The former fire hall on Main Street at Millard Avenue is back in the news with the Town of Newmarket announcing it is seeking proposals for the future use of the building.
Newmarket’s volunteer fire brigade was first formed in 1859, a year after we officially became a village. In 1866, a two-storey building was built to store all their equipment, along with a council meeting room and a courthouse upstairs — our first council chambers.
The building did not weather well and by 1950 it was in horrible shape — an eyesore and a safety hazard. It was too small to accommodate a new fire engine that the service had acquired and there was little if no room for an expanded number of fire personnel.
The need for new quarters for the fire service and updated equipment to obtain a more favourable fire insurance rating for the town necessitated the replacement of the old building. The town was growing rapidly, and the fire service needed to keep pace.
In February 1951, a proposal for a new fire hall was presented to council and by October that year, a decision had been made to demolish the old fire hall and ancient town clerk’s office beside it at the corner of Millard and Main.
Plans were put forward for a two-storey hall with space for two existing fire trucks and provision for two additional units. The upper floor would be used for community meetings and social events.
The contract for the new structure was awarded to Ward & Allen and Company for $33,120 and by the end of August 1952, it was fully occupied. This location would serve as the main fire hall until it was supplemented in 1978 by No. 2 firehall on Davis Drive East.
Firehouse No. 2 was established on the south side of Davis in 1974 after the town purchased the old Trailways bus garage and renovated and enlarged it. A tender was given to Rene Bray for the amount of $56,216 and an open house was held in January 1975. A brand-new aerial truck was purchased the following March. This fire hall was to be used until a new fire hall was added in July 1991 on Gorham Street.
The fire hall on Main Street was still occupied by the fire department for some of its older equipment — the famous Bickle fire truck — and the second floor was rented to various organizations for special occasions.
It was leased out to a Montessori school in 1980, which stayed there until Elman Campbell convinced the town to establish a museum. This came to pass in 1992. On June 25, 1992 the official opening of the Elman W. Campbell Museum took place.
Over the years, the building has been rented out to various groups, including a barbershop quartet and some local service clubs. However, the building no longer served as a fire hall.
The debates began in the late ‘90s as to what should be done with the building. Most agree it does not meet the criteria to be designated historic and so former councillor David Kerwin proposed the building be demolished and a parking lot be placed there.
There were some concerns that the soil and building may have been contaminated by oil residue from the oil barrows and mechanical products used over the years. In his public appeal to see the building demolished, Kerwin quoted studies that confirmed the property should not be used for commercial purposes at that time.
A local businessman had enquired about purchasing the property to establish a restaurant/pub, but was turned down. When a concern arose as to the town purchasing the house due west of the old fire hall on Millard and renting it to a town employee, the rationale given for its purchase was that the property was likely suffering the same fate as the fire hall.
Over the years, I have heard many proposals for the use of the building. At one time I had hoped the town would designate it the home of the Newmarket archives or allow the museum, dearly in need of more space, to expand, which, of course, never happened.
The actual story of why the building has sat empty for so long is not known by yours truly. The building, while not historic, is a great little structure and hopefully, someone will have a use for it. I will be watching with real interest what happens to the building. It would be exciting if something could rise, like a phoenix, from the ashes of this old fire hall.