Exploring the Grand Central Hotel
By Darren Lum
Published April 4, 2017
It could only happen in Haliburton, said Haliburton Highlands Museum curator Steve Hill.
Hill, who spoke to a captive audience at the Haliburton County Historical Society’s public meeting at the museum on Thursday, March 23, was talking about the Grand Central Hotel.
A peculiar anecdote, difficult to believe except for testimonials Hill discovered in interviews, Richard Burke, (1878 - 1965), used to bring his horse Darby into the bar to have a drink.
At the height of its beauty, the hotel was a sight to behold with its two-storey grandeur, which included a verandah and balcony, trimmed with gingerbread accents. With its white and red brick trimming, the best rooms were located behind and finished in lath and plaster, far nicer than the back rooms and the kitchen finished in tongue and groove boarding. Constructed by a Mr. Train – likely Fred Train of Kinmount in 1896, this was part of an expansion to the existing structure by J.A. Lucas, who was the eldest of 12. The complex included a livery barn. This expansion work was an effort to improve his business and the community.
J.A. was the son of Captain John Lucas, originally from England. He took over after his father’s untimely death.
This was at a time in the building’s heyday. It drew attention from visitors and photographers, who often set their sights on it as their focal point. Hill said virtually every photograph of Haliburton at that time was of the north side of Highland Street.
Locals and visitors frequented the hotel’s bar.
During the spring, it wasn’t a surprise to see men off from work and passed out in front of the hotel.
Many business people used the hotel for accommodation. Travelling salesmen would use a room at the front of the hotel to show the latest and greatest. Outdoorsmen, seeking a place to hunt or fish, would be given assistance for guides or trophy opportunities.
When the town went “dry” the hotel lost its main source of revenue, unable to sell booze. This led to efforts to bring the hotel into the 20th century. The development of the roads in the county during the Depression also hurt the hotel, as salespeople could drive up for the day and leave for neighbouring Minden to buy alcohol.
In 1942, Lyle Lucas, grandson to J.A., sold the hotel to a man named Morrison of Oshawa, ending 72 years of Lucas ownership. He had taken over from his father Ray and was motivated to sell to join the war.
J.A. died at his home at 85. Hill said Lucas kept a diary and can only imagine the historical significance if it still exists. Apparently, the book was thrown out, decades of history from the weather to the marriages and visitors to the community.
Close to 1947, the hotel at that time was owned by William and Lois Freeman.
It was deteriorating. The verandah and balcony had to be torn off and the hotel changed its name to the Highlander Hotel. The hotel and its buildings were sold or sublet in part or whole over the years. The history also included a photography studio, a truck dealer, a mattress store, restaurants, a five and dime store, clothing store and hotels. Owners and subletters included names such as Bernstein, Bishop, Borden, Clarke, Harding, Sweeney, Dubrik, Good, Ogg, Griffiths and McKenzie.
In 1970, Stedman’s Department Store took over from bankrupted department store F.E.A. Griffiths.
Owned and operated by Vince Connaughan, the building was one of the largest.
All that remains of the hotel is the livery barn, which is known as the Village Barn. It was renovated several years ago and houses businesses and stores. After the Stedman’s fire 31 years ago, a few nails, some mortar with a beaded design, unique to that era, and a few charred bricks were salvaged from the rubble. This came from the brick veneer that was affixed to the wood frame building. Hill admits it must have been an odd sight to see him carrying rubble through town to this boarding room.
“I defy anybody in this room or in the county. Who else has a brick from the hotel?” he said.
Hill acknowledged the help of Leo Dobrzenky, who wrote the book Fragments of a Dream, former Haliburton County Echo editor Martha Perkins, Madeline Austin, Lyle Lucas, Dr. Brian Lucas, Jim Leonard, Roy Brohm, Lois Freeman, David Bishop, Kim Emmerson and Julie Robertson.
J.A. was in a unique position, running a hotel during the boom of Haliburton.
“As a hotel keeper he knew everybody,” he said.
Many boys quit school to work in the bush with their fathers at the time. Many didn’t get the education necessary to know how to write formally, important in seeking a job. His daughter Madeline Austin said her father would step in and help them with that whenever possible.
“A lot of people never forgot Dad for that,” she said.
J.A.’s building might be gone, but his spirit of generosity lives on in this community, which is why Hill appreciates living here.
Only in Haliburton did we have a hotel that not only served its patrons, but also the people who called Haliburton home. Only in Haliburton do we have Hill who is as animated as the storied life history of the building. With his enthusiasm, passion and unfiltered perspective on the various merchants and proprietors that ran or sublet space in the hotel and its buildings during the life of the hotel he is the ideal candidate to keep the history alive.
Note: Membership to the historical society is $20 a year and is $30 for a household. The membership includes admission to hear the guest speakers.
The next meeting is on Thursday, April 20 at 1:30 p.m. and features Leora Berman speaking on The Land and Shores Between.