'The Town Ahead': Orillia's historic failed attempt to start daylight savings
It was meant to be a bold idea to keep Orillia as the "town ahead," but a summer dalliance with daylight savings in 1912 crashed and burned.
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One night in June 1912, by order of the mayor of Orillia, an hour vanished into the warm summer air as the clock struck 10. Across the town, factory workers and shopkeepers pushed the hand of their clock forward to 11 p.m., some of them wincing at the sudden loss of sleep, and Orillia time — daylight saving time — was born.
“Orillia is now one hour ahead, all seem pleased,” the Star reported on the experiment.
It was a bold idea for a new century. Britain had toyed with a daylight saving bill to save on lighting costs back in 1908, roughly quoting Irish poet Thomas Moore at the bill’s unsuccessful first reading: “Give me back the wild sweetness of morning, its smiles and its tears are worth evening’s best light.”
A backbencher in Canada’s Parliament also tried to steal an hour from the night around the same time, but the effort fizzled. Nobody anticipated that Orillia, the manufacturing boomtown with fewer than 7,000 people, would be the next place to try.
“I liked the idea and with my itch for keeping Orillia at the forefront, in my annual address as President of the Board of Trade, I suggested that Orillia should adopt daylight saving,” Charles Harold Hale, a longtime booster of the town, recalled in a later memoir. He could already picture the town’s new slogan: “Orillia: The Town Ahead.” By 1912, town council and Mayor William (Bill) Frost signed off on the experiment, set to begin on June 22.
An hour behind and 150 kilometres to the south, the Toronto Daily Star cheered Orillia’s moxie: “If the people of Orillia cannot stand together until they learn whether the scheme possesses merit, a more cohesive people in some other town must needs take it up.”
Things started well enough. Most of the town’s churches — but not the Catholic ones — began services at the new schedule, although the mayor was late by an hour. When the work week began at the Tudhope automobile factories, the men started at 7 a.m. Orillia time (6 a.m. Toronto time) and everyone seemed satisfied at the end of the day. Most of the downtown merchants opened their stores on Orillia time. That evening, Orillia and Midland played nine full innings at Couchiching Beach Park, and a satisfied crowd of 1,500 watched the match in unadulterated daylight.
But trouble lurked among the deepening bags under the eyes of the town’s citizens. While most of the Tudhope factories started on the new time, the Tudhope Wheel Works had 50 troublemakers refusing to honour Orillia time. They showed up an hour late, and when the whistle blew at lunchtime, those men stayed on their job. When all the other factories closed at 6 p.m., the Tudhope Wheel men stayed an hour later. Then they sent a petition to management, who decided that the workers didn’t have to acknowledge the new time if they didn’t want to.
At E. Long Manufacturing and National Hardware, the same dissent emerged, and the companies reverted back to the old time. Hale, who was confined to bed owing to “undue exertion in the reciprocity election of 1911,” couldn’t believe that half the town was an hour ahead of the others.
“All this in spite of the fact that I had written a pamphlet called ‘The Daylight Saver’ to explain the working of the bylaw.”
The workers of Orillia felt “bulldozed” and tricked, and many believed this was a capitalist scheme to turn a 10-hour workday to an 11-hour day. Some people made use of the daylight to go to the park, but many unfortunates were sent to the back garden, which led to dirtier pants, and more laundry. At the Orillia House hotel, the trains still ran on the old time, and proprietor Jim Hessey had to keep his meals on schedule with the trains. He lost money every day.
People didn’t go to bed earlier. They’d look at their watch, see the small hand pointing menacingly at 11 p.m., and think “It’s only 10,” and stay up, losing an hour of sleep every night.
When the Star wrote glowingly of the project, one Orillian accused the paper of being in accord with the “bumbledom” of capitalists, who conceived of this experiment as advertising for the town, with the goal of increasing home prices and cheapening labour.
“The Star has no sympathy for capitalists against labor,” the Star replied in an editorial. “The accusation made against us is usually quite the contrary of this.”
In the end, it was the “women folks” who kiboshed the scheme.
With the town’s factories running on two time zones, women who ran the boarding houses had to wake up at 5 a.m. and prepare two breakfasts, lunches and dinners each day. Some of the boarding houses charged an extra 50 cents for the trouble, infuriating the workers.
Merchants in town were initially on board, but they found their mornings were quite slow, as the wives who woke up early to make breakfast for their husbands returned to bed for a nap.
“Are you on God’s time or Bill Frost’s time?” people asked around the town, equating the new time zone with “some sort of a sin against the Almighty,” Hale noted — even though God’s time was an invention of Sir Sandford Fleming some 40 years prior.
On July 7, 1912, only two weeks in, a disappointed Frost asked the citizens to set their clocks back to God’s time.
“I think I should have gone crazy had it continued,” said a relieved Mrs. McIntyre, who ran a boarding house near Town Hall.
Mayor Frost regretted that the working men hadn’t been consulted, but predicted that someday soon, the scheme would be a national measure. He was right. The First World War would temporarily bring the measure to bear in several countries, including Canada, to increase war production.
“The story of the two weeks will not be forgotten by Orillia for a long time to come,” the Star reported when Orillia returned the extra hour, “and if you want an argument just ask the first adult you meet in town about saving daylight and see the embers of the recent fire glow again.”