One of the most striking and historic buildings in Queensborough is the tall old wooden barn of a place that for many, many years served as the Loyal Orange Lodge – the L.O.L., as the fading green paint atop of the building’s facade still says. It stands unused except for storage, and has definitely seen better days. An unfortunate renovation some years back made a bit of a mess of the original front doorways. But it’s loaded with history, and, as a column in one of the local papers reminded me rather indirectly the other day, was an important spot for entertainment in our little village back in the days when entertainment was hard to come by.
As you can read in the walking-tour guide to the hamlet’s history produced by the Queensborough Community Centre, the Orange Hall (as everyone calls it) is one of the earliest buildings in Queensborough, erected in 1862. It served not only as the lodge for local members of the ultra-Protestant Orange order until the 1980s (yes, you read that correctly), but as the first place of worship in the village. Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians (though presumably not the Roman Catholics) all gathered there for Sunday services and Sunday School before their own churches were built, starting with St. Peter’s Anglican in 1871.
I have also been told, though have not been able to confirm this, that it served as a hospital during the deadly Spanish Flu epidemic that swept North America in 1918.
Back in the days of my childhood here in Queensborough, the Orange Hall was the local polling place; I believe I remember my parents going there to vote in the federal election that brought Pierre Trudeau to power in 1968, and also (dimly) them going to the hall to vote in a referendum on whether Elzevir Township (where Queensborough is located) should stay “dry” (that is, no selling of alcohol permitted) or go “wet.” (I assume this vote was brought on by a restaurateur, possibly the owner of a German place called Mother’s that opened back in the early 1970s, wanting to get a liquor licence. And I’m not sure how the vote went, to be honest.)
But the other thing the Orange Hall was used for back in the day was entertainment: dances and musical performances and travelling shows, including medicine shows. Those were the days before television and even radio, when people worked long hours and had to make their own fun; that is doubtless why every town and village had super-competitive hockey and baseball teams. Christmas pageants and church socials and card parties and quilting bees were where people gathered for a bit of respite from work and the often-hard realities of day-to-day life. The Orange Hall, which I have been inside once since Raymond and I bought the Manse, still has the stage from which performers would have entertained people of the village with songs, readings, plays and declamations on the virtues of some quack medicine or other.
The newspaper piece that got me thinking about all this was the Heritage Herald in the Tweed News, a column produced weekly by the tireless Evan Morton, curator of the Tweed and Area Heritage Centre. Evan was writing about an old photo that had been donated to the centre, showing a group of young men in uniform at what seems to be a First World War recruiting event at the Hungerford Township Hall in the village of Tweed. Also in the photo is a poster advertising a coming appearance at the hall by a Tom Marks. Being the diligent historian that he is, Evan had looked into this and reported that Tom Marks was a member of a vaudeville troupe that was once hugely popular in Canada and the U.S., the Marks Brothers, known as “The Canadian Kings of Repertoire.”
The brothers – Joseph, Thomas, Robert, Alex, Ernest, John and McIntyre – “left the farm and took to the boards and the footlights throughout the latter part of the 19th century and into the 1920s. The brothers from Christie Lake, near Perth in Eastern Ontario, played to an estimated eight million Canadians, as well as to sizeable audiences in the United States. Their road shows, largely melodramas and comedy, kept audiences crying, booing, laughing and cheering until movies sounded the death knell for touring repertory companies,” according to a blurb about a book about them, which you can find more about here.
To all of which, I can only say: Who knew?
But also, intrigued by the fact that one of the brothers was to appear in wee Tweed around the time of the Great War, I got to wondering: might the Marks Brothers ever have performed at Queensborough’s Orange Hall? It seems at least possible, given this information provided on this page by a former curator of the Perth Museum:
“They delighted audiences in many remote towns and villages, most of them starved for entertainment, with their flamboyant performances and lavish scenery.”
Would Queensborough have been one of those “remote villages starved for entertainment” that the Marks lads visited? I’d love to know.
But anyway, the photo that Evan featured, and his findings about the Marks Brothers of Perth, Ont., got me thinking about those long-ago days when shows would come to the Orange Hall. And I’d like to share with you a delightful reminiscence of them that is included in the late Jean Holmes’s wonderful history of Queensborough and Elzevir Township, a book called Times to Remember in Elzevir Township. This story comes from the late Ed Alexander, whom I remember from my childhood days here. Thinking back on his youth, Ed told Jean and her history-gathering assistants
about the travelling plays that came to the Orange Hall. The fee was 35¢ to see the show. When he was young, if he did not have enough money to pay his admission, he walked around the block on the wooden sidewalks, with a long stick with chewing gum stuck on the end. He would put the stick between the boards and collect enough coins to pay his admission. The shows were usually medicine shows. The owners were trying to con the public into buying their medicine. It was usually described as a “cure-all.” It was a type of tonic, basically useless.
And then it gets to the part I just love, referring to a part of those shows that apparently was especially popular with the men who worked in the small mines – gold, silver, marble, iron, lime, pyrite, copper, lead and actinolite – that once dotted this part of central Hastings County:
Along with the sales pitch, there would be songs and skits, and prizes for the most popular female. Sometimes, Mabel Chase, from the Chase Boarding-house in Actinolite, won. All the miners would come to buy the medicine and they voted for Mabel.
Ah, Mabel. Mabel, Mabel, Mabel. What I wouldn’t give to travel back in time to see her beaming and blushing with pride as she was chosen “most popular female” – once again – by the miners and others gathered for the medicine show in the Queensborough Orange Lodge.
Times to remember indeed!