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Remember This, Newmarket: When hundreds of prominent 'old boys' returned for reunion

In this week's column, History Hound Richard MacLeod highlights two pivotal years in Newmarket's history, 1939 and 1940, following the Great Depression

Let’s take a trip back to the years 1939 and 1940 as we choose another period in Newmarket’s history to feature. I have chosen many of the highlights of those two pivotal years locally.

During the late 1930s, war clouds had cast a dark shadow over Western Europe. The German Nazi army would invade Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and overrun Poland on Sept. 1. Word spread in our area that the fate of Britain was in jeopardy. 

On Sept. 3, 1939, England would eventually declare war on Germany and five days later on Sept. 8, the Parliament of Canada proclaimed a state of war existed in support of England. Canada, already struggling to recover from the Great Depression, was in a state of weakness and Newmarket would be caught up in both historical sweeps of history. That is the backdrop to our look at the years 1939 and 1940 in Newmarket.

In 1939, we find a few new faces and a few grizzled veterans in the administration of the town’s business. Our mayor was Dr. S J. Boyd, our reeve was Fred Lundy, and our deputy reeve was Joseph Vale.  Boyd and Vale would go on to be remembered as two of the best politicians ever to serve this town. 

Council consisted of Frank Bowser, William Dixon, Arthur Evans, Dennis Mungoven, Joel Spillette and Albert Higginson. Several of these councillors would go on to bigger and better things in the local political arena. 

Norman Mathews was the clerk-treasurer, N.L. Mathews was the Crown attorney and Peter Trivett was the local bailiff.

Our police department was led by chief James Sloss. The fire department was led by Wesley Osbourne and W. Woodliffe served as the magistrate of the court, with Allan Mills as the clerk of the court.

J.B. Bastedo was the principal of Newmarket High and Harry Beer was the headmaster at Pickering College.

The population in Newmarket was listed as 3,800, with 60 births recorded and 49 deaths. Also listed is the fact that there were 221 dogs. 

The Citizens’ Band was winning awards at provincial events and Robert Moore had assumed the baton after the resignation of Orville Ganton early in 1939.

The hot entertainment locally was the local minstrel show, sponsored in 1939 by the Newmarket Citizens’ Band. These shows were held at the Old Town Hall and always played to full houses. It was said that if one did not secure a ticket several months in advance, you would be out of luck in finding a seat.  Ang West was the superstar of the shows, but the cast was drawn from every sector of our community with lawyers, doctors, local politicians and businessmen participating. With the abundance of local musical talent, there was never a lack of high-quality musical performances. 

The Newmarket Old Boys Reunion was held from June 29 to July 2, 1939, with the town seeing the return of hundreds of its prominent citizens to town to celebrate Newmarket’s history and to reminisce.  The attendance roll contained the likes of Sir William Mulock, who served as honorary patron. Many of those who attended travelled long distances, returning to the scene of their childhood, sometimes having been absent for a generation. 

It was termed a celebration of Newmarket’s glorious past and was an opportunity for the current residents to rub shoulders with those who had grown up here and then headed out to make their fortunes throughout the world.  

Representatives of Newmarket’s historical military companies attended, including the 127th Battalion, and the 220 Battalion. 

Keynote speakers were Ernest Bogart, a leading Ontario lawyer and politician, Walter Cain, the minister of lands and forest in Ontario, and Stanley Brock, who was a director and secretary treasurer of Canada Packers but had started his career as a carrier of the Newmarket Era in 1903. It is said that this event was a watermark in our history, so much history all gathered in one spot.

On the sporting front, Herbert Cain, now with the Montreal Canadiens, sat third in goal scoring in the NHL, with 21 goals, just behind Bryon Hextall with 24 goals and Milt Schmidt with 22 goals. Cain sat 13th overall in total points in the NHL. 

An unusual operation took place at York County Hospital when Dr. Boyd, our mayor, along with Drs. J.G. Cock and D.H. Guy removed both the tonsils and appendix of Rev. F.W. Madden in a single operation.

From an ad in the local paper announcing that all the stores on Main Street would be open each evening until Christmas, we learn that the hot seller was a series of Christmas gift baskets for $2, consisting of such items as a box of candy, men’s shirts or tie, a box of quality cigars, a bottle of perfume or a year’s subscription to the newspaper.

The rage amongst the theatre-going crowd was a new three-act play by A.N. Belugin entitled Pygmalion and Galantea, with a cast consisting of Hazel Hambly,  J. Purdy, Alice Belugin, Mrs. Cunningham, Vera Belugin and Gloria Peppiatt. New theatre productions were always a highlight of the season locally.

Leading the news was the story of the Newmarket Citizens’ Band’s trip to the East Malaratic Gold Mine in Northern Ontario, close to the Quebec border. Their performance celebrated the first gold brick to come out of the mine. Art West’s Orchestra and the Newmarket Citizens’ Band were the guests in January 1939 of Andrew Davis for a two-night stay, travelling north by private rail car.

Band members mentioned are Robert Moore, Leslie Rowland, Jack Arlitt, Joseph Cribar, Austin Brammar, Ben Cox and about 12 other members. The Art West Band performed their dance music at the Saturday celebration held with the outside temperature hitting -35F.  

Each member of the Citizens’ Band and Art West’s Orchestra received a miniature gold brick from Davis as a memento of the occasion.

In December 1939, the Dorland and Bender Casket Company rented the old Odd Fellows Hall from Max Boag to commence production of caskets locally. They would move over to Charles Street and Davis Drive where they were when I was young.  

Interestingly enough, the casket company produced caskets on the ground floor of the building, while the second floor continued to be the home of Boag’s dance club. One could dance nightly over a casket factory, which must have been quite the experience.

The Odd Fellows building would become Club 14 during the war.

As I mentioned, Newmarket was just coming out of the Great Depression and was in a financial funk. The three major industries — the Tannery, the Specialty and the Woodwork — had contracted during the Depression and money was tight and work scarce locally. This caused a series of issues for the local merchants and many of those on Main Street were looking at closing. The opening of the Military Camp seemed to fix that problem, thanks to the genius of Dr. Boyd and the council.

When it was announced in midsummer 1940 that Army training camps would to be built nationwide, town council was quick to realize an opportunity to offer unused land for that specific purpose, which in return would bring a huge economic benefit and help to alleviate the depressed business and labour problems in the town. 

With remarkable speed and political influence, mayor Boyd, reeve Lundy, deputy reeve Vale and solicitor Norman L. Mathews went to Ottawa and met with W. Pate Mulock the MPP and Harry Doyle, the administrator of Wartime Prices and Trade Board. (Doyle was born and raised in Newmarket from a well-known family before going to Ottawa).

On Aug.1, 1940, bylaw 834 was passed by council to lease town properties to the Department of National Defense 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 consisting of 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. 

A total of 52 acres was allocated to the military. Connaught Gardens was a subdivision venture of 1912 that failed and thus 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 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 an hour when work was available.  

By mid-September, the first officers moved in under Lieut. Col. Harkness with a provost corps of a sergeant and six men to supervise the Army requirements. On Sept. 26, 1940, the first group of 100 men arrived by train and paraded down Main Street and onto the camp. 

In the second part of this article, I will pick up the story with the construction of the Military Camp and the early war years here in Newmarket in 1940, which would see the beginning of a turnaround for Newmarket, assisted by the doubling of the population due to the arrival of approximately 3,500 men every six weeks, bring life to the town and much needed financial relief.

Next weekend I will look at the origins of Labour Day with an eye to how the holiday was celebrated locally. 

Sources: The Memorable Merchants and Trades 1930 to 1950 by Eugene McCaffrey and George Luesby; The Newmarket Era; The Newmarket Old Boy’s Reunion Souvenir Booklet June 29 to July 2, 1939

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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 Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.