March 19 commemorates 68 years since the official unveiling of artificial ice at the Richmond Hill Arena. The arena, originally built in 1923, frequently had problems with its natural ice surface resulting in many disappointments for residents eager to skate. In fact, in his Sports column in the Richmond Hill Liberal of April 29, 1954, Bill Ellis wrote:
That “No Skating” sign operates on a hinge with a sign that says “Skating.” The affair is locked by a padlock in either position. You might as well lock the “No Skating” portion in place and throw away the key because that’s what it reads 99 and 44/100 per cent of the time.”
Enter the Richmond Hill Arena Association!
In 1954, this not-for-profit organization was formed, whose primary mandate was to raise funds to outfit the arena with artificial ice. The community members that originally spearheaded this effort included: Craig Bowden, Jack Hart, Bill Savage, Alec Clarke, Al White, Jack Hollowell, Bill Gilchrist, Ralph Paris, Morley Hall, Alex Baird, Elgin Barrow, Cec Mabley, Walt Smith, Harry Bawden, Art Gibson, Morley Williams, Floyd Pratt, Norm Todd and Bill Ellis. The group formed subcommittees, including a Campaign Committee led by Ralph Paris and a Technical Committee led by Alex Baird.
On May 10, 1954, the Arena Association launched a $50,000 fundraising campaign. They were quickly helped along by a quick first donation of $1,000 by Bing Lew, owner of the Town Inn and one of our community’s most notable philanthropists. He would later fund the building of a pool at the Loyal True Blue and Orange Home on Yonge Street, near Elgin Mills. These are just two of many contributions that Mr. Lew made, often to the benefit of local children.
While the campaign did not realize its $50,000 goal, the Association was ultimately successful in bringing artificial ice to the arena. Their Fall campaign in 1954 brought in a respectable $24,000 and saw membership in the Association total approximately 600.
In February 1955, Walter Smith and Elgin Barrow signed a 15-year lease on the arena for $1 per year.
Then, on March 19, 1955, a record-breaking crowd of 1,500 people, paid to attend the official opening of the new ice surface. Municipal and Provincial representatives attended the event, officially opened by “Timmy” of the Easter Seals Campaign. Jack Passmore served as master of ceremonies with the Town represented by Reeve W. J. Taylor.
A full program of activities were showcased at the opening, including solo figure skating performances by Richmond Hill’s own Mary MacKay and later Louis Stong. Ede Butlin called a square dance on the ice, with additional performances given by members of the Toronto and Unionville Skating Clubs. The local association was assisted in the preparation of the ice by Bert Kent, the icemaker for the Toronto Skating Club.
Not surprisingly, the introduction of a more reliable ice surface saw the popularity of skating and organized hockey grow, beginning in the mid-1950s. The arena’s importance to the community grew immensely and has seen many important events over the past 68 years of artificial ice, including the old annual midget hockey tournament. Organized by Royal Canadian Legion Branch 375, this hallmark tournament began in 1968 and saw many future NHL stars hit that artificial ice.
So as you lace up your skates for a turn around the ice at the Elgin Barrow Arena, think back with appreciation to those members of our community who worked so tirelessly and hard to make the arena such an important part of Richmond Hill’s history and put the Skating/No Skating sign onto the trash heap for good.
“And Away We Go” Sports column by Bill Ellis, Richmond Hill Liberal, 15 April 1954, p. 6
“‘Artificial Ice in 1954’ Motto as Campaign Begins” by Bill Ellis, Richmond Hill Liberal, 20 May 1954, p. 3
“First $1,000 Cheque Received for Artificial Ice Campaign” Richmond Hill Liberal, 20 May 1954, p. 3
“No Money – No Ice” Richmond Hill Liberal, 24 June 1954, p. 2
“Official Opening Arena March 19th: Public Skating for Everyone” Richmond Hill Liberal, 3 March 1955, p. 1
“‘Timmy’ to Officially Open Installation Artificial Ice in Richmond Hill Arena March 19” Richmond Hill Liberal, 10 March 1955, p. 1
“Arena Opening” Richmond Hill Liberal, 17 March 1955, p. 2
“Record Crowd at Arena Opening” Richmond Hill Liberal, 24 March 1955, p. 1
“William McDerment, MBE, Manager Richmond Hill Arena” Richmond Hill Liberal, 22 September 1955, p. 9
Richmond Hill Public Library has digitized the local newspapers from 1857-1979 and they can be searched and browsed for free by visiting https://history.rhpl.richmondhill.on.ca/search.