A Trip to the Past

This past week I had my first break from work since December, and I took the opportunity to visit my grandparents in St. Thomas, Ontario. They always enjoy having me visit; and they are both lovely people who are full of stories and wisdom so I always enjoy visiting them too! I always find it interesting to visit St. Thomas. I was born there, and although I left when I was three I do somehow feel a connection to the city and the area. It saddens me because although St. Thomas has a rich history as a railway town and industrial centre, nowadays it is dying. Many people commute to London for work; the railway tracks are overgrown and their buildings disused; and few large employers remain. However, this makes what used to be all the more evident, and it is a fascinating place for someone interested in the past.

A lot of retirees call St. Thomas their home. My grandparents live in an established neighbourhood and many of their neighbours have, like them, been there for over fifty years. I visited one such neighbour while returning home and spying his classic car parked on the street! My grandpa was happy to accompany me, and the neighbour was happy to show me his car. It was a 1947 Chevrolet Fleetline, which he restored himself using many parts from other vehicles. A completely custom ride, and a very beautiful one too! Talking to him was very cool– he seems to spend his time restoring cars (he also has a 1946 Ford pickup and a roadster and coupe as well). Having a few sheds full of old cars to restore is something that is very appealing to me, I was jealous!

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I love the lines of 1940s automobiles. They had such style!

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Old engines are so different from the ones I’m used to seeing at work

My grandparents’ house is also full of treasures. They might be odd to some, but I think their collections are awesome! Hanging over the stairs in the back hall are a bunch of brightly painted model airplanes– they seem to be engaged in a dogfight, and they make a gallery-worthy display if you ask me.

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Suspended by wire, the planes make a striking and unique display

My grandparents also have a great collection of books. I think they are mostly my grandpa’s, since they are largely war or car books, and my brother and I have spent many a summer afternoon looking through consumer automotive reports, old copies of Popular Mechanics, and accounts of battles from the Crimean War to WWII.

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I really think there’s nothing better than a good collection of books!

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My grandpa shares my fascination for World War II– he has certainly encouraged my own interest and enthusiasm

I took many drives through the countryside this past week– driving around to obscure sites is something my grandpa loves to do, and he has a story or memory about everything. I drove them around in my new car quite a lot, which was fun for everybody! One place we stopped was a cemetery for a 19th century “House of Industry and Refuge”… or poorhouse. Although the term poorhouse seems more suited to Dickensian London than rural Ontario, there were many such establishments in Ontario in the 1800s.

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The cemetery is situated behind an unfinished and abandoned retirement residence– a sorry location for such a sombre memorial

These houses were places for the destitute, infirm, or elderly to live and- if they could- work if they had nowhere else to go and no one else to help them. The Elgin County example at least was situated on a farm, so the residents worked the land while they lived at the house. From 1876 to 1894, many people died at this poorhouse; but at least they are now remembered here.

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The names recorded here belong to all kinds of people; relatives, men, women, and even a few babies.

Our country drives took us to happier places as well, and for me rural southern Ontario really does feel out of a different time. It’s so quiet, and farmers who live here wave at you as you drive by. The rolling green fields and narrow twisting roads remind me a little of England and its B-roads, and it’s a really picturesque place. My grandma grew up on a farm with horses, so she has many stories of farm life from her childhood. Visually, the area hasn’t changed much since then!

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My beautiful car in an (almost) equally beautiful setting

There was one highlight from all these country drives; and that was a visit to the old St. Thomas Assembly, which from 1967 until its close in 2011 assembled cars for the Ford Motor Corporation. Most notably, it produced the Mercury Grand Marquis (of which my family has owned two); and the Ford Crown Victoria, which is used by taxi fleets and police forces across North America. It is a former police Crown Victoria that I now own, and these cars have been one of the brightest spots for Ford over the last twenty years. They are reliable, sturdy as anything, and although they are very old-school they are superior to most trendy new cars on the road today. They don’t make them like they used to; and the splendid vehicles manufactured at the St. Thomas Assembly are a prime example of this.

But although the Crown Victoria is an amazing vehicle, times are changing, and nobody seems to want one anymore. The last Crown Victoria was completed in September 2011, and its completion marked the closing of the St. Thomas Assembly. Empty since 2011, the plant’s huge complex is now finally being demolished. When I asked my grandparents if we could visit it, I wasn’t sure what I would find– and it’s a good thing I visited when I did, because demolition is slated to be finished in only four months’ time.

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What was once a bustling operation employing over 1,000 people now looks like something out of Detroit

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I remember seeing photos of these parking lots full of row upon row of gleaming new police interceptors, waiting for delivery. What a sad sight they are now.

Of course, my grandpa had lots of information about the plant in its heyday. The complex itself is massive- 635 acres- and it had its own railway station, set of railway tracks, and sewage treatment plant. Situated in the middle of the countryside and surrounded by barbed wire, it would have been a truly impressive sight mere years ago. But today, it is simply sad to see. It had quite an effect on me to see it dilapidated and in pieces– it was such a huge part of the economy and culture of an area that is dear to me, and it was the source of a car that is also dear to my heart.

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The rear of the plant is very obviously being torn down.

However, my beloved Crown Victoria and many others still on the road are a testament to the illustrious St. Thomas Assembly. Long after the building comes down, the cars will still be running. Although it was sad, it was also very cool to see the site of such a long history of great cars. Watch any action-packed Hollywood movie, and you’ll no doubt see a few Crown Victorias involved in high-speed pursuits– these cars are a big part of automotive history. How awesome it is that they came from such an unassuming place; just a small city in southern Ontario. Although I feel mostly British and could easily wish that I had been born in the UK, St. Thomas’s history means that I am not unhappy that my history belongs there as well.

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I was eager to get a photo of my car where she was born. Five years ago she rolled off that assembly line, and I am so grateful that she eventually came to me!



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