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REMEMBER THIS: Fairy Lake once the favoured place to skate

In this week's column, History Hound Richard MacLeod traces the story of skating, and how the community and town worked together to build indoor rinks and gathering places

Since we are still in the midst of winter  — although the recent weather may point otherwise — this column will focus on Newmarket’s arenas and skating facilities over the years.

Several of you will perhaps be acquainted with a few of these sites, while others may be as yet unknown to you. Let us start from the very beginning.

Early records indicate a skating rink was operated during the 1870s on the north side of Timothy Street, just east of the railroad, extending probably 90 feet, accessed by eight or 10 steps down from the sidewalk. This was a covered area with a floor so that in summertime it could be used for roller-skating, according to The History of the Town of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella.

In 1897, a new skating rink was erected on the west side of Main Street, midway between Huron (now Davis Drive) and Simcoe streets. This timber structure was built by William Cane & Sons for $1,580 and measured 79 by 150 feet with a skating area of about 44 by 140 feet. A six-foot gallery for onlookers was at the east end and the lighting was by incandescent lamps. It was financed by a company of stockholders formed by selling 1,000 shares locally at $1 per share.

This old rink was torn down when a new hockey arena was built on Cedar Street in 1922, flanking the stream on the north side of Timothy. The river course was eventually diverted in 1974. The arena was officially opened in December 1922 and named the Newmarket Memorial Arena recognizing the local efforts during the 1914-18 First World War. It had accommodation for 2,000 spectators when initially built and cost approximately $40,000, most of it financed by Andrew Davis, who was the principal shareholder, managing director and president of the famous hockey teams during the 1930s.

In August 1944, Davis offered to sell the arena to the town. The mayor at the time, Dr. Lowell Dales, had expressed a need for more public recreation facilities and he quickly advocated for the purchase. In September 1944, bylaw 853 was passed establishing a plebiscite to approve approximately $17,000 of public money to acquire the arena. A public vote was held Oct. 12 with most of the citizens (544-102) approving the motion. Another bylaw was then passed in February 1945 to issue debentures of $16,000, and the arena then became the property of the town.

Utilization of the arena would be limited to a relatively short season due to the fact it was sporting natural ice. In January 1949, a proposal was put forward to install artificial ice. This proposal gained popular approval and a community fundraising drive was launched with more than $9,000 being contributed. Fred Thompson, the manager of the hockey association, was named chair of the fundraising committee and town council agreed to a 50/50 arrangement for the total installation cost.

More than 8,500 feet of piping would be laid and welded by local volunteers that October, and by December 1949, the artificial ice was in regular use. A new extension along the west end facing Cedar Street would provide additional space for ice-making equipment, new dressing rooms, washrooms, a coffee bar, a lobby, meeting rooms and additional seating. The main entrance was off Cedar Street.

From very early in our history, the ice surface on the ponds, Fairy Lake and Rogers Reservoir, wer the most popular place for winter sports. A crude shack was located on the west bank of Fairy Lake to change your skates, or sometimes you may have found yourself just sitting on old logs out in the open. Shinny games were played on open clearings of the ice. The absence of snow on the frozen surface would make it easy to glide pleasantly southward along the river to Mulock Sideroad.

We would enjoy open-air skating on the pond until the 1970s, when more sophisticated facilities came online, and Fairy Lake was ruled out of bounds.

Apart from the civic arena and town hall, there were no other places for public gatherings. The lack of a civic centre was a frequent topic for discussion, but nothing ever seemed to materialize. We were experiencing a population explosion, with our numbers doubling from 5,036 in 1950 to more than 11,324 in 1970. This necessitated more facilities for social activities.

The town hall auditorium had been used since it was built in 1883 for scores of public gatherings, performing arts, political meetings, travelling entertainment of all sorts. When the hall was taken over by the municipal offices and magistrate’s court in the 1950s, there was no other place to fulfil the previous functions.

There were serious considerations in 1958 and again in 1960 for the replacement of the town hall. Then, in July 1965, the emphasis became the need for the construction of a general-purpose building in the downtown core. In an earlier column on NewmarketToday, I outlined the details of the plans, ahead of the 1967 Canadian Centennial, to obtain a federal grant to help build a civic centre, along with other enhancements in the downtown district.

However, this project was nullified by the council and the whole idea was dropped. Then, in 1968, an ambitious attempt for urban renewal was launched and a civic centre was to be one of the ingredients. However, this eventually fell apart.

In February 1969, a positive commitment was made to find $500,000 for the purpose of constructing a facility. This project was soon to be downgraded to make major modifications to the existing arena through a funding drive, which raised approximately $139,000. A facelift to the exterior, the enlargement of the ice surface to regulation size and alterations to the seating capacity were accomplished during the summer of 1970, with the official opening taking place Aug. 17, 1970.

The 1970s brought the building of large subdivisions, and many more were projected. Under regional government, we saw plans for a heavily populated area emerge north of our previous border with East Gwillimbury Township. Once implemented, it would further increase our population to almost 18,000. (See my column on annexation on NewmarketToday.)

With the new subdivision north of Davis Drive constructed by the DelZotto brothers, it was promised that a new arena would be built by the developer along with a park, should the developer obtain approval for the venture.

In August 1972, an agreement was reached with the developer. They received a permit to build 329 new homes in Bayview Hills in return for the setting aside of 15 acres of land for a park and an additional three-and-a-half acres on the east side of Patterson Street for the construction of an arena. The value of said agreement was said to be approximately $350,000, including an ice surface of 135 by 35 feet, seating for 200, and six dressing rooms. It was built in late 1972 and, in February 1973, it opened and was named the Hollingsworth Arena. Sadly, the arena was recently demolished as part of another deal.

In 1972, it was acknowledged that it was time to provide more public facilities beyond those dedicated to hockey, facilities to serve more cultural and other community activities. The logical solution was to use potential land just north of the memorial arena to build a civic centre with adequate parking. Plans were prepared by local architects Smith and Milne were approved enthusiastically by council and Mayor Robert Forhan.

A large warehouse for produce storage was located just north of the arena, fronting Cedar Street, owned by Charles Rusto, which was purchased and later demolished, making way for the project. A store south of the municipal offices on Main was purchased and demolished to give pedestrians access to the community parking lot from Main Street.

In March 1974, a bylaw was passed to establish a community centre, and another bylaw to engage architects Smith and Milne to design and supervise the construction was proclaimed. In June, a contract was awarded to the Elrose Construction Company for $457,000.

The new community centre was opened for use in November 1974. It adjoined the existing arena, providing space for the community hall with several anterooms, a kitchen, a lobby and washrooms. While it did prove a major asset to the community with ample space for public gatherings, we were still lacking a proper auditorium for theatrical presentations.

In January 1979, a newly formed group organized the Newmarket Theatre Centre with Paul Aspland at its head. The group advocated for a new theatre given the unsatisfactory state of the Old Town Hall after having been used as a courtroom, and its fate was still very much in jeopardy.

Plans and a model and illustrations for a theatre design were proposed, to be built on the recently created Cane Parkway at an estimated cost of about $1 million, with substantial federal and provincial grants and with $300,000 supplied by the town. Initial enthusiasm faded as there was fear of an additional heavy burden for the taxpayer.

April 1980 saw the proposal scaled down at half the cost. Discussions continued through 1980 and 1981, but the whole venture would be abandoned. You can follow all of these issues in the Newmarket Era of this period.

It was decided to restore the Old Town Hall as the town’s centennial project. The renovation of the auditorium, stage, dressing rooms and seating for 250 were essentially completed during 1982 and official dedication was held Oct. 23, 1982.

Another theatrical group was formed in November 1981 called  the Old Town Hall Players, and the two groups shared the Old Town Hall, each producing three plays during the fall and winter seasons each year until 1996.

When the new Newmarket High School was built on Pickering Crescent, a professional-style theatre was included. In 1997, the two theatrical groups amalgamated under the name Newmarket Stage Company and produced their shows at the new location.

The Newmarket Community Centre is now the Lions Hall as part of a new Riverwalk Commons complex. A new ice pad/water facility graces the commons bringing us full circle.

Major sports activities are held in the new Ray Twinney Recreation Complex, which was opened in the Glenway Estates on Dec. 25, 1985, and a pool and fitness centre opened Nov. 5, 1988.

While I may have missed a few steps along the way, I think this column has presented an intriguing story. New community outdoor ice rinks and water parks abound right across the town, demonstrating our desire to play outdoors.

Additional sources: The Newmarket Era; The History of Newmarket’s Arenas and Parks by George Luesby.

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with NewmarketToday, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.