From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:
In 1938, the Lyons Girl in Red restaurant opened at 488 Queen Street East, run by Winfield (“Wince”) Lyons and his wife Lee. Wince was the son of the Honourable James Lyons, who was a well-known local politician, serving as Steelton mayor, Sault Ste. Marie alderman, MPP and provincial Minister of Lands and Forests, and Sault Ste. Marie mayor. James Lyons also ran many prominent local businesses, including Lyons Fuel Supply Company Limited, now known as Lyons Timber Mart.
In 1941, Wince and Lee Lyons moved just down the road to 629 Queen Street East, where the Girl in Red became a local food staple. With its distinctive sign featuring a girl in a dress, it was easy to spot.
According to its advertisements, the restaurant boasted “the world’s finest broasted chicken” in an environment “where good food and a congenial atmosphere prevail.” In 1955, they served T-bone steaks “with all the trimmings” for $1.85. Also amongst their draws were air conditioning, background music, and location “in the heart of the shopping district.”
In 1958, the Girl in Red made the news when it successfully applied for a liquor permit – the first in Sault Ste. Marie to do so. Staff began serving alcohol with meals the following year, after undergoing “extensive renovation of the restaurant to meet the required standards set by the [Liquor Licence Board].”
In a full-page ad in the Sault Daily Star, Wince and Lee Lyons expressed thanks to their customers during this time of change: “We wish to express our sincere appreciation to our friends for their kindness during the renovating period. We realize the disturbances, and interrupted service were very annoying at times, many thanks.”
In 1965, however, disaster struck. On the evening of January 14, 1965, the Girl in Red went up in flames and raged for hours, causing an estimated $350,000 in damage. Buildings had to be evacuated, including the Orpheum Theatre next door, and nearby offices and shops sustained some damage. However, the worst affected was by far the Girl in Red, which, according to the Sault Daily Star, was left a “frozen and empty shell.” The fire also claimed one life: Miss Mary Ann Pacey, a nurse who lived in an apartment above the restaurant.
Miss Pacey knew of the fire and was getting dressed and preparing to evacuate the building, other residents said. One off-duty police officer heard her coughing from outside, shouted for her, and tried to get inside the building, but was not able to because of the flames engulfing the building. Another resident said they heard her last words: “Please, somebody, call the fire department!” Miss Pacey’s body would be recovered the following day.
Other residents had narrow escapes and described collapsing after being taken to safety in the nearby Windsor Hotel. One found herself trapped and had to be rescued by the fire department.
It was a frigid night, with water from the fire hoses forming huge icicles over the building. The Salvation Army showed up with hot coffee to help warm the firefighters.
According to the Globe and Mail, the Girl in Red fire marked the third major blaze to occur on that day – which caused problems for water pressure as firefighters struggled to deal with two fires simultaneously. Ultimately, firefighters called off their efforts on a second fire at a Carpin Beach house, and it burned to the ground.
The Girl in Red fire was also the second major fire to take place in the building within recent memory: 39 years before, the building, which housed “Cliffe’s Book Store, the Joseph F. Bruder Harness Company, the Miron Café and upstairs apartments” was completely destroyed in fire. The ruined building remained empty until the Lyons family purchased it and started the Girl in Red – only to have a similar fate repeat itself.
Immediately following the blaze, Mr. & Mrs. Lyons were shocked and unsure of what to do next. While the future of the restaurant was unclear, they were committed to doing what they could to help their 25 staff find new jobs.
Ultimately, the building sat empty; the burned ruins caused some municipal controversy with officials worrying that it posed a safety hazard. The Lyons opened a new Girl in Red location a few years later, this time located on Trunk Road. In 1976, J. J. Hilsinger took over as owner, and then in 1980, the business was sold and remade as a Dairy Queen, which it remains to this day.
It marked the end of an era for a restaurant that saw prosperity and tragedy, involving one of Sault Ste. Marie’s prominent families.
Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.