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How two fires in Huntsville’s past bring a family’s history to light
By Alison Brownlee
A Huntsville building and the family history behind it may have been forgotten had another landmark – the Empire Hotel – not gone up in flames in October 2009.
The Empire sat on the corner of Centre and Main streets and when the hotel was demolished, it left the side of the neighbouring building exposed. The exposed wall showed a crumbling sign that read something like “Merchant Tailor” on an exterior brick wall. Alison Brownlee dove into Huntsville’s history to discover just who this merchant tailor was.
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In the late 1800s a New York Times columnist visited Muskoka.
He wrote about the region and its beautiful wilderness, but also commented on the towns and villages he visited. At that time, he called Huntsville the most “urban” area with its myriad shops and businesses.
One of those businesses was owned by Edwin H. Flaxman, a tailor who had immigrated to Canada from London, England, with his wife and many children in 1885.
But the Flaxman family did not immediately come to Huntsville. The family, which at the time of its emigration consisted of two parents and eight children, first moved to Toronto where Flaxman found work.
For three years the family lived in the city until relocating to Huntsville in 1888. By then Flaxman and his wife Louisa had nine children: Louisa Jr., Edwin Jr., Herbert, the twins Leonard and Gertrude, Daisy, Clarence, Florence and Violet. A tenth, Percy, was on the way.
When they moved to the region, Flaxman, then 44 years old, billed himself as a merchant tailor and found work. He would have been working in Huntsville when a devastating fire ripped through the downtown core in 1894.
It is unclear whether Flaxman’s personal business was affected by the blaze. A list of the 60 affected shops and homes printed by the Huntsville Forester newspaper two days later named two tailors, neither of which was Flaxman.
The fire, which started midday behind former mayor H. S. May’s hardware store, decimated the buildings on both sides of Main Street from the bridge east of Brunel Road to just west of Centre Street.
Huntsville did not have a fire department at the time and when the fire engines from Bracebridge and Gravenhurst finally arrived, the flames were nearly out. The Forester described the scene: “The engines started to work and played on the ruins for a time.”
With buildings gone and businesses ruined, opportunity to build on Main Street arrived.
After the fire, Flaxman was able to build a new shop near the southeast corner of Centre and Main streets. He opened the doors of his modest tailoring business in 1901.
Five years later, in a business profile printed by the Forester in July 1906, Flaxman’s shop was described as follows:
“Today Mr. Flaxman has a splendid tailoring business in a splendid building owned by himself, 52 by 52 feet in size, and two stories (sic). … It is of solid brick, contains three stores, and is comfortably and neatly fitted up. The shop occupied by the owner has large plate glass windows, neat metallic ceiling, and large workroom to the rear. Heavy stock cloths, imported and Canadian made, are on the tables in this shop, and afford ample choice in style and fabric for the most particular buyer.”
The story goes on to say that eight to 10 tailors worked in the shop at any one time.
By then Flaxman’s eldest son, Edwin Jr., was 31 years old, also a tailor and associated with his father. According to 1891 census data, Flaxman’s wife and eldest daughter were “tailoresses” as well.
Flaxman had a house built on Lansdowne Street. Edwin Jr., whom everyone referred to as Ted, lived on Fairy Lake at the mouth of the river.
Along with building a shop, a business, a home and a family, Flaxman was also building a name for himself. He was heavily involved in the community and took on roles with the town, starting as auditor of town accounts.
According to research notes housed in Huntsville Public Library for the book Huntsville: With Spirit and Resolve, Flaxman then acted as town treasurer for two years before being elected to council in 1906.
In the same year H. S. May was re-elected as mayor. Flaxman, May and five other councillors sat for a one-year term, at which point another election was held.
During his first term, Flaxman was appointed co-chair of the light and water committee along with W. E. Hutcheson.
A few weeks later, Flaxman and Hutcheson were also appointed co-chairs of the first-ever planning committee, which was mandated to “inspect all plans for proposed new buildings to be erected in the municipality.”
How well Flaxman handled his new position as a town councillor is unknown, though he did run for council again in 1907 and was not re-elected. That year, 12 candidates threw their names in the hat and only six won seats.
Time went by and in April 1922 the Forester published an obituary for Flaxman. He had retired to Toronto and died there at age 74. A year before his death, Flaxman had undergone surgery for a “serious internal disorder.”
His body was taken back to Huntsville by train and buried in All Saints Cemetery. One of the pallbearers was H. S. May.
After his father’s retirement, Ted stayed in Huntsville and took over the family business. His siblings had flung themselves across the province and the country, with six of them – including the twins – living in Toronto. Percy lived in London and Herbert moved to Saskatchewan.
In 1949, the Forester wrote that Ted was “probably the longest established businessman still active on our Main Street.”
It is unclear when Ted died or when the building was sold but the original building, now owned by a Toronto-based group, is still standing at 15 Main St. W.