FENIANS AND MUSKETS AND FINE, STRONG WHISKEY

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THE ELORA DRILL SHED

 With 266 Historic sites in Ontario, one surely takes the cake for historical uniqueness.

The former Elora “Drill Site”, was once a rallying point for local militia set to defend the countryside from marauding “Yankees.” The Historic Site now serves as Elora’s LCBO. One wonders if the “booze store’s” patrons know the proud history that lies beyond its heavy wooden doors. 

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After the close of the American Civil War, in 1865, Irish American patriots began making raids into British North America—Canada.  Bent on freeing “Mother” Ireland from British rule, these “grandfathers” of the Irish Republican Army, crossed the U.S.-Canada border burning, looting and hell-raising. Fenians knew no bounds in bringing their hatred of the British into the public eye.

The Fenian “personality” was expressed in song: 

Many a battle has been fought,

Along with the boys in blue

So we will go and conquer Canada

For we’ve nothing else to do.

Ontario settlements close to the United States were the primary Fenian targets, but terror ran high in towns and villages well north of the border.  The citizens of the village of Elora, many days journey by horse from the border, felt such a fear. 

A mixture of Scots, British and German farmers and merchants, Elorians vowed that no murderous Fenians were going to destroy what they had toiled so hard to achieve. They’d fight tooth and nail to defend their property, their womenfolk and their children.

In 1865 the defense of Elora against invasion began. A Drill Shed, where farmers, millers, blacksmiths, storekeepers, doctors and schoolteachers would learn and practice the defensive skills and techniques needed to protect what was theirs, was to be built.  Most of these peaceable folk had never handled a rifle, let alone fired one at a man.

Other Drill Sheds in neighbouring communities had been erected, but they were slap-dash and shoddy.  If Elora was going to put up a Drill Shed they would do it right!

A site on the north side of the settlement, overlooking the Grand River which flowed through the town, was selected. A single-story, rectangular structure of quarried river limestone rose. The shed’s design was plain but handsome in its Classical proportions. A circular fan light over the front door, and an circular oculus (an aperture to let in light and air) embellished the gable. Five multi-pane windows completed the side view. 

And what would a community building project be without acrimony?  At the time of the Drill Shed construction, there’d grown a municipal divide about village development. Some citizens supported expansion north of the Grand; others, including the Reeve were opposed to it. Not surprisingly the Reeve’s voice carried the day.

In an example of clever “nose thumbing” to the supporters of northside development, the Reeve had the image of a cocky rooster carved into one of the stone blocks of the Drill Shed. To the present day the image of the feisty bird shouts “cock-a-doodle do” at the northsiders.

On its completion, the brave men of Elora fulfilled their civic duties. Several times each week they filed regularly into their Drill Shed to take up arms. But Elora’s protection was never needed, as the Fenian menace soon faded into history.

In retrospect their bravado and bluster did more good than harm.The fear of foreign invasion which had been struck into our ancestors’ hearts, gave them another reason to support a united and militarily strong Canada.  Within two years, the independent nation of Canada was formed.

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In the years since Confederation, the Elora Drill Shed has served many purposes. As Elora’s first Community Center, it hosted visiting politicians and celebrities. Future Prime Minister William Lyon McKenzie King, former Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat, and Baden-born Adam Beck, the founder of Ontario Hydro gave speeches here.

For a time, the building was used as venue for live theatre. “Holy-rolling” Temperance meetings were also held there. During the Big Band era of the 1940’s and 1950’s, the former Drill Shed was a popular dance hall. Saturday night dances were the place to be in little Elora.

In 1972 the building was leased by the LCBO to be converted to a retail establishment selling liquor and spirits.

The Temperance folk must have rolled over in their graves.

LCBO Manager Paul Walker is convinced the building is haunted. “I haven’t seen spirits (joke!) but some of my employees have.” What Williams has seen are shutters open when he has closed them at night,; a whole shelf of bottles with the labels turned to the back. He’s had mysterious phone calls too. “It’s a fun place to work,” he chuckles.  

The Elora Drill Shed is one of only two surviving Drill Sheds in Ontario and remains one of Canada’s finest examples of its type.

It was designated as a National Historic Site in 1989.

The Elora LCBO

40 High Street,

Elora

519-846-0141

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