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Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015

Oldtimers claim Elora town crier could be heard in Fergus

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.


One of the best known of Elora’s 19th century photographs appears this week.

Several readers have shown me copies of this picture in recent months. It shows David Ritchie’s tour boat leaving its dock in what is now O’Brien Park, at the rear of the Elora LCBO.

Ritchie operated this boat during the 1880s, when Elora sought to build a tourist industry. It was one of many ventures in the varied and colourful career of David Ritchie.

The Ritchies were one of the early families to come to Elora, arriving here when David was four years old. Like many of the Scottish immigrants to this area, they came from Aberdeenshire. They were related to the Gerries, who were already resident in Elora.

David was the eldest of what would eventually be a family of 10 children. His father, James, worked all his life as a teamster and labourer, much of the time for the Elora mill. He eventually became the night watchman there.

David Ritchie received a better education than most children in the 1850s, graduating from the Elora grammar school. He then apprenticed to his uncle, James Gerrie, as a shoemaker. Like many apprentices of the time, he lived with his employer, in what must have been cramped quarters. The household included James and Beatrice Gerrie, their six children, Beatrice’s mother and brother, David Ritchie, two other apprentices and a servant.

David Ritchie joined the Elora Rifle Company when it was formed in 1861. One of the most loyal members, he eventually became a sergeant. He was with the Elora Rifles when they went to Chatham in 1866 to deal with an anticipated Fenian-American invasion of Canada.

By this time, he had become bored with the shoemaking trade. He drifted to a couple of jobs in other towns, and eventually wound up in Hamilton, working in the locomotive shops of the Great Western Railway. He then returned to Elora in 1871, and resumed his trade as a shoemaker. Again he tired of this occupation, and in 1872 he moved to Toronto and joined the police force.

In 1873, he was back in Elora. Having no desire to resume shoe-making, he decided on a career as a salesman and performer. David Ritchie had a theatrical flair that he found difficult to contain. He also possessed a loud, booming bass voice that made it easy for him to hold the attention of a crowd.

He spent a few months cultivating a persona, “Professor Ritchie,” and early in 1874 he found his first client, Thomas Connon. He embarked on a short tour of the area to sell Connon’s views of the Elora gorge at cattle markets and door to door.

As well, Professor Ritchie began to give theatrical performances, combining stand-up comedy and recitations, which he delivered in the exaggerated, overblown style popular at the time. His most popular show was entitled, “Delineations of the Female Character,” a one-man show that combined a recitation with short skits, in which he dressed as a young woman and delivered his lines in a squeaky falsetto. Audiences found the sight hilarious. Ritchie weighed at least two hundred pounds and was built like a wrestler. He gave this performance many times over the years.

Professor Ritchie’s big break came a few months later. The Elora bell ringer and bill poster, David Eames, had died, and council sought a replacement. The precise duties and method of payment for this position are not clear from existing records, but we do know the village paid someone to ring a bell four times a day (at 7 am, noon, 1 am and 6 pm) for the benefit of workers who did not own watches.

There does not seem to have been any payment from the village for posting bills (consisting of sales notices for stores, announcements, and auction sales). It seems most plausible that the printers handled payments on behalf of their customers, and that the village wanted a single person to be in charge of the posting, so that the posters were put up only in appropriate places, and that old ones were removed promptly.

In any case, David Ritchie received the appointment over two other applicants, and he made the most of it. He found himself an elaborate theatrical uniform, and began offering his services as a town crier, in addition to posting bills. He picked up his orders each morning at the local printing offices (there were four at the time), tacked up the sales notices, and yelled out the bargain prices for advertisers who paid for the extra service. Oldtimers claimed that when he was in full voice, and with a favourable wind, he could be heard in Fergus.

Posting bills did not provide a large income, and Ritchie always had several irons in the fire. In the mid 1870s, he sold shares for the Elora Carpet Factory and the Elora Agricultural Machine Company. He continued to sell pictures for Thomas Connon from time to time, and he used his vocal chords and theatrical talents to good advantage as an auctioneer.

Even with all these activities, Ritchie barely eked out a living. He continued to live with his parents, along with two adult brothers and two sisters, all of whom worked. The late 1870s were hard years for the Elora economy, with high unemployment and frequent layoffs by employers. The Ritchies, with five incomes, found one way of achieving security.

In 1882, the village hired David as manager of the Drill Shed (now the liquor store). The village had installed a stage in the building in 1875, and enlarged it in 1879 to permit dramatic performances. Ritchie had promoted several shows in the building before becoming manager.

Under his stewardship, there were events of various types several nights per week, ranging from touring theatrical groups to temperance lectures to minstrel shows to performances and readings by local groups.

Ritchie began his summer boat trips in about 1882. With a flat-bottomed boat named “Elora,” complete with a festive canvas awning and flag poles, he rowed up to 15 people at a time up and down the Grand River between the two dams. He had married in 1881 and, with a family and household to support, he probably needed the extra income.

The railways ran excursion trains to Elora in the 1880s, and Ritchie was one of several local entrepreneurs to attempt to capitalize on the tourist business.

The boat trips lasted through the 1880s, ending when the excursions became less frequent. With the exception of a couple of intervals, Ritchie kept his position as manager of the Drill Shed-Armoury Hall until his death in 1909.

By the 1890s, fewer businessmen used posters and bills, and Ritchie’s income from this source declined. He began working in the summers for a Great Lakes steamship company, out of Owen Sound.

Around 1900 he left Elora for a time, joining a touring theatrical company in the American south. He returned to Elora in 1903, having picked up a linen suit, panama hat and southern accent on his sojourn.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Professor Ritchie was a bit of a boozer. He was reported in the newspaper several times for falling down stairs, tripping on the sidewalk, and suffering minor injuries in other ways. Some of this, of course, may have been a consequence of his craving for publicity, as he thoroughly enjoyed being in the public eye.

There were fewer travelling shows at the Armoury Hall after 1900 due to dwindling audiences. Nevertheless, Ritchie brought the best entertainment he could hire to come to Elora. Over his career, he had made strong connections with the North American entertainment industry. One of his last accomplishments was to bring the first motion pictures to Elora, in October 1906.

David Ritchie probably deserves recognition as Elora’s most flamboyant character and eccentric.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on May 10, 1994.


Vol 51 Issue 19


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