There is a little town 2 hours SW of Toronto called Port Dover, known for their famous ‘Friday the 13th’ Biker get together. However between 1921 and 1979 Port Dover had a Dance Hall that people made the trek to Dover every summer for….Summer Garden was its name.
Today’s post is for the Blog Series I started in 2013 from a book I read called “Let’s Dance: A Celebration of Ontario’s Dance Halls and Summer Dance Pavilions” by Peter Young.
Summer Garden was actually 3 halls overs the years. The first one was built-in 1921 by Ben Ivey and named by his mother (the opening night band was a 12-piece singing syncopated group from Detroit-Charles Cody). Erected on series of wooden supports which had been sunk many feet into the sand below the water (as seen in above image), it was unfortunately demolished by a huge storm (the storm took out its legs) in the winter of 1929 (source).
Summer Garden # 2 opened for business by Ben again in May 1929 (Featuring Emerson Gill on opening night) and was wisely located further up the beach. Built in 19 days by volunteers it lasted 3 years before it was burnt to the ground while the townspeople stood by and cried (source).
Here is a song by Emerson Gill I imagine was played on opening night.
Not letting any of this get Ben down he stood tall and erected Summer Garden # 3, on May 24th 1932.
In 1936 Ben passed the management torch to his son Don, who would go onto become somewhat of celebrity to those who visited the Garden. He was known for managing the ballroom with Ivey League class — wearing a white suit and ever-present red rose and everyone called him ‘Pop’ (source).
With high energy and an octagonal dance floor, it was the place to go to get down. If you couldn’t afford the cover charge, the walls of the dance hall were so thin, you could stand on the beach and take in the concert (source).
A favorite of Servicemen during WW2 stationed at nearby flying schools, dancers travelled far and wide for a day at the beach and night of dancing. Bands in the 40s included Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa.
There is a great quote in Peter Young’s book from Margo Kerber who went to Gardens during the 1940s.
“We’d take the trolley in Galt for a weekend in Port Dover and the Friday and Saturday night dances. You couldn’t wait to get back the next weekend. One of my friends is happily married to the boy she met then in Dover”.
Dance of the Roses
The Famous ‘Dance of the Roses’ was a dance that became Don’s baby and the highlight of the summer dance season. With the walls covered in roses and the best big bands playing the night, it was the Biggest Dance Affair in Port Dover.
1950s and on, saw bands like Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks, Guess Who and Lighthouse play the venue, all who speak with great fondness of the venue.
1969-1972 Summer gardens
January 8th, 1979 the fun ended as the Summer Gardens was torched by an arsonist and once again burnt to the ground. It was sadly never rebuilt and now is a summer garden picnic area where families enjoy ice cream and picnics.
Summer Garden Farewell
The night is chill, the ballroom deserted
The sound of dancing feet is gone
The sound of music has faded away
There is no sound of voices, they have disappeared
There is no laughter
Farewell, dear old lady Summer Garden.
There are tears I cannot hide, so I smile and say as the flames die
Smoke gets in my eyes…
– Don Ivey, January 9, 1979. (Source)
I recently visited Port Dover for the first time and while I could not find this picnic area personally (I don’t think I looked hard enough), I did take the picture below and day dreamed that this was the view that many dancers saw while taking in summer air, after a night dancing to some of the biggest bands in the world.
Other ‘Lets Dance’ Posts: Kenwick on the Lake, CNE Tent, Palace Pier