Many neighbourhoods in the older parts of St. Marys convey a strong and permanent sense of local history. Certainly, new homes rise quickly on the outskirts but the residential areas within half a dozen blocks of the downtown core, while not static, have generally evolved slowly. Perhaps the town’s first example of rapid suburban growth took place 65 years ago in the East Ward. The acreage that, for decades, had been a market garden operated by members of the Mitchell and Gould families became a construction site. In a two-block area bounded by Waterloo, Elgin, Cain and Jones Streets, about three dozen small homes were built to help address the housing shortage at the end of the World War II. Two generations later, in spite of many upgrades and additions, these homes are still called wartime houses.
This week’s photograph shows a group of these homes under construction in 1947 or 1948. The lots were deep but narrow and the houses lined up with uniform set-backs. Local skeptics noted many departures from traditional, step-by-step carpentry and predicted that these mass-produced structures would never last. Bob Cousins, former Town of St. Marys Treasurer and a great source of local history details, was a very young man when he watched these houses go up. He reports that the most common models were one-storey houses with two bedrooms or larger one-and-a-half storey houses with two upstairs rooms. There were also a few four-bedroom homes on corner lots.
In the early 1940s, War Time Housing Limited, a crown corporation, oversaw the construction of temporary homes for families, relocated for work at such war-related industries as munitions plants. When the war ended, the government decided to use a similar building program to assist veterans and their families. In 1946, Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) was created and tens of thousands of post-war houses sprang up in communities across Canada.
In St. Marys, the 1949 assessment roll contains a distinct list of 36 occupied houses in these two blocks. The owner was CMHC and the occupants were either tenants or in the process of converting tenancy to ownership. According to Bob Cousins, mortgage payments were very reasonable — about $50 a month for principal, interest and taxes.
The government had expected these projects to be temporary suburbs but many owners in places including St. Marys invested time and effort into home improvements. Landscaping and other touches created homes with individuality. The neighbourhood soon filled with “baby-boom” children and a strong sense of community developed. Today, the original families are gone but these pleasant homes remain on quiet, tree-lined streets. A sense of history also lingers — a connection to Canada’s participation in World War II and its immediate aftermath.