Self-Guided Tours — Westmeath

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History of the Westmeath Rinks

Submitted by Bob Grylls. Resource was “History of the Corporation of Westmeath Township” by Evelyn Moore Price (1984)

Ottawa has open-air skating on the Rideau Canal, Toronto at Nathan Phillips Square but the very first Westmeath open-air rink was back in the late 1800’s. Situated below the only bridge in the middle of town, it was adjacent to the original general store of Fraser and Patterson (now the Canadian Hillbilly’s property). George Tucker had built a water-powered sawmill on the stream to form a sawmill-pond. It was used in conjunction with a sawmill operation in the summer season, in the winter it became the skating rink. This rink was easily flooded. After sweeping off the ice, the dam water level was lowered two inches and the new two-inch ice-surface emerged with a minimum of effort.

In 1901, a boarded rink was built on Jessie Street. Its construction was posts in the ground and boarded all around. It had a flat roof and one side was for spectators. Wood burning stoves heated the anterooms. By 1907, the size of the rink was insufficient and it was dismantled to make way for a larger one.

A third rink became a reality (66’x166’). Norman Reid, August Carlson and Dr. John Graham formed a committee and provided leadership. Stocks sold to raise money for funding. A mighty community effort of volunteer labour and material made it possible to have the only covered rink in the region, with the exception of one in Pembroke. The rink had a rounded dome roof - built with gin poles. During construction, raising of the supporting brace’s was done by hand with ropes and pulleys. There was over two tons of steel was used in reinforcement. All the steel work was the responsibility of E.O. Gervais, the village blacksmith. George Howard was the contractor for the project. Later a cement foundation was added for stability.

Being the only rural covered rink, it had a much longer hockey season. This was the era of seven-man hockey teams. Westmeath played with teams from Renfrew, Pembroke, Fort Coulonge and Shawville, being successful in winning the Reid Cup. William Johnstone went on to play in Seattle. Harry Cameron played here and later became a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

In 1929 players included these names; Bert Armstrong, Alex Ethier, Joseph Bourke, Gerard Pappin, Hector St. Louis, Austin Shannon, Wilfred ’Donnell, Alan Brown, Carl du Manoir, Weldon Graham, Clinton Anderson and Wilfred Ethier.

The rink had became unsafe by the spring of 1975. It was taken down. The old faithful had served the community from 1907 to 1975, 68 years in all.

The official opening of the Westmeath and District arena was on August 15 &16th, 1976 in conjunction with the inauguration of Westmeath Days. Hundreds of former residents, tourists and locals attended. This fourth rink in the village now provided sports and cultural entertainment all year round. For this celebration, E.O. Gervais cut the ribbon and Dr. Lloyd Reid delivered the main address. Izett McBride outlined all the work and efforts done by so many of our citizens in raising $162,000 for the new arena. The banquet hall, stage and kitchen were a project of the Riverview Seniors of Westmeath.

The groundwork for the rink began about four years earlier when the land was purchased from John Gervais. An intense fundraising drive began and continued over the next few years. A contract was struck with Murray Moores company for the Behlen style building. A half dozen citizens signed personal $10,000 notes to ensure delivery of the steel. The original plan flowed into artificial ice installation the next year, again with the help of more fundraising. Grants were obtained for the building, including one through Ontario Hydro as well as a LIP (Local Initiatives Program) federal grant for employing workers. The workers were supervised by Vilmaire Lacroix to construct the hall and dressing rooms. A Wintario grant was later awarded to the WDRA as well.

Tragedy struck on Friday, January 24, 1983 when fire hit the Westmeath Arena causing extensive damage to the hall section, kitchen and anterooms of the Community Centre. It was fortunate it was not more extensive, thanks to the alertness of nearby resident Mrs. Heideman, who called the notice in at 3:30 am and the quick response by a 12-man fire department. They worked valiantly to battle the blaze from 3:30 on.

The inherent pride of the community (who had put in so much effort only 8 years ago) again became evident as citizens once more banded together to help in the reconstruction. “It could have been worse” was a familiar phrase heard. The ice-surface of the arena was able to stay open for the remainder of the season. The WDRA asked for suggestions from the community for ideas of a design. The rebuild added nearly 20 feet to the length, allowing for a more functional hall and a more spacious lower level.

A ramp way for the disabled was also included. There was fire insurance as well as grant money from the Province and Ontario Hydro for the heat pump system, but the fundraising went on. A lighted ballpark, overseen by Ingo Leinen, became a reality. In a way these were exciting times, built around the principle that if it was not done as a community, it would never happen. There was the faith its completion would propel succeeding generations to cherish it and take pride in it as a Community Centre for everyone.

The property was in the name of Westmeath Township (later Whitewater Township) for insurance purposes as well as increasing eligibility for grant structures. While the Township was cooperative, all of the development, funding and subsequent management has come from volunteers – a major accomplishment for a community of this size.