Kemptville recently lost yet another of its heritage buildings with the demolition of Leslie Hall. Whatever the pros and cons of the situation, it is fitting that we mark the passing of this well-loved, and well-used, facility in our community. After 110 years, there is a gap in our streetscape, but not in our memories.
Leslie Hall had served the community for over one hundred years, opening its doors to the most varied collection of activities one could imagine, from funerals and church services, to rock concerts and plays. It was, for many years, the main venue for such events in Kemptville, and for groups and gatherings of people from all over North Grenville.
The Anglican Church of St. James had been erected around 1828 on land donated by “Squire” William Bottom. In 1829, a petition to the Bishop from the leading members of the congregation asked him to officially dedicate the building. The petition noted that: “William H. Bottum Esquire has granted to Trueman Hurd, Lyman Clothier Esquire and Abram Beach Gentleman, Trustees for the purposes of erecting a church at the village of Kemptville in the Township of Oxford a piece of land near the said village containing three fourths of an acre more or less to serve as a site for a Church and also as a Burial ground for the inhabitants of the said Township for ever”.
The wood frame church served until 1879, when the present stone church was opened, and the older building was removed. A Hall and Sunday School building had operated in a frame building until it was decided, in April, 1907, to build a larger Hall on land purchased in 1904 from S. E. Walt, founder of the Kemptville Advance newspaper. It was to be named in honour of Robert Leslie, who had served as Lay Reader, lay delegate to the Diocesan Synod, Church Warden and, for more than fifty years, as Superintendent of the Sunday School.
Robert Leslie had a very successful career after he arrived in Kemptville in the mid-1830’s. He had worked at first as a tinsmith, before working under Squire Bottom as Assistant Post Master. He took over as Post Master, and the Post Office was located in what was called the Leslie Block, now the parking lot of the Moonlight Restaurant on Clothier Street. He also served on the Kemptville Town Council.
The foundation stone for the new Leslie Hall was laid with great pomp and ceremony on October 8, 1907 by the Grand Master of the Masonic Order. Leslie himself had been instrumental in bringing the Masons to Kemptville, and both the Reeve, Albert Langstaff and the Vicar of St. James, W.P. Reeve, welcomed the Grand Master as “Your Worshipful Sir”, a strange address at a church ceremony. Masonic rites were then carried out and the stone itself was sprinkled with corn, had wine poured over it, and was finally “anointed” with water. The cornerstone was declared “well and truly laid”.
After a lunch in the old Parish Hall, the crowd adjourned to the Oddfellows Hall down the street where speeches were made into the afternoon, including one by local politician G. Howard Ferguson, who remembered attending Sunday School under Robert Leslie. The day was crowned with a great concert at the Oddfellows Hall.
The Hall was built with concrete blocks made by the Dominion Concrete Company, who had a factory between Riverside Park and Prescott Street. Although the blocks were designed to complement the stone of the main church building, they were not nearly as resistant to weather, and the exterior of the Hall had to be repaired in the 1950’s. It seems the damage was more serious than imagined at the time.
The new Leslie Memorial Hall was originally intended strictly for church activities. No secular events were to be permitted. However, this intention was soon amended, in part because of the $6,000 mortgage on the building, quite a large sum in 1908. Although the debt was made up of interest-free loans, and creditors had waited patiently and had, in most cases, forgiven part of the amount owed, the debt on the Hall, coupled with extensive renovations to the main Church building itself, was a serious drain on the parish finances for almost twenty years. Fundraising efforts included a lottery in which the prize was 100 acres of land in Carleton County. By 1921, the debt had been halved, but the problem was solved through the very generous involvement of Albert Langstaff, who agreed to pay off much of the money owing to the Dominion Concrete Company. In 1924, with yet more pomp and even greater joy, the mortgage was paid off and the mortgage papers ceremoniously burned by the Anglican Bishop. In a reference to the cornerstone ceremony, the Bishop declared the mortgage “well and truly burned”.
Unfortunately, the Hall suffered a serious fire in the 1920’s and was badly damaged. It was a bad blow to the parishioners who had laboured so hard to pay off the original mortgage, but, over the coming years, the Hall was repaired and renovated. A steam heating system was installed in 1928. In the 1950’s, Leslie Hall was attached to the water mains, washroom and a new electrical lighting system were installed. In 1978, for the centennial celebrations of St. James, Leslie Hall was the site of meetings and concerts.
Since then, Leslie Hall has seen many celebrations, many vital fundraising events, weddings, funerals, birthdays and music. The Kemptville Players used the Hall as their home for many years. It was a venue that was almost unique in North Grenville, and its loss has only underlined how irreplaceable it had become.