When the music returns to Elmira’s Gore Park for the popular summer concert series, the bandstand there will be continuing a role that has made it a fixture in the downtown core for 120 years. The original bandstand is thought to have been located behind a hotel on the northwest corner of Church and Arthur Street and erected by the hotel owner, Henry Zilliax, in 1892. The hotel, the Anglo-American House, was destroyed in a fire in 1898, along with the Union Hotel, but the bandstand survived and was transported to Gore Park when the block was rebuilt.
“We think it is the same bandstand sitting in Gore Park. We have no paper trail but old photos show it looking exactly like the one at the hotel,” said Bertha Thompson, a local historian. “It was originally built as a way to gather people and (Zilliax) sold beer and liquor to increase business, but when the hotel was rebuilt they needed more space and it is believed that the bandstand then moved to Gore Park.”
By 1912, the bandstand was starting to look tired and Elmira’s council decided to erect a new one from a design prepared by members of the Elmira Musical Society, calling for tenders from local carpenters. Abraham Martin Bowman submitted a bid of $33, half of what his competitors were asking, and council accepted it.
Bowman, a son of a carpenter, had established a contracting business in Elmira in 1911 and was well prepared to “show the community he was up to the challenge of building the structure that would display the quality of work he could do.”
“It stood for 76 years: he did a good job building that bandstand, he took care of his craft,” said Elmira resident Ruth Josephs, Bowman’s great-grandniece. There are indications that Bowman used parts of the existing bandstand built by Zilliax, said Josephs.
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The original bandstand did not have a roof which was added by Bowman as he transformed the rectangular cross bracing of the structure into squares. By doing this he increased the number of cross-braces around the perimeter providing more rigidity for the posts that supported the new roof.
“Bowman redesigned the cross members to be tighter to allow the weight of the roof of the bandstand to be equally distributed,” said Thompson. The roof was originally shingled with asbestos slate tiles that served to protect the eight seams of the octagonal roof. The bandstand did not just provide a stage for music, it also created a sense of community, as weekly concerts were held that drew large crowds. For decades the downtown core would be busy on either a Thursday or Saturday night as people from all over would make their way down to the bandstand to listen to the weekly concert performed by the Elmira Band.
“When we moved here in 1956 I remember hearing music through out the town as the band would practice at the bandstand for the weekly shows,” said Thompson. “It was a very important part of the social life in Elmira.”
The bandstand was used for regular band concerts and social events. When men went off to the wars, they were bid goodbye from the bandstand with concerts and speeches. It was also used as a platform for politicians to speak to members of the community, said Thompson.
“This was a time before television, a time when people got together not to just listen to music but to be social and meet neighbours,” added Josephs. “Numerous politicians have used or visited the site of the bandstand, including prime ministers John Diefenbaker and William Lyon Mackenzie King.”
A social gathering place, the bandstand held many community events and churches would use it for their meetings. “For a long time it was the heart of Elmira,” said Thompson. “Every week people would come down to the bandstand to listen to music and talk with their neighbours and find out all the local gossip,” said Josephs.
In the 1920s, Mary Hambly of Elmira saw these weekly gatherings with an entrepreneur’s eye. With the bandstand located across the street from her home she began to sell food and ice cream to those in attendance. “She would set up a stand by her porch and sold ice cream, which was a specialty because there were no freezers or refrigerators in the houses,” said Josephs. “She capitalized on all these people coming to the weekly concert and started making a living because of it.”
Eventually she would outgrow the porch and move her business down the street, opening up Hambly Grocery, which became a fixture in Elmira for many years.
By the 1980s, the bandstand looked more like the leaning tower of Pisa. Bowman had given the old bandstand new life by reusing the old base and building a roof on to it but over the years the wood had begun to rot and the bandstand was in need of a restoration. When Woolwich Township decided to have the bandstand designated as a heritage structure and renovate it for Elmira’s centennial celebrations in 1986 they found that Bowman had erected columns on top of the original bandstand’s supporting posts and not on footings in the ground, which had caused the structure to tilt over the years.
“The first restoration they found there were a lot of things to repair and fix that they did not expect,” said Thompson.
The restoration of the bandstand was originally planned to have coincided with the centennial celebrations of the town in 1986, but it would not be completed until June 1988. Dan Waters of New Day Contracting in Wallenstein won the bid for the restoration work. When making repairs the company faced many problems, including the rotten roof rafters and cornice, but managed to complete the work in the summer of 1988 when it was designated a heritage structure.
The bandstand is once again in need of a major restoration and the township has launched a community fundraising drive, with residents encouraged to contribute to the effort. Much of the wood is again rotting and needs to be replaced. The same goes for the existing asbestos shingles on the roof. Council has earmarked $80,000 to deal with the basic structural deficiencies. The bandstand has a historic value for the entertainment it provided throughout the years but is also historically significant as it is one of the last of its type in the country.
“As far as I know, the bandstand in Elmira and one located in Halifax are the only two bandstands of their type to still be standing,” said Thompson. “They are open all the way around allowing visitors to sit anywhere to listen to the music; most band shells today are closed off in the back as that allows the music to travel out to the audience.”