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Balaclava - Grey

History

Town site photo

Former gas station

©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko

Ontario is unquestionably the only place in the world with three ghost towns, all named Balaclava. Originally spelled Balaklava, the two communities in Grey and Renfrew share many similarities.

Like its counterpart in Renfrew County, Balaclava started out as a mill town when George Scott opened a sawmill around 1850. By the mid 1860s John Kergen had opened a general store, John Lusk a carpenter shop and Elijah Moulton was operating an inn and tavern. The village also included a wagon-maker, Alexander McMullen and a blacksmith, Duncan Cameron. After Cameron opened his shop, Balaclava acquired three more smithys, Elijah Cross, George Johnston and Washington Moulton. John Hill Sr. took over the inn around 1870. The surrounding area, which also included the community of Johnson a half kilometre to the south, was described in the Grey County Atlas and Gazetteer as 'fine and prosperous'. The first post office was opened in 1890 with W. H. Hunt as the first postmaster.

Balaclava's first school, S.S. No. 8 Sydenham, was a frame building, first opened in 1864. The first teacher was Simon Grantham and average attendance was around 25 pupils. After the first school burned down, classes were held in the Orange Hall until a new log school was constructed. In 1870, the log school was replaced with a stone structure, built by Joseph Briggs and his son Walter. That school lasted until 1915, when a more modern brick school, that included a basement and furnace, was constructed by A. Rolston from Owen Sound. Students from nearby Silcote also attended the Balaclava school, after their school was closed in 1945.

Balaclava's Orange Hall, Orange Lodge 896, was first formed in Silcote and known as the Campbell Cliff Lodge. It was relocated to Lot 4, Concession C, in Balaclava in 1858. The building started out as two separate dwellings were moved from an adjacent lot and then joined together and re-shingled. P. S. Campbell was the first Worshipful Master.

There was no church in Balaclava, however the nearby communities of Johnson and Silcote each had a Methodist (later United) church. The Johnstone United Church, located on Balaclava Rd., first opened its doors in 1855. Built on land donated by William Johnstone, the original church was a frame building with three tall windows on each side, two sets of doors and a front porch. Alexander Hunter, a theological student from Queens University, worked there during the summers. He was so highly regarded that in 1864 he was asked to return as minister. Rev. Hunter passed away in 1869 at the age of 42 and was succeeded by Rev. E. B. Rogers, who was regarded as the best pulpit orator in the Owen Sound Presbytery.

By the 1890s Balaclava's population had grown to about 50. The village included three sawmills, owned by Charles Eagle, William McMillen and Alexander Reid. In 1890 W.H. Hunt opened a post office in his general store. Other shopkeepers during the 1890s included D.N. Dodge, Edward Katz, William Leflar and G.D. Howatt. Leflar and Howatt also served as postmasters. The sawmills were closed by the early part of the 20th century.

In 1920, the original Johnstone Church was torn down and replaced with a more substantial brick structure, built at a cost of $6930.00. John Johnstone, son of the original donor, bequeathed $4000.00 towards its construction. Construction moved at a lightning pace and the opening service was conducted by Rev. A. J. Orr on Oct. 17, 1920. The church, which later became known as the Johnstone United Church, lasted until 1969 when it was demolished, the same year as the Silcote Methodist Church.

As Balaclava moved into the 20th century, it adapted quickly to the changing times. The Balaclava Telephone Company was first formed in 1912 with a mandate to build a line that connected to the Bell Telephone Co. in Owen Sound. The company started with 34 subscribers, each paying $35.00 towards the costs of construction along with a few added costs after the line was finished. 'Bees' were held to help erect the poles. By the end of the summer, Balaclava had its own telephone system with three party lines. The Balaclava Telephone Company survived until 1960 when it was bought out by Bell Canada who installed the dial system.

Balaclava was originally situated about three kilometres north of its present location. In 1919, after the White family built a new store, much of the commerce shifted southward.

The new store quickly grew into a popular place. One of the big attractions was a switchboard that had three plug-ins connected to the store's telephone system. Using the switchboard, the owners could plug in to any of the three lines and bypass the operator in Owen Sound. Even more fun though was an early form of conference calling. To accomplish this, the store owners would connect the two and three lines together, allowing shareholders to have group conversations. The switchboard also came in handy for more discreet calls when two people needed to have a private conversation, away from the prying ears of the party lines.

The Balaclava Women's Institute was formed in 1926 by 18 ladies who had done volunteer work for the Red Cross during World War I. The organization became well regarded for their volunteer and community efforts. They conducted two-week courses in nursing and sewing and short courses in vegetable cookery and glovemaking. In 1933, they formed a 'cemetery committee' to help with the maintenance of Vanwyck's Cemetery which had been badly neglected over the years. Their efforts during the Second World War were particularly welcome. In one instance, they shipped 298 quilts overseas. In 1946, their lobbying efforts were instrumental in jumpstarting a campaign to spray for warble flies, a particularly troublesome pest in some regions.

One of the mandates of the Women's Institute was to 'build leadership' and their efforts in this area led to the formation of two spinoff groups, the Balaclava Junior Institute and the Junior Farmers. The Junior Institute operated from 1936 to 1945. They conducted courses in agriculture and home economics that were held at the Johnstone United Church. One popular club was the homemaking club, known as the "Supper Club."

The Junior Farmers followed as a direct result of the agriculture course held by the Junior Institute. The group was organized in 1937 by Mr. T. S. Cooper, the agriculture representative in Grey County. Membership was 10 cents and meetings were held monthly on the third Wednesday of every month. Joint meetings of both groups began taking place in July 1937.

The Junior Farmers sponsored numerous clubs such as the calf, swine, colt, sheep and potato clubs. One popular event was the Sydenham Plowing Match that took place on August 18th, 1937. Entry fees were 25 cents and prizes totalled $100.00, a pretty fair sum during the heights of depression. The prize money was raised from soliciting community donations. Following the plowing match, the Sydenham Plowman's Association was formed, also in 1937. It lasted until 1952 when the North Grey Plowman's Association was formed. The Junior Farmers also took part in judging competitions and events, eventually winning the shield for three consecutive years as the highest judging team. One member, Les Farquharson, also won honours for judging at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), which was held annually in Toronto.

Membership in the Women's Institute, which at one time boasted 44 members, was reduced in 1942 after land was expropriated for construction of the AFV tank range. Membership was further reduced in 1949 when a number of members resigned to help form a new branch at Briar Hill. In 1945, the group took over the former Silcote School, turning it into a community building. They redecorated the building and purchased a piano so the building could be used for various events by other groups in the area. Hydro was installed in 1951 and an electric stove added in 1965.

Competitive sports were always popular in Balaclava. The first cricket team was organized in the 1850s or 60s. Players included mill owner, George Scott Sr. along with his brother John. The first township match was played against Annan in 1864, with the Annan team winning. Unfortunately the rivalry stirred up some bitter feelings and put an end to any future matches.

By the 1930s, Sydenham had a soccer league that included teams from Annan, Bognor and Strathaven. Balaclava entered a team in 1937 and won the championship in 1938. Vastly underrated and viewed as the underdogs, they then went on to defeat the team in Owen Sound, who had been champions in their own division.

The Balaclava Hockey Club, which became part of the Rural Hockey League during the mid 1940s, was comprised of boys from Balaclava and Silcote. After winning the league championship for the 1946-47 season, the team members, along with their relatives and friends, were treated to a large banquet at the Seldon House in Owen Sound followed by a dance at the Annan Hall. The banquet was topped off by guest speakers Syl Apps and Guy Bodnar of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Unfortunately, by the time the hockey club had scored their big victory, Balaclava was in a serious state of decline. The village had never been large and over time many of its business closed. The biggest blow fell during the Second World War after the government shut down Balaclava's road and expropriated land to construct the Meaford army base. The post office was replaced with Rural Mail Delivery and closed in 1961. The Orange Hall closed in 1964 and the school in 1965.

A few people continue to live in Balaclava and both the old and new sections of Balaclava contain a number of interesting ruins and relics of bygone years. Although the school and orange hall are gone, the original general store in the older section still stands and is now used as a private dwelling. The newer store, built by the Whites in 1919, was purchased in 1997 was beautifully restored after years of abandonment. A few other older buildings along with the usual cellar holes also remain.