Sounds of summers past in Port Dover

By Bobbi Ann Brady MPP

Summertime and music in Haldimand-Norfolk go hand in hand, and toe to toe on the dance floor I might add. There’s a long tradition of music festivals or at least music being played at gatherings.

Currently on tap we’ve got Hagersville Rocks with their exciting line-up featuring the likes of Colin James, Jess Mossaluke, Big Sugar, and Daniel Lanois. And over at the Norfolk Ram Rodeo, there will be music throughout including The River Town Saints, Eric Ethridge, and Coty Robinson. Simcoe Heritage Friendship Festival will give local talent a chance to take the stage on the August long weekend.

But back to the past…summer evokes fond memories for many people. And for those who were music fans from the 1920s to the late 70s, summer has a musical namesake, the Summer Garden in Port Dover.

Summer Garden was synonymous with music, dancing, and fun. I’m sure for many readers, it evokes thoughts of old friends, flames and figuring out the latest dance steps. Beyond those wonderful recollections, the Summer Garden itself has an interesting history.

The original Summer Garden was built in 1921 by Ben Ivey. The namesake came from his mother. Its first incarnation was like a pier, built out from shore over the water on wooden support beams. The only problem was Lake Erie decided to smash it to pieces during a winter 1929 storm. 

Not to let Lake Erie and winter have their way, Ben Ivey had it quickly rebuilt in time for summer 1929. 

Summer Garden was happily rolling along for three years until it burnt down in 1932. 

Undeterred, Ben Ivey built the third and final Summer Garden, which opened on May 24, 1932. In 1936, his son Don took over the establishment.

A highlight of the Summer Garden schedule during that era was the Dance of the Roses, whereby Don would decorate the place with roses and feature top-billed big bands to get everyone tripping the light fantastic.

The advent of rock‘n’roll and its countless spinoffs didn’t dampen the Summer Garden’s draw.

The original wild man of rock’n’roll, Jerry Lee Lewis, pounded the ivories in 1961. Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks frequented the place in1964. Rush brought their blend of progressive and hard rock to shake the foundations in the mid-70s. And speaking of Ronnie Hawkins, in 1960 at the Summer Garden, he asked Norfolk County’s 17-year old Rick Danko to play bass for The Hawks. After Ronnie secured permission from Rick’s parents by assuring them that he would “take care of him,” Rick was able to commence the next stage of his career that would lead him from being one of Ronnie’s Hawks, to one of Levon’s Hawks, a part of Levon’s sextet, one of the Canadian Squires, bass player backing Bob Dylan, and ultimately a key member of The Band. 

Anyone passing through Blayney will see the Rick Danko sign as they enter town.

Alas, despite the storied history, the Summer Garden’s long run completely ended in 1979. Some misguided individual burnt it down. Families can now enjoy a picnic area and the view of the beach. If fortunate, they may hear a first-hand account from someone who enjoyed the dance hall.

Bobbi Ann Brady is the MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk