By Angela Hawn
Picture this: an enormous and beautiful piece of stained glass, created in the early 1920’s to honour Tweed, Ontario’s fallen soldiers from World War I and installed in the local high school amid much fanfare. Imagine yourself amongst the excited crowd in attendance, including dignitaries Brigadier General A. E. Ross and the Reverend Dr. Bruce Taylor, Principal of Queen’s University at the time. Now consider the intricacies involved in moving that window post-dedication, not once but twice.
“I don’t know if the Robert McCausland Company actually made the Memorial Window in Toronto and moved it to Tweed, or if they worked on it here,” claims Evan Morton of the Tweed Heritage Centre, hinting the window’s very first journey might well have been a long one, via early 20th century quality roads.
Morton can’t confirm the window’s cost, either, as the Toronto glassworks company won’t say for privacy reasons. He does know that McCausland’s has been in business since 1856 and continues to operate to this day. Could those long ago glass artisans possibly have foreseen the window’s later close calls with disaster when they first created the gorgeous three panel piece of art depicting a soldier armed with bayonet at its centre and bookended either side with the names of the dead? Highly unlikely.
But one fact remains certain. Since its initial 1921 dedication within the walls of the town’s brand new high school, the Memorial Window has represented an essential part of Tweed’s cultural history. A local restoration team from Sunrise Glass Works even performed some repair work in the early 1970’s to help ensure its survival. According to Morton, the window has not always gotten the appreciation it deserves, but preserving the piece for future generations has become an increasingly important mission to more than a few townsfolk over the years.
Perhaps support for the window ran strongest before the stained glass had even been made. Countless articles Morton has accumulated from century old issues of the Tweed News regal the area’s efforts to establish a fitting monument in honour of those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice during the Great War.
Local residents, inspired by other tributes seen around the province at the time, enthusiastically fund-raised to cover costs of the memorial window. And like similar commemorative tokens of respect already established in nearby communities, the project would require big money. A memorial dedicated at a Belleville high school had come with a $1,000.00 price attached.
Tag sales and bake sales soon became a part of everyday student life, with local businesses pitch-ing in to help where they could. An ad published in a 1921 edition of the Tweed News promised a sack of Reindeer flour and a piece of furniture “of equal value” to the top winners of a baking competition, as well as $5.00 vouchers towards the purchase of an impressive Barnet kitchen cabinet to all who entered. All profits from a post-contest bake sale went straight into the fund-raising coffers. A series of lectures by Queen’s professors at the Presbyterian Church promised to educate and make money for the window project at the same time. Attend a single session for a quarter or all seven for a single dollar. Members of the audience happily dipped into their pockets to help make the dream of a war memorial a reality
But time marches on and even Morton admits his own ignorance about the window’s significance during his 1950’s school years. He figures everyone saw the beautiful piece of glass, but did they really value what it stood for and the efforts the town had made to bring about its existence in the first place?
Still, some must have held the memorial in high regard. Just consider the first time circumstances pointed to the window’s imminent demise in the 1970’s. The school board was in the midst of tearing down the original part of the high school, erected near the end of World War I. Suddenly fate intervened in the form of an unlikely guardian angel.
“A man who happened to be a member of the Legion was driving by in his truck and saw the demolition team at work,” marvels Morton with a small smile. “He pulled over and threatened a lawsuit if the window was harmed in any way.”
Fortunately, good sense prevailed and the window migrated to a safe spot in a newer addition to the school, untouched by wrecking crews. Tweed residents in the know breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Now zoom ahead about 40 years and enter demolition team number two. Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board’s plans to open a brand new educational facility in 2012 adjacent to the site of Tweed’s old school meant the brick and mortar housing the Veteran’s Memorial Window had to go.
“The old school stood where the new playground is now,” reminisces Morton.
But what to do about the stained glass window? When Morton called the school board to express concern, he found out he wasn’t the only member of the community worried about the window’s well-being.
“Several other people had already called them as well,” he says. “That window is an important part of Tweed’s history.”
But moving this fragile piece of art a second time would prove tricky. Fresh off a lengthy gig working at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, stained glass expert Steve Boyd from Westport, Ontario examined the window and pointed out a couple of cracks. Otherwise the panels seemed in relatively good shape.
But estimating the value of something like the Tweed Memorial Window can get complicated. Though no real market exists for such items in today’s world, the very idea of the memorial seems priceless. In practical terms, simply replacing the glass alone could cost nearly $20,000.00. According to Boyd, the fact the window carries the McCausland brand likely ups the value even more, especially considering the piece stems from a bygone era in quality stained glass craftsmanship.
“You’d be hard pressed to find someone to paint glass like that today,” Boyd acknowledges, noting the antique nature of the memorial really renders the window irreplaceable. “You can’t reproduce the history of it.”
Fortunately, this magnificent example of stained glass artistry had found a second guardian angel in the form of Thom Rodger. Working as part of a carpentry team hired by the board to assist with both getting rid of the old school and building the new one, Rodger custom built a carrier with protective supports suitable for lifting by hoist and prepared the window for its latest, approximately one hundred metre, trip.
“Never broke a bit,” chuckles Rodger’s then supervisor and dad, Bob, a strong Scottish brogue belying the semi-retired contractor’s Glasgow roots. “But it was scary.”
Placed carefully in a specially designed frame, the stained glass window, approximately eight feet by eight feet, now resides in its third home to date: high above a bookshelf in the new Tweed Elementary School’s Learning Commons within the library.
No matter how future generations might come to view the Memorial Window, it’s easy to see how this gorgeous tribute to World War I veterans inspired long ago Tweed citizens to fund its creation in the first place. Perhaps the window even stands as a bit of a metaphor for the human condition. The body can be so fragile, crumbling during times of great duress. But the human spirit inevitably triumphs, carrying on despite hardship. Like the stained glass dedicated to the fallen in a century old conflict, we march onward, determined to survive the ravages of both time and change as best we can.