August 6, 2020

History of Halls of Saltcoats

It is to Saltcoats Roots and Branches, the community history book, that we turn to find information and remembrances of the halls that have served this community well.

Christina Willey (Mrs. T. B. Willey) described with delightful candor the first hall that served the needs of people in and around the village of Saltcoats. It stood on the southeast corner of the Agricultural Society Grounds. Those grounds are where today we find the school, the curling rink and the arena. The Willey’s moved from a farm into Saltcoats in December of 1893 and Christina chronicled 10 years of life in the village a few years later after she and her husband had moved to Bredenbury.

“In the winter, chief entertainment centered around the ‘Agricultural Hall’ – a great barn of a place, hard to light and impossible to heat. But it had a real stage, a real proscenium arch, a sometimes workable painted drop-curtain, and two realistic damp dressing rooms under the stage. Political meetings were held here, which everybody attended in a sporting spirit, knowing long before the meeting how they would vote when the time came. Rube Allyn, once a great favorite in the West, gave several entertainments, and Pauline Johnson appeared more than once reciting her own poetry and acting clever sketches….An obscure traveling company, at a one night stand, once gave us Twelfth Night. …A quadrille club was formed…Mr. E.C. Cass drove in six miles to play for our dances. Anyone who was able volunteered to fiddle. We took turns to bring refreshments, and had merry times, we knew every rough board in the floor, and which were the draughtiest windows, and where the roof leaked most on a wet night.. Sometimes, indeed, I sympathized with the North West Trooper who, walking beside me on the trail to the hall one night remarked seriously, ‘Your Opra House is in the suburbs, Ma’am.’

Our own amateur plays were the most fun….”

Eric Rooke’s “Agricultural Society History” (again found in Saltcoats Roots and Branches) states:

“There is no record as to when the old Agricultural Hall was built. First mention of the hall was in 1891, when a local minstrel troupe put on concerts to pay for the floor in the hall. …The material for the hall was purchased from S.G. Fisher, who operated a lumber yard. An appeal to Mr. Insinger (who was M.L.A, before Mr. Eakin) for a special grant of $100. towards the building was made. The result was a grant of $200. A drama club in the village, through entertainments, assisted in financing the building and equipment….The old hall was torn down and a new one built in 1924.”

By that time, another Town Hall now served the entertainment needs of the community. A motion had been made in March 1911 at a meeting of the Town Council. (Saltcoats had become incorporated as a town in 1910) . Again, we quote from Roots and Branches. “This hall was built at a cost of $15,000. with council rooms and a banquet hall on the main floor. The concert hall would accommodate 600 people. A Heintzman piano and scenery from Winnipeg Scenic Company was purchased to add the finishing touches. A pendulum clock was supplied by A. B. Lander for $10.00….Julius Redman became the first caretaker, also having town duties as police chief, fire captain, and town maintenance man.”

This hall was described in a Board of Trade brochure from 1912.

“In the winter, in addition to skating and hockey, high class entertainment is provided at the Saltcoats Town Hall and Opera House …the finest Town Hall on the CPR between Winnipeg and Saskatoon…crowds flock to the hall on winter evenings to the frequent plays and concert entertainments.”

Turning to Saltcoats Roots and Branches , we find reference to some of the special events. There were Robbie Burns’ Night Celebrations and, of course, many participated in the “All Night Frolics” of the Agricultural Society presented close to March 17. The 1934 frolic was billed as the 8th annual ! In 1935 some 500 people paid admission to the Variety Concert and Minstrel Review. There was a 3 hour program “with a ten minute intermission at the halfway mark. A feature of the program was the amplifying system used for announcing the different items. Mr. F. Garstone handled the ‘mike’.” Ag Society plays continued into the 1960’s. Also mentioned are programs presented by various orchestras and bands, and events such as the St. George and Merry England Banquet, Concert and Dance, and the traveling chautauquas.

It was in 1953 that the decision to take down and replace the Town Hall and Opera House was made. The new hall was completed and much volunteer labour was contributed towards that! For fifty years it served the community with few changes and only basic maintenance being done. In 1962 the town’s water and sewer system was installed – and natural gas replaced the old wood and coal furnace shortly thereafter. Unknown to many, there was also a jail cell located in the basement of the hall where the occasional rowdy spent a night or for some just a quiet place provided for a sobering experience. And, doors unlocked, the cell provided shelter to more than a few transients.

Next door, the Legion Hall provided meeting place for the Legion and Auxiliary and also hosted many community and family events. It became home also for the Laketown Leaders until the present Community Services Building was erected and the Stirling Room provided home base for the many activities of that club.

Echoes of wedding celebrations, graduations, funerals and funeral lunches, honourings, retirements, farewells, anniversaries and family and community reunions, Remembrance Day services, Christmas concerts and Carol Festivals, community and group dances, fall suppers, and a host of other gatherings have entered into the very fabric of the place. Our hall holds, and is, our story as community.

In 1977 the Saltcoats and District Community Club was formed and began a many year tradition of regular Thursday night bingos. This group made many contributions to the Hall Fund and were the group that pushed to have Council and the community look to a major updating of the hall. The group has disbanded and the bingos no longer held but the impetus given to the upkeep and renovation of the hall is bearing fruit.

Today, after a rather lengthy process of looking at the possibility of a new hall and a considering of several options for major overhaul, our community hall is being lovingly and proudly renewed through a program of renovation and rejuvenation. Again the work of volunteers is making it possible and again monies are being raised through canvasses, concerts and banquets. May the rich heritage of the place bear fruit in yet another unfolding into the future.