Was there ever a more hotly debated piece of land in all of Barrie? From the planning stages to demolition, through relocated monuments and name changes, tenders, committees and more, the chunk of land at the foot of Owen Street has been mightily contested by just about everyone in town from about 1880 onward.
Actually, despite being located in backwoods Upper Canada, this spot had seen plenty of activity in the centuries before Barrie was even dreamed of. First Nation people and early traders pulled their vessels ashore here as they began their trek overland to Willow Creek. Here begins the Nine Mile Portage.
In the early 1830s, David Edgar eloped with his bride from Addington County, and sheltered for three years in log storehouse nearby. Before they bought a lot on Toronto Street, they made a start at a dwelling on the government land at the bottom of what would become Owen Street. They abandoned it, after creating a cellar and some framing, when they moved to their own property about 1835.
The next big change came in the 1860s when the shoreline moved south as the water’s edge was infilled to support the coming railway expansion. A train station was built in 1865.
From about 1872 onward, Barrie folks picked up their mail at the beautiful building on the east side of Owen Street, just up from Dunlop Street. It was financed by W.D. Ardagh and designed by Shearman G. Bird. By 1880, Barrie was really growing, and the Owen Street building was no longer suitable.
In this age of architectural opulence, having grand and showy public buildings was a symbol to all that your town was really on the map now. The town fathers of Barrie wanted something large, well situated and ostentatious – a showpiece.
The first order of business was to decide on a site on which to erect the new post office. A committee, consisting of D’Alton McCarthy, and other local notable names as Hinds, King, Strathy and Dyment, was assembled. Originally, a lot in the Boys Block, owned by Alfred Arnell of the Queen’s Hotel was the frontrunner. Also in the running were a Crosby lot and a Ross lot. The Ross lot was also heavily favoured but, at $8,000, the members had to cast it aside.
In the end, as everyone knows, the Gore lot just north of the train station was chosen. Almost immediately, there were complaints from local people who thought that this was the wrong site for a post office, and that some kind of political manoeuvring was at play. Even other towns contributed to the conversation, as shown in a scathing reply by the Northern Advance to a comment made in the Collingwood Enterprise in May of 1883.
The Enterprise had made the quaint but uncomplimentary remark that, by building on the Gore property, Barrie would “close up the only respectable breathing orifice in the town,” to which the Advance replied, “We are not surprised at our contemporaries’ fear that the “breathing orifice of the town” will be closed. The average diet of the Collingwoodite is salt fish, onions and beer, consequently they require extraordinary means of ventilation; but as Barrie does not lie in a mud hole as some other towns, and as our citizens partake of civilized food, there is no need for consternation as regards fresh air.”
In July, the call went out for tenders. The architectural firm of Kennedy, Holland and McVittie had created the plans and now the need for bricks, iron work, stone, lumber and contractors was advertised.
The suppliers, tradesmen and builders were chosen by autumn, and bricks and other materials began to appear on the Dunlop Street sidewalks. With cold weather approaching, Mr. Toms, the chief contractor decided to cut and dress the stones over the winter months and commence work in the spring. This delay caused a rumour to be started about town that the whole project had fallen apart and no post office was coming at all. Eventually, MP D’Alton McCarthy, had to address the rumours himself with a letter to the editor of the Barrie Advance.
Bickering and delays aside, the grand post office did rise and on Oct. 8, 1884, the cornerstone was laid. Included, along with other commemorative papers, was a historical sketch by Judge Boys about the early days of mail delivery in Barrie.
The imposing new edifice looking up Owen Street was a long way from the years when a Metis mail carrier, on foot, dropped letters to corner stores as he travelled from Holland Landing to Pentetanguishene. Barrie had no actual post office of its own for a long time.
The Bank of Toronto, headed by Mr. J. A. Strathy of Ovenden fame, presented a drinking fountain to the town and installed it at Post Office Square, as it was known, in June of 1891.
In the first decades of the 20th century fashionable new post office buildings were being constructed with a clock tower on top. It was decided that Barrie’s post office would be much improved with the addition of a clock tower as well, and a four-sided clock was ordered from an English manufacturer in early 1914.
When the working parts arrived in Barrie that fall, the tower was not yet complete. The pieces sat in storage for a while and were then shipped to Brampton, Ont. until needed. At the same time, the old Brampton post office was also receiving an identical upgrade, and when Barrie was ready to place its clock in the finished tower, it was gone!
Barrie ordered another clock. By November, people began to ask about the delay. They were tired of looking at the four empty holes in the tower. The onset of the Great War had greatly impeded Atlantic shipping traffic, but the clock did arrive – seven months later.
Finally, on June 5, 1915, Barrie heard, for the first time, the sound of the hour being marked by their new clock tower. The bell weighed 900 pounds, and the striking hammer weighed 200 pounds. Each dial, framed by 200 pounds of glass and iron work, was six feet across.
The 95-year-old granite war memorial, still standing today, was designed, built and installed by McIntosh Granite of Toronto. The figure on top represents a weary Canadian soldier leaving France at war’s end. He is leaving a wreath on the cross marking the grave of a fallen friend. The memorial was dedicated in June of 1922.
After 30 more years passed, the town continued to grow rapidly, in fact it was about to seek city status. The post office, once a symbol of Victorian municipal success, was now out of work space and out of fashion. A new post office would come to the northwest corner of Collier and Owen Streets. It was a sleek and unglamorous box, just the kind of modern structure that mid 20th century architectural tastes called for.
And so, the old post office stood silently on its green square and awaited its fate, as the convicted waits to hear if there will be a date upcoming with the hangman, or not. The debate surrounding what should become of the building went on for over two years.
It was also about this time that the controversy, that has really never ended, began as to the proper name of the area. The Gore lot became Post Office Square from 1884, and remained so until after the post office closed.
Brad Rudachyk, in his 2001 local history book, Streetwise in Barrie, tried to tackle the dilemma. “There is no little confusion surrounding Memorial Square and Fred Grant Square. Properly, Memorial Square is not a street, but rather the park bounded by Dunlop St. on the north, Fred Grant St. to the west and Simcoe St. on the south and east. The 1999 City of Barrie Map is in error in showing Memorial Square encompassed by Fred Grant St. Fred Grant Square, formerly Post Office Square, was a street that encompassed Memorial Square on the west, south and east.”
Clear as mud? The facts are even less understandable today, now that Simcoe Street has been moved and Chase McEachern Way created, and Meridian Place has begun to take shape. What I think Mr. Rudachyk was saying was that the name Fred Grant Square referred only to the street that semi-circled the park known as Memorial Square. Even that was incorrect, as the west side of that street was the only section that was actually named for Mr. Grant.
Of course, the 1884 post office did meet with a demolition crew. A number of citizens’ groups protested the destruction of what engineers described as a perfectly sound building. They wanted to see offices, community groups or senior citizens make use of the structure, but it was not to be. The old gal lacked a proper elevator, had too many staircases, an unsound south balcony and fire escape, and required a lot of interior renovations. It was said that her upkeep would cost much more per year than any rental monies could hope to bring in, and that, to the town, was likely the final nail in the coffin.
To wreck or not to wreck weren’t the only arguments going on at the time. Should the land be sold? The town proposed selling off the eastern edge, to allow an extension to the Ross Block business buildings. Should Owen Street be continued through the old post office property to join Simcoe Street? Some wanted to see a passive park on the spot, others wished to have a public washroom building situated there. How about a bandshell?
Will the completion of Meridian Place be the end of controversy for Gore-Post Office-Memorial-Fred Grant Square? Probably not.
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.