold his old place of business and undertook rebuilding and expansion of the People's Mill. It would remain in his hands for 46 years and duly become the "Goldie Mill".

(James Goldie, from "Golden Jubilee of Nurses," 1938. Goldie was on the Hospital's Board of Directors.)

A good idea of what the area looked like during Goldie's tenure can be gained from the 1881 Wellington County Atlas. Because of the dam just upstream of the Goldie Mill, the reservoir made the Speed River much wider there than it is today. Here, I have superimposed part of the town map on a portion of the Google map of the area as it is now. I have outlined the banks of the river in solid lines and the bridges in dashed lines.


Bridges are represented by dashed lines. The parallel dashed lines in the center of the picture represent the dam, which was also used as a foot crossing. The black block to its left is the location of the original sawmill. On the west bank, the reservoir covered the wooded slope that exists there today. Note that a "Victoria Street" was on the survey through the middle of what is now Herb Markle Park. Of course, the street was never built. On the east bank, the reservoir covered most of what is now Joseph Wolfond Park East, upstream from the foot of Derry Street.

Four postcards record views of Goldie Mill. The first one (labelled "1" on the map above) was taken on the west bank of the Speed downstream from the mill. Although the caption identifies the subject as "Goldie's bridge", the bridge in view is clearly what is now called the Norwich Street bridge. Goldie Mill, with its ninety-foot chimney, built in 1885 and which still remains, can be seen peeking over the treetops on the left-hand side, a hint of what is to come.

(Courtesy of the John Keleher Collection.)

The building on the right is what was then a storage house of the Canada Ingot Iron Culvert Co. (demolished in 1927). This card is a "bookmark" card, published by Rumsey & Co., Toronto, of a photo taken with a panoramic camera.

The second postcard was taken from the east bank upstream of the Norwich Street bridge (labelled "2" on the map above). The mill buildings can be clearly seen on the left-hand side of the picture. The top of the distinctive chimney is clearly visible behind the other structures. Beneath lies a spit or island separating the Speed on the right from the tail race on the left.


Although the mill is an industrial site, it is presented in the background, framed by water and foliage almost as if it were a picturesque temple discovered on a trek along an Arcadian river.

The third picture (taken from the point labelled "3" on the map above) was taken from beside the tail race and next to the Speed River. It looks northwards to the back of the dam.


There is more tension in this picture. The ground is strewn with chunks of broken limestone, lying around like the remnants of an explosion or quarrying operation. The dam in the background is straining to hold back the waters of the mill pond beyond, without complete success. This card was printed by Warwick Bro’s & Rutter of Toronto.

The fourth picture (taken from the point labelled "4" on the map above) shows the mill pond itself from the north looking southeast. The steeple of St. George's Anglican Church can be seen in the center background. Goldie Mill and its tall chimney can be seen to the right. Today, this spot would be not far south of Riverslea, where the Goldie family then lived, today on the Homewood grounds. The Speed is now much narrower at this point and both banks are thickly wooded.


Near the opposite shore there are two swans in the water. It seems as though they are approaching a man on the bank, who may be moving to feed them. A small boat lies tied up nearby, its stern dragged downstream by the current. This postcard was printed by the Pugh Mfg. Co. of Toronto.

James Goldie acquired two white swans in 1888 to add to his menagerie. His estate was renowned for its gardens. Goldie's father had been a globetrotting botanist and assembled a botanical collection for the Tsar at St. Petersburg. The apple did not fall far from the tree. Goldie Jr.'s gardens contained hundreds of exotic flowers, shrubs, and trees. Visitors came from far and wide to see them.

Goldie's menagerie included many exotic birds, both "preserved" and alive. The latter included Egyptian geese, a Sandhill crane, English, Golden, and Silver pheasants, and the two swans. He also imported English sparrows, some of which he released and some of which he kept in a cage. James Gay, a local man who styled himself the Poet Laureate of Canada, wrote the following poem about them ("Canada's poet" 1884):

On the sparrows
Mr. Goldie’s sparrows, quite a number, returned to James Gay,
He feeds them with small wheat every day,
About eight in the morning, you can see them fly around
To feed on the wheat laid out for them on the ground.
This friend to sparrows, he takes much delight,
To hear their little warblings from morning to night;
All are made welcome as the flowers in May,
Not one shall fall to the ground by the hands of James Gay.
If Mr. Goldie could hear their prattling ways,
He would send them some small wheat every day,
So between the miller and the poet too,
Those little birds are sure to do.
About four they take flight,
If they could speak, they would say thank you and good-night.
Besides swans, youths liked to swim in the mill pond and places nearby in summertime. There was an old quarry pit at the site known as Kate's hole (for reasons unknown to me), as recollected by Fred Dyson (Mercury, 8 May 1948):
Among the real old timers expressing interest in tales of the old town is Fred Dyson, who, at 87, can look back pretty far. Explaining the origin of Kate’s hole down by the spur line at the old Goldie Mill, he said it was the quarrying of stone there for the mill dam that made it a favorite resort for swimmers. The spur line ran right into the mill property.
That swimming there in those days was clothing-optional is confirmed wistfully by another old-timer, James Ritchie (Mercury, 1 May 1948):
Who among Guelph’s real old-timers does not remember Crib’s hole, near Russell Daly’s present home? Or Fraser’s hard by the Sterling Rubber Company’s plant, or the staircase near the old Goldie’s Mill? ... These are among many others inseparable from old swimmin’ hole memories. No swimming in the nude anywhere these days. If the boys try it they will be chased away, no matter how far they are from the city.
O tempora, O mores!

The Speed could be dangerous as well as beautiful and fun. Spring floods often threatened the dam. Indeed, it was swept away by floods in the springtime of 1873 and 1929.

In addition, girls and boys drowned in the pond alarmingly often, e.g., (Northern Advance, 12 June 1890):

Mrs. Henry Ching, of Toronto, who is on a visit to friends in Guelph, lost her five-year-old boy by drowning on the 5th inst. The little fellow fell into the river while throwing stones into the water from the bank. The river is very high with the recent heavy rains, and he was quickly carried over the dam at Goldie’s mill. The body was recovered in a few minutes, but life was extinct.
In the winter, the pond froze over and made for a useful expanse of ice. Guelphites went there for skating and curling. The ice itself was also harvested by Mr. T.P. Carter of Carter's Ice Company, who handled about 2,000 tons of ice annually from his ice houses on Essex Street (Industrial number, 1908). There was also an ice house on the west bank of the Speed upstream of the mill (in the backyard of 165 Cardigan Street today), perhaps for the use of James Goldie himself.

Perhaps the weirdest incident connected with the Goldie Mill pond occurred when it was frozen over. A Mr. Leslie, while walking home at noon hour by the Mill one day, found a green fedora with no band and a worn overcoat lying on the ground beside the ice. In a pocket was a peculiar note (Mercury, 11 Dec 1922):

This seems the only way out. If ‘F’ had been here it might have been different. Good-bye. X.—J.B.
The note suggested a suicide. Yet, there was no hole in the ice nearby. No amount of searching and dragging the river or mill race produced a body. Perhaps the whole thing was a prank. Either way, the identity and fate of J.B. remains a mystery to this day.

Goldie remained by the Mill and its pond. Around 1885, he purchased Rosehurst across the river from Dr. Clarke's estate. This grand house stood on the Delhi hill and had a beautiful view of the pond. James's son Thomas and his family moved in. (There is a lovely photo of Rosehurst taken from across the pond, Tatham 1983, p. 9. However, I cannot locate the source.)

James Goldie built Riverslea for himself in 1890–91. It stood somewhat apart from its setting, being made of brown stone imported from New York State (Tatham 1983). However, it was still sited near the east shore of the mill pond with a good view of the Speed and Goldie's Mill downstream. Like his mill, James Goldie never left the river.

The mill prospered. After he took over, Goldie rebuilt the mill larger than before. He also added a substantial cooperage across the river. A rough wooden bridge connected the two. Storage areas and an elevator were added also. See the map below.


Here, I have superimposed a portion of the Fire Insurance map of 1911 on a Google satellite view of the mill and vicinity. As President of the Wellington Mutual Fire Insurance Company, James Goldie would have been familiar with this map.

Just to the left of the mill, is a building shaped like a sideways "I", labelled "A. Office". As mentioned above, the Great Western Railway built a spur line down the Speed to Cardigan Street to serve the Royal City as a new passenger train station ("Guelph railroads", Keleher 1995, p. 59). It opened for business on 16 February 1882 but proved to be a flop and closed six months later. In 1884, Goldie bought the building and moved it next to his mill, where it appears on the map, to serve as office space.

The building can be seen on the left in the cute drawing below.

("Goldie Mill", courtesy of the Guelph Public Library, item F8-0-4-0-9-3.)

In 1888, the Guelph Junction Railway was built and a siding laid to Goldie's Mill, which is also visible in the map. As a result, wheat and flour at the mill were no longer transported by horse. This change was important since Goldie increasingly had to buy wheat from western Canada in order to keep the mill profitable.

The office was torn down around 1920. Today, the site is the location of the Guelph Youth Music Centre, constructed in 1995–2001, from a storeroom built in place of the office. The spur line was later torn up and became the Spurline Trail.

As more land in its watershed was cleared, the force of the flow of the Speed diminished. As a result, Goldie added a steam engine to pick up the slack. In 1910, electrical engines were furnished instead, supplied by a power substation dedicated to the mill. The electricity was generated at Niagara Falls. So, the mill ran on power from a river over 120km away rather than on power from Speed, which flowed right beneath it.

James Goldie died on 4 Nov 1912. The mill afterwards passed through many hands. In 1918, the mill was bought by F.K. Morrow, investor and owner of the Morrow Cereal Co. In 1926, the Standard Milling company took over, followed by the Pratt Food Company in 1930.

Time and tide chipped away at the mill and its grounds. Milling operations ceased soon after yet another spring flood wrecked the dam in 1929. The mill became a warehouse with its buildings used mainly for storage. On 24 February 1953, fire returned in the form of a spectacular blaze that destroyed the original milling, shipping, and boiler rooms.

The mill was then slated for demolition but the City and the Grand River Conservation Authority intervened. The remaining stone structures were stabilized and were turned into a picturesque folly. Fittingly, the park was named Goldie Mill Park, still bearing the name of the man who had shaped the place more than anyone else, so many decades before.

Friday, 26 May 2017

The arrival of Guelph Central Station, 1911

In the morning cool on 19 April 2017, Guelph dignitaries including M.P. Lloyd Longfield, M.P.P. Liz Sandals, Mayor Cam Guthrie, and members of City Council, cut a red ribbon at the entrance to Guelph's newly renovated Central Station. After about $2.1 million and a year of work, the station had been upgraded with several new conveniences. In addition, special efforts had been made to preserve its original features. These efforts were appropriate in view of the fact that the station had been designated as a heritage railway structure under the Heritage Railway Stations Protection Act in 1992.

Its calm and dignified appearance, though, belie the fact that, prior to its construction, most Guelphites did not want it. Among other reasons, the station was built on the last remaining piece the old Market Square, a space that John Galt had set aside as an open area in the centre of town for public use. For some residents of the Royal City, construction of a train station on the site meant the final destruction of that heritage. However, the Grand Trunk Railway demanded its sacrifice as a condition for playing its part in the Royal City's aspirations for the new century.

The Grand Trunk Railway (G.T.R.) was built through Guelph in 1855–56 (Keleher 1995). The route followed York Road to Allan's bridge and then passed west directly through the middle of the Market Square. The passenger station serving the G.T.R. was built on the north side of the tracks, on Canada Company lot 1029. It can be seen in the postcard below, printed for the Waters Bros around 1908 (courtesy of the John W. Keleher collection).


The old Bell Piano factory with its clock tower can be seen in behind, with the old City Hall and its clock tower in the distance to the left.

This railway and station brought the town convenience, prosperity, and status as the County seat. However, as Guelph grew in size, this station became ever less adequate. As early as 1887, deputations of Guelph bigwigs importuned the G.T.R. to get a new station built more in keeping with the growing magnitude and dignity of the Royal City. For a long while, the Railway replied by occasionally patching up the old station.

Around the turn of the 20th century, things changed. In January 1902, yet another deputation from the Guelph Board of Trade (predecessor of the Chamber of Commerce) went to see the grandees of the G.T.R. Their goal was to obtain faster and more frequent service between Guelph and Toronto. As part of this plea, they again nagged the G.T.R. to get on with replacing the antiquated passenger station in the middle of town. If not satisfied, they would threaten to send all their freight via the Canadian Pacific Railway (C.P.R.), the G.T.R.'s main competitor.

This notion may have set the cat among the pigeons at last. By that time, business among Canadian railways was picking up. In particular, plans to extend the Guelph Junction Railway to include a route to Goderich were openly discussed. Construction began shortly afterwards in 1904. In conjunction with these plans, the C.P.R. proposed to build a new and up-to-date train station on the line to replace the Priory.

If the C.P.R. was thinking of expanding its presence in Guelph, could the G.T.R. afford not to? This question may have been on the minds of G.T.R. senior officials who visited Guelph in August 1903 to take in the situation for themselves. General Manager F.H. McGuigan and other officials met with the Mayor and members of the City Council's Railway Committee and proposed that the G.T.R. would, at last, build a new passenger station in Guelph. However, rather than build the new station on the same site as the old one, he offered to build the new one on adjacent property, namely Jubilee Park, which the G.T.R. would purchase for $5,000.

The offer was not broadly welcomed. The idea of using Jubilee Park may have been suggested first by the Board of Trade itself. However, the figure they had in mind was $7,500, which they considered a good deal for this prime real estate (Mercury, 25 June 1904). So, the offer seemed underwhelming, and the fact that it was made only verbally made it appear that the G.T.R. did not take the City seriously. Also, it was well known that the G.T.R. could take the matter to the new Dominion Railways Commission (or Board of Railway Commissioners). The Commission was a federal body with a mandate to resolve disputes over railway operation and development. Since the Commission had powers of expropriation, Guelphites suspected that the G.T.R. would get the Park anyway through the Commissioners after some perfunctory negotiations with the City.

The City rebuffed the verbal offer. Sure enough, on 20 June 1904, the City of Guelph received notice from the Railway Commission that the G.T.R. had applied for authority to expropriate Jubilee Park for the site of a new station (Mercury, 21 June 1904). A heated debate ensued over how the City should reply.

As noted earlier, Jubilee Park was about the last remaining clear spot left over from Guelph's early Market Square. Originally, this Square was roughly a large triangle going from Allan's bridge at the Speed in the east, along what is now Carden Street to Wilson Street, south to Farquhar Street, and back to Allan's bridge. John Galt had plotted a place in the Square for the original St. Andrew's church, on the site of the present court building (or old City Hall), but the rest was left open. The space had been chopped up and filled in piecemeal over the years. In 1904, only two open spaces were left. One was the "fairgrounds" south of the tracks but this site was being considered for an armoury, which was eventually built there. The other was Jubilee Park, which was the site of a vegetable market that was cleared out in 1887 and named in honour of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, the fiftieth year of her reign. (Thus, the park was sometimes known as "Queen Victoria's Jubilee Park", or "Queen's Jubilee Park", or just "Victoria Park".)

Jubilee Park can be seen in the postcard below, printed for A.B. Petrie around 1910. Its triangular shape can be seen, bordered by Carden and Wyndham streets and the G.T.R. tracks in the foreground.


So, parks were becoming an endangered species in downtown Guelph and more than a few Guelphites resented it. For some, there was also a nostalgic attachment with the early Market Square, of which Jubilee Park, if it survived, would be the last vestige. Besides, many Guelphites thought that the new station could just be built on the site of the old one. The City Engineer argued that the old site could be made sufficient if the property were extended out into the street a little ways.

This dichotomy of proposals was illustrated by a map, probably drawn up by the City Engineer, showing how the old G.T.R. train station site could be enlarged (Mercury, 2 July 1904). I have superimposed this map on a Google map of the present area. See below.


The site of the old G.T.R. station is picked out as a rough rectangle in the upper right, roughly where the current bus station stands. Solid lines around its west side suggest where a larger station might be built. Dashed lines outside of that suggest how the property could be extended 15 feet into the roadway to accommodate the larger building. The site of Jubilee Park is picked out as a triangle in the lower left area, with the current Central Station marked out as a rectangle in dotted lines. Note also the "Fair Grounds" where the Armoury now stands. Note also that there were level crossings over the G.T.R. tracks at Wyndham Street and Neeve Street.

Each side mustered its arguments and arrayed them before the Commission in hearings conducted the following year. A Citizens' Committee led by Messrs. J.E. McElderry, James Hewer, A.B. Petrie, D.E. Rudd, E.R. Bollart, M.W. Peterson, and Alderman Penfold launched several objections (Mercury, 17 February 1905). For example, it had hired a consulting engineer, Mr. W.T. Jennings, who had surveyed the area and determined that the old site would suffice for a new station with some feasible modifications. Thus, there was no need for expropriation of the Park.

In addition, they argued that Jubilee Park, originally intended for market purposes, should be reserved for such uses in future. The Winter Fair building on the other side of the old City Hall (where the splash pad now stands) was growing crowded, so more market space could well be needed in future. This need could be met only through use of the Park. The vision of Guelph held by this group was essentially still that of a central hub in the regional agricultural scene, a vision that would be undermined by elimination of the city's last open, downtown market space.

Furthermore, a shift in the location of the G.T.R. station would change the business landscape of Guelph. The old site sat opposite Priory Square, where several business and hotels depended upon it. The City Hotel, on the current site of the Cooperators (see map above), relied on foot traffic generated by the train station. If the G.T.R. station were placed on Jubilee Park, the new location would favour businesses sited along Wyndham Street. Since resulting losses to businesses near the old site would not be compensated, the change was unfair.

The Mercury opposed the new station, and popular opinion was also against it, in the main. Mr. Donald Guthrie, K.C. and City Solicitor, referred to petitions of opposition signed by about 1200 citizens (Mercury, 20 April 1905). He also voiced the popular suspicion that the G.T.R. had an ulterior motive: They wished to expropriate Jubilee Park for a passenger station in order to use the old site for freight. A freight station would mean many sidings, sheds, and plenty of noise as engines shifted cars from one place to the next, day and night. At the time, the G.T.R. handled freight at the Junction Station across Edinburgh Road, well away from downtown. Guelphites, even proponents of the expropriation, were not keen on having a freight yard in the middle of the city.

When asked, the G.T.R. had notably failed to disown the idea. Apparently feeling the heat, they soon made a lateral move: The G.T.R. offered to buy the McTague property, the block bounded by Mont, Exhibition, London, and Woolwich streets beside Exhibition Park, for $5,000 (Mercury, 6 September 1905). They would then exchange this property for the fairgrounds, so that the city could put its planned Armoury on the McTague property while the G.T.R. could put its freight yards downtown.

The city declined the offer. (Guelphites may well ponder what the Exhibition Park neighbourhood would be like if it had accepted.)

Nevertheless, there were cogent reasons for having a new station on the Jubilee Park site. The G.T.R.'s engineer (and, eventually, the Railway Commission's own engineer) argued that the old site was not adequate and could not be feasibly adapted to serve for a new station. Over the years, steam engines had become more efficient and powerful and, as a result, trains had gotten longer and heavier. The engineers were convinced that a platform of suitable length and breadth was feasible only at the Park.

These longer trains also increasingly interfered with traffic. Trains stopped at the old station typically stretched across the level crossings at Neeve and Wyndham streets. There, they prevented Guelphites from passing from the Ward to downtown or the reverse, often for 40 minutes at a time. Of course, people could circumnavigate these trains by going around and under Allan's bridge or around by Gordon street. Still, in the days when people got around mostly by foot or horse power, such detours were most unwelcome.

The other main reason to adopt the Jubilee Park site was safety. The existing level crossings were a constant source of danger to life and limb. On 28 June 1904, Guelphites received a grisly reminder of this fact (Mercury, 29 June 1904). Mr. Arthur Trenerry, a young English plasterer working for the Mahoney Bros. on a job in the Ward, returned to his boarding house downtown over Allan's footbridge, around 6:15 in the evening. Apparently distracted or confused by the passage of the G.T.R. train No. 2 overhead, he failed to notice or hear the C.P.R. train approaching Macdonnell street from the south. He was struck by the engine and carried across the street on its cowcatcher while the engineer applied the brakes. Unfortunately, Trenerry's legs were drawn under the screaming engine's wheels, severing the left leg completely above the ankle and crushing the right leg irreparably in the same location. While receiving medical attention, Trenerry said he wished he had been killed outright and begged for anything to relieve the pain. He was given opiates and died about four hours later in Guelph General Hospital.

The jury of the Coroner's inquest found the engineer blameless as he had taken all the usual precautions such as moving slowly and blowing the engine's whistle repeatedly. However, the jury took issue with the design of the crossing and, indeed, with all level crossings in the area (Mercury, 30 June 1904):

The jury regard the crossing, where deceased met his death, as being a dangerous one, and would recommend that the C.P. Railway authorities be notified to at once to take steps to prevent similar accidents occurring by erecting gates, which we deem to be absolutely necessary now, and will be doubly so in view of the extension of the road to Goderich.
The jury, it is understood, were strongly in favor of having a gate placed along the whole length of the foot-path and roadway of the bridge, and also in favor of the G.T.R. having gates on all its crossings in the city, although this was irrelevant to the matter under consideration.
J.W. Lyon, a proponent of the expropriation of Jubilee Park, argued that it would be much easier for the G.T.R. to construct underpasses (then called "subways") to separate street traffic from train traffic altogether with a station at Jubilee Park (Mercury, 14 November 1904). Such separation would help to remove a danger that Guelphites well knew and feared. In the view of many business people like Lyon, in an ever busier Guelph, such safety features were ever more needed.

At the end of 1905, the Railway Commission ruled in favour of the G.T.R. and authorized expropriation of Jubilee Park, subject to a number of conditions (Mercury, 28 December 1905). Although many Guelphites did not approve of the decision, it was widely expected and there was relief that, at least, the Royal City would soon have a shiny new train station.

Yet, arrival of the new station was not so near. The Commission instructed both parties to negotiate a division of costs for the Park, the underpasses, and other expenses. Unsurprisingly, given their history, neither side was willing to concede much. As a result, negotiations dragged on. Finally, as explained in my discussion of the Wyndham street underpass, the city sued the G.T.R. in 1908 for maintaining a public nuisance, that being its old station and level crossings downtown. To make a long story short, a settlement of the whole dispute was not made until the end of 1910!

Once the location of the new station was—finally—settled, there remained the matter of its plan and appearance. During this whole process, Guelphites had taken note of the new station that the G.T.R. had built in Brantford in 1905 (Mercury, 10 May 1905). The Brantford station had a long profile joining an eclectic, towering passenger section with a simpler baggage structure down the platform. See the postcard below.


The card was printed by the Valentine & Sons' Publishing Co. Ltd around 1910.

Plans for a proposed station design were exhibited in the Royal City in June 1910. The Mercury thought the building "handsome" but noted that many Guelphites were unmoved (Mercury, 16 June 1910):

The G.T.R. plans have come in for considerable unfavorable comment, and a conversation similar to that below was overheard as two citizens conversed in front of the window of the G.T.R. ticket offices.
“So they’re the plans for the new station on Jubilee Park. Why, I thought the Grand Trunk promised a station like the one at Brantford.”
“So they did, but they explain that such a station requires too much heat in winter. In fact, the Brantford station is never heated right, for all the warmth goes up the high dome before the waiting room is heated at all. They are building no more like Brantford’s.”
“Well, that may be the reason; but my idea is that they mean ‘from motives of economy we’ll build the other one.’ It reminds one of an old-time log cabin, long and low.”
G.T.R. officials promised vaguely to "improve the plans if they could do so" (Mercury, 9 December 1910).

Guelph's fancy new log cabin opened officially on 22 November 1911. There was no ceremony—perhaps the combatants were too exhausted. However, several of the G.T.R.'s high rollers were on hand as the Number 20 train rolled to stop at the new station at 1 p.m.

A postcard of the new building shows some resemblance in layout to the Brantford station but—it has to be said—Guelph's structure does seem more dignified and less desperate for attention than the other. The postcard was printed for the International Stationary Company of Picton around 1914.


The Guelph Mercury summarized the result (22 November 1911):

The new G.T.R. station is a splendid structure, both from an architectural standpoint and from that of comfort for the travelers, who are passing through the city. Electrically lighted and steam heated, it is in great contrast to the old station with its stove and its poor gas lights. Everything about the building is the latest word in comfort, and Guelphites may well be proud of it, though it has taken ten years’ fighting and bickering to get it, and Jubilee Park had to be sacrificed as a site.
It was, and remains, a fine building. It is also a monument of a painful struggle to redefine the Royal City at the outset of a new century.



The Mercury (22 November 1911) provides the following description of the new station:
Coming along Wyndham street, the new sidewalk, which will do away with the necessity of wading through the mud as has had to be done for some years past, leads the traveler to the rear of the building. Here the entrance to the waiting room, under the tower, also serves as a place for a passenger to embark in a cab in stormy weather without being subjected to the elements. Entering the waiting room from the rear, about the first thing observed is the ticket office, which is ample for the greatest rush times, on holidays, or during the Winter Fair. The entire woodwork of the general scheme throughout. The floor is laid with Mosaic tile and the wainscoting, about five feet high, is of white tile, which is easily cleaned and always neat looking. Above the wainscoting the wall is tinted light blue, until the blue blends into white of the ceiling.

To the right on entering is the ladies’ waiting room, and conveniences, this being done in weather-bleached oak, with salmon tinted walls all in mission style. It will be comfortably fitted with mission furniture.

To the left on entering is the men’s smoking room and conveniences this being the only room in which smoking will be allowed in the building. The old question of urinals, which has been the cause of so much trouble in past years has been done away with in the new toilet arrangements, the closets being combination ones, with ample accommodation.

The lighting of the main waiting room is a new feature in station building. The electric lights are placed in the ceiling with a reflector above them, and they are then completely shaded with yellow amber shades, which do away with all shadows in the room, the light being evenly diffused. Gas can also be installed if necessary, though no fixtures have been put in.

Owing to the factory in Berlin not having the furniture manufactured, old mission furniture has been placed in that station temporarily, but the new furniture will be [in] place by the Winter Fair.

The station is a credit to the builders to the G.T.R. and the city of Guelph. The Grand Trunk did the greater part of the work under the immediate supervision of Bridges and Buildings Master Mitchell, with Mr. J. Chandler as master mason, who was on the job from start to finish. The T. Eaton Co. had the tile work, Mahoney Bros. the plumbing, and the Taylor-Forbes Co. the heating, which was installed by Fred Smith. The painting was done by Geo. Montgomery and G. Web.
...
Another improvement that would meet with the favor of the ticket men is to place a grating over the ticket office, as is done to the teller’s cage in the banks, to protect them from till tappers.
Beneath the splendor of the new station, stone from the old station had been re-used in the foundations of the new one and, so far as I know, remains there to this day.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Princess Coretta and the Royal City

The Royal City has played host to a number of royal visitors over the years. For example, the Prince of Wales paid a visit in 1919. However, Princess Coretta was a different kind of royalty. Her status arose not from being born with blue blood but being born of small stature.

Here is a real-photo postcard (that is, a photograph printed onto postcard stock) of "Princess Coretta" taken by the popular Guelph photographer, Lionel O'Keeffe:


Princess Coretta was born Ruby Belle Rickoff in Chancy, Clinton Township, Iowa, on 11 January 1899. She was the only daughter of Arthur and Birdel Rickoff. It must have been clear early in her life that she was different. In 1905, she was exhibited with the T.I. Cash Carnival Co. as a sideshow curiosity. At that point, she was entitled "Coretta, the doll lady" and described as "the cutest, sweetest bit of humanity ever born to live. ... Weighs 16 pounds and only 26 inches in height" (Aberdeen Democrat, 30 June 1905).

Evidently, the exhibition was a success. Her father placed an ad in The Billboard, an entertainment trade magazine, offering her services for the following year (2 December 1905):


It seems that the Cash Carnival Co. made the highest offer, as Ruby, now entitled "Little Coretta", toured with the show again in 1906. For example, she appeared in the Woodmen Carnival in Oakes, North Dakota that year (Oakes Times, 28 June 1906).

The Bismarck Daily Tribune (7 July 1906) described her as nine years old, 16 pounds in weight, and 26 inches high. It also explained that, "She reads, writes, and talks well and will sing like a fairy when asked to," from which it appears that singing was an important part of her act. It also mentions that she had received a letter from President Teddy Roosevelt, who had seen her the previous year out east. Undoubtedly, the association with the President increased her celebrity.

The Woodmen Carnival provides a fairly typical portrait of sideshow "freak" exhibitions of the era. The Carnival took over the main street of Oakes for several days. Shows included dare-devils such as the "Death Cage" in which the Gregg brothers road on "wheels" around the inside of a large tub, presumably narrowly missing crashing into each other.

Performers would imaginatively re-enact tumultuous historical events such as "Ben Hur", the "Destruction of San Fransisco", and, closer to home, the "Northfield Bank Robbery."

A Ferris wheel slung occupants into the air above the rooftops of their small town.

In addition, there was often a menagerie of exotic animals, such as lions and elephants (although the Cash Carnival seems not to have had them). Similarly, there were human oddities, such as the bearded lady, conjoined twins, giants, and dwarfs or midgets. That is where Coretta fit in. For a few cents, townsfolk could meet and examine these unusual people up close and perhaps see them perform.

Another real-photo card of Coretta, also printed in Canada, shows her with "Dave Savage", styled as "the largest in the world." Pictures of very tall and very small people together were a common motif with sideshows. Perhaps "Dave" was in the same sideshow with Coretta.


Snippets of Coretta's career can be found in some American newspapers. For example, the Chicago Daily Tribune (6 April 1908) notes that she celebrated her nineteenth birthday in the Coliseum there. It sounds as though the Ringling Bros.—then her employers—decided to add ten years to her age, perhaps to make her seem less childlike.

The party was celebrated in true, circus sideshow style:

The table was spread in the Coliseum annex on the top floor. Coretta, who wore a green silk frock, sat on the right of Lew Graham, who manages the museum. On his right sat little Lord Robert, another midget, 21 years old. When the guests insisted upon it the two little people walked down the center of the table as graceful as you please and performed a few stunts. Each is twenty-two inches in height.
Just across from George Ade sat Ella Ewing, the Missouri giantess.
There was an original poem by Grace Gilbert, the bearded lady; a speech by J.G. Turner, the Texas giant; and some imitations by Charles Andress.
Hm. It sounds like Coretta also lost four inches in height since 1906!

The next year, the New York Times (28 March 1909) carried the news that Little Coretta and Little Lord Robert were to be married! The story describes how Coretta was affected when she heard news of Lord Robert's diagnosis of appendicitis by the circus doctor:

When Coretta heard that she burst into tears and climbed down from the platform. ”Take me to him,” she cried. “Take me to him at once.”
A.T. Ringling, one of the five circus brothers, was standing near. He would not hear of Coretta leaving just as the matinee was about to begin, and the crowds were entering the Garden. Coretta pleaded.
Upon hearing of the engagement, Mr. Ringling relented and the circus began to plan their wedding.

If this story sounds a little contrived, it is. Staging weddings between members of the freak shows was a common maneuver to gain press coverage and drum up business. Probably, a wedding was staged later that year but only as a stunt.

As it happens, the Times story also describes Coretta as 19 years old and 19 inches tall. So, she had not aged since the year before but had decreased three more inches in height!

It is hard to know just what to make of the life of an Edwardian circus midget. As Rachel Adams points out, exhibiting people with disabilities or other unusual conditions seems exploitive. Today, emphasis is placed on integration of such people into society through accessibility legislation, for example. Putting them on display for a fee, like the animals in the circus menagerie, seems degrading and dehumanizing.

At the same time, Adams argues, it could be viewed as empowering for "freaks" to demand money in exchange for being stared at. Otherwise the subject of public gawking, sideshow performers can, to some extent, turn the tables by assuming the roles of actors and singers, a position that gives them some control over their audience and enhances their agency in their dealings with others.

And then there is the practical matter of earning a living. In a world where many occupations were closed to them, sideshow performers could earn good money. Issac Marcosson ("The Bookman", June 1910) itemizes the earnings of midgets including Coretta:

When you come to midgets you touch some of the sideshow stars. Tom Thumb got $1,000 a week for a long time, and so did his wife. Admiral Dot, who was a famous midget, got $700. Chemalh, the Chinese dwarf, received $250 a week. The interest in these little people is as keen today as ever before. Little Coretta, the midget of the Ringling Show this year, gets $350, and her diminutive contemporary, Weeny, who is with the Barnum and Bailey Circus, gets about the same. The ordinary museum or small show midget gets only from $50 to $75 a week. Such side-show staples as the Ossified man, the Living Skeleton, the Armless Man, the Tattooed Man, the Man With the Rubber Skin, and the Snake Charmer, have declined in price during the past ten years, and their wages range from $30 to $50 a week.
By shopping her out to sideshows, was Coretta's father, Arthur, exploiting her or helping to ensure her welfare? From what little information is currently available, it is difficult to say.

It would be interesting to know what Coretta herself thought of this matter. Unfortunately, she was killed on 23 May 1912 after being thrown from a buggy in Kankakee, Illinois. Evidently, she had left Ringling Bros. for the Mazeppa and Greater United Shows circus and was riding, perhaps in a parade, with manager J.B. Warren when the horse took fright at a hat blown through the air and bolted (New York Clipper, June 1912).

Her remains were returned to Clinton Township, Iowa, where she was buried in the Springdale Cemetery using her proper name, Ruby Belle Rickoff.



The alert reader will have noticed that I have not said when Princess Coretta visited the Royal City. That is because I am not sure. She was with the T.I. Cash Carnival Company in 1905 and 1906. To the best of my knowledge, this company never left the United States. From 1908 through 1911, Coretta was employed by the famous Ringling Bros. However, they did not visit Guelph during this time. (Circus tour routes can be checked at the very helpful CircusHistory.org website.) She was killed in 1912 before the Canadian circus season started, usually in June.

These observations suggest that 1907 might be the time. Guelph was visited by the Hargreaves Railroad Show on 17 July of that year. And, the Show did include "freaks".

A significant problem with this theory is that Lionel O'Keeffe, who took Coretta's portrait, did not set up business in Guelph until 1912. He purchased J.H. Booth's studio that year on Macdonnell Street above the Dominion Bank. I surmise, then, that he took the picture earlier in his career and, perhaps, printed off copies upon hearing of her death after setting out his shingle.

It may be, then, that Princess Coretta never set foot in the Royal City. Yet, why would Guelphites be interested in photo postcards of her if she was not known to them? For the present, like much else about Ruby Belle Rickoff, it remains a mystery.



It is interesting to consider why the citizens of Guelph and other cities were so drawn to sideshows featuring Princess Coretta and others like her. Of course, midgets, giants, conjoined twins, bearded ladies, etc. were unusual, like tigers and elephants. In the context of a sideshow, having paid for the privilege, people could marvel at them without feeling self-conscious.

But, besides being exotic, perhaps these shows confirmed the appropriateness of the normal order. Midgets, giants, etc. walking about the streets, as if to pass as typical people, might seem threatening to others. Encountering them instead in special venue, on the edge of town during a special event, while weird or even shocking, could be filed away as a momentary oddity that threw the normal and proper world order briefly into sharp relief.

I have yet to find any mention of Ruby Belle Rickoff, aka Princess Coretta, in any Canadian newspaper or other record. So, if you can shed any light on her connection with Canada, as suggested by these two postcards, I am sure that readers would appreciate you leaving it in the comments below. Thanks!