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Byron Martin: He was there in the Beginning, in the Middle and He’s Still an Integral Part of the Bobcaygeon Arena

January 22, 2024

Byron Martin at the Sugar Shack

By Cathy Olliffe

Bobcaygeon Independent, March 8, 1995

‘The daddy of ‘em all’ is still two whole seasons away, but the fair office is a quietly busy place nevertheless. Folks wander in and out, not necessarily to deal in fair business, but mostly just to shoot the breeze with Byron Martin.

He settles back into his old, comfortable-looking, yellow chair and he passes the time of day with one of his pals, surrounded with memorabilia from long ago fairs and community centre events. There are posters featuring the likes of old-time wrestlers (Jack Dempsey, Yukon Eric) and renowned Canadian musicians (Don Messers, Bobby Gimby, Jack Kingston). There are faded programs from the fiddle contest and some of the first figure skating shows ever held at the arena. And there are photographs, of course, old photographs showing the people and places of Bobcaygeon, showing the construction of the community centre, showing hockey players who have long since grown up, and the children of their own, showing us nothing less than the way they were.

It’s only a small building, the fair board office, but it’s a special place, a museum-like building stuffed with mementos and documents from, among other things, the construction of the Bobcaygeon/Verulam Community Centre. Byron Martin has kept documents from that hectic, breathless period of time 40 years ago, when everyone in the community worked together to get the arena built.

There are original resolutions from the two councils. There are lists of the people who volunteered their labour—almost every name is on those yellowed sheets of paper. But the biggest storehouse of memories is, perhaps, in the mind of Byron Martin himself—by all accounts, one of the men most responsible for getting the arena project off the ground.

He well remembers the condition of the old arena, built before the turn of the century in a location now frequented by beer store patrons and furniture shoppers. Weather, hard usage and time have taken their toll on the old building and local folks realized something had to be done. It was Byron, in fact, who claimed the committees to plan, build, finance and publicize the venture that many considered to be bold.

His involvement in the project stemmed from the many hockey teams he managed. “I helped with a lot of hockey teams even before they built the rink,” he says. He had played hockey as a boy, (“We used to play it all the time when I was a kid on the pond”), but had found his niche behind the boards, not on the ice and he became a familiar face on the hockey tournament circuit.

The idea of building a new arena had been tried in 1952, by a committee that included Byron’s father, Thomas Martin (the long-time clerk of Verulam Township). But the timing wasn’t right and the project never materialized. “I don’t think they were sure about the new building,” Byron recalls. By the time 1954 rolled around, people were more convinced than ever about the necessity of a new rink.

Byron says a committee was formed in January 1954 to get the ball rolling. A joint meeting of Township and Village Councils was held in April 1954, and despite the opposition of a few shareholders of the old privately run arena, politicians agreed the need for a new building was pressing.

A site was supplied by the Verulam Agricultural Society, money was raised, donations were secured, and when spring weather finally arrived, the ground was cleared and excavated, forms were built and concrete foundations were poured.

The best description of the building comes from a souvenir program from the opening of the community centre in 1955: “Upon the arrival of the unique H.B. (Swedish design) trusses, actual framing of the building got underway. Concrete blocks for walls and interior divisions arrived, night lights were installed and overtime became a reality. The hoisting of the rafter sections, planking and sheathing the roof, draining and filling of the central floor area with gravel, the pouring of huge quantities of cement, all done by local volunteers, speaks eloquently of the spirt, skill and alacrity of our workmen. Add to this the hours of canvassing, the work involved in street carnivals, dances, raffles, auction sales, suppers and other fundraising schemes, and you have an idea of the measure of activity so much a part of this project.”

The construction moved steadily along until Hurricane Hazel huffed and puffed her way into town, and as Byron explains, it “blew down a piece of the back wall.” While the tired volunteer builders were disappointed, they got right back to work. Virtually all the labour was volunteer—in the books Byron has kept, the price of the labour was estimated at $1 an hour—if that bill had to be paid at all (which of course it wasn’t) it would have been $16,688.90. That was how much was saved by local people pitching in.

“Ayuh, even the people who were originally opposed to it came out and helped,” he says with a slow grin. Almost everything was donated. “The plans were drawn up for nothing,” he says. The hardwood floors were donated, some (not all) of the blocks were donated—only the beams and the ice plant cost real money. Byron estimates the cost of the whole structure, including the ice plant, was under $100,000. You can hardly build a house for that kind of money, these days. Byron figures a price tag on a new arena “would be in the millions.”

The concrete floor wasn’t poured the first year, so Byron says an ice chipper was obtained. Ice was taken from the lake, then chipped by the machine and spread over the sawdust covered floor. It was levelled and used the whole winter. Byron says that ice was “Good. Years ago, lots of rinks didn’t have a floor at all, ayuh.”

The opening ceremonies were held in March, 1955, with much fanfare, marking the beginning of 40 years with the arena as the hub of Bobcaygeon recreational activity. For 27 or 28 years, Byron was the manager of the arena, fixing things that needed to be fixed; putting the ice in, keeping it in good shape, and then letting it out; arranging special events and getting to know just about everyone in town.

Before the curling club was built, curling was held at the community centre. “The most comical thing that I ever saw on the ice, was I happened to look and all the ladies (who were supposed to be curling) were lying on the ice on their stomachs,” he says with a chuckle. “One of them had lost a contact.”

Curling was big, but roller skating was bigger. “We had some big roller skating nights here.” Byron recalls when the arena was packed between 7 pm and 8:45 pm—then we put them off and started all over again.”

Movies were shown at the arena during the ‘60s and ‘70s. The man who used to show them “went round to different summer places, taking his film equipment with him.” The man has passed away but the movie section is still hanging on the west side of the arena. Entertainers came and went. “We had Bobby Curtola here twice, when he was just starting out.” And Don Messer played at the arena. “He was here before he was ever on TV.”

Byron recalls “a big auction sale” in the arena in the ‘50s, when lots were sold around Bass Lake. Of course, the fiddle contest was always a big draw, and, “we used to have pretty good crowds out here for wrestling.”

Of course, hockey and figure skating was still the dominant winter use. Children learned how to skate on the arena ice, going on to win badges and medals and tournaments. Crowds turned out in force to follow their favourite hockey teams, and Byron still has a good collection of crests and a few original sweaters from various winning teams. He won’t say which players were the best, just that “there were lots of pretty good hockey players,” and “lots of watchers.”

Now 73, Byron has seen a lot from his viewpoint at the arena, and at the fair board office. Modest, he doesn’t like to elaborate on his own contributions to the community centre, and to the community itself, but everyone involved in the area will tell you, “Byron Martin is the guy to talk to. He’s the one.” There’s no argument here.

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