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Niagara Falls
Saturday, July 13, 2024
The Turner Report: Old is cool in NOTL and a prized flag rises again
The crew of Terry Felker, Dennis Cunningham and Devon Harper wrestles to affix the 150-year-old linen flag without inflicting more damage.
The same flag was draped over the pulpit of St. Mark's Anglican Church for the 1897 anniversary of Victoria's reign.
The flag flaps again on the side of Garth Turner's house in Old Town — another small piece of the essential business of history in NOTL.
Proud of their work are Devon Harper, Terry Felker and Dennis Cunningham.

It was raining, so we drove. But forget about parking. The streets of Old Town were jammed. Dorothy and I ended up walking through the wet and the dark halfway back from where we started.

“Sheesh,” I muttered. “Is Taylor Swift here?”

Nope. It was historian Richard Merritt. Giving a lecture, not a concert. At the unsexy museum, not the amphitheatre. And he didn’t even have sequins on. Or pink boots. But the crowd ate it up.

Old is cool in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This night the place was packed. We got there six minutes late and no chairs left. It was SRO for a talk about dead people.

Our town probably wouldn’t be what it is now — attracting 3.5 million visitors a year — without history, heritage and a fabled past. Sure, there’s wine, physical beauty, awesome trees, and did I mention the wine? … but what ties it together, making oodles of revenue, is the past.

“An awful lot of history buffs want to come and look at our assets,” Cathy Weiss tells me.

She’s the new head of the Chamber of Commerce (and admits to liking big hotels). “We need to keep them intact, which is why we have strict rules in the heritage area. I know that new development scares people but, trust me, we’re protected.”

Hope so. Those people wandering around mean $658 million in local business and 3,350 jobs. Nothing else comes close. 

A lot of folks worry the town will get loved to death, however. Back-to-back approval of the Rainer Hummel complex at Queen and Mississagua, then the Parliament Oaks palace of Benny Marotta have rattled many.

Once heritage is gone, it ain’t coming back. And it’s a fine line between quaint and commercial. There’s a reason space for a small shop downtown can lease for $17,000 a month. People want to come here for the same reason we choose to live in NOTL. We’re in the hug of history.

That brings me to The Flag.

In the catalogue of a national Canadian art auction, it seemed misplaced. An old, scarred red ensign with a weird emblem. Made of linen, hand-stitched, pocked with holes and tears befitting something a century-and-a-half old. Then I saw the provenance: “St. Mark’s Church, Niagara-on-the-Lake.”

Affable Donald Coombe is the sexton and archivist at St. Mark’s, the go-to guy after I bought the banner (as the only bidder). So what’s the story? 

“For years it was crammed into a cupboard under the stairs and many times there were threats to just put it into the trash,” he says. “However, we kept it. We thought to send the flag to auction as we could see no possible way of displaying or making use of it.”

Turns out this was Canada’s flag from about 1870 until the turn of the century. The crest contains emblems of the only seven provinces at the time, and it would have been the standard Canadian troops carried into the Boer War. This was draped over the pulpit in the church for the 1897 celebration of Victoria’s 60th year as monarch. Don gave me a picture.

Well, Terry, Dennis and Devon — who were building a fence for me — got it hoisted up on the wall of the house. And there she sits. Below, visitors come and go on their way between The Street and the park, with another piece of the past in their path. 

“For years I fretted and fumed over the flag and its untimely end. Thank you for saving the flag from indifference, moths and corruption!” said the sexton. “All of which proves that there is always a solution.”

Nah. It’s just good business.

Garth Turner is a NOTL resident, journalist, author, wealth manager and former federal MP and minister. Email: garth@garth.ca.

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