Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Not World War Wednesdays: Leap Year Celebrations in Elgin County

     The posts have been rather dark and gloomy lately, so I thought that this week would be a good occasion to do a rare break from tradition and tackle a lighter topic for a change! Yesterday's Leap Day inspired me to remember a few tidbits from my time at Elgin County Archives, and I thought it might be interesting to look at how Leap Days have been observed around the area over the years. In doing that, I noticed some other interesting historical facts that I thought would be interesting to add. Without further ado, here's what I found!


    A Leap Year Dance was held at Alma College, St. Thomas. Photos show a dance card from the event, indicating with whom the owner shared a step or two.Some of the dances include waltzes, a polka, quadrilles, and a Virginia Reel.
     Most dance cards were small, decorative booklets with long strings so the ladies could wear them on their wrists or attach them to their dresses. They were used to record their dance partners, with spaces for the gentleman to sign his name beside which dance he shared. The men would ask the ladies for a particular dance, and they usually carried their own small pencils for this purpose. According to etiquette, if a man introduced himself and asked properly for a dance, the woman could really not refuse. As pieces of social history, dance cards like this one can tell us not only which dances were popular at the time, but who attended certain events and where and when they were held.

     According to a non-digitized item in Elgin County Archives, the people of Wallacetown celebrated February 29, 1904 with a Leap Year party, for which invitations were sent out. Being a Wallacetown native myself, I couldn't help but wonder where in town the party could have been held. I looked into some possible locations from times gone by and was pretty surprised at the options:

1. The Ontario House Hotel, corner of Talbot and Currie Road
Photo circa 1907
     According to notes included in the Wallacetown Women's Institute Tweedsmuir Histories, Volume 1, the hotel was originally owned by Mr. John Dromgole and was operated for many years by the Dromgole family before being destroyed by fire. It's hard to see in this picture, but there's a sign over the door that says "Farmers Bank of Canada," because a branch of the bank operated from the hotel for a few months in 1907.
Here's an earlier photo from around 1895
2. Old Town Hall, Wallace Street (east of Currie Rd.)
Photo circa 1950s
     Volume 1 of the Wallacetown Women's Institute Tweedsmuir Histories describes the old town hall as having stood directly across from the old school, on what was then called the "Commons," and was used for meetings of Dunwich councilors. Occasionally, a company selling patent medicines would hold a free concert there, and it was also used for public dances. It was also home to the "Young People's Literary Society". The building had a lock-up or jail in the right corner (!!!). It was later moved to the Wallacetown fairgrounds and used to serve meals during the Fair.

     I'm sure these are just two of many Leap Year celebrations in Elgin over the years, but the rest must have been so memorable that no one thought to record them or digitize them. I find it very interesting that February 29th has traditionally been a day for celebrating and excitement, but 2016's was just another cold weekday. I'll close with a list of years that have had Leap Days in the past up to 2000, and if you know of any interesting events that took place then send them my way!

1904, 1908, 1912, 1916, 1920, 1924, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944, 1948, 1952, 1956, 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000

    Facts, photos and info courtesy of Elgin County Archives, and supplementary info thanks to Syracuse University.
Thanks for reading,
Delany Leitch (@DLeitch History on Twitter)

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