History of Fergus Legion Branch 275
– Written by Stephen Thorning
Seven or eight months ago a couple of Fergus Legion Members called me to see if I had any information on the early years of Branch 2’75. At that time I had nothing in my files, but I immediately realized that this would be fitting subject for my 1998 Remembrance Day column.
I was surprised and disappointed that so little information of the first years of such an important organization has survived. Branch 27S-received its charter in 1935: Elora Branch 229, which predates the Fergus Legion by some three years, attracted a large number of Fergus members in the 1930s. This undoubtedly slowed the progress of the Fergus Branch in its early years.
The Fergus Elora News Record contains virtually nothing about the organizational efforts that preceded the charter for Branch 275. A large factor in this scant coverage was the Fergus was embroiled in a plebiscite on the issue of licensed beverage rooms during the months when the Legion was organizing. Col. R. T. Pritchard led the wet side, and several other men active in the Legion movement openly supported beverage rooms.
The dry side was led by W. L. Ham and Milton Beatty, senior executives at Beatty Bros., where total abstinence was the centrepiece of corporate policy. Editor Hugh Templin obviously considered it a wise policy to say as little as possible about the Legion during and after the plebiscite.
The real catalyst in the formation of Branch 275 was not beer, but rather, the completion of the Fergus Was Memorial. Two separate committees had worked on the project, but failed to bring it to completion. .Dr. Norman Craig wrote and produced a play for the Fergus Centennial in 1933. Two years later, it was not yet constructed.
The organizers of the Fergus Legion met in late 1934 and 1935, and, applied for a charter. In May 1935 they decided to take on the memorial as their first project. The memorial committee, led by J.M. Milligan, Willard Conlin and Col. Pritchard, pushed ahead with vigour, and completed the project in time for an all-day unveiling ceremony on August 5.
Meanwhile, Branch 275 received its charter. The document, dated 15 May 1935, today hangs proudly on a wall at the branch. The official ceremony took place on June 3. The old Fergus armoury was filled for the meeting, with the executive of the Elora and Guelph branches as guests of honour.
Twenty-one names are listed on the document as charter members:
J,B. Morrison, O.B. Brown, N.M. Craig, R.A. Dowling, Bill Dobbie, Melville Dunn, James Fuller, James Flannery, Simeon Bolman, John Honsinger, Robert Jackson, WaIter Lee, James Lavery, Ed Langdon, L.M. McHardy, Robert Nelles, R.D. Plant, James Russell, Andrew Steele, Wallace Young, and Jonathan Wright. Interestingly, neither J.M. Milligan nor Col. Prichard was charter members.
As its first official task, Branch 275 organized the 1935 Decoration Day service. In previous years this task had fallen on Elora Branch 229, which occasionally was called the Elora-¬Fergus Branch. At Decoration Day services in both Fergus and Elora, and at Remembrance Day services, the Last Post was invariably rendered by Fred Pearse.
For years Branch 275 lacked its own club room. The Legion met in borrowed quarters on Monday nights for socializing and cards on followed by a lunch. There were also fund-raising events and entertainments.
In November 1935, for example, Branch 275 sponsored a popular old-time fiddling contest that attracted 22 entries and a huge crowd. They followed this with a Burns Night celebration in February 1936, and an amateur night two months later at the Grand Theatre.
Unfortunately, I have not been able to locate any listings of the executive for the first three years. J.B. Morrison acted as president in 1936, with WaIter Lee as first vice-president. The earliest list I have seen is for 1938. Col. Pritchard was president that year with J.M. Milligan and James Catchpole as vice-presidents, Norm Hamer as secretary, Simeon Holman as treasurer and Fred Sounders as Sgt. at Arms.
As a service to members, the Legion began offering assistance to those applying for was pensions. Another activity was a series of bingos in 1938 and 1939 to raise money for the Groves Hospital Aid. Fergus had taken over the hospital a couple of years before, and it was in dire need of improvements and upgrading. One bingo night in 1939 raised $260, a considerable sum for a charity event in that period.
Information on Branch 275 is more plentiful beginning in 1939. In March of that year the News Record began running a column styled “Legion Notes.” The column, which was sometimes, signed “A.J.C.”, often appealed for new members. The Legion believed there were at least 100 veterans in the Fergus area who were not members at the start of 1939.
There were also some problems with renewals. Many Fergus veterans preferred to belong to the Elora branch, which by this time had permanent club rooms open nightly and a licensed beverage room. Nevertheless, Branch 275 membership topped the 75 mark in the spring of 1939.
Early in 1939 Legion Headquarters began to collect data on veterans in case war broke out in Europe. The Legion Notes, column stated ominously that “it is within the bounds of possibility that Canadians may become involved.’! The Legion wanted information on the civilian activities and skills of veterans, and asked older veterans to begin volunteering for home defence.
On a happier note, that Fergus Legion put on a special effort to have all members in attendance when King George VI and his family passed through Guelph in June 1939. There was much confusion in Guelph about the arrangements, and conflicting instructions from the Guelph police, who were in charge of the assembly. The Fergus Legion has intended to be present in formation, but this was-not possible. Despite the organizational problems, virtually the entire Branch was in attendance.’
Most of the World War I veterans had young families in the late 1930s, and popular event each August was the Legion’s picnic~ these were planned as family outings, with basket lunches and games for the children. In 1939 the Legion organized a car pool to Guelph for the last picnic before the dreaded hostilities erupted in Europe.
Branch 275 in World War IL and After
In my previous column I traced the major events surrounding the information of Fergus Legion Branch 275 and the progress of the organization up to the start of World War II. This week I am continuing the story through the war years.
Branch 275 assisted -with recruitment and war preparations after the outbreak of war in September 1939. Mostly, through, the branch served its members as a social organization. The Monday evening meetings continued, featuring card games and lunch. There were also various social outing through the year, oriented to families.
The Legion still had no permanent quarters, and this fact hindered its activities. Membership numbers remained stable, but a number of Fergus Veterans preferred to belong to the Elora Branch, which had its own quarters and a beverage room.
A renewed spirit of vitality embraced Branch 275 in 1942. Two factors were responsible: the election of Harry Rogers as president, and the formation of a Ladies Auxiliary.
Rogers changed the meetings to Tuesday nights, a move that seemed to stimulate attendance. He also served as the pension adjuster, acting as a mediator between government authorities and veterans, and lobbying on their behalf. Membership numbers started to rise again, and the Branch welcomed its first members who were on active service.
On March 24th, Branch 275 held a social evening for all veterans, soldiers on active service and their wives. Mrs. Grieve of Georgetown, the zone representative, spoke on the formation of an Auxiliary. She aroused a great deal of enthusiasm among the wives, and work began immediately on the formation of the Fergus Auxiliary.
Organizational work took only a few weeks. Branch 275 Ladies Auxiliary met on April 28 for the installation of officers. The group began work immediately, preparing packages of luxury items for overseas soldiers. These consisted of such items as cigarettes and candies. Answering a special request from Fergus old boy Capt. Tom Russell, the group gathered seven cartons of books and games in one week.
Mrs. Grieve returned in June to visit the Fergus Auxiliary. Although barely two months old, she said the Fergus Auxiliary was the most active and successful of the 10 in her Zone.
Meanwhile, President Harry Rogers and the other executive members were already making plans tor the postwar period. They expected a large increase in membership. World War I Veterans all recalled the problems they had faced in 1919 and 1920 in returning to civilian life with virtually no support or assistance. Their problems were made all the more difficult by general economic conditions which produced high inflation, strikes, and large scale unemployment.
The government wanted to avoid the problems encountered after World War I, and plans were being made as early as 1942 for the postwar economy. In April 1942 R.G. Goldston, a veterans welfare adjuster, spoke to Branch 275 and outlined plans being made for demobilized soldiers. These included educational support and benefits, assistance in starting businesses, decent pensions for the disabled, and health benefits. Goldston stated that if necessary the government would undertake massive public works projects to fight unemployment.
Branch 275 had sponsored Decoration Day every year since 1935. The 1942 ceremony was one of the largest ever. The Legion placed flowers on the graves of each of the 78 veterans buried in Belsyde Cemetery, and Padre W.A Young offered a stirring address to the large crowd.
Although 1942 was an outstanding year for Branch 275, not everything went smoothly. Legion members, except for eight men, boycotted a recruitment parade on July 6. The parade consisted of military equipment and bands. A number of Fergus veterans who had seen active service spoke out against this type of recruitment. They thought it portrayed war as an exciting adventure. Their own experience had been one of horror, very much in contrast to the mindless jingoism that had fined theirs ears as they departed for Europe in 1915 and 1916.
The young men of Fergus in 1942 were fully aware of the grim realities of modem warfare. The recruitment parade attracted not a single new recruit. Fergus men enlisted in large numbers, but as a patriotic duty, rarely for the adventure.
Meanwhile, the Ladies Auxiliary continued its activities. Mrs. Harry Rogers hosted a tea and baking sale in July. Packages of cigarettes went overseas in August, and 31 parcels of luxury items (including home-made Christmas cake) in September. By year end their parcels included socks knitted made by Red Cross members and gloves made by local Scout mothers. The profits from the Legion bingos were directed to the Auxiliary in October 1942: these funds bought items for Bundles for Britain.
Branch 275 offered a series of dances and concerts through the fall of 1942, including an old-time fiddling contest. At year end they successfully petitioned Fergus council to pay for subscriptions of the Fergus News Record to all Fergus residents on active service overseas.
The activities of Branch 275 and the Auxiliary started in 1942 and continued through the remaining years of the war. By the spring of 1945, with victory in the horizon, Branch 275 resurrected an old dream; a permanent home.
In June 1945 Branch 275 completed the purchase of the old Wansborough house on Garafraxa Street, an impressive Italianate residence. It belonged to Campbell Richardson, but had been vacant for some time. The cost price of $3,200. Was reduced to $2,000 through the sale of vacant land at the rear of the property.
The Legion scheduled renovations for July and August of 1945. They intended to have a caretaker residing on the premised. The treasurer estimated that the building would .cost $80 per month to operate, and the Auxiliary would provide $30 of this amount.
The new branch premises were prepared in plenty of time for the opening on 7Th of October 1945. The Fergus Brass and Pipe Bands led a parade from downtown to the new home. Before going inside, the crowd heard an address from Col. Sydney Lambert, padre of the Christie Street Veterans Hospital in Toronto, on the problems of returning veterans.
The house retained its central hall and staircase. On the left side was the meeting room, with a small elevated platform. On the left were a large sitting room and a kitchen. Some members hoped that his might eventually become a beverage room. Upstairs was a large room for the Auxiliary, with room for various quilting and sewing projects.
Outside, the grounds had been cleaned up and new gravel sidewalk put in. With donated furniture and some volunteer help, the new facility was entirely free of debt.
The opening of the permanent clubroom marked the end of Branch 275’s first decade, and its start in the postwar period with a much enlarged membership, and one with a younger attitude, as World War II veterans joined their fathers and uncles on the membership roll.
This was to be the highlight for Legion members in Fergus, members of the GWVA had spent many years dreaming of receiving a charter that would give them their own branch without having veterans travelling to Elora.
No doubt the temperance movement, combined with an employer Beatty Bros, who very much didn’t want alcohol within the town that might affect the work force and productivity.
After World War I the GWVA struggled to make things better for its veterans, not having a club house they did secure a space on the third floor of today’s Rafferty Insurance with an entrance off St. David St. N. This would be a good location for some time.
Eventually you guessed it, getting to the third floor would be too much for some World War I veterans. They had to find something on the ground floor. Meetings were moved to the home of J.B. Morrison, from there they met in the band room at the old town hall, next they had offices, above what today is Broderick’s clothier on St. Andrews St. W. from there they moved to the Orange Hall on St. David St. N.
As the Second World War was coming to an end, with the help of public subscription the Legion did acquire the Wansborough house on Garafraxa St. W. and Perry St.
This was to be a memorial home and available to Veterans in their travel. These were very happy times finally, after many years, Branch 275 had a home. Despite great planning, it became apparent that maybe this wasn’t the best location, WWI veterans felt it was too far off the main street, where many things would take place, and the cenotaph and cemetery were on the other side of town.
Finally in 1947 WWI veterans followed a plan and bought the Blakley home on St. Andrew St. W. next to the old Canadian Tire, this would be a location that would house Branch 275 for the next 24 years.
In the late 60’s the executive realized they needed something better, many projects were tackled to raise funds for a future new home.
Finally a location that should be nice was started in front of today’s fire hall on Queen St. W. right on the river. A hole was dug, foundations were poured and things were under way. Strangely as fast as the project had started, it came to a halt. Word on the street was that the Legion had gone broke.
For those in the know, the former basket factory had burnt down, while rebuilding was under way, it became a known fact that this location could be purchased for the right price.
This would be the location which has been home for Branch 275, since 1971. Joe Gerrie was the man who was a driving force & given credit, for making this the Legion’s new home, a place, being a clubhouse and hall to serve its own needs and the community. In 1979 renovations to the hall were done which saw the hall double in size. It has been 30 years plus, since this building became Branch 275, today with close to 600 members, Fergus Legion has come a long way, the veterans of two world wars are fewer in number, but as we continue our commitment to veterans and community, We will remember them.