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Historic all-Black volunteer fire hall aims to reignite as youth centre

The historic community of Upper Hammonds Plains is hoping to turn its former volunteer fire hall into the Elizabeth Mantley Arts and Recreation Centre
The Pockwock Road building that formerly housed the Upper Hammonds Plains Volunteer Fire Department

The community of Upper Hammonds Plains is hoping to transform a historic old building into a revitalizing new youth arts and recreation centre.

The Upper Hammonds Plains Community Development Association (UHPCDA) recently announced that they reclaimed the community’s volunteer fire department hall from the Halifax Regional Municipality with the intention to renovate and convert the abandoned structure into the Elizabeth Mantley Arts and Recreation Centre.

Home of the very first all Black volunteer fire department established in Canada, the former fire hall on Pockwock Road was constructed by the community members of the historic African Nova Scotian community of Upper Hammonds Plains.

“My father was one of the founding members of the fire department,” says Gina Jones-Wilson, president of the UHPCDA. “It was all community-driven, they built the building, they raised the funds for it (and) it became a community hub.”

According to a rather worn historic marker on the property, the efforts for the founding of the volunteer fire department began as early as 1962.  That year, a fire destroyed a local mill due to a lack of emergency services in the area. In wake of the tragedy, the community banded together and proposed to form a volunteer fire department with the members of nearby Lower Hammonds Plains.

With the proposal denied “largely for racial reasons,” the community of Upper Hammonds Plains decided to forge ahead on their own and by 1964, formed the first Black volunteer fire department in the country after a local resident named Elizabeth Mantley stepped in.

“She donated the property to build a fire department on,” says Jones-Wilson, who herself was Nova Scotia's first Black female volunteer firefighter, now retired. “She was the owner of that land and that space. Her daughter and her grandson actually still live (nearby)."

The fire hall and its personnel would go on to serve the community voluntarily until 1996, when Upper Hammonds Plains and other fire departments in Halifax County were amalgamated to form the Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Service. 

The hall itself would remain in service as Halifax Regional Fire Station 51 until it was closed in 2013.

Despite the fact that the community formed and built the Pockwock Road fire hall, until the recent transfer of ownership, the four-bay door building was under control of the city — presumably because the fire department had not been incorporated and therefore could not own the property.

In October 2020, the Halifax regional council voted unanimously to return ownership of the fire hall back into the hands of the UHPCDA, which is currently renovating the space into the youth arts and recreation centre.

“(HRM) were helpful in getting the paperwork and stuff together (and) they were instrumental in the project for us to get it back,” notes Jones-Wilson, adding that although the property has been vacant for nearly a decade, renovations are progressing. “The building structure itself is very good (because) a lot of the men in the community were in the cement trade so they put that building together quite well.”

However, with the expense of repurposing the building, the UHPCDA is hoping to attract corporate sponsors who might like to help the community with its vision of creating a safe space for youth since current options are limited by a lack of resources.

“We decided to go the route of having naming rights because we’re going to have four larger rooms where we are hoping (corporate sponsors) would like to have their names,” says Jones-Wilson, adding that she hopes corporate sponsorship will attract businesses in lieu of a tax receipt — which the UHPCDA is unable to process.

She adds that the goal is to open the 3,900 square foot Elizabeth Mantley Arts and Recreation Centre within three or four years.  The centre will provide arts and recreation programs, a games room as well as display local history for the youth in the area.

“We are looking at it not just for our community use — (because) we have four subdivisions within a five to ten minute drive on a bike,” adds Jones-Wilson, noting there is a lack of public transit in the area.  “So it’s not just our community centre and we’re just trying to help our youth and our community (to) bridge that gap.”  

For more information, visit the UHPCDA website.

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