As we thumb through travel albums and fantasize about taking a trip one day soon, we shouldn’t neglect our local area; the Golden Horseshoe. Take Niagara On the Lake. Most readers know NOTL as the day trip of the century: crowds of people shopping, taking wine tours, staying at quaint B and B’s, and going to the Shaw Festival. But there is a lot more to this town than just tourism.
The Niagara area played a major role in Canada’s history. During the war of 1812, (a war between the USA that wanted to annex Upper Canada, and Britain that wanted to keep the territory as part of its massive empire), Niagara was the site of several battles. Situated on the Niagara river which was, even then, an informal border, the area saw bloodshed and the deaths of many Canadian soldiers at Fort George as they fought the Americans across the river at Fort Niagara.
Many of us have visited, or even climbed, the monument dedicated to General Brock who lost his life fighting an important battle. We’ve all eaten chocolates dedicated to Laura Secord, who apparently walked with her cows through American territory to warn the British of a planned attack. The Canadians/British finally won the war, but a battle in 1813 saw the US general burning NOTL to the ground as he retreated from his occupation of Fort George.
Following the war, the town was rebuilt and many of those heritage homes are still standing; homes such as the Hawley House, 1816, a neo-classical beauty. My parents knew the owners who purchased and renovated it in the 1950’s, finding a priceless set of sterling silverware hidden in the ceiling. St. Mark’s Church, originally built in 1792, was mostly destroyed during the fire, but was rebuilt and is the oldest continuously-used church west of Quebec. Next door stands the church rectory built in 1858, a brilliant example of an Italian Villa, L-shaped, with a tower in the middle and wonderful windows. Other heritage buildings stand proudly on the main street and along many side streets. Most have plaques which make for interesting and informative walking.
But I know a different Niagara On the Lake. As a child, I spent my summers there. It was a sleepy town back in the 1950’s and 60’s. My friends and I used to ride our bikes to the movies (now the Royal George Theatre), and afterwards we would wander down the main street to the Avondale Dairy for ice cream. When I was in university I worked at the Oban Inn as the dining room hostess and general gopher. The Shaw Festival was just beginning and I met all the actors, when they came in to the bar for a drink.
I got to know the owners quite well. Edna Burroughs steered the ship, checking on flower arrangements and menus with a magnifying glass. Her son Gary was the amiable sous-chef who eventually became mayor of NOTL. Her daughter was Jackie Burroughs, the (late) well-known actress. Jackie would drop in occasionally to chat, mostly when her mother wasn’t around. Edna did Not approve of Jackie’s interesting lifestyle or her boyfriends. I, however, was in awe. It was a coming-of-age time for me, just as the town was growing up too.
Not too long ago, during the pandemic, I had a chance to visit Niagara again. It was the same tourist destination. But it was missing one key element – people! The town was deserted. The theatre was closed. There were actually empty parking spots on the main street. The restaurants were only doing takeout and the owners were standing on the sidewalks begging for customers. It was a sad state for this historic town which has contributed so much to life in Canada as we know it today.
During covid our minds, in searching for things to ponder, often go backwards. We remember things that were more interesting than our lives today; going on trips, celebrating milestone occasions, and sometimes reliving our childhood. When I go backwards, I end up in Niagara On the Lake.
8 thoughts on “A Town With a Past”
Small world. My cousins lived on Johnson St. My family visited them 4-5 times every summer travelling on the Cayuga. My uncle owned the 5 and 10 store on the Main Street. Bill
Great article Sue. The next time we go to Shaw I will take a look at the signs on the various buildings. It’s a very interesting history that I wasn’t aware of. Let’s hope we can visit there soon.
Great walk down memory lane. My Grandmother 👵 often took us 4 to Niagara Falls and then Niagara on the lake. On our early dates, john took me to an Inn and in the morning I borrowed a military outfit and surprised him. It was fun.
A good trip down memory lane. My favorite aunt lived in Niagara Falls so Jimmy and I grew up visiting them and environs. My cousin much later worked for the Parks Department to help retrieve the desperate who jumped up in- oh my.
My family on my dadâs side had farms near Virgil and St Davidâs. As children we picked strawberries for pennies, played with kittens and chased chickens.I can visualize the farmhouse now with all our older make cousins leading us urban TO kids into adventures In the cow patches. It was wonderful.
Thanks Sue. Heritage Mississauga is showing us around Mississauga farms and historic buildings so I may have info for you
Thank you for all this interesting information.
What a great place to spend your summers in your youth. Such a gem in Ontario. Hope we can revisit in the near future.
Oh, lucky you, to have spent summers there! It is one of my favourite towns and annual expedition sites. The Botanical Gardens were on route, with their magnificent butterfly conservatory. Every year for many years. And two of my most wonderful dressage coaches had connections to there. Penny Zavitz now Rockx got married at the Pillar and Post, and Walter Zettl retired to there until he left this plane. The story of how Canada DID NOT become the USA (sorry, my American friends) is my favourite in the history of this fair land. Thanks to those heroes and heroines. And thanks once again, Sue. I love the things you write about and how you write about them.
Enjoyed your history lesson as always Sue you are so informative and must have been a super teacher!
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