“A veritable father of his community”
When it comes to public service few could match the record of former Petrolia mayor and fire-chief Ernie Preston. Preston served a total
of 30 years on Petrolia Town Council and was elected mayor five times.
However, his service to the town began when, at a very young age, he joined its fire brigade.
In 1896, he became Petrolia’s fire-chief, the
same year the town’s water works system was opened and fire hydrants installed for the first time. Consequently, Preston oversaw the beginning a brand new era of fire fighting in the town.
The following year it’s been recorded that
he had much to do with the first firemen’s tournament held in town, an event that attracted fire fighters from across Ontario and Michigan. He was also said to have been instrumental in the town hosting an Ontario Fireman’s Convention held here
Preston also served as the local Justice-of-the-Peace for many years and was tasked with adjudicating many of the lesser police court cases in the area. In that capacity he was widely known as a man who tempered justice with mercy. In fact,
it’s been said that through his wise counsel and assistance, many local court actions were prevented, making life easier for some of the locals who, at a time when rowdiness was not uncommon, may have found themselves at variance with the law.
the Old Age Pension was introduced he was appointed its local administrator and according to a past article in the Petrolia Advertiser-Topic, “was highly praised among the public for his tact and kindness.”
Ernest Preston was born in Petrolia
in 1871 and grew up here during the town’s oil boom era. After attending local schools, he apprenticed as a mould maker in the employ of Joyce and MacKenzie (founders of Oil Well Supply) and later at the Stevenson Boiler Works.
However, in 1918
he decided to strike out on his own and founded Preston’s Tobacco Store (later to become Colonels Tobacco Store), a successful wholesale and retail tobacco and confectionary business that remained a touchstone in the town’s downtown core for nearly
a century. Preston operated the business for a little more than 30 years and following his death it was taken over by his long-time employee Ken (Colonel) Saltz, who had worked for Preston since the age of 10 and continued the enterprise for another 30 plus
In its day, the store was said to have carried the largest stock of domestic and imported tobacco products to be found in Western Ontario. The “Hub” as the store became known got its name from a large metal wheel hub, replete
with a circle of electric lights, that rotated in the store’s window for many years.
The store also boasted one of the few wooden cigar store Indians left in Ontario at the time. This curio graced the store’s entrance for all the years Preston
ran the store and remained there during the more than 30 years that Colonel Saltz operated the business. Both Preston and Saltz were said to have been offered large sums of money for it on various occasions but refused to sell it. Many of the older folks
in town have often commented on the artifact and have wondered what eventually became of it—no one seems to know.
At the time of Ernie Preston’s death he had just been re-elected to a fifth term as mayor. In tribute, the editor of
the Advertiser-Topic noted: “The passing of a mayor during his term of office would come as a severe blow to the welfare of any town, but in the passing of Ernest Preston, Petrolia has lost a citizen who was a veritable ‘father’ of his community.”
He was an adherent of the Anglican Faith and generously supported Christ Church Anglican. Fraternally, he was a long-time member of Petrolia Masonic Lodge # 194 and for many years served as the fraternity’s secretary. Ernie Preston died
Jan. 30, 1937, aged 67. He is interred at Hillsdale Cemetery.