Mary Smith, Historic St. Marys
Photograph albums donated to the St. Marys Museum frequently contain pleasant surprises such as the picture accompanying this week’s column of the arena that once stood beside the Wellington Street Bridge. Frances Dale (1908-2001), a St. Marys girl, took this snapshot during the winter of 1924-25 and preserved it in one of several albums, now in the Museum’s collection.
Frances Dale’s early pictures — all meticulously labelled and dated — record her high school and university years. She loved sports and so it is not surprising that she took a photograph of this popular venue.
Built in 1884 as a covered curling facility, it was not an attractive building — really just a big barn. It appears in the background of a number of photographs in the Museum’s collection but this picture showing the west wall and main entrance gives the best sense of the building.
In 1973, longtime St. Marys resident, Curly Wilson, described it in an interview with local historian Gord McEwan: “The building was a unique structure topped with a windowed tower which had to be removed because it concentrated heat on the ice. It boasted two dressing rooms, great wood-burning stoves and a reliable well at the end from which the ice must be flooded.” The ice surface was below grade to make this flooding possible. Curlers, skaters and spectators stepped down into the building.
In the early years, the rink was reserved almost exclusively for curling — a sacred sport in St. Marys. Curly Wilson explains that local children “eyed the great sheet with bitter jealous eyes” but they were only allowed to skate there on Saturdays after the week’s curling was done. In the evening, the caretaker chased them away so that pebbling for the following week could begin.
By the 1930s, curling was in abeyance in St. Marys and the rink was used more frequently for skating. It was home for the town’s travelling hockey teams although keeping good ice in frequently mild playoff seasons was challenging. During the Second World War, the 60-year-old superstructure was taken down but during the winter, the ice surface was maintained for open-air skating. It was used until the Water Street arena with its artificial ice opened in the early 1950s.
The old property by the Wellington Street Bridge was sold and became a garage and implement dealership. Currently it is the site of Home Hardware.
The remarkable Dale family and photographs from the Dale albums will be featured in future columns.