Save it or raze it?
Morris Haugg Morris Haugg is a member of the Amherst News Community Editorial Panel.
This article examines two questions: Should the Amherst armoury (officially known as the James Layton Ralston Armoury) be saved? Can the armoury be saved? It seems that nobody around here wants to see the armoury razed to the ground. For many people, it represents the proud history our community has played during Canada’s participation in two world wars. For some, like the Hon. Roger S. Bacon, the armoury building is a monument. This is what he told me last year: “You can’t tear down the armoury any more than you would tear down the war monument downtown in Victoria Square.” Two of Roger’s brothers served overseas in the Second World War and one gave his life. Roger himself served for many years, from age 14, during and after that war in the Second Battalion of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, which was the local militia. In 1914, soon after the Great War started, a new drill hall was erected on Acadia Street. There, various troops trained to be sent to England. That included a famous regiment from Quebec known as the Van Doos. It continued to be used as the home for the local militia until the start of the Second World War. In September of 1939, recruits from all over northern Nova Scotia, and some from Cape Breton, came together to form the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. Their headquarters was in Truro but they trained in Amherst and the armoury became their home. The first Battalion of the “North Novies” as they became famously known, consisted of 1,044 men. Unlike during the First World War, they were not integrated with British troops. They fought as a unit; their exploits and successes are well documented in Will R. Bird’s "No Retreating Footsteps." Of the 1,044, 486 men did not come back. Many more were injured. No one came back unscathed by the horrors of that conflict. Those who did return continued to treat the Amherst Armouries as their home. During the war, the Second Battalion (the militia) trained at the armouries and it was their home, too. They represented the home guard. After the war, the armoury continued to be the home of the militia unit as well as several generations of cadets. That all ended when the militia was transferred to Springhill. Prior to that, the armoury building enjoyed a wide community use. Not only did the military hold an annual ball, so did the Rotary Club and other organizations as well. Badminton was played there several times a week. Clubs were able to meet in the officers or sergeants mess. A lot of social life centred on that building. With the departure of the militia and reserve army, the future of the armoury building became uncertain. Even though Ray Coulson had started the regimental museum in 1986, which fills several rooms and the three cadet corps still practise there, the Amherst armoury was declared surplus and disposable. Some time ago it was offered to the Town of Amherst or any other organization prepared to take it over for the price of the proverbial dollar. No takers were found. Due to the efforts of several people, principally former Member of Parliament Bill Casey, the building was not closed or even demolished. Then, after the last federal election, there seemed to be a new pitch to bring things to a head. The threat was to move the Highlander’s Regimental Museum to the Armoury in Springhill and forget about the cadets. That was seen as a prelude to the permanent closing of the building. The officer who was sent to bring that message was met with a large and formidable collection of people. The mayor, the MLA Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin, retired MP Bill Casey and new MP Lenore Zann, the curator and assistant curator of the museum and several veterans and members of the new Amherst Armouries Plus Society were present. I was present as the secretarytreasurer of this new non-profit organization. Together, we were able to express our opposition to the closing and destruction of the armoury building. We also were able to present a plan: as long as that plan is sensible and viable and was being pursued, it was inappropriate to “write off” the building. Consequently, we maintained that it was totally premature to move the museum to any other location. More about the Amherst Armouries Plus Society and its plan next week.