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Aug. 14, 2020 | Friday
Local News
Pillar and Post marks 50 years

In 1970s, iconic hotel helped transform NOTL from a sleepy small town to major destination

 


The Lake Report asked reporter Tim Taylor to find the few remaining locals who were part of the early years of the Pillar and Post Restaurant, now celebrating its 50th birthday this week. Taylor seemed the right choice. He has his own P&P memories. As a summer student, he worked during the day in the woodworking shop. At night, he donned the waiter’s distinctive uniform to serve dinner. In that first summer, Tim met and later married, Kathy, the eldest daughter of the Pillar and Post founder, John Drope.

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The opening of the Pillar and Post, 50 years ago this week, heralded an early chapter of the coming-of-age story of both the town and a whole generation of Niagara-on-the-Lake young people.

In many ways, through the 1960s, Niagara-on-the-Lake was still a little backwater community, literally at the end of the road, content with a quiet life with locals and a few seasonal cottagers. 

Teens had fun, but little else. There were few job prospects, certainly none in the town of 1,000 plus-or-minus people.

It is true, residents were just waking up to the opportunity to breathe new life into the town’s abundant heritage architecture. And the Shaw Festival, then in its ninth season, was beginning to attract cultural attention.

But the attractive simplicity of the town limited what could happen next.

OLD TOWN
IN LATE 1960s

 

You could buy rubber boots on the main street. You could get your shoes repaired. A haircut. Fabrics. China. There were car dealerships. Gas stations. Shoe stores. An Eaton’s Catalogue outlet. TV and radio repair. Harrison’s Lumber Yard. A movie theatre. Movies cost a quarter. Popcorn a nickel. There was an operating fishing industry. The Greaves cookhouse wafted wonderful pickling smells after the fall harvest.

You didn’t need to leave town for anything.

The Shaw Festival was spreading its wings. In 1970, the Shaw staged just 89 performances of two plays over 10 weeks in the summer. Almost all shows were matinees. Performances were still mounted only in the Court House, the audience seated on chairs borrowed from the local high school.

Props were borrowed from local supporters. Actors were billeted. Volunteers made and sold baked goods and lemonade at intermission.

Bright’s and Chateau Gai wines highlighted Canadian wine lists and sold for $3 a bottle. Soup was 85 cents a bowl. 

Randwood was still owned by the Rand family from Buffalo.

A few early adopters were buying inexpensive heritage properties, many in disrepair, and bringing them back to life. There were few restoration rules in those days, just well-meaning people.

PILLAR AND POST VISION

With the benefit of hindsight, the idea seemed quite simple — provide hospitality services to the increasing number of visitors wanting to absorb our local heritage and theatre.

In the mid-1960s, John Drope brought his young family to Niagara-on-the-Lake from Toronto. He knew the town well as his mother summered at her stately home on the edge of the old town’s golf course (now the Charles Hotel). 

By 1968, Drope had sold his business, Drope Paving and Construction, and was casting about for a new venture.

With coaxing and support from his family, local friends and former schoolmates, Drope conjured a two-pronged new business, to be housed in the old packing plant-cum-basket factory, on the edge of town at John and Mary streets.

The first prong was fed by his innate handiness and construction savvy. Amber Construction and Amber Forge would satisfy the rapidly increasing desire for period restoration and historically accurate furniture and hardware. Reproduction Canadiana. Drope partnered with well-known restoration specialist Ed Thalman.

For the second prong, he needed skilled help outside his field of experience. He asked his relative-by-marriage, Gordon Paul, then proprietor of the Honeymoon Hotel in Niagara Falls, to partner with him in a new restaurant, something that might well lead to accommodation, at some point. The new restaurant would sell fine food in the traditions of Niagara.

They picked the former packing plant/basket factory for its history, its proximity to the historic Old Town and its shear size and adaptability for the multiple functions it would perform.

By early spring 1970, the vast empty expanses of the late 19th-century factory were a beehive of activity. In one section, the reproduction furniture and fixtures for the new restaurant and craft shop kicked up clouds of sawdust and turnings. In the main section of the building along John Street, the floors, posts and ceilings were being readied for all the trappings of the restaurant and craft shop.

In June, the first visitors for the “soft opening” were coming by bus from Toronto. Many were old friends of John’s willing to help him polish the offering before opening.

On Dominion Day as it was then known, July 1, 1970, the Pillar and Post officially opened its doors.

THE PEOPLE

Pat Balasiuk and Kathy Taylor are siblings, the eldest of Mary and John Drope’s five children. Both live in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

When the Pillar and Post opened, Pat was still in her final years at Niagara District High School and would later go on to earn a nursing degree. Kathy returned from Toronto to become the bookkeeper for the new businesses.

Both women remember the town as sleepy. “It was fun for teenagers,” says Pat. “We were a tight-knit group. Swimming, tennis, sailing.”

Kathy almost tears up when she lists her memories of her father: “Jolly. Jovial. Very social. Friendly. A visionary. Everybody loved dad. Generous. Gentle giant. Approachable. Always open to give advice. Craftsman and tinkerer. He loved to build things.”

Kathy also tells the story of how the Pillar and Post was named. As the story goes, it was their mother, Mary, now deceased, who came up with the name.

Wandering the building one day, long before the work was completed, Mary was taken with the sturdy brick pillars that created the basement foundation, where the new lounge would shortly open.

“Then she went upstairs to the future main dining room and marvelled at the tall wooden posts. Without thinking, she said: ‘Our guests will go from Pillar to Post.’ ” It stuck.

Both women see their father as a true visionary. He was one of the first to warn that parking would one day be a major town issue. He urged the town to follow the Williamsburg example and create parking outside the historic area, with shuttles carrying visitors to town. “Everybody thought he was crazy.’

He may have been crazy, but people valued his contribution. He sat on the first board of directors of the Shaw, the board of Ridley College in St. Catharines, the fundraising committee for the restoration of the Court House and numerous other community projects. John died in 1983 at age 59.

Rick Meloen and Bruce Cumpson have been lifelong friends, growing up in Chautauqua in the 1960s.

Cumpson started working at the Pillar and Post as a pot washer during the initial set up of the restaurant. After a few months, he encouraged Meloen to apply as a busboy. By the time they left the P&P in 1976 and 1978, respectively, Cumpson was bar manager and Meloen managed the dining room.

Meloen’s memories of town in the late 1960s are fond ones. 

“It was great living here,” he says. “Growing up in Chautauqua was like being Tom Sawyer. You had the lake, the woods and rifle range. The town was a sleepy backwater, with nothing going on.”

“There were a lot of kids. When we went to high school there were 1,100 to 1,200 kids at Niagara District.” 

When he started working at the Pillar and Post at age 17, everything was new. “I learned a lot about how to interact with people. I never had an escargot before in my life.”

Meloen went on to a 33-year career in the operations division of the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. He retired in 2009 to continue his flower and fruit farming with his wife, Janet. And his three children and nine grandchildren are never far away.

Cumpson also gives the P&P a lot of credit for helping him in his later careers. “For small-town kids, the P&P was a real learning experience. I was very shy as a kid. It brought me out. What I learned, helped me handle my customers today.”

After 30 years with General Motors, Bruce also retired to his passion for flowers, continuing to operate Olde Towne Gardens on Lakeshore Road at the big curve at Townline Road. Commercial and retail customers for his hostas come from far and wide. He and his wife, Judy, live in Niagara. Their son Matthew is a steamfitter at the Darlington nuclear facility.

Both men, now in their late 60s vividly remember the 1973 royal visit to Niagara and the Pillar and Post. They were both on the head table team, serving the Queen and Prince Philip before they attended an opening performance of the Shaw’s new Festival Theatre.

“That visit really put the P&P on the map,” says Rick. “We were seriously vetted by security. But from then on, whenever a dignitary came to Niagara, they came to the P&P because they knew we would do a good job.”

Sue and Wayne Murray came to Niagara-on-the-Lake in the early 1970s. 

Wayne was born in St. Catharines, graduated as an architect and went to work for Don Chapman’s firm in Niagara Falls in 1970. Chapman was an old friend of John Drope’s and over the years did all the design work for the young company, including the addition of 35 rooms in 1972 and another 87 in 1994.

In 1971, Wayne wooed and married Susan, enticing her away from a good job in her hometown of Toronto. She went to work with Drope, helping the P&P build one of the largest conference businesses outside of Toronto.

She and Wayne were a P&P tag team: He helped design it; she helped sell it.

Wayne remembers the early ‘70s well. “Every other small community had the money to change things. They tore off the store fronts, added neon and plastic. NOTL never had a money to do those things. 

“It was a kind of wild west of restoration. But everything was done quite well because the community largely appreciated history.”

Marketing the new business was a real challenge, according to Sue. “Cold calling, cold calling and cold calling, again. But when people got here, they were sold.”

Long before the existence of 1-800 telephone numbers, the P&P had a 416-number connecting the inn directly to Toronto. “I can remember when the 800 number went in,” says Sue. “You paid for it by the call. It was a big deal.”

Sue joins the chorus singing the praises of Drope’s visionary contributions. 

“He understood what was so special about the town, what its potential was. He put a lot on the line to try to see that vision into reality.”

NEW TOWN EMERGING

In an area with such abiding heritage, a 50-year history does not seem long. And perhaps the role the Pillar and Post has played in Niagara’s historic re-emergence, was only tangential. More of an enabler. But its opening certainly signalled a kind of readiness to emerge and showcase what makes the town special.

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