The Towne Hall was built in 1906 replacing the old structure which had been used for council meetings and the Clerk’s Office. At that time, the population of Ailsa Craig was 1000, similar to what it is today but considering the era, it was quite a large community nurtured by railway shipping and agriculture.
During its long and productive life the structure served many purposes: meeting hall, theatre, Clerk’s Office and town hall, council chambers, library, and fire hall. In 2001, after the amalgamation of five surrounding municipalities, this venerable building was declared surplus and put up for sale. A steering committee formed and drew up a business plan which was presented to the new council of North Middlesex. According to the Mission Statement:
The Friends of “YE OLDE TOWNE HALL” is a management board dedicated to preserve and manage the building for a variety of uses by the community of North Middlesex.
On August 12, 2002 the Municipality of North Middlesex and the Friends of Ye Olde Towne Hall entered into an agreement allowing the Friends to manage the building. In November 2002 the Friends formed a permanent board, achieved charitable status and incorporated not for profit. Through a generous Ontario Trillium Foundation Grant, monies from the “Hydro Fund”, and the Municipality, a lift was installed in 2005/06. Since the Towne Hall was built in 1906 installation of the lift coincided with the centennial and a grand celebration was held to mark these two milestones.
RENTERS AND USAGE
The Town Hall was not just one large unit. Over the years it had been divided into several components: the main floor consisted of the clerk’s office, council chamber, document vault, furnace room and two storage rooms. The upper level has an auditorium with balcony, storage area, three stair cases, kitchen and washrooms. To the rear of the building was the policing office and former library. Part of the business plan included renting the former policing office to professionals, fortunately George Sinker, a Strathroy lawyer, rented the space for almost three full years. And, in 2003, when the local bank decided to close its doors after 104 years, the Sydenham Community Credit Union came to the rescue by opening a branch in the former library.
To quote the 2004 Andrew`s Report “The community mobilized to try to preserve local service, and following packed town-hall meetings, the Ailsa Craig Community Development Committee sought interest from other financial institutions. Sydenham Community Credit Union worked with community representatives to determine the feasibility of opening a credit union location. Survey responses and commitments from community businesses indicated that an Ailsa Craig office could be financially viable, and in April the credit union announced plans to open a full service location with ATM. By the time of the grand opening in July, 300
residents had already become members of Sydenham Credit Union. Growth of the new location surpassed all expectations, with membership exceeding 500 and profitability achieved in the first quarter of 2004. This is a remarkable achievement when new deposit-taking outlets typically take years, not months, to reach a break-even point.” Sydenham Community Credit Union outgrew the space and moved to a larger location on Main Street in 2009.
Installation of the lift enabled the Friends to make better use of the auditorium space: Ceilidhs, Old Time Dances, craft shows, fashion shows, and Holiday celebrations soon followed. Certainly one highlight for the organization is the Young Stars of Tomorrow performances; providing local youth with the chance to perform on stage in front of a live audience. The Towne Hall also became the space for weekly and monthly meetings: The Lions, Scouts, Guides, Fitness, Ontario Early Years, VON Fitness, and Horsemen Clubs. Once again the building lit up at night while “Continuing To Serve” the community.
During the summer youth art camps have been offered. For many years Jessica Buscher Mahon directed these camps. More recently Lesley Andrews, A Dream In Progress Productions, has directed the Summer School for the Performing Arts and Ruth Anne Merner instructed the fundamentals of drawing classes.
A small group of women, who were interested in keeping the Ailsa Craig Town Hall for the community, formed a steering committee in 2001, they were soon joined by councillor Ken Johnston. Known as the Friends Of Ye Olde Towne Hall they held monthly and even weekly meetings to develop the business plan and write the by-laws targeted at managing the building. Once this goal was achieved the steering committee turned the reins over to a Board of Directors. The Board consists of seven members: Chair, Treasurer, Secretary and four members responsible for maintenance, rentals, volunteers and memberships. The Board meets the third Wednesday of every month starting at 7:00 p.m. The Board is a committee of council in the Municipality of North Middlesex.
The Friends of Ye Olde Towne Hall is a registered Charity and is incorporated not for profit. We hold an Annual General Meeting in the late fall and produce an Annual General Report.
The Ontario Trillium Foundation awarded the Friends a grant to hire a program coordinator in 2009. The coordinator is responsible for arranging performances in the hall, publicity, and other duties to help the still young organization grow. A New Horizons for Seniors grant was also awarded and now CraigActive for active retirees and a choral group have been established.