Tuesday 25 April 2023

Baker Street has taken many turns over the years

In its overview of the Baker District Redevelopment project, the City of Guelph notes that:
We’re transforming a former municipal parking lot into a compact district nestled in Guelph’s historic core that will create a renewed area of activity, commerce and civic space for the local community and city.
The old parking lot is slated to be replaced by a civic hub, including a new public library, an urban square, residential units, commercial and institutional spaces, and, of course, parking.

As this process continues, it is interesting to take a look back at the tranformations that the space has seen in the past. Of course, many notable changes have taken place there—too many to catalog here. But, a sketch would be informative.

As the city's background information points out, the triangular lot that is currently the Baker Street parking lot was designated by the Canada Company as a burial ground at the time of the town's founding in 1827. It was common practise in Britain for graveyards to be placed in proximity to churches, so this was simply extended to Guelph (Laqueur 2015).

(Detail of a map of Guelph, 1827. The Burying Ground is the yellow triangle on the left side. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Musems, 1994.15.1.)

However, times were changing and the trend in Britain was soon to move cemeteries outside of towns, and Guelph eventually followed suit. (For one thing, cemeteries in the old country were filling up, such that the crowding of corpses became regarded as insalubrious.) In 1853, the village of Guelph closed the burial ground and purchased a site from Dr. Clarke in the township for that purpose instead. This site remains in use today as Woodlawn Cemetery.

The lot remained undeveloped and the townsfolk began making informal use of the space. One Mr. Hubbard employed it as a tree nursery, for example (Irwin 1999). Others used it recreationally and the grounds became known as Cemetery Park. In 1879, the town of Guelph petitioned the Provincial government to convey the property to the town to formalize this use. In 1885, the city undertook a project to transform the property by removing all remaining graves to the Union (Woodlawn) Cemetery. The lot was renamed Central Park and the lane that the city created around its periphery became Park Lane.

(Alfred A. Baker, ca. 1880. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, Grundy 5.)

At this time, the street had a largely residential character, at least, on its west side. Initially labelled Elizabeth Street, it was renamed Baker Street after Alfred A. Baker, a County court clerk who built himself a house there around 1860. Formerly 70 Baker Street, the house was demolished in 1966 to make way for a parking lot.

(The Baker Home, April 1966, under demolition. Courtesy of Guelph Public Library, F38-0-3-0-0-44.)

Next door was the residence of R.E. Nelson, clothing merchant and Mayor of Guelph (1899–1900). Formerly 74 Baker Street, now 76 Baker Street, this is currently the home of the Baker Street Station.

As neighbouring streets like Wyndham became the downtown section of Guelph, the Baker Street lot began to be developed. One development in keeping with the recreational character of the park was the construction of a rink in 1892 for the Guelph Curling and Skating Club. This new rink, named the "Victoria Rink," served as an upgrade on the "old curling rink" situated at Wellington and Huskisson (now Wyndham South) Streets, which was then torn down. The new rink was situated on Central Park just behind Knox Church and Chalmers Church.

(Lord Stanley of Preston, Governor General of Canada, May 1889. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, 3194700.)

During a tour of southern Ontario in 1893, Lord Stanley, then the Governor General of Canada, made a visit to Guelph on 6 January. During this event, the GG made an unscheduled stop to inspect the new Victoria Rink, no doubt because he was an avid curler. The curlers graciously interrupted their play to meet His Excellency.

Before the advent of artificial ice, curling had to be played when the weather permitted. So, the Victoria Rink served as a roller skating rink during the summer months.

("Knox Church, Guelph, Ont.," ca. 1895. What appears to be a drawing of the Victoria Rink appears on the left behind the church. Courtesy of the Guelph Public Library, F38-0-15-0-0-353.)

Besides the action on the ice, excitement was brought to the Rink when it burned to the ground. On 26 August 1914, a problem with its electrical wiring set the structure ablaze (Globe, 27 Aug. 1914). A strong east wind launched embers far abroad so that Knox Church and the Guelph Creamery Company, across Baker Street, were nearly set on fire as well. Happily, most of the $30,000 in damages was covered by insurance, so that the rink was subsequently rebuilt.

("Curlers In Front Of Old Victoria Rink, ca. 1909." Courtesy of Guelph Civic Musems, 2009.32.2067.)

In 1936, the Club defaulted on its rent and surrendered its lease on the property to the City. In turn, the City sold the property to the Club for $1, so that it could remain in operation.

("Victoria Rink Lawn Bowling Green, ca. 1900." Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, Grundy 150.)

In addition, the Guelph Lawn Bowling Club began operating greens outside of the Victoria Rink around 1900. The Club produced some good players, perhaps the most notable being Graham Chapman, who won the Novice Singles Championship of Canada in 1904 and Dominion Singles Championship in 1908. In the same year, the Club won the Seagram Trophy.

("Lawn Bowling at Baker St., ca. 1940." Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, 2002.81.33.)

Lawn bowling continued in the Baker Street lot until about 1950.

Besides these recreational uses, factories were also sited on the lot. The Raymond Manufacturing Company built a three-storey brick factory just up the street from the Victoria Rink.

Charles Raymond moved his sewing machine company to Guelph in 1862 and set up operations in the town. Today, the Raymond Sewing Machine Company is most remembered for the factory that it built on Yarmouth Street in 1875. However, the company expanded and diversified over the years.

("Raymond's Machine and Moulding Shop, Guelph, Ont.," ca. 1905. Postcard published for A.B. Petrie. Note that the factory is buff-coloured and not gray as the lithographer has depicted it here.)

Perhaps the sewing machine market had become tapped out. In 1895, the Raymond Sewing Machine Company reincorporated under the name Raymond Manufacturing Company and diversified into cash registers and bicycles (Globe, 23 December 1895). In 1897, the company was sold to the White Sewing Machine Company of Cleveland, Ohio. By 1899, the Company added cream separators to its product line, licenced under the National Cream Separator Company.

("Suffolk Street and Raymond Factory, Guelph, Canada." Postcard published by Rumsey & Co., ca. 1905. Suffolk Street (right) here intersects with Yarmouth Street (left), with Woolwich Street in the foreground. This factory was built in 1872, with later additions.)

At this point, Raymond Manufacturing Company built a three-storey factory on the east side of Baker Street, where the cream separators were to be made. This site was connected with the Raymond Works on Yarmouth Street by both tunnels and a bridge over Baker Street.

(Detail of "Insurance plan of the city of Guelph, Ontario, Canada," 1911, page 6. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, R6990-430-9-E.)

These features can also be glimpsed in the postcard below.

("Raymond Manufacturing Co.y, Limited, Guelph, Ontario, Canada." Postcard published ca. 1910 by the Valentine & Sons Publishing Company. The Baker Street factory is the large red-brick plant at the rear with the big chimney belching smoke behind it. Note the bridge over Baker Street connecting it to the older Yarmouth Street plant. The surroundings are mainly fanciful embellishments contributed by the lithographer, although the Victoria Rink is represented on the right under the caption.)

Unfortunately, the business continued to decline. It was surely a bad sign when the new plant was the site of a horrible death as employee Charles Walker got his foot caught in a loose drive belt and was brutally dismembered by the machinery. His severed right leg was "hurled with great velocity" through a window and landed in the middle of the street (Globe, 5 October 1912). A coroner's inquiry produced the verdict of accidental death.

In 1916, the White Sewing Machine Company took over direct control of the old Raymond facilities and the business was wound up in 1922.

Space in the factory was occuped subsequently by a number of industries. City directories of the period mention the Hammond Brass & Aluminum Company, the Guelph Granite and Marble Works, Hepburn & Spotton (radio engineers), St. Williams Plantations Ltd and Windham Plantations Ltd, which I have little information about. Some of these concerns appeared only briefly while a few lasted for several years.

By far, the chief new occupant of the site was Steele's Wire Springs Company. The aptly named James Steele founded the business in 1883 and made steel springs, which it sold to other manufacturers for a variety of uses. Under the management of his sons, the company continued to expand and moved from place to place in doing so. It bought up the old Raymond plant on Baker Street in 1926.

(Detail of "Aerial Photograph of Guelph Downtown in Winter c. 1940." Baker Street is at the left margin. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, 1979.35.14.)

The most controversial businesses that set up shop in the old Raymond plant were the Popular Cloak Company and the Superior Cloak Company. In July, 1934, these garment manufacturers relocated from Toronto to Guelph to lease space in the old building. Apparently, this move was intended in part to dodge an agreement that the companies had with their employees in Toronto (Durtnall 2021, pp, 322–325). Local workers, eager for employment in the midst of the Great Depression, were hired and operations began.

("Posluns business activities, 192-," Superior Cloak Company. Courtesy of Ontario Jewish Archives, Samuel Posluns fonds.)

However, workers from Toronto descended on Guelph in shifts to protest the Cloak Companies' tactics. Pickets were set up in front of the factory on Baker Street. In early August, the proceedings were peaceful but spiraled into violence by the end of the month. On 21 August, a "wild melee" broke out on Baker Street and spilled into neighbouring Quebec and Wyndham Streets. Arrests and the threat of having fire hoses turned on calmed the situation temporarily.

As negotiations for a settlement went under way, tensions reached the breaking point on 24 August. Strikers attacked the plant, smashed many of its windows, and dismembered a car belonging to a company official. The group also hurled volleys of bricks, stones, and bottles at a nearby police squad. After about an hour, the police, augmented by special constables sworn in from Guelph and surrounding towns, responded by turning on the fire hoses. Both strikers and citizens, who had gathered to watch the proceedings, were bowled over like nine pins. When this measure failed to have the desired effect, police launched tear gas bombs into the crowd.

("International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, 192-." This union represented workers at the Superior and Popular Cloak Companies. Courtesy of the Ontario Jewish Archives, 1978-4-6.)

On 30 August, after nearly two weeks of violent disturbances, a settlement was reached in which the Superior Cloak Company returned to Toronto while the Popular Cloak Company remained in Guelph. The latter did not remain long, however, returning to Toronto late in 1935, where, apparently, it was more popular.

("Victoria Curling Rink, 1968." Courtesy of Guelph Public Library, F38-0-15-0-0-63.)

Around the same time as these ructions, profound change stole into Baker Street. In 1933, both Rae's wagon works and Swanston's auto repair service appeared across the street from the Steele factory. Remarkably, the wagon works remained in business until about 1949. However, the auto repair service set the pattern for the future. Around 1940, Heffernan Motors took over this space, which served as the used car department of their business, which fronted on Yarmouth Street. Around 1950, the used car department expanded with the set-up of a used car lot on the east side of the street. Parked cars had begun their inexorable takeover of the old park.

(View of Baker Street. Courtesy of Google Street View, October 2020.)

About 1960, the Steele Wire Springs company relocated and the old Raymond plant was demolished. The space became part of the Municipal Parking Lot. In 1968, the Guelph Curling Club moved to a new location and the Victoria Rink was torn down, its site paved to house more cars.

What the future holds remains to be seen.

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