Sunday, September 6, 2015

Touring around Merritton on Labour Day weekend

I've been continuing my travels around the city and region the last few weeks, and the past two Saturday afternoons I have been spending time in Merritton, a friendly, working-class area in St. Catharines that is enjoying a bit of a building boom the last few years.

The first thing I wanted to find out is just where the boundary lines are for Merritton, as it seemed to me to be quite a bit larger than we realize when we're thinking of Merritton.  I contacted my former radio colleague Rod Mawhood, a life-long Merritton resident and inveterate booster of the community, and he simply said it is HUGE.  He added our downtown St. Catharines home might even be part of Merritton.

That piqued my interest, of course, so I consulted the website for the lowdown on just where the boundaries lie, and indeed the area is larger than you think.  They include Jacobson Avenue, Highway 406 and Geneva Street in the west; QEW and Eastchester Avenue in the north; the Welland Canal and Glendale Avenue in the east and St. David's Road in the south.  So yes, a lot of area is covered, but no, Rod, I don't quite live in Merritton.

So armed with that information I ventured into the heart of Merritton, the Merritt Street area most people think of when they think of Merritton, parked the car and started walking.  I quickly discovered even though Merritton amalgamated with St. Catharines in 1961, it still maintains its own identity over 50 years later.

Walking the side-streets here, you don't see large, palatial residences but rather, ordinary homes housing ordinary people, many of whom do extraordinary things in this area.  They work, play, and often promote Merritton with a down-to-earth attitude you can't help but find appealing.

There are also several churches in the heart of Merritton representing many denominations, including St. Patrick's Roman Catholic, St. Andrew's Anglican, and Elm Street United among others.  Each has served the community and respective congregations for many years.

Once you stop and take a look around Merritton, you can't help but notice the building boom that has been going on here for several years now.  It wasn't that long ago, really, the stone building that now houses The Keg restaurant on Glendale Avenue sat abandoned, long-ago retired as a manufacturing entity.  It was the former home of the Independent Rubber Company/Merritton Cotton Mills years ago.  When The Keg opened in that wonderfully refurbished building, it seemed to be the catalyst for a general rebirth of that part of south St. Catharines that continues to this day.

A few years later the former Lybster Mill at the corner of Merritt and Glendale was transformed from a former cotton mill to a modern boutique inn serving a clientele from far and near.  The Stone Mill Inn building dates from 1860 and was one of the pioneering cotton mills in the country in its day.

Today, the sleek and modern Stone Mill Inn, Resort & Spa sports 35 luxurious rooms and suites, nine Jacuzzi suites and two spectacular lofts that are simply breathtaking.  I toured the Inn a few years ago just after it opened, and not long afterwards my wife and I stayed in one of the rooms at the Inn, and we can tell you it is a first-rate place to stay, centrally-located for touring all over Niagara.

The Stone Mill Inn also houses the St. Catharines location of Johnny Rocco's Italian Grill, and this remains one of my wife's all-time favourite places to dine any time of year.  The Tuesday evening specials are especially affordable and more than worth the price.

These former mills were strategically situated to take advantage of one of the earlier Welland ship canals, and if you look closely just south of the Merritt/Glendale intersection, you can see the remnants of one of the old locks.  The water rushes pretty fast here, and as I stood near the stone wall you could imagine ships travelling along this very route so many years ago.

Standing at the corner of Merritt and Glendale, you notice the improvement in traffic flow due to the realignment of the intersection several years ago, making it possible to drive through the intersection much more efficiently than in the past, but really, you should do as I did, stop the car and see what there is to enjoy in the area.

Next to The Keg, for example, you'll find the busy Shops at Glendale Place, featuring a bank, restaurants and fashion boutiques like Honey's celebrating 36 years in business and happy with their relocation to Merritton a few years ago from their long-time home on St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines.

I visited the store last weekend and was impressed with the decor, selection and design of the shop.  Owner John and his lovely wife have made a good thing better by moving to Merritton, and they tell me the increased traffic to the new location made the move more than worthwhile.

Across the street is another large plaza housing another modern bank, a large LCBO store and a well-stocked Sobey's grocery store.

Another business in the heart of Merritton with a recent history is Mr. Coppola's Men's Hair Styling at 302 Merritt Street.  Opened in 2011 by Joe Falconi, who used to work out of the large barbering establishment at the Pen Centre, Mr. Coppola's offers everything from hair cuts, buzz cuts, head shaves and beard trims, plus what particularly interested me, the traditional hot towel straight razor shave.

I used to go to a barber in Toronto years ago who offered the service and if you have never experienced the true relaxation and luxury of this service, you owe it to yourself to try it at least once.  I hope to myself in the near future.  Just call ahead first to make an appointment.

Joe told me when I visited the busy shop yesterday he is happy with the move and loves being a part of the heart of Merritton.

Walking up and down Merritt Street reveals many places I have visited over the years when the St. Catharines Historical Museum was housed in the former Merritton Town Hall.  The Milk Maid Shoppe is still there, with a faded facade that just seems to fit the area nicely.  Nearby is a very small brick building that once housed a branch of the Bank of Nova Scotia, now home to The Life Centre Church.  The Scotiabank logo on the door pulls and words engraved in the stone above the entrance are cues to the original use of the building.

Merritton is home to two appliance dealers on opposite sides of the street, Pirie Appliances and Star Appliances, and several comfortable gathering places for drinks and fun, including Pizza Jerry's Union House and my favourite due to the name, Blind Referee.  Sadly, the Columbian restaurant El Cafetal is now closed, no longer a home to food and beverages in Merritton.

Driving over the Merritton overpass, newly reconstructed a few years ago, you also notice the very modern yet traditional-looking Merritton Fire Station, known officially as St. Catharines Fire Station No. 4.  I remember when this new facility opened not many years ago, and it is a very impressive addition to the area.

Once over the bridge I recently visited two of my favourite hangouts on the south end of Hartzell Road, Casa Leone Deli and Bakery, with a selection of breads second to none, and our local Dairy Queen location, which was hopping on a recent Friday evening when I visited.  As busy as it was, I was impressed by the very friendly and efficient service provided by my young server.

There's lots more to see and visit in this part of town, like the friendly Griffin Pub, Brewmonger, home to all your beer-making needs, and a little further up Hartzell the Chile & Agave Mexican restaurant, one of the best around.

Back at the intersection of Glendale and Merritt, the local Benjamin Moore paint store anchors a small strip plaza, where for many years I have relied on the friendly staff to guide me with my colour choices as I repaint the front porch of the house every year.

I know I am just scratching the surface here on what's worth seeing in Merritton, but if your interest is piqued, this is a good weekend to explore the area for yourself.  Tonight, for example, the Merritton Legion Labour Day Fireworks display happens at dusk.

Meantime the annual Merritton Lions Club Community Days Carnival, a staple of the Labour Day weekend happens tomorrow, tied in with the annual Labour Day Parade that starts from the Pen Centre tomorrow morning at 11.

The parade begins on Chestnut, heads down Glengarry, along Glendale, up Merritt Street and ending at Community Park.  There, events will continue all day with the beer garden, the carnival with attractions from such local supporters as Niagara Inflatables, and of course, the traditional raffle for $5,000 to be drawn Monday evening at 7 pm.

The Community Days Carnival is different this year, scaled back due to unforeseen circumstances after last year, but the day-long carnival tomorrow and the morning parade will be a fine way to spend your Labour Day in Merritton before the kids get back to school on Tuesday.

Have a great weekend!

September 6th, 2015.

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