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Remember This? Fairgrounds became Second World War military training camp

With war clouds casting a dark shadow over Western Europe, more than 1,000 men a month arrived for basic elementary training at the Newmarket Canadian Army Military Camp No. 29 from 1940 to 1945. brings you this weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound at [email protected].

Newmarket’s Canadian Army Military Camp, 1940 to 1945

During the late 1930s, war clouds cast a dark shadow over Western Europe. The German Nazi army invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and overran Poland Sept.1. The fate of the United Kingdom was in jeopardy. On Sept. 3, 1939, Britain declared war on Germany and five days later, Sept. 8, the Parliament of Canada proclaimed that a state of war existed in support of the United Kingdom despite the waffling for neutrality by Prime Minister Mackenzie King.

Before the war, Canada had strong ties with Britain with preferential trade and sentiments. The population was predominantly Anglo-Saxon and unemployment during the 1930s was an inducement to enlist in the Armed Forces to alleviate the distress and, at the same time help Britain in its dire need. The Department of National Defence established several recruiting depots across the country and Toronto was named Military District No.2 in the Exhibition Coliseum and was generally known as Manning Pool, where the recruits were dispensed to the various training camps. There were 39 army camps established across Canada for elementary training.

When it was announced in midsummer 1940 that army training camps were to be formed, Newmarket town council was quick to realize an opportunity to offer unused land in the municipality for that specific purpose, which, in return, would be an economic benefit and help to alleviate the depressed business and labour problems in the town. With remarkable speed and political influence, Mayor Dr. S. J. Boyd, Reeve Fred Lundy, Deputy Reeve Joseph Vale and solicitor Norman L. Mathews went to Ottawa and met with W. Pate Mulock, the MP, and Harry Doyle, the administrator of the Wartime Prices & Trade Board. (Harry was born and raised in Newmarket from a well-known family.)

On Aug.1, 1940, bylaw 834 was passed by Council to lease town properties to the Dept. of National Defence for the duration of the war and for six months after the declaration of peace. This area included 16 acres of Connaught Gardens on the north side of Srigley Street and another 16 acres being the Fairgrounds. An additional 20 acres was acquired from Albert and Herbert Stickwood whose farm was on the south side of Srigley, east of the Fairgrounds.

Thus, a total of 52 acres was allocated to the military. (Connaught Gardens was a subdivision venture of 1912 that failed and reverted to the town for unpaid taxes.) Provisions for water supply, sewers, hydro and telephone services were part of the negotiations and were quickly arranged by the diligence of town council.

On Aug.15, 1940, Newmarket was selected as a site for a basic army training camp and designated No.29 in Military District 2 with an expenditure of $300,000 to train 1,000 men each month with a staff of 200 officers and instructors.

The training concentrated on physical exercise, squad drill, gas training and musketry. Work commenced immediately with 300 men employed to build 30 buildings in a 10-hour day, six-day week. Anyone with a hammer and saw applied for pay at 55 cents an hour, up to $1.10 /hr. for skilled labour. (The prevailing rate in town was 25 to 35 cents/hr. when work was available.

By mid-September, the first officers moved in under Lt. Col. Harkness with a provost corps of a sergeant and six men to supervise the army requirements. On Sept. 26, the first group of 100 men arrived by train and paraded down Main Street and onto the camp.

Eventually there were 45 buildings, including a large drill hall, barracks for 1,000 men, officers quarters, cook houses, recreation hall, infirmary, quarter-master stores, canteens and chapels.

Recruiting and enlistment at the rate of 1,000 men a month from Manning Pool arrived by train, continuing steadily for the duration of the war. When peace was declared to end hostilities, the camp ceased to function and went into limbo only to prepare for closing. On Jan.27, 1946, it was announced that the camp would be closed finally at the end of March. On being vacated, an auction sale on July 24/25 disposed of all furniture and equipment. The war period ended the terrible decade of the 1930s and introduced the transition into a completely new lifestyle at mid-century that changed humanity beyond all comprehension at the time.

The military camp area was completely redundant after the war and on Aug.3, 1946, a bylaw was passed by Town Council to repossess their leased 32 acres and acquire the residual 20 acres and all the buildings on the site from the War Assets Corporation for $34,700. Within a few days, they passed another bylaw to sell part of their purchase for $25,500 to builder/contractor John W. Bowser.

This was the area on the south side of Srigley and included all nine barracks. Each unit had been the quarters for 136 servicemen and comprised two long frame huts 24’x 100’, joined by a centre section called the “ablution hut” for toilets and showers to make an H plan form.

J. W. Bowser modified these H huts to plans by Geo. Luesby to convert them to residences. The central portion was removed and the ends of each leg in situ were adapted to make a bungalow 24’x 35’ for a total of 36 dwellings. The parade areas between the barracks were turned into streets and named Newton Street, Arthur Street, Lowell Avenue and Muriel Avenue, which was not extended to Gorham Street until January 1951 to make it the east limit for the Fairgrounds. The houses were all sold as soon as they were built in 1947 for $5,000 each.

The officers quarters were on the north side of Srigley and in April 1950, the property and one of the buildings were deeded by the town to the Newmarket branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, which was the nucleus for additions of the Legion Hall.

Also, north of Srigley on the east side of Crescent Road, the hospital infirmary was leased in August 1946 to Sangamo Electric Co. for $10,000 — $2,000 down and $4,000 for two years. This was used for light manufacturing until March 1950 and then leased to a printing lithographing company. In 1970, the buildings were demolished and the land parceled to provide 11 building lots.

During the war, the quartermasters stores, N.C.O. mess and offices occupied the southeast corner of Srigley and Muriel. This location was chosen for a new school site and with additional property from the Stickwood brothers on the west side, Prince Charles School was erected in 1950. The population had increased from 4,000 to 5,000 during the previous five years. This was the first school to be built since 1923.

The parade ground was in the central part of the old racetrack in the Fairgrounds and a large drill hall was erected at east end in 1941. The huge building, with an open interior covered with deep wooden trusses 125-foot span, was one of the buildings acquired by the town from War Assets Corp. In August 1947, it was leased to Eric. K. Jackson of Montreal as the Ontario Truck Body Co. for manufacturing. When the lease expired, the drill hall was occupied in 1950 by Canadian Comstock Co. as headquarters for the major hydro conversion project to change electricity services from 25 to 60 cycle. Later it was used as a curling rink until it was torn down in October 1960. A new curling rink was built on the north part of the site.

Two single-unit barrack huts were purchased for $500 by Isaac Lindenbaum, who had them moved to the north side of Davis Drive west of the present Dixon Medical Centre to establish a dry-cleaning business. One of the huts was later converted to a dairy and then a restaurant and the other used for indoor bowling. The former Glenville Dairy was destroyed by fire on April 7, 1990 and the bowling alley was demolished in June 1991, along with the demise of the old Cane factory. These were last remnants of the military camp except for the Fairgrounds that remain as a recreation park.

  — with files from G. W. Luesby