The glass in the tower was broken, the bell didn’t work, and the attic smelled from the dead pigeons and their droppings that had accumulated over the years. But Tony Hale’s eyes danced as he talked about it.
“The attic is great without even doing anything with it,” he said.
Tony, a designer and creator, is working closely with Michael and Sue Hendrick who bought the old Harriston post office in 2015. The building had been empty since the post office moved out more than 20 years ago. The boiler was broken, some of the ceilings were falling down, and the paint was peeling off the walls but the building was structurally sound. Michael, who was teaching high school locally after years of teaching in Nunavut, was looking for an adventure to begin transitioning out of teaching. After buying the building, Michael took a semester off to renovate the main two floors to rent to local businesses as office space with plans to return to teaching the following semester. He didn’t have any plans for the less used space in the attic and the basement.
Tony, on the other hand, was dreaming about what could be done with the attic. Prior to being a pigeon habitat, the attic was only used when the postmaster or his children needed to cross over the rafters to go up a rickety ladder to set the weights so that the clock in the clocktower would continue to tick. Everything in the attic was dirty and broken, but it was original. One day at a birthday party in 2016, Michael and Tony were discussing The Old Post as they often did when the idea of an escape room struck. And stuck. The adventure had found Michael. He quit teaching and helped Tony transform the attic into The Postmaster’s Riddle escape room.
Knowing they would need to attract more than the local crowd for it to be sustainable, they incorporated the features and history of the building into the escape room. They fixed the bell and the clock tower so that when a group solves the postmaster’s the riddle they announce their success to the town by ringing the bell then get their picture taken in the clocktower.
“If you’re going to drive from Toronto to a town no one has ever heard about, we need it to be worth their while,” Tony said. “We need everything to be over the top.”
It also needed a story. During the renovation, the historical society and others brought stories, photos, and newspaper articles of the post office’s history. One character that resonated was Alexander McCready, Harriston’s first postmaster who unfortunately died before the building was erected in 1912. He has become present everywhere at The Old Post from the escape room to the figure of him above the stairs inside the front door welcoming everyone.
Alexander’s name became attached to a new enterprise this summer. Sandwiches. When the escape room closed due to the pandemic, Michael and Tony shifted their focus to creating The Old Post Café including sandwiches named The Alexander and Clocktower. The café is part of their vision to once again create a community hub at the old post office, a place where people naturally meet in the centre of town. The vision connects with the Town of Minto’s vision to create a thriving downtown that will attract people moving to the area.
“We’ve been building up this environment to have a lot of benefits of the city without living there,” said Belinda Wick-Graham, economic development manager for the Town of Minto. “We have a lot of amenities here for a small town.”
Over the years, locals encouraged the town to buy the old post office, but the town couldn’t afford to take on another building. Instead, in 2015 they created a structural grant program to help business owners fix up the old buildings downtown to create more useable office space and a more attractive downtown. Michael and Sue received the first, and to date the largest, grant of almost $40,000 to renovate The Old Post. It was the first of a number of grants available to business owners that they received from the Town of Minto and the County of Wellington to improve the façade, the structure, and most recently, build the patio.
“Once things open up, The Old Post will be crazy busy, then that will spin off for the rest of the town,” Belinda said. “Instead of a vacant building it now hosts businesses and draws people into the downtown. The increased assessment value also increases taxes generated, so we’ll get this money back. The benefit far outweighs the cost.”
The cost of restoring or maintaining historic buildings is a major challenge for owners. For Michael and Sue, the costs have been a progression as they complete projects. Initially they liquidated much of their savings to buy the building. By the time they were ready to buy, the grant from the town had been approved and the future tenants were committed. After they completed the renovations and settled into their role as landlords, they built the escape room. When the escape room was closed due to COVID-19, they opened the café. Michael expects the café to pay it forward to the next endeavor, which will be another escape room in the basement. Throughout the restoration project, people have also donated money and time to support the downtown hub.
“We’ve been incremental in our moves forward and have been very step wise,” Michael said. “Those things have helped us move forward financially. The idea is to hang on and keep the vision even though financially people say, ‘what are you doing?’”
His vision reaches to 2023 when he would like to see a full patio serving beer, in-house sandwiches, and baked treats to the community and those waiting for their turn in the escape room. He sees the group just finishing the escape room celebrating in the community space in the basement, the Post Script, with food they ordered from the café while looking across the hall to the new escape room in the basement and planning their next trip. All the while, he pictures the escape rooms being in use and tenants and community members stopping by the café for coffee.
Beyond 2023, Tony suggested there could be live music events and outdoor treasure hunts.
“We are all about getting special things to do,” he said. “Just because we’re finished doesn’t mean we’re not going to be doing anything.”