Book Cover:  Thanks to Rick Orr

Thomas Orr, the dean of parks 

The R. Thomas Orr Plaque is located beside the bandshell on Veterans Drive. It reads:

R. Thomas Orr 1870-1957.  A life-long member of the Stratford Parks Board, R. Thomas Orr was the driving force behind the Stratford parks system. Orr led the fight to save the riverfront and millpond from railway development and oversaw the transformation of the former industrial area into parkland. In 1936, Orr's plans to link Stratford with the birthplace of the English playwright William Shakespeare led to the creation of the Shakespearean Gardens. These parklands provided an inspirational setting in 1953 for the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. During his life of community service, Orr also helped to establish Stratford's library and the war memorial, to extend Highway 7 to Stratford, and to found the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority and the Stratford Historical Society.  He also was instrumental in establishing the bandshell ( see below.) Source:  Ontario Heritage Trust

"This  is interesting to read about the remarkable contribution Thomas Orr made to the city ". Now I will amble down beautiful  Lakeview  Drive to the Grand Old Shrine  on Morenz Drive to see the picture of Flick, Roth and Flanigan, the line that almost won the Allen Cup for the Stratford Indians.

The birth of a park

Thomas Orr Sr. was born in Ireland in 1832. He eventually moved to Philadelphia. When Rev. Thomas Macpherson went to Philly to raise money for his church, he met Thomas, also a Presbyterian, and invited him to come to Stratford to live (see Macpherson Street). Robert Thomas Orr grew up in his father’s house on Cobourg Street. After graduating from the collegiate, he went into his father's mill to learn the building business.

Tom Orr Sr. got into the insurance business through his role as a contractor. His planing mill and lumberyard operated for more than 50 years. In 1863 he became a director with the Perth Mutual Fire Insurance Co. Thomas Orr Jr., known as R. Thomas Orr, assisted his father in preparing insurance claims.

In about 1894, the production of the planing mill was devoted to the manufacture of furniture, and Joseph Orr, an older brother of Tom Jr., took over the mill operation. Tom Jr. accepted a full-time position with the Perth Mutual, and Tom Sr. retired.

With eight years of experience, Tom Jr. opened his own insurance business in 1902. For many years it was on the second floor of the Gordon Block. Making further use of his business skills, he formed a partnership with James S. Russell, architects. Among the buildings they designed were Immaculate Conception Church, the biscuit factory and the Mary Ballantyne Student Nurses Residence.

Early in the 1900s, Tom Orr became involved with the board of trade, later known as the chamber of commerce. He was an active member for 50 years, and president for some of that time. A valuable member of the parks board, Tom Orr had much to do with changing the Avon River from a stump-filled mudhole into place of beauty. He contributed to the transformation of the Avon River valley from a source of logs and lumber to a protected man-made parks system. 

He was also victorious in the fight to keep the park from being bargained away for an unsightly mess of transportation potage; the Canadian Pacific Railway wanted to run two tracks through the city, along the north side of the river. Orr closed his insurance office to fight full time against the CPR, the most powerful railway in Canada at the time.  

It was not a coincidence that the bathhouse and boathouse near the dam were built in 1912, as the CPR threat was gaining strength. Orr talked to as many townspeople as possible, seeking their vote against the CPR. He miles up and down Stratford streets. The town was evenly divided. Many of the leading businessmen were against Orr. Labour as against him because it could envision increased employment. Even his beloved parks board was against Orr. In the end, Orr's side won the day by 127 votes. He was recognized for working the hardest to save the park. The Beacon-Herald asked, “Where would Stratford be if Thomas Orr and others had not campaigned to save the people's playground?"   

In 1950, the river was opened to navigation when Tom Orr ceremoniously launched a canoe below the Romeo Street bridge and paddled the Avon past John Street and into the wilderness area that had come to be called the "old grove." It was land that bisected Avondale Cemetery and the grounds of the city's original general hospital, on the city's western boundary. With notes from Stanford Dingman

There were four men most responsible for developing the city's park system, namely  Thomas J. Dolan (see Dolan Dr.), a newspaper man and member of the parks board; George McLagan (see McLagan Drive) a furniture manufacturer who donated money and land for the cause; R. Thomas Orr; and Dr. Edward Henry Eidt (see Cambria Street), whose civic accomplishments are highlighted by his push for and the creation of that parks board. Streets and areas have been named in honour of three of these men: T. J. Dolan Drive and T. J. Dolan Natural Area; McLagan Drive; and Orr Street and R. Thomas Orr dam. The city has yet to honour Henry Eidt in such a fashion. Source: book R. Thomas Orr, A Life Devoted to Stratford

* See Flashback  The Park System: How Dr. Eidt saved the day!

Note: the Stratford-Perth Archives has extensive Orr documents in their Thomas Orr library. The book  R. Thomas Orr, A Lifetime Devoted to Stratford is available for a small charge that goes to charity.  

The picture that saved the park

This is the picture that saved the park system in 1913 referendum. Landscape architect Frederick G. Todd had designed the park as shown. The poster wording was as follows. “If the CPR is run as projected, all the people in the foreground would be trespassers on the railway property if they attempted to reach the water's edge.”  Stratford-Perth Archives

Riverside bandshell. The architect was James Russell (see Shrewsbury Street).   Photo: Fred Gonder  

The bandshell

The first octagonal wooden bandstand was built in Battery Park, opposite the current YMCA. But in 1889, it was moved to the intersection of Erie and Ontario streets, and in 1914 to the park near where the bandshell is now. As the wooden bandstand was falling into disrepair, it stirred much talk about a replacement. Tom Orr named to a three-man parks board committee to approach the city for funding.

The city agreed to pay half the proposed replacement cost of $1,500. The board accepted plans from architect James Russell for a new bandshell but it was amid controversy. In addition to the present site of the bandshell, two other sites gained some favour. Tom Orr preferred the present site, and set about selling others on that location. Again, he prevailed.

But controversy continued. The Musicians Protective Association wanted a stand open on all sides. There was a petition to oppose Orr’s shell design. Dr. Henry Eidt, who led the movement for a parks board in 1904, came out in favour of Orr’s bandshell. Still, there were hurdles. City engineer, William H. Riehl (see Riehl Court), thought the design contravened the fire bylaws, so the city was not prepared to fund the project. Ultimately, the design problems were resolved, and the financial problems were solved when Orr and other supporters of the bandshell gave their personal guarantee for a bank note and a Lions Club campaign netted $500.

Mayor John Andrew officially opened the bandshell on Saturday Sept. 21, 1929,  when the Royal Canadian Regiment Band of London played afternoon and evening concerts. It was proclaimed Tom Orr Day because it was Orr who introduced the idea of a bandshell to Stratford after seeing some during a visit to the southern United States. Thousands of concert-goers flocked to the bandshell during the big band era. The Orr design was vindicated when the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto and Victoria Park in London, Ont., patterned their bandshells after the Stratford design. Source Stanford Dingman

Hundreds assembled for the opening of the new bandshell on Tom Orr Day Sept. 21, 1929    Stratford-Perth Archives 

Note: The octagonal bandshell seen on the left of the photo was relocated to this land between Cobourg Street and the River Drive from the intersection of Ontario and Erie Streets. It had been moved there from Battery Park opposite the YMCA but would be moved again from this location after the new bandshell was dedicated and in use.  

Bandshell 1939    Photo Vince Gratton

Nursing school graduation, June 17, 1931 Photo: Brenda Trowsdale Barr

A stage for the Festival?

As the story goes, in 1952 Tom Patterson was touring Tyrone Guthrie, the British artistic director he hoped to impress, around Stratford for the first time. Patterson stopped the car at the bandshell along the river. His dream was to hold a Shakespearean festival outdoors. He felt the bandshell, surrounded by a natural, sloping amphitheatre surrounded by trees and backed dropped by the river was the perfect setting. And it was just a short walk to the centre of town.

Tyrone Guthrie ruled out the bandshell, perhaps because of the small stage and the lack of dressing rooms and washrooms. 

He thought they could use what is now Tom Patterson Island as back stage for the performance of Shakespeare plays on barges on the river. Just as quickly as he had dismissed Patterson’s bandshell idea, he dismissed his own. Turning toward the area where the festival now stands, Guthrie said, "I guess up there would be better.”  And the rest is history.

The bandshell may have been an impractical stage for the Stratford Festival but it is an ideal backdrop for public concerts and summer events. The natural amphitheatre-like setting is the perfect spot for one to set up a lawn chair and enjoy a show. Thanks to Phyllis Hinz & Lamont Mackay, from their book Stratford for All Seasons: Theatre and Arts."

Thomas Orr Sr., planing mill and lumberyard 

In the 1870s, Thomas Orr Sr. (1833-1914) established a planing mill and lumberyard near where the bandshell is now located on Veterans Drive. His planing mill and lumberyard operated for more than 50 years. Orr Sr. and his wife Fanny (Frances Noble), had come to town in 1855, not long before the first train arrived in 1856. He first established a contracting business, which did well in the rapidly growing town. Within his first year in town, Orr tendered for the first town Hall project (see Market Place). Over the years, he built many of the better houses and buildings in Stratford (see Waterloo Street).

Thomas Orr's second youngest son, R. Thomas Orr (1870-1957), joined his father's mill after his school graduation, and before long he was preparing tenders for building projects. By 1884, the business had undergone changes and was devoting itself entirely to manufacturing furniture under the supervision of Tom's older brother, Joseph Orr (1863-1938).  Source: book  R. Thomas Orr,  A Life Devoted to Stratford

This watercolour was painted by R. Thomas Orr in about 1880, to record his memories of what Tom Orr Sr.'s property looked like when he, R. Thomas, was about 10 years old. The view is northerly, across the Avon River as though it were an aerial photo taken from the over the Ontario Street business buildings. The building at the left, the Orr planing mill and factory, is located about where the bandshell is now. The building on the right is the Orr family house at 50 Cobourg St. (see Cobourg Street), the street that runs horizontally in the foreground of the photo. Crossing the river is the long and narrow wooden Waterloo Street bridge. West of the bridge on the far shore of the Avon is the Easson planing mill (see Easson Street). The wooden dam is beyond the left side of the scene. Photo:Stratford-Perth Archives.  Source: Brian Wendy Reis, If You Grew Up in Stratford . . . FB 

 *   See Location of early Stratford mills     

This is Joseph Orr's furniture factory, built by his father, Thomas Orr Sr. In the background beyond the factory is the Waterloo Street Arena. Stretching across the Avon River is the wooden Waterloo Street bridge. Stratford-Perth Archives