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Niagara-on-the-Lake
Photo by Brian A. Kilgore

How to Read an Ontario Town

In the middle of World War II, the poet John Betjeman published a slim, affectionate book called English Cities and Small towns. Written from memory, at a time when "Mr. Betjeman’s present work has taken him temporarily out of England," as the jacket copy rather coyly puts it, the book begins with the poet’s way of deciphering a strange town. It’s an unhurried piece of detective work that takes him from the railway station to the ancient alleys that radiate from the parish church and the High Street; to the stationer’s shop, where he buys postcards of the neighbourhood wonders, a relentlessly enthusiastic guide, and local newspapers full of parish news; past the backs of houses in the High Street, which reveal their origins far more honestly than their fronts; searching for the a key to the eighteenth-century Unitarian church; attending morning service in the sadly renovated Anglican church; listening to the local talk in the “Family and Commercial” hotel properly redolent of HP sauce and brown wallpaper, and so on.

By the time I discovered Betjeman’s book, I was a habitué of Ontario’s small towns, from the heavy-lidded railway station to the “best street,” from the bank-turned-country-inn to the local authors’ shelf in the oak-lined Carnegie Library. I knew that a locked church can often be entered through the parish office, and that the antiques-shop proprietor, having a vested interest in the past, is frequently a good source of information about the town. There are no Tudor churches or eighteenth-century Corn Exchanges in Ontario and the visitor’s path is more solitary and less systematic, but Betjeman’s and my methods were remarkably similar. Had he found himself in Perth or Cobourg, he would have known how to proceed.

After, perhaps, an initial discouragement. Secretive and proud, in the Upper Canadian way that masquerades as self-effacement, Ontario towns would have you believe there is very little to read in their regular streets and handsome, plainish houses. One of the first things the curious visitor learns is that an interest in the cobblestone houses of Paris or the Crystal Palace in Picton is likely to be met with blank bewilderment or jocular indifference.

Like Betjeman, I tried to begin with a local guide, however sketchy and flattering. In Ontario, when they exist, they tend to be leaflets whose location is idiosyncratic — at the Town Hall here, the Chamber of Commerce there, the museum, even the local constituency office in one town. The cards, maps, and books on local subjects that Betjeman found reliably at the stationer’s shop surface here in odd nooks and crannies. In Picton it was a camera store where I found The Settler’s Dream, the invaluable architectural survey of Prince Edward County; in Napanee, the local history is for sale in the public library, in Stratford at the Perth County Archives, in Paris at the stationer’s shop.

But, grudgingly or not, Ontario rewards patience, resourcefulness, and the ability to smile vaguely at scoffers. The traveler who tours a nineteenth-century town at the deliberate pace for which it was designed (walking when not on a slow horse) finds instant gratification in the details — terracotta plaques, bombastic keystones, leafy capitals. The occasional interiors available to the walker can be almost spookily evocative: the sculpted Victorian fittings in Andrews Jeweller (now Anstetts) in St. Marys, the more workaday look of Hall’s House of Quality Linens in Paris, the gloriously churchy courtroom in Stratford’s Perth County Courthouse. As for the real churches, when the parish office is locked, before or after the 11 a.m. Sunday service is a good time to admire the Anglicans’ hammerbeam ceilings, the Catholics’ stained-glass fantasias, and the Methodists’ sloping floors, which direct all eyes to the pulpit.

When you first savour an Ontario town, its particularity is striking. Frequently it’s a result of the available building material, which in the nineteenth century was difficult to transport even short distances. The buttery sandstone that makes Perth look like Perth does not appear in Merrickville, thirty minutes away by car. The terrain, the settlers’ social and geographical origins, the date of settlement also determine a town’s character: Perth, a Scottish settlement dominated by lawyers and retired military officers, presents a very different face from Merrickville, a limestone village settled by American, English, and Scottish small-scale industrialists.

When each town is a social history to be decoded, the architectural alphabet becomes a rich source of information. The presence of Greek Revival buildings, a republican style much favoured by Yankees, usually indicates American settlers, as in Paris. The virtual absence of Second Empire buildings suggests a town that had finished growing before the 1870s, when that showy style arrived, peaked, and declined: Cobourg is a case in point. Towns that began in the mid-nineteenth century, such as St. Mary’s or Stratford, missed the Loyalist, Greek Revival, and Regency styles almost altogether.

If the individual distinctiveness of the towns impresses a visitor first, a deeper acquaintance unmasks the common elements. There remains something very Ontario about Ontario towns, most obviously a plainness in the buildings that ranges from elegant to dour. The prevailing Scottish ethos, which distrusted display and prized straightforwardness, was influential here; so was the settlers’ poverty and the dearth of easily workable stone. Using the repertoire of nineteenth-century styles common to Britain and the United States, Ontarians built more simply (and often smaller, because of the cold and relative lack of servants). Compared with those of Australia, a sister colony with workable stone, abundant convict labour, and a certain national joie de vivre, Ontario’s Gothic Revival and Italianate buildings can look downright severe. Commodity and firmness were in good supply, to cite two of Vitruvius’s criteria for architecture; his third, delight, is here too, but most characteristically it is a delight that arises from proportion and restraint.

Ontario towns in the main were the creation of builders, not architects. And those builders could be stubbornly conservative, constructing a Gothic villa forty years after the style’s peak in the U.S. or Britain. Next door to the villa the same builder might build an up-to-the minute Queen Anne house, based on the latest pattern book from Britain or the U.S. Next door to that he might concoct a patchwork of a house from two or three styles. Just because a new style was ŕ la mode was no reason to jettison an old favourite, and the builders’ reliance on pattern books left them free to mix, match, and improvise when they saw fit. All of which makes Ontario buildings maddening to date, bewildering for the purist, and diverting for the walker.

In 1789 Lord Dorchester, governor general, prescribed that inland settlements in Upper Canada be laid out in a prim gridiron, and many towns obediently tried to impose that regularity on hill and dale and river. The flatter the terrain the better it worked, as in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Merrickville. A hilly town like Port Hope was by necessity laid out more naturally. A town’s first buildings were close to the all-important Great Lake or river, as at St. Marys and Port Hope, but the water meant industry and transportation to the nineteenth century, not leisure or a picturesque view. Prosperity, as in the case of both St. Marys and Port Hope, often entailed a move away: the “best streets” are high above the water.

Even the street names of Ontario towns are suggestive. Queen, King, Victoria, and Church Streets cross-stitch their way across the province, constant reminders of church and state. St. Patrick’s Street will be close to the Catholic church or perhaps the Irish quarter, St. Andrew’s to the Presbyterian church, St. George’s to the Anglican. The plethora of streets dedicated to the heroes of the Napoleonic Wars — Wellington, Wellesley (the Duke’s family name), Picton, Waterloo — commemorate one of the great settling forces of Upper Canada. Judging by the number of generals and administrators honoured by Ontario’s surveyors and town fathers, it was a society that held them in much higher esteem than artists and thinkers. The exceptions are memorable because they are exceptions: in Perth, Herriott Street is a misspelled tribute to George Heriot (1759-1839), a watercolour artist better known in Canada as head of the post office. Byron and Ricardo Streets in Niagara-on-the-Lake are anomalous tributes to a poet and an economist.

One of the most appealing things about the towns is their completeness. The limitations of nineteenth-century transportation and communication made, to paraphrase John Donne, one little town and everywhere, with poignant results. Small as it was, a town might have a Corktown or an Irish section, and upper town and a lower town, a fashionable side and an unfashionable side. In these Lilliputian kingdoms, two shopping streets perpendicular to each other could compete hotly for supremacy.

Along with completeness came a self-importance and great expectations. With the single arguable exception of St. Marys, the towns in this book believed they were destined to become important cities, centres of industry and power. They were equally vain about their beauty, and the hyperbole with which the historian of Brant County described Paris was not unusual. The town was “beautiful from every point,” it hills just high enough to be picturesque, its river rejoicing in “the Wordsworthian charm of quiet,” even its gas-lit factories “starring with dancing lights the impetuous stream below.” Paris was unique in managing to bill itself simultaneously “the Manchester of Ontario” and “the prettiest town in Canada,” but each town was convinced that it was an unparalleled beauty spot.

Their dreams of power and influence came to nothing, fortunately as it turned out for their nineteenth-century aspect: charm and the keen sense of the past that these towns sustain have proved more durable. Their very lack of architectural masterpieces has helped in this regard. The walker who encounters the variety of Ontario’s “derivative” and “typical” buildings encounters, in Alan Gowans’s words in Building Canada, a popular architecture “in which the past exists most concretely and vitally.” Which is not to say that an Ontario town is a poor thing but our own: it is our own, and a fascinating thing. And the ten here are only a beginning.

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