Plus ça change!

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by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

The effect of the passage of time upon others is obvious. Upon ourselves, however, the diminution is less noticeable. Living with ourselves as we must immerses us in perpetual modification and decrement which occurs almost imperceptibly. It is rather like trying to stay focused upon the face of a clock long enough to see time change – inevitably we lose interest and submit to distraction. Oddly the inability to see change in ourselves applies likewise to the inability to see (or at least appreciate) the changes which have taken place around us. There are of course constant alterations to our surrounding environment, living spaces and entire communities, yet the result is more often than not scarcely reckoned. This made me reflect upon what changes have taken place in Almonte over the past thirty-six years since I first came here in June of 1976. Some things, I might add, haven’t changed at all, and that can be a good thing: things like the Curling Club, the North Lanark Agricultural Society, the Almonte Fair, the Highland Games and the Royal Canadian Legion, all long-standing and purposeful elements of our local society.

Speaking of components of our community, the Almonte General Hospital (initially spirited by Ray Timmons) is singular for its evolution. Now buoyed by a very active and competent Foundation (promoted tirelessly by Gerry Huddleston), the Hospital stands a monument on the map of the entire Province of Ontario. It is no secret that people from many urban centres far removed from Almonte make a regular practice of coming to our Hospital. The medical staff has swelled commensurately. In 1976 you could count the number of local physicians on one hand. Now we have not only more physicians but also people of other related health disciplines, many of whom are under one convenient roof.

Other professions – such as dentists, lawyers, accountants, real estate agents, chiropractors and massage therapists – have also grown in number from what was once a highly identifiable and select pool.

There are naturally reasons for the growth and improvement of our Town. Among those reasons has to be the availability of attractive homes. The "Gale Subdivision" (which consisted only of Gale Street, Evelyn Street and Laura Crescent – all named after members of the family of the late Albert Gale) was at the time the only new subdivision in Town since Gemmill Park had begun its development in the 1953 (following the passage of The Town of Almonte Act whereby the lands dedicated to the Town by the Estate of Winnifred Knight Dunlop Gemmill were vested in the Town without restriction to allow single family dwellings as a permitted use). The Johanna Street and Clay Street developments by Time Construction and Engineering then followed. Subsequently it was Greystone Estates on the edge of Town (really then a part of Ramsay Township, not Mississippi Mills which didn’t come into existence until 1998), then Metcalfe Park (along Hwy. #29), next Riverfront Estates pioneered by Neilcorp Homes (Doug McIntosh and Robert Dick), and lately White Tail Ridge. While not qualifying as subdivisions, there were important pockets developed for residential dwellings on the Carss Street extension at the end of Union Street North, Hamilton Street (now Strathburn Street) at the end of Malcolm Street, Carleton Street on Coleman’s Island, Adelaide Street and surrounding area (often referred to as "Irish Town"), the former Baker’s Quarry property on Martin Street North and the upper limits of Ann Street, St. George Street, King Street, Perth Street and Country Street. Behind the Almonte Law Bowling Club property there has been further in-filling. Almost wherever one could find a building lot there has been an effort made to construct a home. Pointedly a limiting factor was the water and septic infrastructure which is now undergoing major renovation and extension, constituting the single most expensive undertaking of the Municipality to date (after the $19M building of the Brian J. Gallagher Generating Station by the Mississippi River Power Corporation led by Des Houston, President and Scott Newton, General Manager).

Thirty-six years ago you could hear the horn of the trains regularly in Town no matter where you resided. Now the tracks have been torn up. That’s not something most people want to share with their grandchildren.

Nearby where the former train station once stood is now the Elizabeth Kelly Library under the capable management of Head Librarian Peter Nelson. Originally the eponymous Miss Kelly operated her tiny library out of the basement of the Old Town Hall.

In 1976 the Victoria Woolen Mill, the 5-storey structure at the bottom of Mill Street housed Pinecraft, a pine furniture manufacturing plant which soon retired to its headquarters in Ottawa. Most of that building was derelict as was the Old Post Office in the centre of Town and the Thoburn Mill at 83 Little Bridge Street. Stephen Brathwaite, Greg Smith, Al and Barb Potvin, Johannes Hill, Inez Kettles, Peter Egan, Marc Lefebvre, Dick Veenstra and the "angel money" of many local residents have nurtured an on-going face-lift to our historic buildings in the core business district, including 65 Mill Street, 78 Mill Street and 75 Little Bridge Street.

The idea of businesses locating out of the downtown core was then virtually unthinkable. Gord Pike made the first move by relocating his grocery store from the foot of Mill Street to a mall (now occupied by Guido Patrice). Stewart Lee moved his famous hardware store (Lee Pro Hardware) to a new building further along Hwy. #44 next to Gord Pike’s mall. Jack Levi built his Home Hardware on the opposite side of the street. And Wilson Bassile built his new mall (adjacent Tim Horton’s).

Until Gord Pike built his mall there was nothing approaching an "industrial park" as there now is behind that mall. I suspect that development of that park has been slower than Council would have preferred, but it is nonetheless gradual and constant.

National chain stores (like Tim Horton’s and Subway) didn’t exist thirty-six years ago. The primary restaurant was the Superior Restaurant capably run by George, Terry and Peter Charos. You could set the clocks by the groups of men and women who regularly congregated there at different times of the day for breakfast, coffee, lunch or dinner. Jeff Robertson set the community astir when he built JR’s Family Restaurant on Ottawa Street.

The impact of technology upon the community is equally significant. There is now Wi-Fi internet service in the business core. We even have our own electronic newspaper thanks to the countless efforts of Val Sears and Edith Cody-Rice. The facility of the circulation of the paper and the immediacy of its reporting have made it an increasingly attractive commodity, not to mention that it has afforded many of us the platform from which to share our particular hobbies and interests. While Nortel was going gang-busters in Kanata, it was uncommon to hear of anyone in the technology business located in Almonte, other than Bruce Hempell (Bruce Instruments) who was to technology what hippies are to music. Now many people in the so-called "high-tech" business have settled in Almonte.

Thirty-six years ago there was no such thing as a computer in a business office. All land transactions were handled face-to-face at the Land Registry Office. Now it is all done electronically and lawyers may never even know what the face of the other looks like.

The HUB (Almonte Community Co-Ordinators) had just come into existence around 1976. It was fueled by the efforts of many women, among them particularly Fern Martin and Janet Duncan. It wasn’t until many years thereafter that the Royal Bank of Canada transferred the building at the southeast corner of Bridge and Mill Streets to the HUB. I remember being at the ribbon-cutting ceremony and it was a thrill!

  The establishment of the Centennial Square in the front of Baker Bob’s was a distinct improvement, notably marked by the recent installation of the bronze statue of James Naismith. The Naismith Basketball Foundation was developed after 1976 and did much to allow the Town to expropriate to itself the important significance of one of our local heros (whom the Americans not surprisingly frequently attempt to claim as their own because Naismith taught in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1891).

Puppets Up! was unheard of in 1976. In addition to initiating that now hugely popular event, Noreen Young (Stephen Brathwaite’s sister) began her scholarship bursary which is similarly now an annual affair.

In 1976 you could buy a General Motors car in Town on Bridge Street (across from the Legion). Jack Smithson (who later became Land Registrar) had been a cheerful messenger for the predecessor dealership (Hill Motors) for many years. Aside from a used car dealership (Edgar Carroll) that subsequently took the place of the GM dealership, the only other new car dealership was Orr Motors (Bill Orr) who operated where Britt Thurston’s establishment used to be adjacent the present Home Hardware.

The round-about at the end of Ottawa Street was a new phenomenon for Almonte. While there were some growing pains as people learned to adjust to the exigencies of slowing down and yielding, I believe it is now second nature to most.

Dr. Jim Kontogiannis’ beautiful new building on Bridge Street replaced the far less impressive one-storey structure which then housed the Red and White grocery store operated by John Ravesloot. Alliance Coin & Banknote (Sean Isaacs) made a similar sterling (pardon the pun) appearance on Mill Street.

If one stands back far enough, Almonte has the appearance of not having altered that much over the past thirty-six years. By and large the grass-roots people of the community continue to nurture the well-deserved epithet "The Friendly Town". Certainly many of our young people have moved from the area but there is a compensating influx of talent and energy. And I know that even those successful young people (such as Paul and Steve Scott, sons of local teachers Dave and Barb Scott) who have relocated with large companies to Toronto, for example, still very much enjoy returning "home" and indeed they have more than once expressed the desire to translate their skills into something which they could perform here rather than there. From my perspective the development of Almonte has been positive. I see a dedicated and thoughtful upsurge of many skillful people who continue to provide a rich base upon which to continue to grow.