A Picture Postcard with a Past
Behind the Shaw Festival and the fudge shops lies a very proper, very British town — with a bit of a checkered past.
IT'S THE LAST outpost of British Empire. It's like seeing a specimen under a glass case. Marvelous place to come to for your later years, to prepare you for the eventual sleep. By the time they haul you off to the boneyard, you hardly notice the difference."
—Irving Layton, Canadian poet
"The town has grown like Topsy, and we haven't planned for it. You can't really blame the Shaw Festival. It's created some problems, but also very worthwhile activities. It's just that the municipality, the council, committees, myself included, didn't foresee the complexity, the dimensions of the thing. And there's one thing that has not been managed well at all. Prosperity."
—Gerry Wooll, former lord mayor, president of the Niagara Foundation
"My dad, who was a printer and newspaperman, brought us here in 1919. Earlier, in Welland, where my uncle had a drug store near the bridge, I used to stand out front peddling the Buffalo Evening News, a big seller. I was just a kid.
"I got the idea of putting my dad's old shoes on, way too big, and wearing a tattered sweater and so on; I shouted a poem I made up: 'Buy the Buffalo Evening News, it costs one cent, and help my mother pay the rent.' That is, I did until my uncle rushed out and jerked me into the drug store and gave me hell. He figured his family was somebody, and I was giving them a bad name."
—Nixon Brennan, former publisher of the weekly Advance, as was his father before him
"You probably see it at night — as a lovely place for dining and theater-going. But you should come around here in the daytime to see the congestion from 90 sightseeing buses a day, engines running, double-parked, pollution, noise. The solution, outside of gasoline at seven dollars a gallon, is something the town council and other forces simply won't face up to. And that is to make it a walking town with parking on the outskirts just a nice strolling distance."
—Peter Stokes, architect
"You shouldn't forget this was a military town, one way or another, from the War of 1812 to World War II and beyond. And as such it had one of the liveliest and most flourishing prostitution mills in Canada. Some of that money at one time bought half of Main Street. And if the truth were known, some of that money is still around. Mind you, I'm not signing anything."
— Old Timer, musing on the theory of the leisure classes
IT WAS CALLED Loyal Village first, when a few families loyal to the Crown left Fort Niagara across the river 200 years ago this year and settled on this gracious promontory at the mouth of the Niagara, deeded to the British by the Mississauga Treaty of that year.
The population was expanded by ex-soldiers of several British regiments, including the notorious Butler's Rangers, the British and Indian marauders who turn out to be strikingly civilized in Loyalist accounts. One British colonel is quoted as saying that his resolute stand prevented an excessive amount of scalp-taking. Anyway, the town was called Butlersburg, after being known briefly as West Niagara.
Later it was called Newark, and was known as such when the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, Colonel John Graves Simcoe, made quarters in remodeled naval buildings along the river in 1792. The first Canadian Parliament was held there that year.
Loyalist families from New York City, Albany and New England came to the town and the wide surrounding area in the ensuing years.
Beautiful homes and churches were built and were praised by visiting nobility and journalists. The Duke de la Rochefoucauld loved the place. The Americans burned it to the ground in 1813.
The rebuilding brought many beautiful homes and buildings to the scene, this time reflecting a wider variety of styles. St. Mark's Anglican Church managed to save its nave walls and rebuild the marvelously shaped and shaded ketone building, completed in the 1820s, adding the Tuscan villa rectory in 1858. St. Andrew's Presbyterian congregation finished the new Greek-Revival Church in 1831, a daring new style at the time. St. Vincent de Paul Church, combining Greek Revival and Gothic detail, was finished in 1834.
The seat of government had moved by now to York (Toronto) but the town of Niagara would be known henceforth as the seat of militant conservatism. (It acquired the romantic name of Niagara-on-the-Lake around 1900, in a practical decision by the post office to distinguish it from Niagara Falls.)
Reformers were never suffered gladly here. In 1819, when Robert Fleming Gourlay, a champion of land reform, inveighed against the government's preferential land-granting to a Canadian old-boy network, Gourlay was hauled up on a slim charge of seditious libel. He had roused much of common-born Upper Canada but nonetheless was convicted, though ill and unable to make a good defense, and routed from the province. In the late 1820s in nearby Queenston, William Lyon Mackenzie's Advocate lashed out at favoritism and fraud, so he charged, in the development of the Welland Canal, completed in 1829.
The enraged reaction was so strong that one committee had the basework on the statue of General Brock torn apart so they could remove and tear up a first-edition copy of the Colonial Advocate and its hated polemics signed "William Lyon Mackenzie."
The red-haired, Scottish-born Mackenzie went back to Toronto, where he became the first mayor in 1834. In 1837 he launched an unsuccessful rebellion to free Upper Canada from the British yoke, and he had to flee to the United States. He remained immensely popular with the low-rent population, however, especially the new industrial poor. He was pardoned in 1850 and then returned to Toronto and died there in 1861.
By the half-century mark, a railroad connected Niagara with Niagara Falls, Hamilton and Toronto. Summer homes, inns and taverns proliferated. American families from the Southern states, particularly, loved to come to Niagara-on-the-Lake, escaping the heat of July and August.
The history of the town from 1915 to 1960 is largely the history of two enveloping World Wars and their aftermaths, the periods of exhausted relief followed by replenishment and expansion.
The Welland Canal, ironically enough, is largely responsible for saving the colonial character and historic integrity of Niagara-on-the-Lake by the simple fact of bypassing it, thus making it a lovely but commercially overlooked community — out of the mainstream.
And then, twenty years ago, Niagara-on-the-Lake lawyer and visionary Brian Doherty, director Maynard Burgess and ten unpaid actors put on two George Bernard Shaw plays on eight summer weekends, and the Shaw Festival was born. By 1966 the Canada Council made its first grant. Notable directors Andrew Allan and Barry Morse were succeeded by the extraordinary actor-manager Paxton Whitehead. The new Festival Theater was ready for 1973, with other performances continuing in the old Court House Theater.
And the theatergoers, of course, serve as customers, too -— for the rows of shops offering bone china and artworks and fudge, for the restaurants with their Scottish and British specialties, for the quaint inns.
For some years now there has been a seven-month main season and year-round activities including distinguished musical events, lectures and forums. The festival has added the Royal George Theater on Queen Street. The Shaw Festival, however, is a story in itself, and your correspondent hopes to tell it in its dramatic, witty, inspiring detail at another time. The main topic here is Niagara-on-the-Lake itself, the ancient Loyalist community whose salvation, over the decades, lay in being ignored by progress. So how is it now, as opposed to then?
GUS CHAMBERS, Scottish-born, retired proprietor of the Red and White grocery on Queen Street: "I came from Edinburgh in 1928 to work on a farm outside of Brantford, went with A&P in '29, came here in '49. In World War II I was an RCAF cook. My buddies said I was working for the other side.
"The old-time grocery store existed on credit. Put it on the slip, pay so much this week, so much next. Not only the hard-up, laid-off and so on, but the wealthy families, too. Calvin Rand's father — quite a few others with great homes on the water. It was the way of things.
"It was simpler then. The school board ran the schools, the council ran the town and the Army came to the Commons for the summer."
WILLIAM GREAVES JR., proprietor of the Jams and Jellies store on Queen Street: "My father, William Greaves, passed away recently at 95. He could have told you a thing or two. He brought the jelly business here from Toronto in World War I. There were four sons, two left.
"It was a nice old-fashioned town. Right up into the 1930s you'd see the huckster with his horse and cart, the ice wagon, the milk cart. The most thrilling thing all spring would be sneaking into a burlesque show at the Old Brock."
PETER JOHN STOKES, esteemed architect known for his expertise in restoration: "The tradition has been broken. We're now getting replicas by people who don't know how to do it, bogus detail, that kind of thing. The main street has gone rather to pot lately. We've lost an 18th-century building because those concerned couldn't cope. It was torn down, and the replacement is not a restoration.
"Attitudes on the issue run from superficial to unethical. We have a Heritage Act, but it's a permissive one. And so we have people mucking about with exteriors, no special knowledge of historical detail, and no concern. Some of us are frustrated and depressed. Inner-blocks parking is now suggested to relieve car congestion, a horrible idea, adjacent to residents' gardens and so on.
"This is absolutely not a diatribe against the Shaw Festival or its patrons. It's against the ghastly bus tours, the poor management of the main street and the lowering of architectural safeguards.
"The problem is how not to become over-commercialized, over-industrialized. We have droves of fudge and ice cream shops, for instance, and no proper haberdasher, just a couple of grocers, and one is trying to sell. Something is very wrong, and it's very sad."
MARGARITA HOWE, chairman of Operation Clean/Niagara, a nonprofit group in battle with Service Corporation of America (SCA, parent company in Boston) over the dumping of treated chemical wastes into the Niagara River: "We are the only community downstream from Niagara Falls that gets its drinking water from the Niagara River. Our own water treatment plant from World War I is antiquated and not able to deal with the chemicals. We are supposed to get an alternate water supply in possibly two years, but the situation as it exists is not a happy one. This and the waste problem can be fixed, with intelligent adjustments. There is resistance."
W. N. DICK, Lord Mayor:
"I've been in the community for 34 years and seen it grow and develop. I enjoy the history of the region, which is now being brought out in a number of interesting ways in connection with the 200th anniversary celebration.
"What isn't so widely realized, I think, is that the restoration and redevelopment impetus here is a good deal older than the Shaw Festival. Homeowners and the private sector in general really led the way in improving the quality and the look of the town.
"We have one of the most buoyant tourist industries in the region. Our kids are all working, hotels busy, trade brisk.
"There is a traffic situation, yes. We have a Traffic Management Program under way now, including metered parking lots, enforcement of time-limits in street parking, and posted routes.
"There are problems, of course, but you may be sure we're working on them, and working every day."
IRVING LAYTON, widely known Canadian poet, at 69 a lively television panelist, lecturer and commentator on the human scene: "I came to Niagara-on-the-Lake three years ago. I believe in living dangerously. I'd have to — as a former resident of Montreal, Jewish, brought over to Canada as a child immigrant from Romania, and now set down here in the absolute center of WASP culture.
"There's a static and beautiful purity here, many descendants of United Empire loyalists, no upsetting thoughts about egalitarian society from troublemakers such as Tom Paine or Thomas Jefferson. Or worse, William Lyon Mackenzie.
"Yes, I suppose I chide and bedevil Canadians, but it's an act of love. If somebody doesn't matter to you, you wouldn't bother.
"I do reflect on curious things — that the most important Canadian event in history is the American Revolution; that some Canadian groups are very upset at my criticisms, and promptly ask me out to talk to them; and that it takes a simple, God-fearing Canadian to turn a lovely grape into a lousy wine.
"I love it here, you understand. My contentiousness should not obscure that. Robert Frost spoke of his lover's quarrel with life. For me, it's a lover's quarrel with my country. That's a poet's job, I think, to make people unhappy about the human condition.
"Many of the people here are as you might expect, in an enclave of the 19th century — complacent, parochial, pleasant and agreeable. It is my poetic duty to stir them up, even sometimes with a contemporary thought."