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A Visit to Lindsay a Century Ago

January 28, 2024

Kent Street, Lindsay, Looking West, circa 1925

In 1924, Lindsay celebrated Home Week, an occasion for former residents to return, see old friends and witness the town’s progress. To mark the occasion, the community published a past and present book that today provides an interesting view into how times of changed—albeit not without that hyperbole that was then commonplace. A century ago, many of the things that the community valued were very different than they are today.

Lindsay was a railway town, and a large proportion of the local population worked for one of these transportation companies. The iron horse had come to Lindsay in 1857—actually before Peterborough had a permanent connection (there had been a short-lived railway built across Rice Lake). When Port Hope railway promoters came calling, Peterborough declined to purchase their stock, so the company chose to connect to Lindsay instead, via Millbrook and Reaboro. The railway was an immediate success, leading to a branch line to Peterborough from Millbrook the following year. In 1864, trains left Lindsay at 9:40 AM, arrived at Port Hope at 1:10 PM, with the 3:00 return train arriving at 7:00 PM. For Lindsay, this route was transformative. The Trent Waterway was circuitous and was far from complete in 1857. The roads were poor by modern standards, so it was the railway that made the import and export of large quantities of goods economical.

Prior to 1857, local companies had exported timber to Britain. They floated their cribs down the Trent Waterway to Lake Ontario, where they were assembled into rafts to ship to the port at Quebec City. With the advent of the railway, it became practical to export large quantities of sawn lumber, often to the United States. This became the largest business in many communities to the north, and practically all of it went through Lindsay. Bobcaygeon’s Mossom Boyd, for instance, loaded his lumber on scows, which steamers towed to Lindsay, where it could be reloaded on rail cars. Before the advent of fork lifts, lumber companies spent a lot of time piling and repiling lumber.

In the decades that followed, Lindsay became a railway hub. In 1871, the Port Hope, Lindsay and Beaverton Railway actually completed the originally projected line to Beaverton—as a way of attracting investment, many railways chose an ambitious name, and would never complete the entire route implied by the name. The Port Hope, Lindsay and Beaverton Railway was an unusual exception, it was eventually extended to Midland. In 1872, Coboconk was connected via Lorneville; then Whitby via Manilla in 1877 and Haliburton via Fenelon Falls in 1878. A bridge across the Scugog River at Lindsay and the missing link between Manilla and Blackwater, make a continuous loop connecting Port Hope, Peterborough, Lindsay and Toronto. In 1904, the Canadian Pacific Railway extended its line from Burketon Junction to Bobcaygeon (ironically just as Boyd’s sawmill was closing down). Then eight years later, the CPR built a railway from Georgian Bay at Port McNicoll, to facilitate moving grain from the west.

By 1924, Lindsay could boast that it was “the hub from which radiate eight lines of railway giving access to every point, foreign or local. A large proportion of the town’s population is composed of railway employees, the majority of whom own their own homes”—unlike many of the workers in the forest regions to the north. Logging camps were often short lived—there would be no point of having barracks that would last much longer than it would take to get out the merchantable trees in the immediate vicinity. Especially during the nineteenth century rush to export virgin pine, the companies relied on gangs of transient workers, typically men from out of town. In early years, a large proportion were from rural Quebec. The railway cemented Lindsay as the regional centre.

For decades, Lindsay had also been a busy port for steamboat navigation. At the turn of the century, they had been a conspicuous symbol of progress. In fact, it was the Trent Valley Navigation Company who published the original advertisements naming the area the Kawartha Lakes. They sought to bring visitors to enjoy this Victorian pleasure—picture beautiful ladies in long white dresses, touring the lakes on white paddle wheelers. In the aftermath of the Great War, the Victorian era was becoming increasingly distant.

By 1924, the collapse of steamboat transportation was striking. By then, only the Wacouta and Lintonia continued to serve Lindsay. At the turn of the century, there were competing integrated steamboat transportation networks—including one offered by Lindsay’s notorious councillor, George Crandell—also a convicted gangster. Charles Gray’s Lintonia would become the last steamer to offer regular service on the upper lakes, retiring in 1931. It continued to carry steamboat excursions for special occasions, with Minnie Gray (Charlie’s wife) baking pies to serve to the passengers. But the true reason that it survived that long was to provide regular service from Sturgeon Point to Lindsay. For the (prominent) Lindsay businessmen who had a cottage at Sturgeon Point, it still was faster to take the boat than to travel around Sturgeon Lake. But Sturgeon Point was unique, geographically and culturally.

While travelling on a steamboat excursion was a pleasant public outing, by the 1920s fortunate local residents had the freedom to take a powerboat anywhere on the lakes. This innovation made every corner of the lakes accessible without having to paddle, as the Kawarthas were becoming a fishing destination: “The lakes abound and are kept stocked with maskinonge [muskellunge] and black bass.” It was also fashionable, at that time, to shoot ducks—even from some public locations.

In 1924, many travellers still took the railway, as automobiles were just starting to become everyday transportation. Many local residents could remember the novelty of seeing the first cars, as they also witnessed the many improvements since the first models. The machines were still a long way from the vehicles we take for granted today—on a long trip (ie to Toronto), motorists would often have to stop for repairs, often to change a tire (hence the custom of carrying a spare tire). Yet, compared to a horse, they were remarkably fast, reaching shocking speeds like 45 miles per hour, though few people would be so reckless as to drive at such speeds. In this era, motorists could not assume that the roads would be plowed in winter, and paved roads were special indeed. No motorist from the 1920s would complain about the potholes of today!

In the 1920s, every year, many more families bought their first automobile. Fee Motors was the most conspicuous of Lindsay’s garages. This Ford showroom was located at the corner of Kent and Cambridge Streets (now Scotiabank). What is now the main floor of the bank was then filled with the newest models. Just to the north at Cambridge and Peel, F. King & Son sold Chevrolet and Oakland vehicles. On Kent Street, right beside the International Harvester dealership was T. Arnold McLaughlin garage. On William Street, Curtis & Humphries: The Lindsay Motor Works sold and serviced Dodge and Overland. Most vehicles of the day had a relatively square cab, many were convertible, with a spare tire on the back and white stripes on their tires. Headlights were attached on either side of the half cylinder hoods. At the time, electric starters were becoming the norm, though many automobiles still had cranks into the 1930s.

In the 1920s, Lindsay’s churches were its most prominent cultural institutions. In fact, the community took pride that Kent Street had been rid of its saloons as “more desirable forms of business” replaced “their nefarious trade.” For this generation, the cultural vitality of the community centred on “the energy and enthusiasm of the religious activities of its peoples. Religion and what it teaches have a far-reaching effect on the hearts and minds of the residents, and as a result we have a thriving and well contented town.”

By 1924, Lindsay had six denominations, and it could enumerate nineteen churches that had been built over the previous eight decades. Lindsay was founded in an era when the Church of England was closely affiliated with the government, and the colonial elites tended to be Anglican—the so-called Family Compact. Many communities in the area were owned and developed by Anglicans, who took for granted the fact that community life would revolve around their church. Lindsay’s first church was Roman Catholic, built on the southeast corner of Lindsay and Russell Streets. In 1874, it became the home of a Catholic Convent. Half a century later, it continued to have a significant Catholic population—hence a separate school system.

In this era, most people attended church regularly—failure to attend would be noticed, though most people were still polite to those whose did not. Religious tolerance meant accepting other Christian denominations. Whether one was Catholic or Protestant was still very important to many people’s identities. “Racial” conflict, to the extent that it existed, was often used to refer to tensions between Protestants and Catholics. Especially in the surrounding villages, many men faithfully attended the meetings of the Orange Order—it was one of the most popular community organizations of the day. The July 12 Parade was a much anticipated event. Many residents of the Kawarthas took great pride in the British Empire, making Lindsay stand out for its large Catholic population. It was a community where being openly Catholic might help a candidate become mayor.

As was common in the surrounding communities, Lindsay had a variety of churches. On the eve of Church Union (the amalgamation of the Methodist and some Presbyterian Churches to form the United Church), Lindsay had a Methodist Church on each side of the Scugog River, quite close together. It was home to Presbyterian, Anglican and Baptist churches as well.  When the Salvation Army first came to town, their unusual religious methods proved controversial. Derived from Methodism, it had been founded as a mission to the poor in London, England in the 1860s. It was then known for the 3 S’s: “First, soup; second, soap; and finally salvation.” With a command structure modelled on the military (in the Victorian Britain, the armed forces elicited much national pride), they did not conform to church norms. When the Salvation Army had built its citadel in Lindsay in 1884, “they met with great opposition,” however, four decades later they were becoming accepted as part of the (religiously ‘tolerant’) community.

In the 1920s, two historic figures loomed above others as ‘Great Men,’ who were much revered in the community—today both would be seen in a very different light. Sir Sam Hughes had been a newspaper editor and commanded the local militia, serving as member of Parliament from 1892 until his death in 1921. Many local residents would remember Sam from the Victoria County Rifle Association, where he was a very enthusiastic marksman. Amid much hoopla, he had won a memorable competition at Fenelon Falls in 1889, scoring 48 of a possible 50. Sam’s enthusiasm for shooting, translated into his career as Minister of Militia and Defence, as Canada was drawn into the Great War.

Sam was always controversial, even in Lindsay, because of his outspoken (Orange) views. At one point he got in a fist fight with an upcoming (Catholic) Mayor on Kent Street. Locally, there were people who despised Sam, but he was the greatest local hero to many more. He was the “one whose name used to be on everybody’s lips. … The best Minister of Militia that Canada ever had.” In 1924, the community boosters wrote: “When the history of Canada is finally written, Sir Sam Hughes will have a place in the Temple of Face, which need not be recorded in letters of gold, since it will be in the hearts of his countrymen.” His national legacy is not so glorious today. Internationally, he is often referred to as a ‘madman,’ and his controversial decisions like the Ross Rifle and MacAdam Shield Shovel, are often his first association. Yet, others still remember him as a local hero.

Just as many Lindsay residents were proud of the connection to Sir Sam Hughes, it was of tremendous local significance that Samuel de Champlain had once paddled through the region. As local promoters were still trying to figure out the best way to transform the Kawarthas into a tourist destination, Champlain was a great historical figure to build a reputation upon.

Why would someone travel to the Kawarthas? Well, “as long as Champlain’s time, the picturesque beauty of this group of lakes was noted and commented on. …. Champlain stated that along their picturesque shores it seemed as if the trees had been ‘planted for pleasure.’” The Kawarthas own identity had yet to solidify, so promoters sought to place them among the world’s notable lake districts: “Although they do not possess the inspiring grandeur of the Swiss Lakes, nor the ruggedness of the Scotch Lochs, yet there is a quality more subdued and peaceful.” The historic figure Samuel de Champlain is in many ways mysterious—there is much that is not known about him. Yet, over the years, many people have projected many things onto Champlain, and the range of things that he has been used to represent has changed immensely.

After 87 years that were filled with much political lobbying and occasional construction, the Trent-Severn Waterway was finally completed in 1920. A century ago, it was a novelty to be able to take a motor launch (which by then had all but replaced the steamers) through the entire chain of navigation, a “never ending panorama of beauty revealed to the eye of the pleasure seeker.”  To make the entire journey would be quite the trip, something that not many people would do. The waterway’s boosters had persuaded the government to build it as a through route for commercial shipping, requiring (tremendously expensive) engineering marvels to turn a shallow and tortuously winding natural waterway into a shipping route. By the time it was finished, there was no reality to the claims that the wheat of the prairies would primarily float through the Kawarthas. Instead, it became a waterway of recreation, as people enjoyed taking their motor launches to visit national monuments like the Kirkfield and Peterborough Lift Locks. It was an experience to take a boat through the locks, and equally an experience to marvel at the boats passing through the locks.

Boaters on the Scugog River, could not help but notice the John Carew Lumber Company, stretching for a mile on the west bank of the river in downtown Lindsay. In the mid-1920s, log drives were becoming a rare sight, yet the Carew company still stored its logs in booms, “which choke the river.” Whereas in the nineteenth century, the largest sawmills were exporting virgin pine, the Carew Lumber Company was established in 1890, harvesting the cutover forests, while supplying local needs. At that time, most goods were shipped in wooden containers, and the Carew Lumber Company had a box factory that sold a great many box shooks (slats that would be nailed together to make boxes). Wooden boxes could not be easily folded for transportation, so instead companies would buy shooks, assemble their own crates, and stamp their company name on it.

Local lumber was milled, air dried in the yard, and typically sold rough-sawn for construction. Houses in that day were built of rough (unstamped!) lumber, finished with lath and plaster. The John Carew Lumber Company sold lumber, cedar shingles, lath, doors. By the 1920s, moulded casings and trim were becoming the norm, which the Gull River Lumber Company (with a mill on Coboconk’s waterfront) sold at Kent and Victoria Avenue. This company also sold lumber, shingles, hardwood flooring, v-joint and cedar siding imported from British Columbia. The neighbouring Lindsay Woodworkers manufactured filing cabinets, book cases, desks and cedar chests. The town was also home to the Ingle Planing Mill and the Digby Lumber Company.

Historically, furniture making and undertaking went hand in hand—to be able to offer funeral services required an ability to make caskets, hence furniture. In that era, it would not be seen as morbid to go to John Anderson, Funeral Director at 136-138 Kent Street to buy fine furniture. The company had been in business since 1860. J.A. Cain operated a similar business on Lindsay Street, also making Chesterfields to order. On Cambridge Street, the Allan Brothers’ Lindsay Monumental Works welcomed visitors to their plant to see their memorial work. The competing Ontario Marble and Granite works was at 187 Kent Street.

In 1924, the integrated building centres that we take for granted today did not exist. A home builder would buy lumber from one of the lumber yards, then head over to Boxall & Matthie at 112 Kent Street to purchase Hardware, Lowe Brothers Paint, Plumbing and Heating supplies—if they were fortunate enough to have indoor plumbing. Just up the road at 79 Kent Street, Maunder, Allin Co. sold Wood finishes, Martin-Senour Paint, electrical supplies, fixtures, stoves, appliances, glass, tinware and graniteware. McLennan’s hardware store was at 77 Kent Street.

In the 1920s, most people slept under wool blankets, and wore woolen clothing—including bathing suits and hosiery—while many local farmers raised sheep for wool. In that era, men’s bathing suits typically had shoulder straps, while women often wore what would look like a dress today. The James Horn Knitting Company made luxurious hosiery—stocking for both genders, and children. In keeping with the fashions of the day, they also offered silks and cashmeres. Countless families used Horn Bros. (now AON’s Wedgewood Park Apartments) woolen blankets—a company that had international reach.

The R.M. Beal Leather Company operated a tannery on Logie Street and a factory on Mary Street, manufacturing harnesses, footwear and leggings. Back then, practically all farmers relied on their team of work horses. The Sylvester Manufacturing Company (Kent and Victoria Avenue) was another of Lindsay’s best known businesses. Having manufactured farm implements like seed drills, by the 1920s they were well known for their railway hand cars, “used as standard on the Canadian Railroads.”

The Flavelles were another Lindsay family with a reputation that extended well beyond the town. J.D. Flavelle was hailed as ““probably the best curler of all time”—curling was a very popular sport in Lindsay. Many locals would remember the Flavelle Milling Company, well known for flour, which had merged into the Canadian Cereal and Milling Company in 1910. Dundas & Flavelle Ltd. (J.R. Dundas was J.D. Flavelle’s uncle) operated a 10,000 square foot department store (northwest corner of Kent and York). When it was completed in 1904, it was a marvel, a shopping experience that few small towns could match. However, by the 1920s, it was struggling to compete against catalogue department stores operating nationally like Eaton’s. A lot of local families ordered from the catalogue. In 1925, Dundas & Flavelle merged into the Canadian Department Stores.

Flavelles Limited also operated the Lindsay Creamery, which made Victoria Butter, while also selling milk, eggs and cheese. Rebuilt after a 1916 fire, this business also offered cold storage. In the 1920s, most families got by without refrigeration—a few had the luxury of an ice box, but then they would have to store ice, or purchase it. Typically, meat was stored in a cellar, and consumers were careful not to purchase or kill more than they could eat before it would spoil—farm families would go together in a beef ring. Few would want to eat meat that had been sitting on their cellar floor for more than a week in summer. Cold storage made it possible for families to rent space, where they could safely store food. Silverwoods would buy the creamery in 1943.

By the 1920s, not only could some families eat meat that had been stored at a sanitary temperature, the community was proud of the advances it was making in public health. For generations, communities throughout the Kawarthas had used the waterway for both drinking water and sewage disposal, but now Lindsay could report that it had a sewage system that was nearing completion, along with water filtration and chlorination.  

Lindsay was also very proud to have not only have a hospital, but an isolation hospital and nurses’ residence. In 1902, railway engineer James Ross and his wife Annie, donated the Ross Memorial Hospital in memory of his parents. Initially, the building served as both medical facility and rooms for the nurses. But as demand for hospital services grew, in 1911, he dedicated Annie Ross Nurses Home, which freed up space for more beds. The isolation hospital was added to slow the spread of communicable diseases. After Ross died in 1912, his son continued to serve on the Board of Directors and donated X-Ray equipment. By 1924, the organization was raising funds so it could add a maternity building. At that time, patients had to pay to go to the hospital, and many waited until they were quite sick. The previous year, 811 patients had used the hospital (population of the town was 7896—not counting the surrounding townships). Today, it cares for about 50,000 patients per year.

Having fire protection was another transformative improvement. The Great Fire of 1861 was still within living memory. It had destroyed 90 buildings in 4 hours, and was only stopped because it burnt itself out. As the water system was put through town, it also provided a means of fighting fires. In 1916, the community had purchased its (singular) firetruck. By 1920, it could boast having thirteen firemen, and the Cambridge Street Fire Hall, just north of what was then the market square.

In 1924, I.E. Weldon was a well-known Lindsay lawyer and notary public, offering money to loan at 97 Kent Street. Just up the road was Lindsay Collegiate Institute, which was growing remarkably. Older local residents could remember when that site had been home to the Union School—as its name suggests Common (Public) and Grammar (High) School students had been taught in the same building. In 1861, Lindsay had 2 common school teachers, and 224 students—imagine having all the grades together with class sizes like that today! By 1888, when L.C.I was constructed, the Union School had 5 teachers.

To local residents of the 1920s, L.C.I. had “grown almost beyond recognition.” The original 1888 collegiate was just the centre section of the 1924 school. In 1910 the west wing was added, with four classrooms and a gymnasium, then an east wing with six more classrooms in 1922. By then, 450 students attended the high school, with thirteen teachers. The school even had electric air circulation, “now every classroom is flooded with fresh air throughout the day.” Lindsay was served by six public schools: Alexandra, Central, King Albert, Victoria, Boys’ Separate School and St. Joseph’s Academy.

In the 1920s, the town was hard at work paving its streets: “Of all the civic improvements which have marked the growth of Lindsay, none are more deserving of mention than the paving of the streets.” Lindsay had been built upon a swamp, so the dirt roads that characterized its pioneer period were spongy. Back then, “it was impossible to draw even empty wagons.” In 1910, William Street North became the first paved route, and by the 1920s the progress that the town had made towards paving its roads, led its boosters to claim that it was now “one of the best paved towns in Canada.”

The Lindsay Central Exhibition claimed to be the fourth largest fair in Canada, and took place at what was then called the Agricultural Park—just north of the hospital. In the 1920s, most of the residents of the surrounding townships were farmers, and agricultural matters were a large part of local culture. Then, the community would ask: “Who has not heard of the predominance of Victoria County in the production of alsike clover seed?” Today, many people would have to look up this particular fodder crop to identify it, and not many farmers regularly work up and reseed their hay fields, as clover has become naturalized.

In 1924, Lindsay had two newspapers, the Post (daily) and the Watchman-Warder (weekly). Whereas today, many national newspapers put noticeable a partisan spin on their news, the local media was once just as political. The Post was Liberal, and the Watchman-Warder was Conservative, having formerly been owned by Sam Hughes himself. For many years, a man named Blind Jasper (the nickname was then socially acceptable) sold papers on Lindsay streets.

Lindsay was home to five banks—the Bank of Montreal, Royal Bank of Canada, the Canadian Bank of Commerce (later CIBC), the Dominion Bank (later TD) and the Standard Bank (later merged with Canadian Bank of Commerce). Many locals patronized the Victoria Trust and Savings Company, which boasted having $4,157,433.61 in assets. In the 1920s, there was no deposit insurance, so if a bank failed, everyone lost their balances. In 1923, the failure of the Home Bank cost many Coboconk residents their life savings. Listing their assets was a way for the trust company to convince potential customers that their money was safe—no one would advertise their liabilities! The Victoria Trust and Savings Company was well respected locally, and had agents who served customers in other communities.

Just down Kent Street on the southeast corner of York Street, Claxton & Co. was another popular department store—right across the road from Dundas & Flavelle. This store offered dry goods, millinery, house furnishings and ready-to-wear clothing. In the 1920s, it was less expensive to buy fabric and make your own clothing, and for many families ready-made clothing was a luxury. In the 1920s, it was fashionable for men to wear suits, even when going for a walk in nature. A.J. McBride and W.G. Blair & Son were two stores that sold men’s wear and haberdashery.

While most farm families got in their own firewood, many Lindsay buildings were heated with coal, imported by rail. Local dealers included Lindsay Coal Company, J.G. Baldwin, and Todd & Waddell, which also sold lumber at the corner of King and Lindsay Streets. Many families had a coal bin in their basement, and had to fill their furnace four or five times a day, taking care not to get covered with coal dust.

If present day residents were to travel back in time to visit Lindsay of the 1920s, they would find the façade of downtown Kent Street quite recognizable. Then as now, the town was home to a variety of specialty businesses, for instance, Higinbotham and Dunoon’s Rexall drug stores; McCarty’s and Beall’s jewelry stores; and Porter’s Bookstore, which had been around since 1861. Paddlers could buy a canoe at the Lindsay Boat Company, 64-66 Ridout Street. Many pleasant conversations were had at Fred Martin and Goosie Taylor’s Big 20 Café. The Olympia Candy Works was a favorite destination for those with a sweet tooth—also selling ice cream and Soft Drinks. Soft drinks were not just popular in town, they were bottled at the Lindsay Soda Water Works on Caroline Street. Not far away on the Scugog River, Allenbury’s made lozenges, baby food and supplements like cod liver oil.

Then as now, the Academy Theatre stood at the foot of Kent Street. Originally home to vaudeville performances and homegrown productions, around 1918 it began to show silent films, which were quite the sensation through the 1920s—the first full length feature with sound was The Jazz Singer in 1927. Much as things have changed over the past century, some Lindsay institutions like the Academy Theatre have endured.

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