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BEHIND THE SCENES: Looking back at victory homes in NOTL

Niagara-on-the-Lake Local's Mike Balsom takes us behind the scenes

In each “Behind the Scenes” segment, Village Media's Scott Sexsmith sits down with one of our local journalists to talk about the story behind the story.

These interviews are designed to help you better understand how our community-based reporters gather the information that lands in your local news feed. You can find more Behind the Scenes from reporter across Ontario here

Today's spotlight is on notllocal.com's Mike Balsom, whose story 'Looking back at victory homes in NOTL' was published on Jan. 2.

Here is the original story if you need to catch up:‚Äč

The federal government is expected to begin a consultation process this month to develop a catalogue of pre-approved home designs in an effort to accelerate the home-building process for developers.

When it was announced in early December, Housing Minister Sean Fraser likened the project to one from the post-Second World War era, when the Central Mortgage (now Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., or CMHC) developed simple blueprints to help speed up the construction of badly-needed homes for returning soldiers and their families.

That comparison brought to mind the continued existence of about 25 small homes on both sides of Nelles Street and the north side of Castlereagh Street, on the block where both intersect with King Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake. There were also a couple of such homes on Davy Street.

Back in 2019, NOTL Museum volunteer researcher David Hemmings looked into the history of what was referred to as Victory Estate. The story behind the homes, most built in the late 1940s, is a fascinating and oft-overlooked snapshot of the town in the latter half of the 20th century.

“In the early days they were effectively rented out for a period of time,” Hemmings told The Local about the homes that originally sold for about $6,000. “After five years it moved to a lease with an option to purchase. By 1950 or so, most began to buy their houses from Central Mortgage, the company that built them.”

The details were all laid out in the Veterans' Land Act, 1942, including generous financing arrangements.

According to an advertisement Hemming shared that was published in the Globe and Mail at the time, “any ex-service man or woman with overseas service, or all who have served for 12 months in Canada, (were) eligible to make an application, providing they have been honourably discharged and have a reasonable expectation of living up to their agreement.”

Hemmings’ work discovered that most of this housing, built across Ontario, was prefabricated. Walls and roofs were built at a central factory then shipped to the final location for assembly. Once a street was constructed, it was neat, tidy, and uniform. The houses were generally one-and-a-half stories with a steep roof, shallow eaves and no dormers.

That’s an apt description of the homes built in NOTL through the program.

The last names of the original homeowners are like a Who’s Who of NOTL. If surnames such as Bjorgan, Clement, Cornfield, Garrett, Howse, Mills, and Sartor ring a bell it’s perhaps because many became prominent local citizens, continuing their commitment to serving by contributing to the town where they settled. And the next generations of their families often followed suit.

Coincidentally, the late James and Nancy Clark, the first residents and owners of the home at 308 King Street at the corner of Castlereagh Street, were the grandparents of NOTL Museum’s managing director and curator Sarah Kaufman.

“I don’t remember being in the house but my mother has many great memories of growing up there,” says Kaufman. “It was tiny, but my grandfather was a photographer and they had lived before in an apartment on Queen Street above his studio. When they moved there the house seemed huge to them.”

Kaufman’s mother Sherrie shared memories of running around the Niagara Common with her four siblings and playing on the steps of the museum. She described an idyllic lifestyle, with their elementary school Parliament Oak right across King Street.

“My grandfather was a veteran from the military police,” Kaufman explains. “First he was photographing soldiers for identification, then he was one of the escorts going across the ocean with prisoners of war. And my grandmother was a war bride from Croydon. She became heavily involved with the (Royal Canadian) Legion.”

Kaufman laments that the post-war homes are not protected with a heritage designation. The unique layout of the houses and the odd yet uniform sizing of each property, she feels, make them worth preserving as a monument to a different time.

Rick Mills, a pastor at Life Abundant Niagara on Concession 7 Road, spent his childhood at 14 Castlereagh Street. His parents Doug and Violet, the longtime town lifeguard known simply as Vi, bought the home from Violet’s mother Ivy Taylor, the original owner.

Mills’ grandfather Jack first came to NOTL when he was stationed at Camp Niagara. He died in 1948 of tuberculosis, and as a veteran’s widow, Ivy was eligible to apply under the Veterans’ Land Act.

“It had three bedrooms, two upstairs and one downstairs,” Mills says. “One bathroom, no shower. We had six kids in there, including two foster kids, and four of those kids were girls.”

Mills claims he was often still in bed when the first warning bell to start the school day at Parliament Oak went off, but he had enough time upon hearing it to get to class before the second bell. He goes on to list the names of his neighbours and estimates that at one time there were as many as 60 kids running around between the two streets.