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The Movie Years: Trenton, Ontario, 1917-1934

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An Excerpt from The Movie Years

One wonders what life in Trenton, Ontario might have been like today had predictions made in the early part of the 20th century come true. For Trenton was to be “Hollywood of the North.”

Very little remains now of her brief venture into the world of film-making. It lasted only 17 years, from 1917 to 1934. The street where the film studio stood is still called “Film Street”, but the rest has passed into history, preserved only in the memories of the few still living who can recall those colourful years.

Trenton is a small city in south central Ontario. Its population and economy are augmented in large part by CFB Trenton located on its easterly limits. Once dependent mainly on the lumber industry, the community grew up at the point where the Trent River flows into the Bay of Quinte.

Those who can remember the years of Trenton’s film industry, tell of the thrill they experienced seeing film stars on the streets of the town, shopping at the local shops, or enjoying hockey games at the old Quinte Street arena decked out in their coonskin coats.

They remember heads turning as the British film director, Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, went by in his chauffeur-driven car with its hood ornament as big as two man sized hands.

They remember the hordes of children that gathered on the street corners or anywhere else they spotted the cameras being set up. They remember being shooed away if they got overly curious about the strange goings-on at the film plant, remember the excitement of being part of the movie business themselves, with roles as extras or as members of a crowd scene. Some remember sitting in the long grass at St. George’s Cemetery to watch the filming of a scene from “Carry On Sergeant!”, seeing the ragged line of “refugees” being prodded along by menacing “German” soldiers.

Many of those people will tell you that the film industry, with its influx of actors, directors, cameramen and others, was good for the economy of Trenton. Accommodation had to be provided, and the “movie people”, the name by which the locals referred to them, were frequent patrons of the town’s shops.

The Gilbert House Hotel (1804–1975) was full, and business prospered. In 1927–28 when” Carry On Sergeant!” was being made, there were so many people working on the picture and needing housing that one could demand almost any rent one wished. As for those coveted coonskin coats, anyone who owned one could easily sell it to one of the “movie people.”

(Edited from the original by the author.)


A Bit of Background

When I came to live in Trenton in my teens I noticed in the neighbourhood a short street named Film Street. There were a few houses on it and a building that was referred to as the film plant, although, at the time, it was a dyeing and finishing plant.

Years later, I was writing a series of articles about interesting seniors for the local paper, and among the stories I heard were several about the time when movies were being made in town. Hadn’t I heard about it?

I remembered that back in high school a friend had told me that her father had been hired as a movie extra at the film plant. Now I sat up and took notice. A couple of the seniors even had pictures taken during the filming of the earliest movies. After all the years that had gone by, these pictures were in poor shape.A number of them had even been rolled up and stored in a tube. But I knew they were priceless. The owners agreed to let me show them to the Moving Image and Sound Archives (MISA), part of the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa. The archivists were very interested in adding them to their own collection and agreed to make a set for me to use in my book and another set to give to the people who had shared their pictures with me.

I sent the manuscript out to several publishers and along the way also sent it to Gerald Pratley at the Ontario Film Institute in Toronto, having come across some of their monographs during my research. Mr Prately returned the manuscript with a note to say he had enjoyed reading it. He referred to it as “a nostalgic remembrance of Canada’s film-making capital.” He added that it was not really a history book; my focus had been on the local people whose lives had been affected by the film industry in their midst. (I have always felt that is what makes the book unique.) I liked Gerald Prately’s reference and I used it as the sub-title of the book.

Mika Publishing of Belleville published The Movie Years in 1989. After the death of his wife and business partner, Nick Mika closed his publishing business. I was able to buy the remaining copies of my book, and for years I sold them to historical societies, local bookstores, and film studies students. It was reprinted in 2017 by Kirby Books in Bancroft, Ontario. The Movie Years can be purchased at https://www.localhistorybooks.ca Click on Our Books at the top of the page and scroll down to find The Movie Years.

Having trouble ordering a copy of The Movie Years? Feel free to contact Peggy Leavey, at pdl@peggydymondleavey.com, who would be happy to arrange finding you a copy.

Peggy Leavey

Peggy Dymond Leavey’s first book, The Movie Years, was published in 1989. It is the story of the early film industry in Trenton, Ontario. She has been a contributing editor for three books of local history.
Her numerous articles and short stories have been published in newspapers, magazines, and anthologies. Peggy is also the author of nine novels for young readers, including Sky Lake Summer, The Deep End Gang, and The Path Through the Trees, all of which were nominated for the Ontario Library’s Association’s Silver Birch Award. Growing Up Ivy, published in 2010 by Dundurn Press, was a starred selection in the Canadian Children's Book Centre’s Best Books for Kids and Teens.
In 2015, Dundurn Press published Peggy’s biography Molly Brant, Mohawk Loyalist and Diplomat, as part of its Quest Biographies series. Peggy had two previous Quest Biographies to her credit: Mary Pickford, Canada's Silent Siren, America’s Sweetheart and Laura Secord, Heroine of the War of 1812, which was a finalist for the Ontario Legislature’s 2013 Speaker’s Book Award.

A retired librarian, Peggy is a member of The Writers’ Union of Canada, The Spirit of the Hills Writers’ Group, and The Quinte Arts Council. She and her husband live near Trenton, in Quinte West.

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