Faces, Places and Traces by Mark Rushton
When I arrived here the late 1960s, it was the largest “privately owned” building in Abbotsford. But in those days, the Village of Abbotsford comprised only 160 acres. It wasn’t until 1971 that an amalgamation with the municipality of Sumas vastly increased its size and accumulations of buildings.
The structure I write of, however, was central to the Village, occupying the prominence of “Five Corners” (though at best all I can ever count is four!) where now sits a mini-mall.
Following WWII, the veterans and Ladies Auxiliary to the Royal Canadian Legion – Branch 15 – decided that “somewhere to call home” was necessary for returning vets to continue their camaraderie, recount war stories and generally get together on a regular basis.
But the Legionnaires and the Auxiliary, in their original hall on (West) Railway Street, determined there was a need for more than just a small gathering place, and thus in 1948, their visionary outlook provided our community with its first auditorium, along with (on the lower floor) a bar and the then-renowned Legion Café.
The latter was run for many years by celebrated fighter pilot Butch Merrick and it was the place to be and be seen in Abbotsford.
I am indebted to the written recollections of Olive Fussey, a charter member of Branch 15 and, through 69 years of service to the Legion, a leading member of the Ladies Auxiliary who raised much of the funds for the Legion Hall’s construction.
Olive passed away last year, her much-appreciated historical memories discovered, and since shared with me, by her daughter Barbara Gazso as she was going through Olive’s papers.
In Olive’s own words, “Fundraising supported the cause. Dances were held at Matsqui Hall and Whatcom Road Hall. Once a year, a masquerade was held which was well attended and loads of fun.”
After the Ladies Auxiliary to Branch 15 was formed, their first activity was a welcome dinner for war brides, held in the Orange Hall with Dr. Harry Cannon as master of ceremonies. (Cannon Clinic on McCallum honours his great contribution to Abbotsford’s fledgling medical community).
“Entertainment was provided by Peggy Zomar who sang a solo.”
One of the last events I attended in the Legion auditorium was a wedding of a member of the Zomar family.
One of the Zomar brothers owned the large farm immediately east of what is now University of the Fraser Valley, another a few acres with cows on the south shore of Mill Lake which is now city parkland.
Another “first” in Olive’s recollections was a dinner for the Young Conservative Party led by Doug Taylor, as I recall a former RCAF pilot and who would later become mayor of Matsqui.
The fundraising continued with whist drives and through a raffle for a car donated by “Mrs. Fountain.” Her two sons who owned the car had been killed in the war.
By 1948, the dream was fulfilled; the big new Legion opened, its mortgage paid off in 1953 thanks to catering revenues generated by the Ladies Auxiliary and through sales at the bar run by stewards Charlie Fussey (Olive’s husband) and George Gough (who, as I recall, was for a time a municipal councillor).
For 33 years the Legion Hall commanded the corner of McCallum and South Fraser Way. By the late 1970s, there were other more modern auditoriums and the building was aging, the land valuable for redevelopment.
By February of 1981, it was no more. The Legion moved into new quarters only a couple of blocks away, but financial difficulties resulted in that being sold and converted into a banquet hall.
The current Branch 15 Legion quarters are back on West Railway Street, continuing the ability, as Olive Fussey said in her memoirs “to pick up the old dream and always remember to provide a place for the men of the armed services of yesterday and certainly of tomorrow.”