Hillsdale tour draws huge crowd of history buffs

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The gloomy, rainy weather failed to put a damper on the Hillsdale Cemetery Tour . The rich and varied history of Petrolia came alive as the Petrolia Heritage Committee, the Petrolia Community Theatre, and a group of about 100 volunteers made the lives of eight cemetery “residents” live again last Saturday.

This is the third time the tour has been mounted. It was a resounding success with proceeds from this year’s ticket sales going toward the purchase of a headstone for one of the tour’s female subjects – Flossy Stone.

Liz Welsh, of the Petrolia Heritage Committee, says Stone is buried somewhere in the cemetery but she was never given a headstone. The location of her grave is unknown. “She was the first female councillor and she ran a nursing home for people who needed it,” says Welsh. “The cemetery plots she and her husband bought have other people in them.” The kind-hearted Stone opened one of the first homes for the aged in Petrolia, served on various boards and committees and was involved in sports and harness racing.

Records that might have revealed where she is buried are thought to have been destroyed when Victoria Hall burned down in the 1980s. “We’ll get a headstone for her and try to determine, the best we can, where she is buried,” says Welsh.

The cemetery residents chosen for recognition this year all have some connection to the 150th anniversary of Canada. Once chosen, their lives were researched to shed a light on their role in local history. “Some are associated with the King Well, one of the most prolific oil wells opened during that time; some are associated with the birth of Petrolia; and some with the railway spur line that oil men brought into town when the Great Western Railway refused to build one,” said Welsh. She added the three events, plus Christ Anglican Church, all had their genesis 150 years ago. “Visitors will see what their lives were like at the time and what role they played in the town’s history.”

The tour was conducted by 13 volunteer tour guides, who led tour groups around the cemetery at 15 minute intervals. When their groups stopped at the graveside of a featured “resident”, period-costumed performers from the Petrolia Community Theatre portrayed scenes from that person’s life.

One of the more chilling stories concerned the only murder to ever occur in Victoria Hall. The grave stone of Harry Brown, the victim of the story, provided the stage for a five minute vignette in which Narrator Danna Andrade spun her woeful tale. On a night in March, 1949, 64-year-old Harry Brown, played by Paul Vail, ended his busy day with the purchase of a bottle of wine which he paid for with bills taken from a sizeable wad of cash. A group of people saw this exchange and among them was 26-year-old Ralph Howlett, a husband and respected veteran of WWII.

With bottle in hand, Brown retired to the furnace room at Victoria Hall, where he liked to rest. When his body was discovered, the side of his face was burned and his valuables had been taken. A wound on his head was determined to have been left by the shattered wine bottle.

Suspicion fell upon Ralph Howlett, who had been seen to follow Brown out of the shop where he’d purchased the wine. Howlett was arrested and charged with murder. The charge was later reduced and a jury found him guilty of manslaughter, although there is still doubt about Howlett’s guilt. Andrade says Howlett’s body is not buried anywhere on the Hillsdale grounds.

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