By Dave Allston –
Like most of the original homes that front Wellington Street West, the stately brick home at the corner of Granville Avenue was converted to commercial space many years ago. Now the offices of Toon Dreessen’s well-respected firm, Architects DCA, the building and property holds a unique distinction in Ottawa history, the memory of which has begun to fade with the passing of time. The significance of 1350 Wellington St. W. extends beyond not just the end of an era, but of an epoch, for it was here that Ottawa’s last (legal) backyard chicken coop prevailed.
The idea of keeping backyard poultry and barnyard animals on a residential property in Kitchissippi today may sound far fetched but one hundred years ago, the keeping of animals, particularly chickens, was the norm for most working-class families. Residential properties often featured stables for horses and small barns or coops for poultry. Through the depression, home farms and gardens were a critical element of survival for many citizens and it was only after WWII that the coops began to disappear (until finally the municipal government outright banned them). However, during the golden years of chicken coops in Ottawa, there was likely no family more synonymous with birds and poultry than the Showler family of Wellington Village.
Their story in Kitchissippi begins, appropriately enough as we approach the 100th anniversary of the great Wellington Village lot auction (which you can read more about in the Kitchissippi.com archives), when 37-year-old Arthur Frederick Showler returned from overseas service in WWI. He had served four years with the 213th Battalion and arrived back in Ottawa in April 1919, just in time for the auction on May 31. Showler put up $475 for the prime lot on Wellington Street (just a few feet inside the then-western border of the city) and began to save for a house. Arthur and his wife Blanche had an infant son, Arthur Frederick Jr. (their second son Harry would come a few years later), and they resided in an apartment in Somerset House while waiting to build. Arthur was a linotype operator by trade, and was fortunate to find work right away with the Ottawa Citizen running their printing press, where he continued until his retirement in 1945.
Showler took out a mortgage in late 1920 and began construction on a grand wood-frame house, which was completed sometime in early 1921. The brickwork came a few years later. In fact, the house originally fronted onto Granville.
Showler also built a sizable “chicken house” behind the house. While other homeowners were building garages for their new cars (the marvel of the post-WWI era), Showler constructed accommodations for his many types and breeds of birds and poultry. Classified ads from olden days reveal that Showler bought, sold, and showed a wide variety of fowl, such as Barred Rock hens, Leghorn, rock pullet and game chickens, blue pied homer pigeons, cockerels, and Old English ducklings, and also more standard pets, such as rabbits, fox terriers, cocker spaniels, and collies.
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Showler won prizes at fairs and exhibitions across Ontario. In 1927 he was recognized for his contributions to the World’s Poultry Congress held in Ottawa. Showler had particular success with homing pigeons, and he was a regular medalist in the Ottawa and District Flying Club. At the opening event of the 1927 season, Showler’s pigeons took all three top spots racing from Sharbot Lake (they were released in Sharbot Lake at 11:15 a.m. and arrived back at a designated spot in Ottawa starting at 1:57 p.m.). Showler received a silver medal and the top birds received diplomas.
Arthur maintained the chicken house, coops and cages, which took up the entire rear portion of the lot, until his death in 1956. His youngest son Harry followed in his footsteps as a linotype operator as well as adopting the same passion for birds and poultry. Harry moved back into his widowed mom’s house, along with his wife Helen Anne and their young family, and kept the coops going. By this point, the city had banned the keeping of chickens within city limits but exempted Arthur as the final chicken keeper in Ottawa. The exemption was extended to Harry, and so for the next three decades, 1350 Wellington continued to be the final link to Ottawa’s significant backyard poultry breeding past.
Harry Showler raised chickens, ducks, geese, swans and pheasants, which he kept both at his home and at his family cottage on Big Rideau Lake. He became well known locally as “Birdman” and was ahead of his time in fighting for the preservation of wildlife. He had a permit to allow him to care for injured wild birds, most typically Canada geese. He also kept a lamb as a pet, which he would walk around the neighbourhood.
1350 Wellington also holds a bit of extra notoriety, as being the location where Canada’s first double-decker bus was parked. In May 1961, Harry’s brother Fred purchased the 1937 Leyland bus in Nottingham, England and brought it back to Canada to use in promotions for his garage in Hamilton. According to news reports, this was the first time a double-decker bus had ever been brought into Canada. The bus toured Ottawa for a few days before Fred took it to Hamilton but it returned in 1962 for an extended period (parked alongside 1350 Wellington) while Fred negotiated with the OTC to run sightseeing tours using the bus. The idea failed, and instead, Fred drove it across the United States later that year.
By late April 1985, the Showlers had sold their house and began the process of dismantling the pens and coops which had stood for 66 years. The final remaining chickens and birds moved with the family to their cottage in Perth, which truly marked the end of an important chapter in Ottawa’s history.
After an extensive renovation, the law firm of Dunlap, Dunlap and McInenly opened at this address in January 1986, where they remained until the late 1990s, when Farrow Architects moved in. The firm has morphed on a few occasions since, to result in the present day Architects DCA, who continue to occupy the impressive 98-year-old house.
Meanwhile, residential chicken coops continue to be banned by the city; allowed only on property zoned with agriculture as a permitted use. Many residents keep them illegally. There is an impressive 740+ members of a Facebook group called ‘Backyard Chickens Ottawa’, and reports show there is growing support for a change in the bylaw, which would put Ottawa in line with other municipalities – such as Vancouver, Montreal and Kingston in Canada, and New York, Chicago and Los Angeles in the U.S. – that allow urban chickens (though with reasonable restrictions, usually requiring permits as we do with dogs). It sounds like an idea the Showlers would heartily support!
Dave Allston is a local historian and the author of The Kitchissippi Museum. His family has lived in Kitchissippi for six generations. Do you have early memories or photos to share? Send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
*This feature is brought to you in part by Fresh Air Experience. Celebrating 50 years in Kitchissippi!