by David Shanahan
These days, Prescott Street is considered the main artery of downtown Kemptville. But before 1872, it was just developing as a commercial and residential street, and Clothier was the oldest street in town.
It is recorded, that cattle were grazing at what is now the corner of Prescott and Asa Streets around 1840, and the first businesses to be established south of the river started in the 1830’s. A school was in place a decade before this on the corner of Prescott and Reuben, where the CIBC bank now stands.
In 1872, Prescott Street was lined with wood frame buildings containing stores, hotels, tailors, and saddlers; but Main Street, as Clothier West was then known, remained the centre of town.
On May 13, 1872, a huge fire destroyed every building on both sides of the street between Water and Asa, and an enormous rebuilding program took place. This time, the buildings were primarily of stone or brick, some of which remain with us today.
Walking up the west side of the street today, it is possible to reconstruct what it looked like more than a century ago. Crossing the bridge, you look upstream where the original mills stood that gave Kemptville its raison d’être, now long gone.
The empty space immediately south of the river was the location of a tannery established in the 1830’s by Sandford and Hunton, later sold to Surrager Barnes, and for years one of only two businesses on this side of the river. This building later burned down and was not rebuilt. When the present building was being built in 1902, the original vats and machinery of the tannery were uncovered. A white frame building used to stand here, and housed a Chinese laundry, the building overhanging the river and using its water to clean clothes.
Records state that the laundry was owned by Wong Shou, who came to Canada in 1918. However, the laundry appears on a 1917 map of Kemptville, so it was possibly opened by someone else, unless Wong Shu arrived earlier than thought. The wall mural of the steamboat faces this site.
The Holmes Block used to be the Hinton Block and was built in 1902. It’s made of brick, with iron girders throughout, an imposing and solid structure anchoring the north end of the street, and has housed a wide variety of commercial operations. It has also contained residential units on the upper floors, and the door leading to them is now blocked up, and can be seen between the first two stores. The store at the south end of the building was once the Star Café, a Chinese restaurant owned by Henry Wong.
The remaining buildings as far as Reuben Street are all relatively new. Where the Crusty Baker is now, used to be a residence and a cake and pastry shop. Then came the store of W. A. Barnes, and an article dealing with the family and their business which stood on the site for almost a century appeared in the May 26 issue of the Times. All of these buildings were destroyed by fire.
The Bodhi Tree stands on the site of another well-known business. Mundle & Percival store burned down in 1915, after almost thirty years in business. The fire almost destroyed the new and unopened Post Office which had been built next door, and which sustained considerable damage. This delayed the opening of the new Post Office, which survived because of its stone construction.
The new building replaced a much older one on Clothier Street, and the site had already seen quite a lot of history before 1915. Before the fire of 1872, John Magee, a tailor, had a store on this site. After the fire, he built a new stone building and carried on his business there until 1895.
This was also the location of the very first Library in Kemptville, after 1900. The building was taken over by the Bank of Ottawa in 1895, the first banking institution in Kemptville. The Bank of Ottawa later became amalgamated with the Bank of Nova Scotia. The Bank moved premises further up Prescott St. in 1910, and it became the site of the new Post Office and Cenotaph.
The Post Office was designed by David Ewart, who was Chief Dominion Architect from 1896 to 1914. The Post Office must have been one of his last designs in that position. A square tower on the building had four clock faces, one facing in each direction. On the rear of the upper portion of the building was a bell, and a large hammer rang out the hours.
This building became a landmark in Kemptville for decades, before being demolished in 1970. The cenotaph had been moved to the High School grounds the previous year. The once busy corner lot is now a quiet green space.