On a cold, early spring day in 1909, a crowd of townspeople gathered at the muddy corner of Nelson and Sykes Streets. A glint of brass and a valiant fanfare announced the arrival of the Meaford Cornet Band, and the crowd strained to see as the town's officials mounted the steps of Meaford's new Town Hall and Opera House.

For the past year, the town had watched as Meaford Town Hall rose on the hill above the harbour; its grand Palladian lines and stately Doric columns a stamp of respectability on the booming town. And today, it was to officially open. 

When fire had swept through the old Town Hall in the wee hours of October 5, 1907, no one was unduly upset. The building, built in 1864, had become dilapidated, and there'd long been talk of something grander. Now the way was paved. 

Ellis and Connery, Toronto architects, earned the commission for the new Town Hall. Senior Partner James Ellis was a Meaford native who'd gone on make a name for himself in Toronto for his designs of schools, churches and other public buildings – such as the Bank of North America at King and Dufferin Streets. Now he was home to make his mark on Meaford. 

Local contractor James Sparling won the construction bid for $20,240, and thrifty businessman that he was, recycled as much of the original town hall's brick as possible in the construction of the new building. 

On the day the cornerstone was laid in August of 1908, Mayor J.W. Horsley bragged that Meaford Hall would be the largest municipal building in the County of Grey. "Its massive and graceful outlines," he declared, "will stand as a monument to prosperity and progress...and doubtless will be for many generations one of its prominent landmarks." 

Like many public buildings across small-town Ontario, Meaford Hall was meant to be more than a Town Hall. Presiding over Market Square, with its bandstand and athletic field, the building housed the council chambers and town offices. The chambers also served as a courtroom, and in the basement miscreants apprehended by the local constabulary would find a cold berth in one of three tiny jail cells. Down at the other end of the building, the Meaford Public Library welcomed generations of schoolchildren and their parents. Farmers used the basement on market day, and in time this space served as ballroom, meeting area, and Boy Scout hall. Later divided into smaller rooms, it housed the Women's Institute, the Friendship Circle Quilters, a Senior Citizens club, and the Senior Men's Euchre Club. 

But up the high staircases to either side of the Sykes Street entrance is where the magic truly happened. The second-floor Opera House – with its broad stage beneath a proscenium arch, its rows of wooden seats (each fitted with a wire rack for a gentleman's hat), its balcony embellished with raised plasterwork acanthus leaves, and its high ceiling and tall windows – was the cultural heart of the community. Local plays, high school graduations, concerts and famous speakers have all filled the theatre’s seats with eager audiences. In the early years of the 20th century, train-traveling musical shows would whistle into town, cast and costumes in tow, mustering amateur performers from the Meaford citizenry. (This ensured that a young hopeful’s friends and family would all buy tickets to see their darling onstage.) The Meaford Citizens Band took to the stage on Sunday nights for years. Theatre groups and festivals staged comedy, drama and musical theatre. And it has never stopped. For more than a century, the Opera House has rung with music, drama and debate, and the exceptional acoustics of the room remained famous in theatrical circles. 

In 1967, the library moved to a bigger space in the old Post Office on Trowbridge St. The Meaford Police Department left the hall in 1996, and the town officials vacated the offices in 2002 to make room for a massive renovation to save the building from decades of disrepair and neglect. 

Despite its now dilapidated condition, the Town Hall had remained an icon of stoic and stately demeanour in the downtown core; rather like the Cenotaph outside honouring the veterans of the Great War.  The townspeople vowed it would be saved. 

In 2003, Meaford secured a Superbuild grant to restore and renovate the building and a Trillium Grant to add an elevator for accessibility. Three years and thousands of volunteer hours later, Meaford celebrated the completion of the $6 million project, and the Meaford Hall Arts & Cultural Centre opened for business in the spring of 2006.  It was a feat of great effort by both the Meaford Hall Board of Management who led the renovation from 2003-2006 and later by the Meaford Hall & Culture Foundation, established in 2006 to fundraise for capital improvements and upgrades as well as to enable children from all social-economic backgrounds to participate and grow their love of arts and culture in Meaford. 

In 2017, the balcony seating in the theatre was renovated as the final completion of the entire building make-over. This was done through fundraising by the Meaford Hall & Culture Foundation, a Heritage Canada Grant and support through the taxpayers of Meaford.  The building’s transformation was now complete. 

Through the past century and more, Meaford Hall Arts & Cultural Centre remains a proud icon of the downtown Meaford core and continues to be a monument to prosperity and progress just as Mayor Horsley predicted in 1908.

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