Take that, you Yankee Landgrabbers! Kingston’s Murney Tower

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We’re headed out on our most ambitious National Historic Site adventure so far. It will take us to Kingston, “the Limestone City.”

As is customary, Louis is the driver/navigator, with Hailey as co-pilot up front. Me? I’m in the back doing research. It’s a jolly band.

Over the course of the next 2 days, we’re aiming to visit all of Kingston’s 21 National Historic Sites. It’s a tall order, but the Sites are in a cluster along the historic waterfront. We should be able to meet our target.
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Truthfully though, I’m carrying less than my usual enthusiasm about our outing. Kingston, strategically located where the St. Lawrence River and the Rideau Canal meet Lake Ontario was a key British military base before and during the War of 1812-14.

But for this blogger, recounting rounds of musket fire and rapacious American invader tactics are not high on her list of historical interests.

I’m making an exception for the curious Murney Tower. Read on to find out why.
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We’ll time-travel first back to 1794, on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, of all places. There the ever-striving British Navy is bombing the be-jeepers out of a squat, round watch tower at Mortella Point on the coast of the island nation.

Over the next several hours, 2 British warships, with 104 guns on board, relentlessly pummel the French-held tower.

Given the strength of the British assault and the diminutive size of the fortification, logic predicts that the building will be soon leveled.

Not so fast.

This is no ordinary 19th century fortification. When the smoke clears, the Mortella Point watch tower remains virtually intact. The British are so impressed with the impregnability of the fortification that they borrow the concept as their own. From now on, they`re called Martello Towers.

Over the coming years, a number of Martellos are constructed along the south coast of England. Try to get through these defenses, Napoleon!

War is also nigh in the Colonies with Americans pounding on the door to British North America. A number of Martello Towers go up –in Quebec City, in Nova Scotia, and in New Brunswick. There will be sixteen in all throughout the colony.

Four rise in Kingston alone. Given the town`s strategic location, the British are taking no chances with the wily Americans.

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Before a musket had even been fired, a brou-ha-ha erupted over the naming of the finest of the Kingston Towers. City fathers had chosen to name it “The Murray Tower” in honour of Sir George Murray, a high-ranking British official living in Kingston.

The man on the street had different ideas. The Tower should be named after sea captain Henry Murney who had once owned the piece of land where the Tower now sat.

To no one`s surprise, the Murray-ites won the day over the Murney-ites. A plaque identifying the Murray Redoubt (Tower) was affixed to the Tower wall to make it official.

But not for long.

And while the culprit was never caught, the second “r” in Sir George’s Murray’s name was indelibly altered. An “n” had replaced it. And so the “Murray Tower” became the Murnay Tower. Not quite right but close enough!

The sign with the artwork remains today.

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Let’s take a closer look at structure of the Murney Tower, considered to be the best surviving example of the fortification in Canada.
Built of Kingston limestone and rising 3 stories, the Murnay Martello Tower boasts walls 3 feet thick on the landside and 5 feet facing the water. No wonder they gained the reputation of being almost impregnable.

A deep, dry ditch surrounds the Tower. Access to the inside is limited to one drawbridge over the ditch. I wonder if the ditch was ever filled with water to become a moat?
But protection of the Kingston harbor was only one of Murney’s assignments. On each of Murney`s 3 levels were 32- pound cannons, capable of doing significant damage to ships entering the Kingston harbour.

But these were no ordinary lumbering cannons. They were portable weapons, able to be moved as need be– either lakeside or landside. On the upper floor the largest cannon could be rolled along an iron track for full 360 degree coverage.
The most ingenious feature of the Murney is the “rapid removal roof.” The panels could be removed to provide a flat surface allowing sharp-shooters to lie prone and fire unseen at enemy ships.
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Despite their inspired design and superior construction, Martello Towers eventually became obsolete. By the turn of the century, they were closed as active defensive structures.

Now what to do with an thick-walled, windowless structure surrounded by a ditch. Some Martello Towers across the country were torn down, but the 4 Kingston towers remained.

Now owned by the City of Kingston and managed by the Kingston Historical Society, only the Murney and the Fort Frederick Tower on the grounds of the Royal Military College are open to the public.
The Murney Tower was designated a National Historic Site in 1930.

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And what would a watch tower be without a ghost? According to paranormal investigators at C.H.A.P.S. (The Canadian Haunting and Paranormal Society), the bottom floor of the Murney is especially rife with spooks.

Investigators wielding night-vision security cameras and magnetic field detectors report hearing the shuffling of feet; an unseen hand touching the arm of an investigator and spirit readings in “the red zone.”

The Murney Tower is open to visitors during the summer months. Check out the rolling cannons and paranormals for yourself.

No Ordinary Pioneer Home: “Uncle Tom’s” Cabin. Dresden, Ontario.

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The book “The Life of Josiah Henson; formerly a Slave” begins ominously.

I was born, June 15, 1789, in Charles County, Maryland, on a farm belonging to Mr. Francis N. about a mile from Port Tobacco. My mother was the property of Dr. Josiah McP. But was hired by Mr. M to whom my father belonged.

The only incident I can remember which occurred while my mother continued on N.’s farm was the appearance of my father one day with his head bloody and his back lacerated. …His right ear had been cut off close to his head and he had received 100 lashes on his back. He had beaten the overseer for a brutal attack on my mother and this was his punishment. 

 You’ll know Josiah Henson better as “Uncle Tom,” the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

You’ll also know Henson’s home, just outside Dresden, Ontario as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” 

On a recent road trip down the 401 to “tobacco country,” in the Chatham-Kent area, your intrepid National History Site adventurers arrive at Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Museum. Each year, thousands of visitors from Canada, the U.S. and beyond stop to pay tribute to both Josiah Henson and Emily Beecher Stowe. 

Now largely forgotten Harriet Beecher Stowe played a significant role in the emancipation of the American Negro after the U.S. Civil War. So much so that when she was presented to President Abraham Lincoln, he is reported to have greeted her with: “So you’re the little woman responsible for starting the Great War.”

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“Betrayal” set the stage for Josiah Henson’s flight to Canada in 1830. After purchasing his freedom, Henson’s master pocketed the money and prepared to put his “property” on the slave’s auction block in New Orleans.

Providence was surely on Josiah’s side for he was able to escape with his wife and 4 children. Travelling at night along the “underground railway” (a series of safe houses for runaway slaves) the family made their way into the northern states, then over the Niagara River into British North America. Here they were free. 

The Henson family settled in Dawn Township near the little village of Dresden. With financial assistance from members of the American Anti-Slavery movement, Henson purchased 200 acres of land. His dream was to build a self-sufficient community for other fugitives from slavery. Henson called it “The Dawn Settlement.”it was a worthy name for those who were starting a new chapter in their lives. 

Over the coming years, the Dawn Settlement prospered. The land was rich and supported farming of corn, wheat and tobacco. Virgin black walnut trees were harvested and the valuable timber was exported to Britain and the U.S. Henson also oversaw the building of a number of mills, a brickyard and a school for the manual trades.

At its peak, the Dawn Settlement was home to 500 former slaves.  And life was good. But for thousands of slaves still in bondage in the southern United States, their existence was a bleak and painful one.

Then unexpectedly an unknown American travel writer named Harriet Beecher Stowe set the wheels in motion to change the lives of over 50,000 American slaves. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1842. At one time the book would be the world’s second ranked best seller. Only the Bible sold more.

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Chapter One of Uncle Tom’s Cabin begins with two white men—one a plantation owner; the other a slave trader discussing a “property” deal. Eliza, a “house slave” enters the room to fetch a young child and is noticed favourably by the visitor.

“By Jupiter,” says the trader, turning to the girl in admiration, “there’s an article now! You might make your fortune on that ar gal in Orleans, any day. I’ve seen over a thousand, in my day, paid down for gals not a bit handsomer.”

He presses his host. “Come, how will you trade about the gal. What shall I say for her, what’ll you take?”

As Josiah Henson’s memoir had begun with physical brutality and disfigurement, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s opened with no less an abomination: the trading in human lives. From childhood she’d witnessed both forms of cruelty and vowed she would do what she could to change her flawed and barbaric world.

Harriet had learned compassion and the concept of equality from her father. Lyman Beecher was Abolitionist who regularly sheltered runaway slaves from the American south. He assisted them to cross the border into Canada and freedom. 

By her early 20’s, Harriet was writing regional travel articles for American journals.  But her reading  the book The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave in 1841 turned her thoughts to writing more serious subjects.

The passage of the American Fugitive Slave Act only confirmed Harriet’s literary direction. Under the terms of the Slave Act, any American finding a runaway slave must turn them in to authorities or risk prosecution themselves.

Appalled by this legislation, Harriet  sat down to write “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” She based her principal character “Uncle Tom” on Josiah Henson. 

Given the political times, with Abolitionist President Abraham Lincoln having been elected, Beecher Stowe’s “expose” was explosive, and she was in demand to speak around the world.  Her visit to England, a nation which had abolished the scourge of slavery in 1808 saw the author feted as “royalty.”

The wheels of progress moved much slower than in the British Isles. It would take  11 years and a Civil War for the United States to follow Great Britain’s lead.

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“This is strange,” I remark to my husband, Louis as we approach Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Museum Historic Site. 

“It’s not been recognized by the Canadian government as a National Site. Surely Josiah Henson’s house where he sheltered hundreds of runaway slaves lives and breathes Canadian history.”

My trusty driver is equally perplexed by the omission. “I’m going to find out why when we get there,” I announce to him. Louis is used to my “must know ways!” 

The Site’s interpretive staff have a perplexing  answer to my question “why?” “Josiah Henson has been declared a Person of national significance to Canada but his house is not,” offers the Curator. I’m incredulous and ask for more information.

“Because the cabin house was moved from one part of Henson’s property to another,” he answers.  And Parks Canada won’t designate us as “Officially Historic” because of this.” With curious piece of bureaucratic tomfoolery,  our guide gives a wry smile and shrugs his shoulders.

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Restored to a sound condition in recent years, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is a two story weathered timber cottage. The second story is off-limit to visitors. One downstairs room is furnished with a kitchen table, a sideboard and various kitchen equipment.

The dining room across the centre hall catches the visitor off guard. Wax representations of Josiah Henson and his wife Nancy are startlingly realistic.  

Most visitors make the Cabin their first stop but other Site buildings are of interest as well. A period sawmill and a smokehouse, cunningly built into the trunk of a large sycamore tree give a notion of life in the mid-19th century.

The Dawn Settlement church displays the original organ and the pulpit where Josiah Henson preached at  Sunday services. The last stop is the Henson family cemetery where Josiah and members of his family are buried.

A federal National Historic Site or not, I’d encourage you to make a visit to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Museum. Pick up a copy of  The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave in the Museum’s large bookstore when you’re there.Only 69 pages, it is a window on a world, not so very long ago where men, women and children were bought and sold.

So Small; So Lovely; So Many Tales to Tell. Nathaniel Dett’s Church in Niagara Falls

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After weeks of life getting in the way of adventuring, Louis, the two dogs and I set off on an unseasonably-warm, late December day to Niagara Falls. There we’d open the Niagara chapter of our quest to visit all the National Historic Sites in Ontario.

The Niagara Region—Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Queenston and St Catharines rank second only to Toronto in the number of Sites that are of national significance.

Thank the War of 1812-1814 for that. Niagara’s close proximity to the U.S. in those bellicose days made it a predominant setting for battles during the War. Battles don’t catch my attention much. My chauffeur thinks otherwise. But unless he get his fingers flying over the keyboard, you’ll not likely get much musket talk from this writer. 

By the time we turned toward home, we’d visited 7 Sites. Come along with me to my personal favourite–the R. Nathaniel Dett British Methodist Episcopalian Church in Niagara Falls. It provided a welcome intermission from Yankees and the British Empire.

Escaping from Slavery

African Americans first appeared in the Niagara Region during and after the American Revolution, between 1765 and 1783.  Some had been freed from slavery; others remained chattels of white Americans loyal to the British Crown (Loyalists) who had relocated north of the 49th parallel.

The numbers of black settlers steadily grew with the success of the Underground Railroad. This humanitarian network of safety led American slaves to freedom in British North America. Many settled within a stone’s throw of the border. 

A House of Worship Rises

In 1836, the black community of Niagara Falls began construction of a modest church on Murray Street, close to the Falls. There they could give proper thanks to the God who had led them to freedom.

Modest in size and constructed of sturdy frame set on a stone foundation, the British Methodist Episcopal Church (BMEC) rose thanks to the efforts of its small congregation.

Only a single storey, with a minimum of ornamentation, the church gained softness thanks to a distinctive quatrefoil (four-leaf clover shaped) window above the modest entrance porch. Lancet (rectangular pointed) windows framed the doorway and lend a subtle elegance to the building.  

Inside, the Pastor preached from a raised dais in front of a sacred altar. The congregation sat on simple wooden pews.

But this beloved church was not without its failures. Located on Murray Street, in close proximity to the roaring Falls, BEMC was damp and clammy inside. Spray from the water made outdoor socializing on the way to and from church next to impossible.

BMEC was eventually deemed unsuitable. With no financial means to build another house of worship in a more suitable location, the church community came to a decision.

No strangers to labour, they freed the building from its moorings, hoisted it and placed it on sturdy logs. The British Methodist Episcopalian Church was then rolled on logs down the hill. It rested on a pleasant (and dry) property donated by a landowner, and near the present-day business district of Niagara Falls.

Honouring One of the Congregation

Music was, and remains a significant part of black heritage. Some of America’s most recognizable traditional songs, “Old Black Joe” and “Swing Lo Sweet Chariot” hearken back to slavery days.

Church services have long been a vehicle for black congregations to express their love of music—and their musicality.  In 1983, 130 years after its construction, the British Methodist Evangelical Church was renamed in honour of one North America’s most respected musicians and composers, Nathaniel Dett.

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Born in 1882 in Niagara Falls, Nathaniel was a musical prodigy. He learned the piano at an early age and by his early teens he was the organist at BMEC.

Nathaniel had also begun composing and integrated into his musical compositions influences from the Negro spirituals that he had learned as a child at his grandmother’s knee. Nathaniel’s fame grew and by the 1920’s and 1930’s he was considered among the most talented of “Negro” composers.

His compositions were a highlight of “the Coloured Program” that regularly played to Standing Room Only crowds at the Chicago Music Hall.

Nor was Nathaniel Dett’s genius for the concert hall only.  He wrote and performed sacred music. His magnum opus is the 1927 Religious Folksongs of the Negro.

The legacy of Nathaniel Dett is sadly marred by a racial incident which took place in 1937,  at the height of his acclaim. In a coup for racial acceptance, Dett’s composition “The Ordering of Moses” was to be debuted at Carnegie Hall in New York. The NBC radio network would carry the broadcast.

Part way through the performance, the radio program went silent. While no official explanation from NBC was ever given, it is believed that complaints received by the network from those objecting to the playing of African-American music at a “white venue” was the cause.

After Dett’s death in 1943, his body was returned to Niagara Falls where it is buried in the cemetery of the British Methodist Episcopalian Church.

In 1983, the church was renamed the Nathaniel Dett British Methodist Episcopalian Church. 

In 2000 it was designated a Site of national significance by Parks Canada. The honour comes as a result of its role in sheltering travelers on the Underground Railway as well as Nathaniel Dett’s legacy.

 

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Joseph Schneider Haus: Legacy Born out of Revolution

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Close your eyes awhile and imagine the scene. Four horse-driven Conestoga wagons, towering high with the stuff of daily life, lumber along a rutted dirt road. Children and women walk beside or behind the laboring caravan. The sun is setting and both travellers and horses are bone-weary.

A closer look at the on-board baggage reveals some curiosities alongside bedding, furniture, and cooking utensils. Here’s a brightly-painted coffee pot; a well-worn Bible, a painting embellished in the Amish “Fraktur” style, and a pair of scissors.

The caravan is heading north from the rolling hills of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, following the winding Susquehanna River. In the days to come, they’ll circumvent the great waterfalls called Niagara and will cross into British North America.

Five weary weeks will pass before the travelers reach their destination.

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The pacifist Mennonites of Pennsylvania had been caught unwillingly in the nationalist fervour that gripped the newly-formed United States of America following the end of the Revolutionary Wars. Unconvinced that Congress would uphold their exemption from bearing arms, and burdened by soaring prices for land, the Mennonites looked to Upper Canada for their future.

The first Lancaster County Mennonites arrived north of the 49th parallel in 1786. By 1802, more than 30 families lived around “The Twenty,” twenty miles from Niagara Falls.

In 1807, one Joseph Schneider, his wife Barbara and their four children, (three more would follow), accompanied by Barbara Schneider’s brother Benjamin Eby, a Mennonite Bishop arrived in the tract of land some miles west of “The Twenty. It was known as The German Tract.

This vast area of 60,000 acres of dense bush and bog swamp had previously been given by the British Crown to Indian leader Joseph Brant and his Six Nations band. It recognized Brant’s loyalty to the British during the Revolutionary Wars. Later “on behalf of the Indians,” the British sold large areas of the Tract to new settlers.

Note: The so-called “Cayuga Blockade” of several years ago traces its roots to this situation.

It was to this land-locked virgin soil that Joseph Schneider and Benjamin Eby arrived and took possession of large acreage. Both men are considered to be the founders of the present day City of Kitchener.

Soon other Lancaster County Mennonites followed. Their names are common today in the Waterloo Region–Erb, Gaukel, Nafziger, Betzner, among others. And in recognition of Bishop Eby, of the fledgling community was named Ebytown.

Initially Ebytown was no more than a few rough-hewn houses and commercial establishments strung along a dirt wagon path. Sand hills, uncleared bush and swampland bounded the road. To the west, growing more slowly than Ebytown were the tiny settlements of St. Agatha, New Hamburg, Baden and Wellesley.

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Human and domestic animal lodging had been paramount on the Schneider’s’ “to do list” after their arrival in 1807. A utilitarian one-story cabin would have to do for the present. Togetherness was a given for Schneider family of nine!
By 1816, a more substantial two-story frame house rose. Joseph Schneider’s sawmill, the first in the area, turned bush into building materials.

Several outbuildings followed: a wash house for boiling laundry; a bakery, dominated by a large stone oven; a press house for apple cider and a “spring” house under which a cooling “refrigeration” stream ran. Letting not a blade of grass grow under their industrious feet, the Schneiders had also cleared ten acres of dense bush. Wen work was complete on the house, the Schneiders built a road (today’s busy Queen Street) which headed west towards the outlying settlements.

In short order, Joseph Schneider and other forward-thinking Mennonites founded the area’s first school. A blacksmith shop, tavern and various mills followed. Schneider was also instrumental in the founding of the town’s first newspaper “Canada Museum und Allgemeine Zeitung” in 1835.

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Joseph Schneider passed away at his home in 1843, aged 71. His life had been long and rewarding. On his death, several treasured artifacts were passed on to his descendants. One was a tall clock, which remains in Schneider Haus today. Another was a rare German Bible, printed in Zurich, Switzerland and containing fine examples of decorative Fraktur writing.

Joseph Schneider’s legacy was carried on by his son Joseph. In 1849, the younger Schneider wrote and published the family’s genealogy. It is thought to be the earliest known family history printed in Canada.

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In 1979, Joseph Schneider Haus was reborn as a “working, functional house museum,” managed by the Region of Waterloo. Furnishing the house accurately, more than a century and a quarter past, was done with care, patience and precision.

And, as the Museum sought to re-enact the life of the Schneider family circa 1850, it would see its staff in period costume, performing the tasks of daily life. Visitors are encouraged to try their hand at baking, “schnitzing” and writing Fraktur.

Praise for the authenticity of Schneider Haus was immediately forthcoming from visitors. One said: “One of the things that Joseph Schneider Haus taught me was to have a critical eye when I go in a museum. Do the interpreters wear watches? Do they wear rings? Is everything period–the restorations? the furnishings? When they did the restoration here, it was to detail. It was correct.

Joseph Schneider Haus was designated as a National Historic Site in 1998.

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