Walking through history: Remembering downtown Lindsay 100 years ago

By Ian McKechnie

Summer peace parade, downtown Lindsay, 1919.

Imagine strolling through Lindsay’s historic boroughs 100 years ago, in 1919. What might life have been like, behind the scenes and within the businesses that once drove our economy? What thoughts and emotions coursed through the minds and hearts of local citizens? Imagination – and a little research – are powerful tools. They transpose me from the streets on which I stroll today…to the Lindsay of a century ago.

Lindsay, mid-spring, 1919.

Before venturing into the heart of commercial Lindsay, I pause to admire the Ross Memorial Hospital, standing proudly on a height of land adjacent to Kent and Angeline Streets. The 16-going-on-17-year-old Ross is generously supported by the community it serves, and this support apparently extends to the new Isolation Hospital at the corner of Colborne and Angeline.

“’Tis a real credit to the town!” gushes Mrs. Hungerford, president of the Lindsay Women’s Institute, whom I happen to encounter on the front lawn of the Ross, where she has just paid a visit to an institute member, currently recovering from a fall.

“The ladies of the Lindsay Women’s Institute and the West Ops Women’s Institute have poured their hearts into seeing to it that we have a comfortable, modern facility at our disposal should Lindsay ever be plagued with a disease requiring isolation,” Mrs. Hungerford tells me.

I nod in agreement, remembering that this year and last have seen record numbers of Canadians hospitalized with the dreaded influenza epidemic.

Mrs. Hungerford and I exchange a few more pleasantries, before I tip my cap and move along.  Lindsay’s citizens are clearly proud of their healthcare facilities, a pride no doubt intensified by the good work of Ross nursing graduates in Europe over the past four years.

Walking briskly in an easterly direction, I soon reach the corner of Kent Street and Victoria Avenue, where I’m held up by a passing train returning from the north country. The smoke and cinders waft over Victoria Park, where the Citizens’ Band is playing some jaunty tunes. I wait patiently, my ears taking in the strains of “Goodbye France” and “Smiles,” among other chart-toppers.

At last, the caboose rattles by and I cross the street, passing the library and reaching the busy intersection of Cambridge and Kent, where I’m just about run down by a speed demon in his new Gray Dort touring car.

“Watch where yer’ goin’!” shouts the man behind the wheel, shaking his forefinger menacingly.  The machine roars off down Cambridge Street in a cloud of dust and exhaust.

“Damned drivers!” exclaims an older gentleman in a straw hat leaning up against a light-pole, having witnessed my near-tragic encounter with the Chatham, Ontario-built Gray Dort. “Them contraptions are a menace, snortin’ and rattlin’ through here. Reckon he paid $1,500 for that thing. Hope your heart isn’t racin’ after that.

“No, sir,” I reply, with a half-smile. We go our separate ways.

Looking down Kent Street, I’m astounded at just how quickly Lindsay has progressed in her embrace of the motorcar. Parked up and down this widest of Ontario’s thoroughfares are Fords, Gray Dorts, Maxwells, and Overlands, interspersed with horses and wagons. No doubt they are bringing postwar prosperity to local dealers like R.F. Thomas’s Lindsay Motor Works – but one wonders what sort of impact this age of automotive adulation will have on the town in the years to come.

I move on. Downtown Lindsay is a bustling place on this slightly overcast day in 1919. People are going in and out of shops, patronizing a bounty of businesses, some with pedigrees that stretch back to pre-Confederation times. I glance up at the signs mounted over the awnings which have long been in vogue for downtown businesses. Allin’s Ltd. (hardware).  R. Neill Ltd. (boots and shoes).  Sutcliffe & Sons (Lindsay’s answer to an urban department store).

Reaching the corner of Kent and William Streets, I duck into Edmund Gregory’s drugstore – one of the oldest apothecaries in the Dominion, I’m told. But I’m not looking for a cure to any ailment.  Gregory’s is the local distributor for Kodak camera and film supplies, and I’m keen to capture what I can of Lindsay as it appears in 1919. I change my mind, however, when I realize that I will have to wait for my pictures to be developed – even though Mr. Gregory promises that he can have them developed and printed quickly.

Being so used to uploading pictures on to social media platforms at once, I bristle inwardly at the suggestion that I can “come back in two weeks” to see my prints.

Instead, I politely thank Mr. Gregory, purchase a bottle of Coca-Cola, hastily drink its saccharine contents, and head back outside, anxious to continue my journey. The world I come from, a world of instant news, instant coffee, and Instagram is increasingly incompatible with the good old-fashioned virtue of patience.

Though I could easily spend many an hour admiring the streetscape that has made Lindsay known far and wide across Ontario, I want to meet some of the local folks who make their homes and livelihoods here. They, after all, are what give life and meaning to bricks-and-mortar. I glance across the street and see a sign for the Big 20 Café, which, I’m told, has recently been remodelled and refitted. I glance at my watch. It’s 12:22 PM. The height of lunchtime. There must be a good crowd in there now.  I stroll across Kent Street and hasten over to the Big 20. A man is peddling for coins out front and I toss him a dollar on my way in.

The place smells of coffee, hot beef sandwiches, and French toast. ‘All you can eat for 20 cents,’ a colourful sign mounted on the counter proclaims. I make my way over to a table at the back, take off my coat, and order a cup of tea. My ears perk up as I listen to conversations emanating from the tables around me. Folks are talking about who has recently come home from the war last year and who hasn’t.  Others are having lively debates about prohibition, the problems facing rural schools, and the state of Lindsay’s roads – most of which are still awaiting asphalt.

Not too far away, at one of the ladies’ tables, two young women are engaged in earnest conversation about the current state of employment.

“It’s an outrage, Hazel!” exclaims one. “We proved in working at the arsenal that a woman can run machinery just as well as a man, and now that the war’s over, we’re being told that it’s our ‘patriotic duty’ to turn our jobs over to the chaps returnin’ from the war.”

“‘Patriotic duty my foot!’” replies the other, indignantly poking a fork at her raisin pie. “I’d rather be turnin’ out a product than turnin’ in my badge just because conditions have returned to normal.”

“Ah, but they haven’t Hazel,” returns the other. “The new normal will see us girls take our places in the world of commerce and industry in a way that this town, this country, this Empire has never seen before. As soon as we finish here, we’re going to march over to Mr. Horn’s woollen mill and see if he can’t take us on. Belgium and Romania need Canada’s wool, and Alex Horn needs us!”

Their voices drop to a whisper, and I glance at the menu in front of me, all the while casting glances about the restaurant. The folks behind the counter are beaming, no doubt enthralled with the news that the Canada Food Board recently lifted restrictions placed on restaurants during the war. But other faces betray a hint of anxiety about the future. Their world, like the one I’ve come from a century later, remains fragile and uncertain.

A piping hot cup of tea is placed before me. I take a sip, the steam fogging up my glasses, clouding out this vignette of Lindsay in 1919…

It’s hard for us today to imagine what life was like a century ago in Lindsay, Bobcaygeon, Fenelon Falls, Kinmount, Omemee, and other fine communities across Kawartha Lakes. Technology has forever changed our lives, food prices have gone up dramatically, and the traditional industries which kept these communities afloat for over 100 years have shuffled off their mortal coils as global economies and consumer tastes change like the weather.

And yet, much remains the same. Like Mrs. Hungerford and the Lindsay Women’s Institute, we take pride in our healthcare facilities.  Local pharmacists carry on the tradition of courteous, personal service that once defined establishments like Edmund Gregory’s drugstore. And like the Big 20 of gastronomical memory, our restaurants remain popular gathering spots to converse at lunchtime – to live and laugh among our family, friends and neighbours.

In the end, as ordinary Canadians, we carry forward as best we can, in all the ways we can, and trust that we will be rewarded with lives worth living.

1 Comment

  1. Kathleen Moors says:

    Good morning…my great great grandfather, Charles Burrows, was a baker in Lindsay in the 1880s. I wonder if you know when the Graham Bakery on Kent first opened. Would Charles have worked there? I’m just digging and trying to find photos of where he may have worked. He was married to Thomasine Calver and his daughter, my great grandmother, Mable Burrows, was born there.

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