The history of Vankleek Hill’s garages

A Story To Celebrate Vankleek Hill’s Mechanical Past

The recent closure of Martin Tire Shop & Shell Station prompted this re-look at the early history of Vankleek Hill service stations and mechanic services, and the services we have today.
In a 1902 pamphlet listing businesses and trades in Prescott County, we find that Vankleek Hill still has numerous blacksmiths: Philip Biggins, W.H. Blackwell, Hermas Labrosse, D. McCrimmon, A. McInnes, N. Matte, N. Mercier.
By the 1980s, Hermas Seguin was the last of the blacksmiths in Vankleek Hill. In his shop behind what was once the Grand Central Hotel, he did metal repair work and had seating for familiar oldtimers to confab around his stove.
In the early 1900s, blacksmithing gave way to mechanics as vehicles replaced horses, trucks replaced horse-drawn carters, and tractors took over from the horse-drawn plows. The late Lionel Mercier, a longtime town councillor, was a member of the Mercier family that owned the Mercier Carriage Works on High Street from 1876.

Lionel related his experience when, as a teen in the 1930s, he was encouraged by his father Nelson to become a blacksmith. He did learn blacksmithing and he capably worked for the family business on equipment and farm horses; however, he could see the use of horses dwindling and the trade coming to an end. He left blacksmithing for a career in hardware and construction supplies.
Lionel was forward thinking. As can be seen in this listing of garages, the business of vehicle sales and maintenance arrived during WWI, and just kept growing.
In 1917, Walter Crooks was selling the Dodge Grey Dart on Main Street East just east of the post office, and by the 1920s, John Wilson had a Chevrolet dealership at 76 Main Street East, today The Review office.

This list of garages is from the 1978 centennial publication of ‘St-Grégoire – St. Gregory Vankleek Hill 1878-1978

Competition and pricing were fierce: not only Ford and Chevrolet dealers, there was Maxwell, Overland, and Studebaker. And W.F.G. Barton sold the Star model.

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The history of Postmasters in Vankleek Hill

The Story Of Vankleek Hill’s Postal Service

Vankleek Hill Post Office staff 2020. On the right is current Postmaster Hélène Cadieux with staff member Suzie who previously worked at the L’Orignal Post Office. In the background is independent delivery man Chris. During Christmas, the VKH Post Office welcomed visiting staff: Denise from L’Orignal and Hélène from Wendover. (Photo: Michelle Landriault)

Pandemic times puts to the test our Canadian tradition of quietly waiting-in-line in an orderly fashion. At the Vankleek Hill Post Office, clients today are to be congratulated for their consideration and patience as they wait outside.
Our post office staff compare the unprecedented number of boxes arriving to be sorted and managed to working in a mini-Amazon warehouse – without the benefits of space and robotic technology. Everyone, inside and outside, has done their best in a challenging situation.
Christmas arrives in short days. As I waited in line at the post office, I thought it may be a good time to take a closer look at the history of postal services in Vankleek Hill.
Never take postal services for granted. Before post offices were formalized by the British in Canada, anyone writing a letter had to depend on the goodwill of family, friends, travellers to take and pass their letters along – traveller to traveller – to hopefully reach the final destination.
Rural post offices have a long history of being located within the home or business of the postmaster. Vankleek Hill has only ever had post box service, and like most rural villages, no door-to-door delivery.

Neil Stewart

In Vankleek Hill, formal postal services arrived in 1827 when Neil Stewart was appointed as the first Postmaster. The date 1827 is given in an 1896 history of Prescott County. However, the Ontario Archives holds the Certificate of Appointment of Neil Stewart as Deputy Postmaster in Vankleek Hill dated July 6, 1831. No matter the year, he was the first Vankleek Hill Postmaster.
Stewart arrived in Canada with his mother from the Isle of Skye, Scotland in 1816. He then came to Vankleek Hill in 1825 at age 32, where he took over the general store of John Glass McIntosh in the general location of the northwest corner of Main East and Home Avenue. He was active in the community – he joined the Prescott Militia, was our Member of the Legislative Assembly for Prescott 1844-1848, was a Justice of the Peace, and the County Treasurer.
Neil Stewart was also the Crown Land Agent for Prescott and Russell. Stewart was a prolific letter writer, exchanging prickly political opinions with his brother William Stewart who was MPP for Russell County. The Ontario Archives holds his remaining records.
During these early years of government services, Stewart’s community activities and politics made him an easy choice for appointment as Postmaster. At the outset of this public service, there was no one with experience. The notion of having an application process is more than a century away.

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The history of 4132 Highway 34, Vankleek Hill

The Story of How One Property Helped Influence The Red Brick Look of Vankleek Hill

4132 Highway 34 Photo: Jan Amell

History gives us a good excuse to look into early lives and older buildings. Here is a history of 4132 Highway 34, Vankleek Hill which was on the 2018 Christmas Home Tour organized by The Review. The Vankleek Hill & District Historical Society provides the property research for this event. Photographer Jan Amell provides the images. Enjoy a bit of local history and Christmas during our Covid-19 physical isolation.

4132 Highway 34 Vankleek Hill

Our property history for this location begins in the late 1840s when a small brick factory started-up and kept going through different owners into the 1930s. Many of the brick homes in Vankleek Hill were built using red bricks fired in these yards between the 1850s to the 1920s. Other busy brickyards included the Reasbeck Family, Guindon (Yado) Family, and the Curran Family. For the owners, farming was their primary occupation with the brickmaking a second income.

Hiram Johnson Brick Yard

Hiram Johnson purchased the property at 4132 Hwy. 34 in 1849. Our local soil is clay-based with a sandy loam topping, and in wet areas this is a perfect combination for brick-making. In 1856, as often happened in early villages where wood and coal were mainstays for heating and cooking, a fire swept through Vankleek Hill destroying, or damaging many wood frame buildings.

Vankleek Hill’s ‘The Creating Centre’, the former Dominion Hotel Photo: Michelle Landriault

The hotel operated by Hiram Johnson in Vankleek Hill was severely damaged in that fire. Using bricks fired at his Highway 34 location, he rebuilt the Dominion House on the same site – the corner of Highway 34 and Main Street East, where the Creating Centre is currently located (above). The building we see today is an example of construction using the red brick from the Johnson brickyard.
The 1856 fire sparked serious fire prevention interest from many building owners. They got busy covering their wood frame buildings with brick, and turned to using brick for new construction. What a boon to the local brick business! The Vankleek Hill Museum building at 95 Main Street East (below), built in1834, is a wood frame building, and was reportedly the first to be covered in red brick after the 1856 fire.

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The history of the Vankleek Hill convent

A Story to Commemorate the Convent of the Sisters of Sainte-Marie de Namur

On November 11, 2020, at the request of the Sisters of Sainte-Marie de Namur, a plaque was installed at the corner of Vankleek Hill’s Higginson Street and Stanley Street, to commemorate the century-long location of the Convent of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur in Vankleek Hill. Representatives from the Order were present. The date was selected to celebrate the establishment of their first convent in Canada, in Vankleek Hill, and to mark the founding of the Order in Namur, Belgium.
Sister Fernand Levac (seen above, far right) and Sister Nicole Kingsley, Regional Superior of the Sisters of St. Mary in Canada (centre back row with name tag) explained that the occasion was made possible with the cooperation of the Champlain Township, property owner Dana Johnston, and the contribution by André Martel of Martel Monuments. The plaque, they said, was to ensure the presence of the convent “is not erased from the collective memory.”
Due to the ongoing pandemic, no public announcement was made of the event. Those invited to attend included: Father Pierre Domerson of St. Gregoire parish, Mayor Normand Riopel, Councillor Peter Barton, Martel Monuments owner André Martel, Dana Johnston, The Review publisher Louise Sproule, Thérèse Boyer on behalf of parishioners, Denis Seguin Architect President Vankleek Hill & District HIstorical Society, and Michelle Landriault Vankleek Hill Museum.
What follows here is a brief history of a dynamic convent that served our town and district for over a hundred years.

The Convent of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, from the corner now displaying the plaque. Photo: Gabriel Landriault, 2007.

The corner stone for the Convent of Saint Mary of Namur in Vankleek Hill was laid and blessed in May, 1886. The project was the inspiration of the two daughters of Eliza and Richard McGreevy, Irish-born Catholics, of Vankleek Hill.
In the 1861 Census, Richard is a farmer on Concession 5, Lot 18 in East Hawkesbury. He has 100 acres, 21 under cultivation; 13 under crops; 8 pasture; one acre of orchard and several wooded acres. By 1881, he is a hotel keeper in Vankleek Hill.
On a family visit to Elmira, New York their two daughters became enamoured with the Belgian teaching order Sisters of St. Mary, and later entered the novitiate in Lockport, N.Y. The two daughters, Sister Mary Berchinaus and Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart, were devoted to setting-up a Catholic education centre for Vankleek Hill’s Catholic children.
Through a combination of land donation from their father Richard McGreevy, and a land purchased by the Ottawa Diocese from William Higginson assisted by a $275 mortgage held by Eliza McGreevy, the Sisters of Saint Mary of Namur Convent – with a playground – was constructed at the corner of Higginson Street and Stanley Street, and opened January 27, 1887. The Duke of Norfolk, Lord Strathcona and Belgian nobles were among early benefactors. (The Ottawa Journal, June 25, 1937)

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A few Vankleek Hill stories for Remembrance Day

The Story of Corp. Strathcona McDonald, Killed in Action October 24th 1918

Corp. Strathcona MacDonald (l) pestered his parents, Dr. Alexander and Ella MacDonald, for 6 months before they finally gave him permission to enlist at age 17.
In October, 1916 he travelled to Petawawa and joined the artillery – 72nd Queen’s Battery of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. His military records show that he signed-up for the duration of WWI plus 6 months. It was said, “there was not a prouder boy in uniform.”
Known to family and friends as “Teddy,” he was known for his smile and for being “brim full of mischief.” He delighted in playing jokes on those he loved most.

Strathcona went overseas in March, 1917. He was in England for two months when he volunteered for special trench mortar service in France. He had displayed this eagerness when convincing his parents to let him go. Altruistically, for him, it was a chance for every young man “with a true spirit” to show that he was prepared to suffer and even die if necessary, to defend their rights.
He embarked on this patriotic endeavour as a student, and he discovered that even the active military provide time for learning. He took brief training sessions in England, returning to the field each time.

Home of Dr. Alexander and Ella MacDonald, 160 Main Street East, Vankleek Hill

In September, 1918 he was on leave for course work in England for two weeks. On September 18, 1918 he was promoted to Corporal. And he rejoined his unit in the field in France on October 4th.
On October 24th, 1918 Strathcona suffered a gun shot wound to the head and a fractured skull. He is buried at Queant Road Cemetery located between the towns of Buissy and Queant, in the Calais region of France. Armistice was just short weeks ahead.
As all soldiers are required to do on enlisting, Strathcona signed a will and named his mother Ella MacDonald as his beneficiary. In 1919, she received the balance of his bank account: $14.60 ($217 today).
Ella MacDonald received the Memorial Cross as a bereaved mother.
The MacDonald Family had two sons who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces during WW I. Sutherland, the elder son, was also a student when he joined the CEF in 1916 at the age of 20. He became a member of the 50th Queen’s Battery, 13th Brigade, and served in France until the war ended. When he returned, he resumed his college studies.
In the November 1st, 1918 issue of the Eastern Ontario Review (EOR), the reporter remarks that Teddy’s parents, his sister Elsie and his big brother Sutherland all mourned his loss.
Given the youthfulness of other Vankleek Hill sons who died in WWI, it is likely most knew each other.
Here are images of a few of them taken from the November 1st, 1918 issue of the Eastern Ontario Review. They appeared in an ad for Victory Bonds. Also mentioned in the ad is Sgt William Brown who was killed in an air raid in England.

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Postcards from Vankleek Hill’s past

A Selection from the Museum Collection of Historical Postcards

Corner of Higginson Street & Home Avenue c.1902

postcard/carte postale Dane Simon Collection, Musée Vankleek Hill Museum

The construction of the ‘mill’ houses, seen on the right, took place between 1901 and 1903.
At the turn of the 20th century, Vankleek Hill offered a variety of employment to men and women: carriage works, sawmills, flour mill, foundries, monuments, general stores, restaurants, a shoe factory, housekeeping, teachers, telegraph & telephone operators, bookkeepers, secretaries, carters, the railways.
The jobs generated a need for rental housing. General store owners Eustache Labrosse & John Northcott each built a number of brick homes with decorative front porches. The homes were identical to keep them affordable. Slanted flat roofs supplied rain water for the basement cisterns. A backyard laneway allowed easy delivery of coal & wood.
These homes remain sought-after today, 120 years later.

Coin de la rue Higginson et de l’avenue Home, vers 1902

La construction des maisons sur la droite a eu lieu entre 1901 et 1903.
Au tournant du 20e siècle, Vankleek Hill offrait une variété d’emplois aux hommes et aux femmes, notamment, dans le secteur du transport, les scieries, les moulins à farine, les fonderies, les monuments, les magasins généraux, les restaurants, les usines de chaussures, l’entretien ménager, l’enseignement, la télégraphie et la téléphonie, la comptabilité, le secrétariat, la mécanique et les chemins de fer.
Ces nombreux emplois ont engendré un besoin pressant de logements locatifs. Ainsi, les propriétaires des magasins généraux, Eustache Labrosse et John Northcott, ont chacun participé à la construction d’un grand nombre de maisons en briques, ornées de porches sur leur devanture. Construite à l’identique, chaque maison, assurait à l’ensemble une belle harmonie. Les toits plats inclinés fournissaient de l’eau de pluie pour les citernes du sous-sol. De même, les ruelles arrière permettaient facilement la livraison du charbon et du bois.
Ces maisons demeurent, encore aujourd’hui, très attrayantes, 120 ans après leur construction.

Main Street East, looking east c.1890

postcard/carte postale Dane Simon Collection, Musée Vankleek Hill Museum

Everyone in their Sunday-best is captured in this photo on Main Street.
There is a horse-drawn taxi available heading in the same direction.
The McCuaig, Cheney General Store, at the left, is today the Museum. Next door is the 3-storey warehouse for the general store, today apartments & gift shop.
The little girl in the white hat at the bottom of the image looked up and spotted the photographer in the window of the Windsor Hotel.
What event brought everyone together?

Rue Principale est, regardant vers l’est, vers 1890

Cette photographie montre une panoplie de gens vêtus de leurs plus beaux atours sur la rue Principale est.
On y aperçoit un taxi tiré par des chevaux.
Le magasin général McCuaig et Cheney, à gauche sur la photographie, est aujourd’hui le Musée de Vankleek Hill. Juste à côté, se trouve l’entrepôt à trois étages du magasin général, aujourd’hui transformé en logements locatifs et boutique de cadeaux.
Petite remarque amusante : la petite fille dans la partie inférieure de la photo, levant les yeux au loin, indique qu’elle a repéré le photographe.
Quel événement a réuni tout ce beau monde?

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