A History of Mahon Hall, Salt Spring Island
by Chris Arnett
For over 100 years the building known as Mahon Memorial Hall in Ganges has served Salt Spring Islanders according to the needs of the community. The use of the building over the past century has always reflected changes in the social and economic fabric of the island and will continue to do so over the next century.
The building occupies an historic location overlooking an ancient aboriginal canoe portage that once linked Ganges Harbour to the head of Booth Canal. In 1859 the site was included in one of the original lots of the Ganges Harbour Settlement and was occupied by WIlliam Issac, a black settler from the United States. The land changed hands and by the late 1890's it was; owned by Frank Scott, one of several brothers recently immigrated from England.
The Mahon Memorial Hall was first conceived as an “Agricultural Hall" for the sole purpose of promotion and display of small scale agriculture and orchard produce from all of the Southern Gulf Islands. The idea of a hall was initially conceived at a July 2, 1898 meeting of the Islands Agricultural and Fruit Growers Association (IAFGA) where “the question of building an Agricultural Hall at Ganges Harbour was first brought up”. Ganges Harbour was a natural choice as it was easily accessible by boat to those members of the IAFGA who lived on the islands of Mayne, Galiano, Prevost, Pender, Saturna, Moresby, Read, Thetis and Kuper. A committee was struck to look into the possibility.
In 1900, following a very successful Show Fair held outdoors at Joe Nightingales' farm in the Burgoyne Valley, the fifth annual general meeting of the Association decided "that the time had come to build a Hall of its own." Much discussion followed regarding the Site for the proposed hall until Frank Scott, a member of the original planning committee, offered "a piece of ground 35 yards by 70 yards for $40" at the base of a rocky knoll on his Ganges Harbour farm. The directors of the IAFGA were "empowered to go ahead with the building, acquire the site offered by Mr. Scott ...open a subscription list and to do whatever was necessary to build the Hall." Work on the hall may have begun as early as November 1900.
There were delays in construction and by the fall of 1901 the building remained unfinished with a balance of $112.00 owed to the contractor Reid Bittancourt and Victoria lumber magnate J.A. Sayward. At the October 26, 1901 meeting of the I.A.F.G. Association, held in the Public Hall at Central, it was learned that in addition to this debt, a further $144.25 was required for siding, eight large windows and a double front door. Old time settler John Booth expressed concern that if the building was not finished "it will blow down this winter." Bittancourt guaranteed the building "to stand as it is for 12 months." Henry Caldwell donated his secretary's salary of $50 and other directors who had not paid their subscriptions came forward. Two weeks later, on November 6,1901, the Board of directors held their first meeting in the new, albeit still unfinished, Agricultural Hall overlooking Ganges Harbour.
At this historic meeting the 1901 building committee was "discharged from further responsibility" and another committee created "to raise the money necessary to purchase the land and finish the hall.” They were authorized to raise $1,000 and "instructed to buy the land and spend the money to run the hall to the best of their ability and judgement." Ross Mahon, a recently arrived immigrant, and the bachelor son of a wealthy Irish family, agreed to give a $1,000 mortgage at 6 % interest to the Islands Agricultural and Fruit Growers Association.
The Agricultural Hall was finished with fir dropped-siding and painted red- the traditional colour of European- American barn buildings and an appropriate choice for an Agricultural Hall. "Barn Red", in addition to being the cheapest available paint of the day, symbolized agricultural prosperity. The colour red is also attributed to the use of ferrous oxide rnixed with linseed oid for its preservative qualities.
The Agricultural Hall was ready for its grand opening at the 1902 Show Fair of the Island Agricultural and Fruit Growers Association. A large Union Jack was raised over the entrance and outside the building a make-shift flag-bedecked stage was erected for the well-known Kuper Island Band, a brass ensemble of uniformed native students from the Roman Catholic Residential School on Kuper Island, who were invited to help celebrate the grand opening.
On June 9, 1903, Ross Mahon drowned while swimming in Long Harbour in front of his property at what is now Maracaibo. The mortgage on the hall was turned over to his estate which sent a bill 15 months later requesting a $75 payment on interest due. The Association could only afford to send $25.In October 1904 the IAFGA received a letter from the executors of Mahon’s estate informing them that the brothers and sisters of Ross Mahon had given them the authority “to make a present of the mortgage on the hall and grounds.” There was only one condition: “…that a brass plate bearing the words “Mahon Memorial Hall” be placed on the building.” A letter was drafted “to thank, the heirs of Ross Mahon , for their generous gift...saying also we will gladly, agree to put up some brass tablet.” On January 11 1905, a special meeting was called to pass on Design for the Mahon' The plaque cost $40 and was affixed to the building where it remains to this day after being carefully restored some years ago by Laurie Neish. Thus the hall was officially open and debt free in 1904.
Membership in the IAFGA grew. Mostly on Salt Spring Island and by 1912 the organization numbered 192 members representing the male heads of most of the family farms on the Gulf Islands. Outbuildings, including a poultry display building adjacent to the Hall, and a long series of sheep and cattle sheds along Rainbow road were built. Under the guidance of the IAFGA Board of Directors the hall was regularly used by a variety of local and visiting theatre and musical groups as well as other groups and individuals for a wide range of activities ranging from private parties to political meetings. The Show Fair enjoyed great success in the years prior to the Great War drawing up to a thousand visitors from all over the Gulf Islands and beyond.
The First World War changed everything as the younger immigrant men of British Columbia left the repetitive pattern of mixed farming for the centre of adventure abroad. Many never returned. By 1918 the Islands Agricultural and Fruit Growers Association amalgamated with the Farmers' Institute.
In recognition of the growing interest in the Mahon Memorial Hall as a venue for the performing arts, a major addition was added to the Hall in the early 1920's with the construction of an elevated stage on the west side of the building.
In 1926, in response to the need for a high school in the Gulf islands, the Association permitted the School Board of the day to use the poultry display building (better known as the "chicken house") as a high school. For the next 13 years Mahon Memorial Hall served as the high school gymnasium, theatre for school productions and washroom. Other community activities continued when school was not in session. Former students, Ivan Mouat, Mary Inglin and Mary Mollet, recall fondly the many fine drama and musical productions of their high school years at the" chicken house" school.
School activities continued but the Depression years witnessed the end of the annual Show Fair as many island farms moved from commercial mixed farming to subsistence farming. Farmers focused their activities on milk production. As Ivan Mouat puts it, "The big money was in the Creamery. " The need for an annual display and promotion of local produce declined except for the occasional "Sheep Show" recalls Mary Mollet.
The desire for an exhibition ground for local farmers gave way to the needs of a growing school population and led to the acquisition of a major portion of what was now the Islands Farmers' Institute grounds for the purpose of building a new Consolidated School (now Salt Spring Elementary) to amalgamate five out of the seven schools on Salt Spring Island. The "chicken house" was demolished to make way for the new building which was completed in 1940 and housed grades 1 through 12. The construction of the school was a community project with half of the cost provided through volunteer labour not to mention the valuable gift of the land itself.
Shortly after the school opened, a special meeting was held on April 25, 1940 to discuss the sale of the Mahon Memorial Hall to the United School Board. Details of the deal are sketchy but a motion at a later meeting to sell the Hall for $700 was defeated. Given the over-riding importance of education to the populace of the day perhaps the majority felt that the Hall would best be managed under the jurisdiction of the school district. As if to proclaim its new status the familiar brick red of the building was re-painted a cream colour with brown trim to match the Consolidated School.
In 1968, with the influx of urban refugee newcomers, Mahon Memorial Hall took on a new lease in life as a venue to showcase the arts and crafts of talented islanders. The annual sale lasted only a month initially but with increasing numbers of people moving to the island, the venue expanded over the years to become a four month exhibition by over two hundred artists from all over the Gulf Islands. Commissions from the sale of island arts and crafts not only contributed to various arts organizations, including the provision of significant seed money for ArtSpring, but assisted in the preservation of the hall with renovations and maintenance carried out by the tireless dedication of a handful of volunteers led for many years by Laurie Neish.
The Community Arts Council and its later incarnation the Gulf Islands Community Arts Council has the distinction of holding the second longest tenure of any organization in maintaining the historic Mahon Hall allowing it to be used by other groups throughout the bulk of the year. The annual ArtCraft sale established Salt Spring Island as an artists' mecca long before the better- known Saturday Market came into existence and per- mitted hundreds of individuals and young families to eke out a living as artists.
Thus Mahon Memorial Hall serves its original role to showcase the talents and products of the people of the Gulf Islands while continuing to serve the Salt Spring community through Tai Chi classes, square-dancing. Seedy Saturdays, concerts, comedy nights and you-name-it just as it has done for the past 103 years and hopefully for many years to follow.