Since 1871 Petrolia’s annual St. Andrew’s Society banquet has celebrated all things Scottish. Pictured at this year’s banquet is keynote speaker for the evening, Dr. Dan Loncke, left, St. Andrew’s Society president Rev. George Bell and honourary president, Dr. Robert Green.
To the skirl of bagpipes, the proverbial Haggis has once again been paraded ceremoniously around the Petrolia Legion’s banquet hall to mark the kick-off the 122nd annual Petrolia St. Andrew’s Society banquet.
a tradition that dates back to Nov. 8, 1871. It was a time when the focus of most Petrolia residents was primarily centred on extracting crude oil from the earth, that a few worthy sons of the “Land of the Heather” met in Petrolia’s town
hall and formed a small society in honour of the patron saint of Scotland – St. Andrew.
A recorded account of that first meeting notes that “a public meeting of Scotchmen and descendants of Scotchmen was held in the town hall this evening.
On motion Mr. Walter Oliver was called to the chair, and Mr. Alex McDonald appointed secretary.”
It was moved by Mr. John McMillan, seconded by Mr. George Sanson that this meeting form a St. Andrew’s Society.” The motion was carried
unanimously and thus, Petrolia’s St. Andrew’s Society was born. The organization and its tradition continue in the Hard Oil Town to this very day and is believed to be one of the oldest Celtic organizations in Canada.
Since its inaugural
meeting, each year on the last Thursday of November, save 1917 when the British Empire and her Dominions were engaged in the Great War, a group of loyal Scots has gathered around the festive board, ostensibly to enjoy some piping and Highland dancing, partake
of a banquet replete with haggis, propose a toast or two, and then wrap up proceedings for another year. All of course to ensure that the “the land we left” and “the land we live in” are suitably honoured.
Apart from the banquet,
the society meets just once a year to elect an executive committee and make plans for the annual event. As the late Peter McPhedran, the society’s long-time historian, was fond of saying with an impish chuckle: “it’s the most unorganized
organization I know of.” He often recalled that in former days five to 10 men would gather round a bottle of Scotch and make plans for the upcoming banquet. He added that when the Scotch had been consumed, the meeting was adjourned.
Now in its
142nd year, the St. Andrew’s Society’s annual banquet is one of the town’s oldest traditions and with more than 100 in attendance at this year’s event there appears to be no waning of its popularity. To be a member all one
needs to do is show up.
At this year’s meeting president Rev. George Bell thanked his executive for their efforts in organizing the event as well as its piper for making “Mr. Burn’s haggis come alive” as well as those who attended
that evening. “I thank you all for perpetuating a delightful tradition,” he said.
Keynote speaker for the evening was Dr. Dan Loncke, a retired professor of veterinary medicine at St. Clair College and an avid historian who gave an interesting
and insightful perspective on the War of 1812 and its impact locally.
Guest soloist was Ms. Miranda Cole.
In his address to the assembled crowd, past president and the event’s official bard, Les Whiting noted that Petrolia isn’t
Scotland but it functions much the same. “We’ve been around since Canada was a wee babe of three so we must be doing something right,” he said.
Dr. Robert Green, the society’s honouary president, who has been associated
with the organization for more than 50 years, says the annual banquet marks the one day of the year when everyone in Petrolia is of Scottish heritage, either by transmission, extraction or by adoption. “And then of course, there are those of us who are
‘Scotch’ by absorption,” he added.
He noted that events surrounding Petrolia’s foreign drillers that actually provided the impetus for the organization’s formation. “A lot of the foreign drillers used to return home
in the fall and the organization was formed partly as a way of getting together and welcoming them home,” he said.
He noted that in the early days the annual gathering would start early in the day with a piper leading a contingent of Scottish
revelers through the town’s main street, dropping in at various businesses for a “wee dram.”
“They were never particularly raucous events but when you’d get a bunch of foreign drillers together that had been away for a
while, they were known to whoop it up a bit,” said Dr. Green.
The first St. Andrew’s banquet was held in the Oil Exchange Hall but over the years was moved around to number of different venues including the Anderson House, Tecumseh House,
Fletcher Hotel, and Hotel Iroquois, many of which have long ago fell victim to the wrecker’s ball.
The society’s minute books, which date back to 1871, are preserved in the vault at the Enniskillen Township municipal office, and reads
like a ‘who’s who’ of Petrolia’s past. Many of the town’s mayors, clergy, federal and provincial politicians, prominent business people and others who have left their mark on the town, appear in these records as either having
served on its executive or at least been present at the annual banquets.
At a time when we appear to be losing much of our culture and long-held traditions to the modern cult of technology, it’s reassuring to know that Petrolia’s St. Andrew’s
Society will be there to continue offering its members an annual evening of Scottish tradition, pomp and ceremony, along with its convention of light-hearted camaraderie.