June 20, 2017
As we celebrate Canada’s 150th Birthday, and hopefully the opening of Furnace Room Brewery in Georgetown this year, we reflect on the fine tradition of local brewing and remember some of the establishments who served thirsty travellers over the years.
Beer was, and has always been, a favourite drink in Canada long before Confederation. The earliest explorers and settlers in this part of the country brought their brewing traditions—and tastes—with them from various parts of Europe. As Halton County became settled, and communities established, the need for breweries and bars supplying beer sharply increased. Taverns and hotels were much sought after for thirsty drivers carrying wagon loads of wheat and lumber on the dusty roads from the north Halton and Wellington Counties to ports in Oakville and Bronte.
Along the 37 kilometers of Trafalgar Road between Ballinafad and Oakville, at one time, 21 hotels once existed. The earliest hotels in the Georgetown area not only provided accommodation, meals and refreshment from the dusty roads but were often meeting places where political gatherings and elections took place. When Esquesing was first organized as a township, the meetings soon began in local taverns. After council business had been dealt with the Members and township staff would enjoy liquid refreshments. During the same early period in Esquesing, when men over 18 years of age would gather for military exercises, it was often the enjoyment of beer that was paramount.
The Historical Atlas of Halton County of 1877 reported the hop industry in the Georgetown vicinity was assuming large proportions due to the favourable soil. Almost 200 acres of hops were cultivated in 1876 and the general average was from 600 to 800 pounds to the acre. A listing in the Atlas shows 23 farms with between 4-15 acres of hops on each farm. The Bessey farm, to the west of Georgetown, had one of the larger acreages. Acton once had a large hop drying kiln in operation for many years. It was also reported Brain Brother’s Brewery, near Hornby, used over 8,000 pounds of hops that went into the annual production of up to 5,000 gallons of beer.
Of the 26 “Views” in the 1877 Historical Atlas of Halton County over a quarter of the views are related to hotels, taverns and places of related to beer making. Acton and Georgetown, the larger commercial centres in Esquesing, had a selection of watering holes but so did virtually every village. Settlements such as Limehouse, Ashgrove, Hornby, Norval and Glen Williams, had at least one hotel each. These places often attracted corresponding Temperance Halls.
The Limehouse Hotel
Hill’s Hotel Glen Williams
The Hollywood Hotel Norval
Georgetown, since earliest times, has always had its share of hotels which catered to the locals and travellers. This is especially true with the opening of the Grand Trunk Railway in 1856. The crews that built the railway through the area in the early 1850s relied on taverns with cold beer while salesmen arriving in town on the new railway line needed accommodation, food and refreshment. Hotels often provided exhibit areas in the lobby for the salesmen’s sample products. Harry Spiers once operated the Canadian House Hotel on Mill Street (Near Guelph Street) while serving as Fire Chief in the village. The Bennett House, once sat with its two storey verandah at the north west corner of Main and Mill Streets (at the site of The Old Bank Building). The American House Hotel, with its double verandahs, once overlooked the downtown core from the corner of Guelph and Main Street (presently The St. George Pub)
The north east corner of Main and Mill Street in downtown Georgetown has been the location of a hotel since before Confederation when Robert Jones built a hotel on the site. The business changed ownership when the hotel was sold to Thomas Clark about 1867. In 1895 brothers Sam and John McGibbon leased the Clark Hotel for $600 a year. When John took over operation of the Wallace Hotel in Milton in 1898, Sam continued as hotelier at Georgetown. The McGibbons were from a prominent farm family in the Scotch Block area and were able to provide fresh vegetables, eggs and meats to their respective hotels in Georgetown and Milton.
The Sam McGibbon family lived at the hotel and took great pride in the accommodation and dining establishment. Sam’s wife, Ann, kept white linen in the dining room which became popular for wedding receptions and attracted many of the travelling salesmen who visited Georgetown on business. The McGibbon Hotel, a landmark in downtown Georgetown for almost 125 years, is taking on a new role on Main Street with the Residences of the Hotel McGibbon condominium development which incorporates some of the architectural heritage and contemporary designs.
The McGibbon Hotel Georgetown
The Bennett House Hotel (left centre) faces The McGibbon Hotel (right centre)
The Bennett House Georgetown (site of “The Old Bank”)
At the corner of King and Queen Streets, and adjacent to the Grand Trunk Railway Station, John Higgins saw the opportunity to cater to traffic created by eighteen passenger trains passing through Georgetown daily right on his doorstep. Higgins was married to Georgetown’s founder’s daughter, George Kennedy, and prospered. The Railway Exchange Hotel, more often known as “The Station House Hotel” was purchased in 1913 by experienced hotelier Harry Wright who had operated hotels in Richmond Hill and Nobleton, Ontario before moving to Georgetown. With the heavy rail traffic, and two paper mills directly across the tracks, the hotel was serving sometimes 200 meals daily during peak periods. The Grand Trunk Railway used the Exchange Hotel for passenger accommodation when a train accident occurred locally. The Wright family often supplied blankets to stranded passengers who were satisfied to sleep on the floor during emergencies. Harry Wright’s grandson, Glen Wright Hillock, was one the last family members to operate the hotel which closed in 2003. Like the former McGibbon Hotel in the downtown core, plans are underway for the old Station House Hotel to be partially preserved and provide accommodation to a new generation of Georgetown residents. Habitat for Humanity has recently purchased the site with hopes of constructing four townhouses.
The “Railway Exchange Hotel” often called “The Station House Hotel”
Our thanks to John McDonald for this content. You can see more of his fascinating stories about the history of Halton Hills in his book “Halton Sketches Revisited”. See the details about the book and John here: http://haltonsketchespublishing.com/