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Theatre Block: Vairville is Barrie's forgotten neighbourhood

This is the final installment in the Theatre Block saga, focusing on the now vacant corner of Dunlop West and Mary Street where a fire destroyed the building in 2007

The story of the vacant lot at the southeast corner of Mary and Dunlop Streets begins farther west in an almost forgotten neighbourhood called Vairville, in the vicinity of Anne and Henry Streets. The name Vairville actually refers to a once thriving greenhouse business which came to be synonymous, for a time, with that section of town.

William Vair was a quiet and steady Scotsman from the county of Roxboroughshire in his native country. He arrived in Canada around 1870 and was at first a gardener with the highly successful Toronto Nurseries. Founded by a fellow Scot, George Leslie, in 1845, this producer of plants and trees grew to be the largest business of its kind in Canada. George Leslie is remembered today by the community of Leslieville which grew from his nursery lands.

Within a short time, William Vair had aspirations of his own and took his ideas to the largely undeveloped western end of Elizabeth St. where the waters of nearby Bunker’s Creek proved very useful to his flower conservatory. By the end of the 1900’s, the Vair family had nine large greenhouses in operation.

With William Vair’s death in 1897, the flower business passed to his son, Louis Ireland Vair, who carried on until 1914. That year, Louis Vair decided to embark on an entirely new venture and bought the building that later housed Robinson Hardware for many decades. There, he opened a tea room and ice cream shop.

The Vair nursery business was sold to Ernest Albert Harris who himself became a prominent name in the florist sector of Barrie. 

An undated newspaper clipping from the Barrie Examiner included a late winter scene from the early days of Harris’ time at the former Vairville property.

“This photo was taken in 1918 at the spot. It shows Mrs. Ernest A. Harris of 114 Henry St. taking off with a horse and cutter with flowers for delivery to downtown Barrie. There was not much snow at the time but in January and February the drifts were piled up higher than the rig and sometimes Mrs. Harris had to get help when the horses stalled.”

The yellowed bit of paper goes on to say that “Mr. and Mrs. Harris bought Vair’s greenhouse at Vairville and went into the florist business. Ernest looked after the growing of flowers and Mrs. Harris marketed them in Barrie.”

As early as 1922, E.A. Harris was advertising in the newspapers of the time that he had both a greenhouse in the west end of town and a shop on Dunlop St. This early shop was located a 47 Dunlop St. E. 

Success meant moving to a larger premise. On April 1, 1925, the Harris Flowers store, having outgrown 47 Dunlop St., relocated to the western end of the theatre block. This last building in the block on the south side of Dunlop St. at Mary St. had previously been the home of the Green Music Store.

A final move came in 1936 when E.A. Harris relocated his business once again. This time, the florist shop moved into 99 Dunlop St. E. Harris took over the former Smith Kain harness maker store, where his namesake business continued on for decades, long after his 1943 death.