Skip to content

Playwright uncovers the true story of a 1923 fire at the Tremont

Anke Lex, co-owner of the Tremont building on Simcoe Street, uncovered a detailed account of an arson case heard in Barrie in order to tell a missing piece of Collingwood history for the Gaslight Tour
Anke Lex in front of the Tremont building, which is the subject of her play for the Gaslight Tour, entitled: The Night the Mockingbird Sang for the Tremont.

The circumstances that led to fire damage in the former Tremont hotel, discovered by owners Rick and Anke Lex as they restored the building into studios, are a mystery no longer, thanks to the perseverance of a first-time playwright. 

Anke Lex is one of four playwrights whose works will be featured in this year’s Gaslight Tour. Her play tells the story of the fire at the Tremont in 1923, which, until now, was a forgotten –or maybe covered up – part of local history. 

“We knew there was a fire in the Tremont because when we did restorations … we uncovered major fire damage over three floors,” said Lex. She noted there are still scorch marks on the floor of the second level. 

A reference in a local book included recollections of Theresa Armitage, who lived at the Tremont as a child and who remembered a fire. 

“I knew I wanted to write about the fire, but there was nothing! We had no details,” said Lex. 

She searched the museum and the library, hoping to contribute to the Gaslight Tour for this year’s theme “old news.” 

There’s a book at the Collingwood Library and the museum detailing local fires from 1855, even small kitchen fires are listed, but the Tremont fire wasn’t in there. 

Finally, Lex reached out to the Simcoe County Museum and Archives in Midhurst, where staff were able to dig up two, multi-page newspaper articles with extensive details about the Tremont fire, or more specifically, the arson trial that followed the fire. The articles appeared in Barrie newspapers, and the case was heard in a Barrie courtroom. 

“There was so much detail all of the sudden on that fire,” said Lex. As an added bonus, she learned the fire took place in 1923, making this year the 100th anniversary of the fire. 

The articles detailed evidence against the owners, Messrs. Hollingsworth and Henry, like the smell of coal oil in the building, and a list of witnesses called to testify about the fire. 

From the article, Lex also learned about a steam-powered fire alarm called a Mockingbird, which was situated in the area of the current Black Bellows brewery. At the Simcoe/Ste Marie Street intersection in the 1920s there would have been two liveries, the fire station, and a welding shop (Dey’s). The mockingbird was sounded by a livery worker who was nearby, and the sound on that stormy night was enough to drive fear into the whole town. 

From this detail came the title for Lex’ play: The Night the Mockingbird Sang for the Tremont. 

Because of the details in the article from the court case, Lex has been able to write her play without fiction. 

“There were all these characters of people who just lived here and did their business, and I thought that was kind of thrilling,” said Lex. “Everything in this play is true ... based on the court case details."

One minor change, in the interest of a short play taking place on a single stage is that Hollingsworth and Henry get arrested in front of the Tremont for Lex’ play, even though they were really arrested in front of town hall. 

Her play opens the night of the fire, when Mrs. Henry is, inexplicably, being sent away to Toronto for a while. A coincidence that came up in the trial. 

Though Hollingsworth and Henry weren’t ultimately convicted of arson, there are unanswered questions about the influential Collingwood proprietors. 

“There’s just so much evidence against them coming from all angles … but if there’s just the slightest doubt … they have to be acquitted,” said Lex, who wonders if the influence of the Tremont owners helped the story die out locally. 

Lex explores the ups and downs of a prohibition-era economy and a town where many workers experienced seasons of feast and famine, depending on what point the ship construction had reached. 

This is her first time writing anything for publication or performance, but not her first time in the Gaslight Tour world. She’s attended each year, and said they helped her learn about her community. She enjoyed the Gaslight Theatre workshops, where she had peers help her work on the script to bring it to the stage. 

The Night the Mockingbird Sang for the Tremont, written by Anke Lex will be directed by Amy Rempel and will be performed at the Simcoe Street Theatre between Oct. 23 and 29. 

The Gaslight Tour features four plays about local history, all within the theme of “old news.” Tickets sold out a few days after sales opened. This will be the first year the plays are in a theatre, as typically the Gaslight plays are performed at various locations around town and patrons walk to each of the spots. 

You can learn more about Gaslight Theatre Productions, the plays and the courses, online at Lex is one of four playwrights featured in this year’s tour. CollingwoodToday will feature all four in stories this week.

Click here for a video of a recreation of the Mockingbird steam-powered fire whistle that warned the town of a fire at the Tremont in 1923. 

Reader Feedback

Erika Engel

About the Author: Erika Engel

Erika regularly covers all things news in Collingwood as a reporter and editor. She has 15 years of experience as a local journalist
Read more