by Tricia Habberjam
The year is 1875, and Oxford Mills is a thriving community clustered around the South Branch of the Rideau River in Eastern Ontario. There are hotels, mills, stores, a post office, three churches, and a cheese factory. It is home to the Oxford-on-Rideau Township Council headed by Reeve Robert Kernahan. The Council has just moved into a brand new building at 100 Maplewood Avenue. It has been designed by Mr. John Steacy of Brockville, who is an architect and master builder. He produced plans for an elegant Italianate Style two-storey stone building topped by a cupola. Mr. Ambrose Clothier, a local builder, has constructed a small, but stately, building using stone from the Harris quarry on Bedell Road. The double front doors are opened by a large folding key 8, which is 10 inches long.
Inside, the ground floor room is 12ft high, supported by three square columns with a rear room for the use of council, as well as two jail cells. Asa Barnard sawed the wood for the floors while his young teenage son, Ormond, helped by nailing the wooden floors in place. Upstairs, there is one large open room, ideal for concerts, dinners and community events. The complete cost of the building will be $4,500 when the final payment is made in December.
Serving as the seat of local government until amalgamation in 1998, The Old Township Hall saw a lot of events important to the history of Oxford on Rideau, from rousing council nomination meetings to Church services, five hundred Orange men eating a delicious dinner, to a Women’s Institute Banquet celebrating the installation of the new paved road to Kemptville.
100 Maplewood Avenue was recognised in 1986 by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada as a property of national significance, being a prime example of the early days of government in Canada. In 1993 it was designated by the Municipality of Oxford-on-Rideau (now part of the Municipality of North Grenville) under part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act.
When the council left in 1998, The Old Township Hall became a branch of the North Grenville Public Library. However, in 2011, when the main branch library opened in Kemptville, it lost its raison d’etre and became just a forgotten storage area. Then, in 2015, the Municipal council started to look at this building, together with the Court House at 15 Water Street in Kemptville, which led to the report by Letourneau Heritage Consulting that was presented to council in September, 2016. Since then, 100 Maplewood Avenue has been shut down with no heating on, and the only time it has any use is when the Kemptville Players retrieve costumes which they store in the upstairs of this building.
Now the year is 2019, the “new” Township hall is 144 years old and showing signs of neglect. The interior was renovated in 1967-70 to include smaller rooms for offices and vault space. It underwent a complete renovation in 1973, with new plumbing, furnace and modern kitchen. All this was completed in time for its 100 year anniversary in 1975. Despite these renovations, it is still possible to see signs of the original layout.
The outside has been largely left untouched. If you look at the 1980 picture, you will see clearly the original front door, transom window and date plaque. Sometime between 1980 and 1991, an open porch structure was added to the front door and the back door of the building was also enclosed. Neither of these structures adds to the beauty of the building and both are in danger of collapse and should be removed. The Cupola is still in place although it needs intervention if it is to remain.
Letourneau’s report included the views of the people who answered a survey he conducted in early summer 2016. Ideas were put forward as to what could be done and how this lovely old building could be used and then nothing was done except turn the heat down!
It is time we did something. How many of us will be willing to fight to keep the present Municipal building (which, by the way, costs a lot of taxpayer dollars just to run) open into the future? Does it inspire devotion in its architecture? The old Oxford-on-Rideau Township Hall has history oozing out of the stones and begs that we nurture it and bring it back to life. I am urging you to read the report on the North Grenville website (under Planning, Heritage you will find the report there). Is it possible we will be able to turn the fortunes of this once loved and constantly busy building around? Could it be used as an artistic venue? A place where people could live and work?
The community needs to come up with ideas to raise money to use in its renovation, and find places North Grenville can access donations to help with the costs of renovating the old gal and ultimately get her back in the limelight. Perhaps she will outlive us all and welcome 2074 with a string of stories to tell the people of the time.