Oil, oil, oil! That is what created the best Town on earth. Historic wealth is still evident in the homes, buildings, and parks. And yes…you can smell the oil. But our Heritage is much more than the black gold that continues to be drawn from creaking wells located just a short stroll from our thriving downtown. Oil may have enticed folks here, but Petrolia was created, nurtured, and sustained by hardworking visionaries, shopkeepers, builders, drillers, labourers, and leaders. Hard Oils and visitors have been and continue to be our greatest resource. Among them are William H. McGarvey (1843-1914), Petrolia shop owner, Mayor and future Petroleum King of Austria), and current resident George McPhee who manages our children’s safety as they cross Petrolia Line on their way to school. Our residents are a wonderfully diverse group who have left us with an abundance of architecture, theatre, industry, education, healthcare, and social institutions.
Through photos, documents, newspapers and artifacts these people and their stories continue to play an integral part in our history. Our Heritage continues to evolve, and we love to share our stories. We take great pride in our Pre – Confederation, VanTuyl and Fairbank Hardware store where they still thread pipe, cut steel, and sell gumboots. VanTuyl and Fairbank’s has the distinction of being the oldest independent hardware store in Ontario and possibly Canada. Victoria Hall, built in 1889, destroyed by fire in 1989, and restored in 1992, continues to provide professional theatre and enjoyable entertainment to this day. It is also been the home of our municipal government for more than 100 years.
NATIONAL HERITAGE SITE - VICTORIA HALL
Victoria Hall, Petrolia is a national historic site, a provincially designated heritage building and a cultural center for Lambton County. In January 1989 on the event of its centenary, Victoria Hall was tragically gutted by fire leaving only its massive brick walls intact. As a late 19th century public building Victoria Hall is a very fine example of the Queen Anne style by its leading Canadian exponent, architect George F. Durand. Durand was born in nearby London ca. 1850 and came from a family of builders and had worked as a young architect on both the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa and the New York State Capital building. The building that Durand created as Petrolia’s town hall exhibits a lightness of touch in the detailing and ornamentation. The added exuberance of Durand’s design for Victoria Hall was perhaps inspired by the challenge of combining the municipal offices but also the police station and fire hall. The entire second floor was given over to an opera house.
While Victoria Hall is important architecturally on both a regional and national scale, its designation as a national historic site was made for reasons other than the merits of its architectural style. Victoria Hall represents the culmination of three decades of achievement in Canada’s early industrial development.
During the 1900s, the town’s oil industry declined. By the late 1950s, the opera house fell into disrepair through disuse. In the early 1970s, a teacher and his students wanted to use it and decided to clean it up. This sparked local citizens to create the Victoria Playhouse Foundation to restore the building and once again make it a cultural and community centre. After many repairs, incredible performers came including Theatre Passe Muraille, Liona Boyd, Codco, and Karen Kain. The police department moved out in the early 1970s, but fire trucks continued to roar out of the building until 1977. Victoria Hall became a National Historic Site in 1979. In the 1980s, a glass foyer was added, and the clock tower was temporarily removed for repairs. Suddenly, on January 25, 1989, fire gutted the building. After much debate, Victoria Hall was rebuilt at a cost of $6.5 million.
Through grants, generous donors and countless community fundraising events, the town successfully raised its required portion of the cost; $750,000. Very impressive for a town that was only 4,500 souls! Philip Goldsmith of Quadrangle Architects Ltd. mixed a contemporary interior with a faithfully rebuilt exterior, using the authentic materials needed for a heritage designation. It was a real challenge to design the council chamber, offices, a lobby big enough for many events and a state-of-the-art theatre seating 400. “It’s really a community building which allows for theatre functions,” he said. The hardworking community celebrated with opening gala on Sept. 26, 1992. For the entire summer (from mid-May to mid-September), Victoria Playhouse Petrolia brings in six shows, plus it books performances throughout the year in Victoria Hall. Petrolia continues to celebrate our great local talents too. Petrolia Community Theatre has staged nearly 40 productions here. The high school gives musical performances each year and biennial musicals. The Lambton Youth Choir has had 40 concerts. In 2011, two Oil Heritage Windows by stained glass artist Christopher Wallis were added to the entrance. Fairbank Oil presented them to the town to help everyone remember Petrolia’s amazing oil history as they create new memories at Victoria Hall.
Visitors to the Petrolia Discovery experience a fascinating, one-of-a-kind glimpse into the early days of the world’s oil boom. From the first, hand-dug wells of the 1850s, to the great refineries and machine shops which abounded at the turn of the century, Petrolia’s Oil Heritage runs old and deep as the wells themselves. Guests not only take in historical displays and informative movies but get a chance to see an authentic 1860’s oilfield in action. Please visit https://petroliadiscovery.com/ for more information.
The Petrolia Discovery is currently open on selected days throughout the summer season and providing tours. The site is undergoing many upgrades and repairs and improvements, please be sure to check the website before you visit.
OIL MUSEUM OF CANADA
Visitors from around the world tour the Oil Museum of Canada to learn the story of Canada’s Oil Pioneers – a unique and captivating era of history!
The site preserves the site of the first commercial oil well in North America dug by James Miller Williams in 1858. While visiting you can immerse yourself into the historical facts that started the modern petroleum industry. Start your visit with a short video giving you entertaining insight into the fascinating history of the area.
Explore the two-floor museum building examining drilling tools, artifacts and the stories of foreign drillers who traveled the world in their quest for black gold.
Their main galleries are open year-round, and their outbuildings are open from mid-April to mid-December.
For visitor information, please visit: https://www.lambtonmuseums.ca/oil/