The history of Vankleek Hill’s Mill St. Park 1950-1979

A Story of Kids Finding a Way To Play

Twice, Vankleek Hill has constructed an arena on a lot facing Mill Street and backed by Wall Street. How did the arena come to be in this location?
This is the location of a small body of water known as the “tarn”, a lingering glacial depression that collected water. In this case, an underground spring. The lane that sweeps behind the current baseball field is Loch Street, named after the original pond.
From an undated scrapbook comes this nostalgic 19thC memory of the pond and the big rock that sat within the water. It was written by W.D. McLaurin – William Drake McLaurin (1850-1938) – the son of Vankleek Hill merchant John McLaurin and Hannah Drake. In his 20s, William was a cooper and at the time of his death at age 88 in 1938, he was described as a street car conductor.
The reason for his death in October, 1938 speaks to his independence. William caught a chill at his Union Street home while chopping wood for the winter, and died of pneumonia in the Vankleek Hill Hospital on Bertha Street.
His brief memoir of adventures at the pond in his youth provides us with a precious view of how children made their own fun – all year long – before the existence of modern parks and recreation. Note that W.D. McLaurin refers to knowing Peter Vankleek – this would have been Peter Cass Vankleek, great-grandson of Simon Vankleek. The memories take place about 1860 when William Drake McLaurin was 10.
What prompted him to write? He tells us it was the deliberate blasting apart of the large rock that was, for the children, the central spotlight of the tarn. Based on his reference to friends long gone, I suggest that he wrote this in the 1930s.

The Stone in the Mill Pond by W.D. McLaurin

Yes, the stone, or rock I might call it, the one that stood in the centre of the pond, is there no more, destroyed last Fall, what about it? Only a stone, blown up to make room for something else, it may mean nothing to you, but it does to me, for I miss it every time I walk down Mill Street. It may mean the same to my schoolmates, but they are silent about it.
There are only a few of us left anyway. But I remember when the pond was to us boys a “Lake, ” yes, a lake, for I have seen it roll up to the road, beautiful waves on a windy day, the sparkle of the sun light playing upon it, made it appear as if the great stone were a Scotch pebble set in a brooch of diamonds and pearls. Then, our swimming place at the foot of the old lime kiln, where the water was clean for about one hundred feet, is now all covered with weed.
On the pond I had my raft, where I spent many happy hours. Peter VanKleek made a boat and gave me a ride in it, which I enjoyed very much. I never forgot Peter for his kindness to a boy. But the stone, what was there about it, that if I went near it, it filled me with awe. I kept away from it, somehow I felt as if it were very deep there, and if I fell in, they would never find me, and I did not want to die and go to Heaven, Vankleek Hill was heaven enough for me, but I did row up to it one day, and touched it.
A party of us made a raft of four logs, and when we got near the rock two of the logs broke away, and into the water went the boys, my brother Peter among them. Dexter Flynn lifted the boys back onto the two logs I was sitting on, then Dexter waded ashore. Peter and I went home, Peter to dry his clothes; for punishment we were sent to bed at four o’clock and us hearing the boys playing out on the street, however it did not prevent me from being on my beloved raft the next day.
Then when winter came, and the pond frozen over, what a gathering place the great stone made for the skaters to rest themselves upon. The girls in the afternoon, the boys in the evening, the delightful sociability of it all, that clusters about that stone.
By and by, like our grove which was our play ground and park, the pond also like the grove, only a memory, who cares, or do you care? Well, let me tell you about another stone, when you pass away, loving relatives will place a stone at the head of your grave, plant flowers and visits will be made every afternoon, by and by the flowers will wither and die, the stone will commence to lean over, a little more next year, a few years more, it lies flat on its face. What about it, nobody thinks enough of you to straighten it up. Who cares.
— W.D. McLaurin

Where did the children find logs for a raft? A variety of small sawmills were in operation scattered around Vankleek Hill, including Mill Street. In 1883, the tarn/pond attracted Albert Cheney and Robert Dunning who opened a large sawmill business, located where the arena stands. The company expanded in 1891 to become the Vankleek Hill Manufacturing Company with general store owner Malcolm McCuaig as president, postmaster William McAdam was secretary-treasurer, and Albert Cheney remained as manager. The tarn or pond was used for floating the logs. There was a turning mill for sash and door making, as well as fancy work such as gingerbread scroll work.

Vankleek Hill Manufacturing Company, Mill Street c.1910 (Vankleek Hill Museum postcard collection)

The business prospered as local farmers now had a place to bring all types of wood from their land clearing, while at the same time they could pick-up finished products for their new buildings, as reported in the Eastern Ontario Review on March 2, 1894.
Fire was a constant threat in sawmills where sparks would easily leap and quickly find combustible materials. In 1918, the VKH Manufacturing Company sawmill on Mill Street burned down to the ground.

Report on successful Vankleek Hill Manufacturing Company activities. The Eastern Ontario Review, March 2, 1894.

Detail from the Vankleek Hill Insurance Map, 1912 showing the buildings of the Vankleek Hill Manufacturing Company on Mill Street.

In the 1920s, the property was advertised for sale for at least two years. A reduced business of milling finished-lumber continued until 1928. That year, lumberman John R. McLaurin bought the property to use for storage.

Short years later, in 1933, owner John R. McLaurin died, and the property passed into the hands of his widow Elizabeth “Bessie” A. McLaurin.
Even during those sawmill years, children still dared to have their fun at the pond. According to author Alan MacKinnon, his late father Clifford played “on the logs in the mill pond when the ice went out in the spring. The farmers would bring the logs in by bobsleigh in the winter time and leave them on top of the ice.

“The young boys would jump from log to log playing lumber jack to see who could last the longest. In the winter time they would slide down the large frozen sawdust pile (to the south-east of the sawmill building) on their feet.”
With the 1930s abandonment, town children returned to make their fun on the pond in the summer, and on the ice in the winter. Even the remaining smokestack became a target for bb guns and stones. The late Lionel Mercier, a Vankleek Hill councillor, enjoyed recounting the time as a child when he and a few friends removed – borrowed – the base of a new small coffin from the back of a furniture store on High Street to use as their boat on the shallow pond.
In 1950, widow Elizabeth “Bessie” McLaurin donated the sizeable property to the town for recreational use. Bessie was able to see the new arena completed before she died in 1955.

First Vankleek Hill Arena

Vankleek Hill Flyers posing for their photo in the 1950s arena. Photo James Oswald.

Once the property became municipal, final drainage of the pond took place and the work began to develop an indoor arena. The Vankleek Hill Chamber of Commerce and VKH town council supported the project, and money was raised in the community through auctions, raffles, benefit hockey games and entertainment.
Interviewed in 1989, retired VKH Postmaster & WWII veteran Jack Hurley recalled being on VKH council at the time. He said, “Everybody helped. There were no government grants then; it all had to be raised locally. Ninety percent of the labour was donated.”
Once built, Hurley recounted that in the early 1950s, crowds of up to 1,100 would pack the new Vankleek Hill arena to see the intermediate hockey team that he managed, made-up primarily of Hawkesbury players, defend the town’s honour in the Central Ottawa Valley Hockey League: “That was in the pre-TV years,” he said.
Hurley explained his belief in the importance of sports. “Sports are the greatest thing for a kid to get into.” He connected sports to the camaraderie he had experienced in the RCAF – the team spirit. “The same applies to sports,” he said.
The formation of the local Legion branch kickstarted sports for kids and for “old vets,” he added. Soon there was a ball club, and an outdoor rink at the current location of Country Depot on Home Avenue.
He added from his time coaching young male hockey players, “I’ve had the chance to meet so many nice people. There is a lot of comradeship. Sports can bring pride to a place. There is always a certain amount of pride, even if you lose. In the old days, our teams didn’t win a provincial or national championship, but we had a lot of fun trying. We may never have had too many big stars in town. But I’ve coached a lot of good players who grew up to become really fine fellows.”

Gregoire “Bulldog” Matte, 1953.

Jack Hurley laughed when he remembered the “good, friendly rivalry” between towns. Vankleek Hill kids taunted visiting hockey teams. With the advent of house leagues, said Hurley, that rivalry waned. And without the rivalry, the finances and team fan interest dwindled over the years.

Arena Demolition in 1971

In 1971, that first VKH 1950 arena building was condemned by provincial inspectors. The 1959 fatal roof collapse of the Listowel ON arena, that killed six young hockey players and their coach,brought changes to building codes following the inquiry. Professional building inspections were now required. Limited government grants, through the pooling of tax monies to meet various needs across the province, were available – if the VKH community raised its share of $465,000 for a new arena.

Former Champlain Township Mayor Gary Barton explains: “The first arena was closed after the province required the town to have an engineer inspect the building for safety purposes. An arena in Listowel ON had collapsed due to excessive snow on the roof.

“At that time, I was the Chair of the Vankleek Hill Recreation Committee and we were called to a meeting one Saturday morning in February, along with the members of the Town Council. Sidney Siversky was the Mayor. Gaetan Lascelles P. Eng.  from Hawkesbury presented his report, and informed us that the Arena had to be closed.

“I asked him, ‘when?’ and he replied, ‘Today!’ Obviously, shocking news to all of us. In any case, there are many other details related to the building that still stands there today.

“But most important, was the community support received in order to build the new arena that we know today. With limited government grants, the new arena was opened in 1979 and it was debt free.”

Once again, volunteers swung into action with the same 1950s list of small town fundraising activities. Building codes prevented volunteer labour from being a large part of this new 1970s equation; however, donations of second-hand equipment played an important role in the fundraising that went on for several years until the 1979 opening.

Boys of Summer Resurrect Ball Field

Denis Seguin Architect alongside Cooper Smith at the 2019 Historical Society Retro Fashion Gala. Cooper is modeling Denis’ Vankleek Hill Stones ball uniform. Photo Gabriel Landriault.

The 1971 demolition of the 1950s arena, plus the years needed to raise almost a half-million dollars, put a long pause on team sports played in town. Several Vankleek Hill hockey teams played in St. Isidore, or in L’Orignal, St. Anne de Prescott and Alfred.
The demolition made the ball field unusable as it became the debris field for the old arena trusses and other large wreckage. The ball diamond, already in poor condition, only got worse.
Over time, the old arena construction materials sank into the ground, and the grasses grew tall and wild.
On a spring day in 1971, a group of curious teenagers rode their bikes over to assess the ruins. These future ball players saw potential, and with their collective hat-in-hand, they went to VKH town council to plead their case to clean-up the demolition rubble to restore the ball field.
Council agreed to lend a hand in return for a promise from the boys to help clean-up the ball field. It was agreed, and the town removed the debris.
With step one accomplished, the ball players – Denis Seguin, brothers Michel and André Martel, and Frank Martel – persevered. Town employee Edward Seguin, Denis’ uncle, had a couple of scythes to loan them. They got to work cutting down the high grass on the field.
Then the foursome borrowed their family lawnmowers and gas, and off to the park they went to cut down the grass. Next, the white fence around the field (Loch and Wall streets) was in bad repair and they nailed it back together. Leftover white paint was used until it ran out.
Town residents noticed the efforts, and stopped to talk, and to encourage these Vankleek Hill boys of summer.
Denis Seguin recalls obtaining a roll of heavy wire from his Uncle Edward to sew together the chain link fence used as the back-stop, stitching through the holes in the wire.
He added, “The ball diamond was weeded and the whole thing raked. We started after breakfast everyday and went on into the evening. It was fun, and now and then we put on our ball caps, our ball mitts, and played a little ball.
“We got it as far as we could, and then came the time when we needed more help.”
They returned to address Council, and their work was acknowledged. “We pleaded for a load of dust stone for the diamond and I think we got two. We raked it and cherished the new look of it. We were in heaven,” said Seguin.
He added, “After that it had to be up to us.” Michel Martel was the acknowledged leader of the small band, and together with the Martel Family dedication to the Vankleek Hill community, the next phase put into motion what needed to be done to actually play ball.
“We needed to raise money, so off we went to see Mr. Levac, Furniture and Electrical Appliance, at the corner of Main and High streets,” said Seguin. The raffle was for a table-top b&w 12″ t.v. from Mr. Levac’s store.
The ticket sales had to first cover the cost of the prize. To this day, Michel Martel is amusingly uncertain whether they got a ‘real deal’ from Mr. Levac.
Michel and André’s mother, Andrea Martel, helped with the tickets. “We sat down and made them by hand, each with a number on them, in duplicate,” said Seguin.
Denis Seguin recalls standing in the middle of Main Street selling raffle tickets to people driving by. “They had to stop because I was just standing there. They would roll-down the window, probably to tell me to get out of the way, but it was business first. And I sold them tickets. I think it caused a bit of a line-up, but that was good for business back then,” he said with a laugh.
It took off from there. Within a couple of years, the boys were 16. “We played with the men who came out of their sports retirement to join us on the ball field, and guide us in many ways. The improved condition of the field returned softball and fastball to our community, and both men and women’s ball flourished for many years.”
The rehabilitation success and the learned life skills brought the Vankleek Hill Stones to the resurrected ball field. Four boys learned a lot about politics, work ethics, business, volunteering and camaraderie.

Second Vankleek Hill Arena Opens 1979

Fair secretary Jack Hurley on the phone in the 1960s at the VKH Fairgrounds. Jack served on VKH Town Council, raised funds for the first VKH Arena, coached hockey, promoted sports for youth.
Photo Jeannine Duval Seguin Archives.

The new arena officially opened in 1979, and was greeted with community fanfare. Fundraising never really stopped, and every year improvements were made to ensure success. This continues today.
In 1989, on the 10th anniversary, Jack Hurley’s efforts for the first arena were recognized and he became the first inductee into the Vankleek Hill & District Sports Hall of Fame. VKH Recreation Coordinator Janis Renwick said, “Volunteers have been the backbone of Vankleek Hill recreation …. We salute the many who have given of their time to give us all a rich sports history … minor hockey, senior hockey, broomball, softball tournaments, carnivals, dances – all in this location.”
Hurley was honoured by the VKH Recreation Board for his volunteer efforts as a coach, manager, organizer, promoter, and fundraiser. As well, he served as curling club president, flooded hockey rinks, negotiated deals with softball stars, recruited players and donations.

Doug Hall captured playing a country tune c.1970. Photo Debbie Hall.

At the 1989 event, Douglas Hall was honoured with a Certificate of Merit from the town for his volunteer work that included tending to the outdoor Legion rink, his involvement in local hockey, and his work as a Recreation Board member. Doug Hall represented the “countless citizens who have raised funds for a rink in Vankleek Hill over the years,” said Renwick.
Janis Renwick told a fundraising story about each arena. She gave a lesson – in how not everything goes according to plan.
“When the first arena was being built, Don Messer was booked as the crowning glory of the fundraising campaign. When the famous fiddler had performed his concert to a large crowd, organizers were left with a $1000 bill and a profit of 35 cents.”
“No one thought it could happen again.”
It did, when in 1978, a few weeks before the official inauguration of the second arena, another star attraction came to town. “Profits from the Family Brown concert were $36.22.”
Renwick laughed, and added, “We learn the hard way!”

Your Arena Story

Interior of Vankleek Hill Arena. Photo Champlain Township

There are many stories connected to the two Vankleek Hill arenas. Human stories, sports stories, event stories, fundraising stories. They go on and on, because for so many years this location has been at the heart of the community.
Please feel welcome to send us your story, so that we can continue to build the arena story for the future.

(With information from Le Moniteur & The Echo-Express, Feb. 25, 1989: “Replaying the glory days of Vankleek Hill sports;” “Arena builders saluted.” by Richard Mahoney.)

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