Also known as the Court House, the old Town Hall in Kemptville is a building with real ties to our past, both as built heritage, and in terms of the people who passed through its doors over almost 150 years.
The land was bought from local residents in 1873 for the large sum of $350, as the Village of Kemptville, which separated from Oxford-on-Rideau Township in 1857, needed a Town Hall. It was the Municipal Centre for Kemptville until 1998, when Kemptville rejoined Oxford and amalgamated with South Gower to form the new North Grenville. For another seven years, it remained in use by the municipality, until the new Municipal Centre opened.
But it was not just a century of Council meetings that took place there. The stone building also housed the offices of the Kemptville police, and the Council chamber on the upper floor doubled as a Court Room for inquests, hearings, and trials. Judges and juries decided cases ranging from drunken behaviour to murder, and Councillors, Mayors and Reeves debated and decided on the issues which affected the development of the village into the town it became in the 1960’s.
While the political and legal minds worked away upstairs, the ground floor of the Town Hall was given over to the Fire Department, and generations of firemen (as they always were then) and fire trucks were stationed in the space now used by the courts. It was not until 1968 that the Fire Department moved out of the Town Hall and into the Armoury in Riverside Park. The Department maintained a fire dock behind the Town Hall, and, around 1881, a hose tower was erected attached to the Town Hall. This was a high, wooden tower in which the old fabric fire hoses could be hung up to dry after being used at a fire. Around 1898, a bell was installed in a special decorative canopy at the top of the tower, and it was used to warn of fires until the tower was badly damaged in, ironically, a fire in 1935. The tower was demolished in 1957.
There is an unusual vibe in that upper room. Perhaps it is the memory of the trials and inquests that took place there, or the historic meetings of council over so many decades. Personalities who stood in that room included G. Howard Ferguson when he was on Council, more recent mayors, reeves and councillors, too, argued and governed Kemptville there. I can remember interviewing people like Ralph Raina, or Sam Gaw, who could point to a spot in the room and say: “That’s where I sat when I was on council”. It remains one of the most atmospheric places in North Grenville. The ground floor has been extensively renovated over the years, and nothing really remains there of the Fire Station that once housed frontline workers of their day, who fought fires that destroyed the original High School on Prescott Street, or the 1910 fire that levelled most of Asa Street.
After the municipality moved out of the building, the Ontario Provincial Courts and the Provincial Offences Court began to hold their sessions downstairs. One of the original jail cells is still in use also, a remarkable link to the history of the building.
It seems only appropriate that the upstairs room of the original Town Hall, where so many council meetings and court cases were played out, should today house the North Grenville Archives. Operated by the North Grenville Historical Society, the Archives are where our common history is preserved, in documents, photographs, maps, and so many other ways.