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FROM THE ASHES: The most dramatic day of the Cloverdale Legion’s 90-year history

August 7, 1956: The Legion building, only eight years old, burns to the ground in one of the largest fires in Cloverdale’s history.  - City of Surrey Archives NC567A
August 7, 1956: The Legion building, only eight years old, burns to the ground in one of the largest fires in Cloverdale’s history.
— image credit: City of Surrey Archives NC567A

Aug. 7, 1956, was probably the most dramatic day in the 90-year history of the Cloverdale branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.

On that warm summer day, the Legion’s large two-storey building was destroyed in a spectacular fire that remains one of the most significant fires in Cloverdale history – ranking with the burning of the Athletic Hall and Opera House in 1952, the Clover Inn fire in the mid-1970s and the blaze that destroyed several 176 Street businesses in 1979.

The Legion building was only eight years old in 1956. With the post-war boom in Surrey’s population and the large number of returning Second World War veterans, the branch had shown significant growth. It built a new building on 57 Avenue on 11 lots purchased from the municipality of Surrey for the nominal fee of $1 each. This replaced its earlier facility, which had been housed in the former Burrows general store on Highway 10.

Initial plans called for a modest, one-storey building, but a larger facility was ultimately decided on in order to provide more amenities and revenue. It included a billiard room, conference rooms and offices, and an auditorium that seated 600 people. The new building was officially opened on April 17, 1948.

Two days after the fire, The Surrey Leader reported that: “Twenty-five people were in the building at the time the blaze started, the building itself sits right across the street from the fire hall, but so rapidly did the flames engulf Cloverdale Legion building that there was no hope of saving it.”

The fire began in a trash container upstairs near a cloakroom, and within an hour of its discovery at 5:45 p.m. the top storey was completely burned. Buildings on the main street were threatened for a time, due to an insufficient water supply, but fire hoses were eventually connected to the water system supplied by a large tower on the Surrey Co-op property, across Highway 10. That provided sufficient water to ensure that no other building caught fire. Thankfully, winds were light at the time.

The hall went up in flames so quickly that there “was no hope of saving it,” even though it was across the street from the fire hall. City of Surrey Archives NC567F

Witness Ford Dermody said that, in less than four minutes from the time he first noticed smoke coming from the side windows, “the whole dance hall was a mass of flames.”

In addition to firefighters from the Cloverdale hall, others assisted from Port Kells, Johnston Heights, West Central Surrey, Langley and Blaine. Firefighters were still pouring water onto the smoking remains of the building after midnight.

In addition to the Legion’s own facilities, including the lounge, dance hall, auditorium, offices and club rooms, there were two other businesses in the building. The Legion Café was a popular restaurant on the ground floor, operated by Bill Smith. Kerfoot-Holmes Printers was also located on that floor. The new business, run by Jim Kerfoot and Ken Holmes, had taken over the printing plant and non-newspaper printing business of The Surrey Leader on May 1. The two men were both at work when the fire broke out. They were among the first to raise the alarm after smoke rolled into their shop.

Kerfoot and Holmes appraising the burned ruins of their printing business. City of Surrey Archives SM.479B

The Legion, which at that time was among the most active and energetic organizations in Cloverdale, wasted no time getting back to business. Its Friday night bingo parties were moved to the Cloverdale Catholic School gymnasium and temporary quarters were soon set up in the Stanton building on the main street.

“Legionnaires intend to meet the problems as they present themselves and not try to do everything at once,” commented Legion columnist Neville C. Curtis in his Aug. 16 Leader column. “Nothing can be decided definitely as regards a new building until the insurance question is settled, and here a word of compliment may be said to the Hugh and McKinnon agents for their wise advice in persuading the executive to keep up adequate insurance coverage.”

President Bill Stagg called an emergency general meeting of Legion members on Aug. 16 to consider future plans. A building committee was formed even before the meeting was held, consisting of Jim Greensides, J. Sowden, Bill Smith and Ernie Bexley. A committee was also set up for purchasing of materials.

“I cannot too strongly urge all veterans around us to forget the past and rally to our support to fulfill the obligations we all owe to the Canadian Legion, B.E.S.L. (British Empire Service League),” Stagg said.

By September, plans for a new building had been drawn up and a contract for construction of the new Legion building was awarded to Dale Building Supply Company. The new building was to be a one-storey, 42 by 72-foot building. This building was opened in early 1957, and has had several additions since then, starting with the addition of an auditorium in 1959-60. It remains the home of the Legion today.

Of the two other businesses affected, the Legion Café did not reopen. There was no space in the new building for a café at first. Kerfoot-Holmes Printers did relocate to another 57 Avenue building. That business continues to operate in Cloverdale to the present, under the name of Fraser Printers.

 

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