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REMEMBER THIS: A history of Victoria Day

Although first holiday was a day of rain and disappointment, celebration was remembered over the years for patriotic demonstrations, odd-soundings games, traffic jams and problematic beach goers

“The first celebration of Victoria Day will long be remembered as a day of rain and disappointment, as it never ceased raining throughout the day, and many who were to have spent the day in other places were compelled to remain at home.”

Some things never change. After a typical Barrie winter, most of us are eager for spring and more eager still for summer to arrive so that we can enjoy that short, tropical season to the fullest.

Victoria Day is the first holiday weekend of the warm-weather months, and we are all more than ready to embrace beaches, camping, outdoor sports and a cool drink on a sunny patio.

Victoria Day weather often lets us down hard, as the above quote from the Northern Advance of May 30, 1901, proves.

Some form of Victoria Day has been celebrated in Canada since the holiday was created by government legislation in 1845. Queen Victoria was born on May 24, 1819, and this became the date of the holiday, which was known simply as the Queen’s birthday until after her death.

Early celebrations were of the patriotic type, with military displays, parades, plenty of red, white and blue bunting and speeches affirming Canada’s loyalty to the British Empire.

Sporting events were usually a big part of the day as well. Foot races, aquatic events and cricket matches were common.

A piece in the Northern Advance of May 25, 1864, mentioned an odd-sounding carnival-type of game enjoyed that year. I had to look it up.

“Grand finale of sports, grinning through a horse collar, the ugliest face to take the prize, a lady to be the judge. Prize $1. Winner Wm. Povey.”

Apparently, this bizarre contest is as English as it gets, so quite fitting for the spirit of the day. Still in existence today, and dating back to an unknown time, grinning, or gurning as they call it, is a competition to judge who can make the most atrocious face.

Toothless and elderly people are said to make the best competitors, which makes me wonder what Povey looked like exactly.

By the 1920s, a certain invention had erased much of the early Victoria Day traditions and replaced them with a rite of passage likely playing out nearby as I write this.

“Perhaps the outstanding evidence of the holiday, however, was the heavy traffic from the south, particularly in the morning, a steady stream of cars passing through the main streets northbound. The 1929 automobiles, in a variety of gaudy colours, were to be seen in gala array, as though on parade for the first time of the season.”

As this Barrie Examiner report of May 30, 1929, hints, these were the days predating the arrival of Highway 400, which was built to solve the problem of bottlenecked traffic in our area.

“Old-time celebration seems to have gone by the boards, at least temporarily. There was not one in the county this year, evidence of how the auto has changed the order of things.”

In the early 1950s, Wasaga Beach, our neighbour to the northwest, began to experience the effects of an influx of overenthusiastic Victoria Day holidaymakers. Tiny Township Police Chief Howard French was fairly fed up with the long weekend teenage rowdies in his community and had enlisted the assistance of the OPP. French was feeling hopeful about a solution when he spoke to the Barrie Examiner in May 1953.

“The chief said if he could get two more men, he would soon rid the beach area of troublemakers.”

Of course, the next decade would bring an entirely different set of problematic beach goers, and this time the number of officers required would be much larger.

“Approximately 700 leather-jacketed motorcyclists converged on Wasaga Beach over the Victoria Day weekend and caused quite a commotion.”

The arrival of this group in May 1967 necessitated the addition of 70 officers to the regular nine-man local force. The Barrie Examiner reported that “the boys in blue came out on top” and made close to 80 arrests.

And the weather that year?

“Rain and a few thundershowers this morning. Becoming mostly cloudy with scattered showers and cooler this afternoon.”

Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.

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Mary Harris

About the Author: Mary Harris

Mary Harris is the Director of History and Research at the Barrie Historical Archive. The Barrie Historical Archive is a free, online archive that centralizes Barrie's historical content.
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