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Thursday, May 23, 2024
Walking tour shines light on the historic role of Commons
Richard Merritt donned a top hat to lead the crowd through the Commons during the NOTL Museum’s walking tour on Friday. JULIA SACCO

Now a peaceful place to sit and enjoy a book, back in 1955 the Commons in Niagara-on-the-Lake hosted around 11,000 boy scouts over the course of eight days.

Drawing nearly 250,000 people to the relatively unknown NOTL of the time, the Eighth World Scout Jamboree is just a sliver of the history covered during Friday’s walking tour of the Commons led by Richard Merritt.

Highlights included the very first golf tournament and, of course, a rich history involving the War of 1812 and both world wars.

“A lot of military and social history has happened here,” said Merritt, noting the use of the Junior Commissariat Officer’s Quarters as a dance hall for youths just a few decades ago.

Merritt noted the building was covered in Led Zeppelin posters and other band posters before being restored by Parks Canada in the 1970s.

The Commons was also a site of gas hut training during the Second World War.

“Every trainee had to go through training and be exposed to gas. They were just in the middle of the woods so they were separate from everything else,” said Merritt.

“They would learn to put on their respirators and then they would go in. Sometimes they were exposed to it too, to make them sick a little bit, so they would be used to it.”

To lighten the mood, Merritt made sure to mention the site’s history as the location for a carousel prior to the war. 

“There’s something completely different and that was a carousel that was here for one year,” he said, noting it was brought over by a pair of vaudeville players in the 1890s.

The more than two-hour tour concluded at Fort George, with a quick discussion on NOTL’s role in the training of Polish soldiers and the reconstruction of the fort itself. 

“Most were brought in by train from the United States, in the end, there were some 21,000 Poles and they were all volunteers,” said Merritt.

“At first when the (NOTLers) heard that the Polish were coming they all put locks on their doors. They were worried about these foreigners coming to little Niagara. But they turned out to be the best trainees.” 

  • The NOTL Museum’s next sold-out tour this Friday in the Neighbourhood Walk series is “Architecture” led by Lake Report columnist and expert Brian Marshall.

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