September 01, 2010

Hillsburgh Fun Day tour brought history to life

As published in The Erin Advocate

There is a big difference between reading about history and hearing stories from someone who has lived through them. That's why it was so interesting to take a tour of downtown Hillsburgh with long time resident Ivan Gray, during the recent Family Fun Day.

He provided a refresher on the earliest days of the village (before his time, which started in 1936). Naturally, someone asked if Hillsburgh named for the local hills. As most residents know, it was initially Howville, after William How who founded the settlement in 1821, then built a general store and trading post. In 1823, however, Nazareth Hill arrived, built the first hotel, surveyed the area and put his name to the village.

Gray took about 15 people on a tour, with commentary on the churches, businesses and Victorian homes, and showed photos of lost buildings that were once part of a strong downtown business district.

It is fascinating to hear some of the details, like how buggies were built in the Royal Bank building, or about slot machines at the soda bar. The once-classy Exchange Hotel, built about 1883, used to rent out horses and buggies so that tourists could tour the countryside. It was eventually converted to a restaurant and apartments, and is unused now, but Gray remembers it as a great place to play pool, and that it was once home to one of the first TVs in the village.

One of Gray's jobs was doing auto repairs for the McLaughlin family business, across the street from the current arena, which included an early Chev-Olds dealership. There was once a harness shop in that area, and in the 1940s an egg grading station. The village had several gas stations, but in those days there were virtually no cars on the road during the winter, allowing for wide open sled rides from the top of the hill, all the way to Station Road.

The two-storey Town Hall was built in 1887 by the Oddfellows and the Workmen Societies, and it was the scene of many dances and shows. The building was bought in 1962 by Bruce Morette for his furniture business, expanding from the factory he had established in 1958 at the former potato storage building near the CPR tracks.

Churches played a big role in the community, with the Baptists organizing in 1853 and building their church in 1862. Presbyterians formed a congregation in 1860 and built their church in 1869, named St. Andrew's in honor of their Scottish ancestry. The Hillsburgh Christian Church building, now home to Century Church Theatre, dates back to 1906. Hillsburgh United Church was built in the 1926, after the partial amalgamation of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregationalist Churches in Canada.

The Anglican church was used from the 1890s until about 1918, then was eventually bought by Gray's father, who was a beekeeper. He converted the building to a honey extracting plant, which became known as the "honey house".

As with many communities, Hillsburgh's history is marked by major fires. Despite public pressure, there was still no fire department in the village in 1965 when St. Andrew's Church was destroyed by flames in February 1965. The organ was saved, but only the stone walls remained standing.

The church was rebuilt in just over a year, but people were tired of relying on the Erin fire department and minimal equipment in the village. "There was a hue and cry," said Gray. Many felt the church could have been saved if Hillsburgh had had its own fire department. In the fall of 1965, the township responded, stationing a fire truck in a building right beside the river. Gray was the first fire chief.

Obviously, these are just a few highlights from a rich local history. For those wanting to know more, Hillsburgh's Heyday by Patricia Kortland is available at the library. It was published in 1983 by Boston Mills Press, and while Gray notes that it has a number of inaccuracies, it is still a fascinating collection of photos and stories.

The "About Erin" section of the Town website ( has a lengthy township history article that deals with Hillsburgh, and if you type Hillsburgh History into the Google search, the first hit will be a village history, courtesy of the Carmichael family. The second is a history of the Exchange Hotel, one of several Hillsburgh articles on the Town website by historian Steven Thorning. Perhaps Ivan Gray will also publish his stories, for the enjoyment of future generations.