Self-Guided Historical Walk of Grand Bend
(Reprinted with thanks to Grand Bend Historical Society volunteers. Visit Grand Bend’s Welcome Centre for the full brochure.)
Grand Bend is one of the oldest communities in Lambton County. Fishing and tourism were early industries, but it was the majestic pine and oak forest that led to the actual founding of the village.
On ancient French maps, the area is shown as Eaux Croches, meaning Crooked Waters and Jesuit Mission were located somewhere nearby. Natives traded flint tools at the river’s bend which they secretly mined at Stoney Point.
In the 1830’s the first settlement began with the purchase of lots from the Canada Company by English and Scottish pioneers. About this time, William Brewster, an American, secured rights to dam the river and erected as saw mill. The area was then known as Brewsterville and consisted of the families of the mill hands and fisherman. The mill existed for 20 years until angry upstream families, believing the mill was the cause of frequent flooding, organized a vigilante group. Under the cover of darkness, they burned the mill to the ground, never to be rebuilt. Evidence of the mill pond can still be seen by looking north from Lakeview Avenue at the entrance to Southcott Pines.
The opening of the highway to Goderich meant the village was no longer dependent on forestry. New opportunities emerged and in 1875 the village boasted a gristmill, planing mill, shingle and oatmeal mill, along with two hotels. John Dalziel’s Caledonia Flour Mill was located in the loop of the great hairpin turn of the river (see picture). Although this little hamlet assumed a variety of names throughout is history, such as Brewsterville, Websterville and Sommerville, the final name, Grand Bend, came from the tight hairpin turn, the grand bend, where Dalziel established his mill.
Digging for a canal was begun in 1892 from the grand bend to the lake to relieve upstream flooding and to create a harbor. The grand bend is no longer, however if you walk west towards the lake on river Road at Albert Street you will see the last remains of the Old Channel that has never really disappeared. It is now a beautiful and interesting lagoon water course, running 13 miles south, paralleling the lake, through Pinery Park until it eventually arrives at Port Franks.
Grand Bend opened its first Post Office in 1872. The arrival of the automobile brought profound change to the village. Businesses sprang up to serve and supply the travellers’ needs. More people discovered the charm of Grand Bend with its beautiful blue waters, clean refreshing air and magnificent sunsets. Family gatherings and picnics; holidays and sunshine; romances and new friends, are the defining character of our precious place.
You are now prepared to take an historical walk down our Main Street, following the path of many before you. Enjoy, have fun, thanks for visiting Grand Bend and remember … this is where the fun never sets!
1. The Colonial Hotel (Main Street): Built prior to 1880; formerly called the Brenner House after early proprietor – Joe Brenner. Oldest established hotel in Grand Bend. For years, a large carbide lamp mounted on the verandah lit the main intersection, the necessary chemicals for which were stored in a cement shed on the riverbank – which still exists today. Apparently, a horse misguidedly walked upstairs and was unable to turn around.
2. Welcome Arch (Main Street): Erected in 1927; rebuilt in the 1960s; rebuilt again in 2010 as part of Main Street’s rejuvenation program.
3. Ripples Fashions (9 Main Street): 1902-13 – William Amos, a Londoner, operated The Amos Emporium offering a variety of goods, post office and telephone service. Mrs. Amos sold hats and ladies’ made-to-measure items. A dairy cow, kept behind store, escaped one day only to be chased down Main Street across the beach and out onto the pier before being corralled.
4. The Aria & The Shore Shop (2 Main Street): Once The Treasure & Tea Room, also known as the Riverside Restaurant. Shop run by Marge Brown in the 1950s, with main-level restaurant, kitchen below and staff quarters below again. One waitress recalls earning $10 to iron a white shirt for a customer so he could look good on Saturday night!
5. Ladies Fashions (21 Main Street): Built at the request of the then Liberal MP in 1936 by W.H. Love with white ash grown on his farm. One Halloween night, pranksters pushed a Model-T car into the basement! 1942 – Post Office moved here along with a bank. Mail was received twice daily; postage 3 cents a letter. During WWII mail was the only means of communication and Port Franks workers walked to town for mail.
6. Tender Spot (20 Main Street): 1912 – known as The Bake Shop, owned by Frank Geromette (baker/confectioner). Geromette made year-round deliveries by horse-drawn wagon, blowing a whistle to announce his arrival. Also had a Lunch Room and offered “a tasty lunch at any time”. Transitioned to Wally’s Meats then the Tender Spot.
7. J Dee’s Summerhouse (23 Main Street): Behind J Dee’s are remnants of Wondergrove Roller Rink, popular 1940s, 50s and 60s recreational facility. Roller skates were clamped to shoes and tightened by key; often loosened during use to amusement of on-lookers. In rear patio, see rink’s patterned terrazzo floor and ‘old oak tree’ where skaters carved their initials.
8. Coco’s (62 Main Street): Formerly The Hotel Imperial, constructed in 1905 by Harry Bossenberry, replacing earlier frame building called The Woodbine. First hotel on Lake Huron’s eastern shore to have hot and cold water in all rooms. The 3-storey hotel boasted large rooms and rates of $6-8 a week. Autobus brought train passengers from Exeter to Grand Bend for 50 cents. Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks headlined to capacity crowds in 1950s & 60s. Various incarnations: Kelly’s, RD’s and Hotel Mainstreet.
9. Oak Lodge (67 King Street): Oldest cottage in Grand Bend’s original core, built in 1898 by John Spackman (Exeter), named Dotheboys Hall from a Dickens’ novel. Spackman bought surrounding 26 acres for $450, constructing an office and 12 cottages for a cottage/recreational centre. William Levitt (Exeter) purchased and continued construction and land holdings to 45 acres from 1902 until George Eccleston (London) purchased property in 1916 for $9,100. Lakeview House, at lower end of Main Street was part of this project, was a summer boarding-house with stables for guests’ horses. Eccleston built Main Street (1917) and first dance hall on the beach.
10. Lakeview Casino (Beach): Great significance to Grand Bend’s history and development. Opened July 29, 1917 to music of the Lombardo Boys. Over five decades, hosted big bands such as Louis Armstrong, Glen Miller Orchestra, Bert Niosi, Gordie Tapp, Haines Sisters, Wally Koster, Stan Patton, Juliet, Lionel Thornton, Tommy Dorsey, Rudy Vallee and McKinney’s Chocolate Dandies. Eric McIlroy, Eccleston’s son-in-law, continued as proprietor with jitney dancing (pay-as-you-dance). Day-time visitors enjoyed baseball at ball diamond behind Casino, rented bathing suits and purchased giftware. Building hosted Sunday Church services. McIlroy also operated Merrywoods Racehorse Farm (Highway 21).
11. Main Beach: 1920s – Henry Ford held annual company picnics on Grand Bend’s beach. 2008 beach enhancements (boardwalk, playground, splash pad, gazebo & landscaping) continue the beach tradition. Today, beach enjoys Blue Flag status (international symbol of clean, safe swimming water & beach management).
12. The Pier: 1892 – channel dug by horse-teams and scraperbuckets to create Grand Bend’s harbour and drain farmland subject to flooding. Channel removed Ausable River’s sharp turn, increasing its width for boats. Also cut-off 21km of river flowing south to Port Franks, today known as “Old Ausable Channel”, fed by springwater. 1905 – timber cribwork pier built to prevent silt and sand from blocking harbour. Later, cribwork encased by concrete and south pier added to protect harbour. 1908- flourishing fishing industry saw A.W. Selkirk Fish Company of Port Huron (Michigan) send a tug three times weekly to collect fish catch. Pickerel, whitefish and herring were plentiful. 1913 – run of sturgeon entered the River, some 5-feet in length. Excursion boats with US visitors frequently visited – pictured here is the steamboat “Arabian” docked at the pier (1900).