In the earliest pioneer days of southern Ontario towns, one of the first buildings to be erected was a tavern.
Travellers needed a place to rest, and visitors needed shelter. Taverns also served as meeting places before the construction of town halls.
Sarnia was no different. In 1833, when George Durand arrived from the Dundas area to open Sarnia’s first store, there were five shanty log cabins and a tavern in the little settlement that was then known as The Rapids.
Lewis Gallineau had been an early squatter on the Front Street site of the first inn. In 1835, he sold the quarter acre site to the innkeeper Oliver Allen for 56 pounds, 5 shillings.
Allen hired a sign painter to fashion an “INN” sign for his two-storey log tavern. The story, told often by Sarnia historian Charlotte Vidal Nisbet, is that the individual Allen hired was illiterate, and he hung the sign upside down. Rather than correct the error, Allen allowed the sign to remain as it was, and Oliver’s tavern became known far and wide as the “Double N-I.”
And it was a lively party place.
A letter to the editor in an 1857 issue of the Sarnia Observer describes life in the Port Sarnia of 1837. It reads in part, “Where Adam’s Hotel now stands, Oliver Allen kept a log tavern, known far and near as the Double N-I. Then tavern was headquarters of the favourite resort of the Lake Shore gentry.”
The founder of Maxwell, the settlement that would ultimately become Bright’s Grove, kept a diary. It contains numerous references to overnight stays at the Double N-I and to the raucous good times that took place there.
‘The bar, kitchen and dining room,” the diary reads, “were in the same apartment. The beds were upstairs, ranged on each side without any partition between. The villagers used to assemble here in the evening and dance, sing and drink until it was pretty late – all classes mingling together and always parting in friendship.”
On Dec. 14, 1866, a speech by F.F. Davis was reported in the Sarnia Observer. “I came here, gentlemen, when Sarnia was a bush,” he said. “Since the Double N-I was the only shelter that could be found for man or beast, an old dilapidated tavern, that bore upon its sign this curious mode of indication of its character.”
On August 18, 1838, Oliver Allen sold the Double N-I to Sam Hitchcock, patriarch of a famous Sarnia and Point Edward family. Hitchcock renamed it the Exchange Hotel.
It would later become the site of Sarnia’s famous Belchamber Hotel on Front Street, making it Sarnia’s oldest continuous party location.