The promotion that earned Ridgetown the distinction as the ‘Friendliest Town In Ontario’ is making a comeback.

The Ridgetown Business Improvement Association (BIA) is resurrecting the Tourist of the Week program, which drew national and international attention in its heyday, including Reader’s Digest magazine.

The Tourist of the Week started in 1968 when Ontario Provincial Police officers from the Ridgetown detachment would ‘pull over and arrest’ random drivers going through town with out-of-town identification stickers or out-of-province and American license plates. But instead of being hauled into the police station, the arrested parties would be escorted to a predetermined location where they were greeted by a welcoming committee and showered with gifts from several businesses in the ‘Friendliest Town In Ontario.’

A number of obstacles forced the Ridgetown Chamber of Commerce and town officials to suspend the promotion around 12 years ago. However, the Ridgetown BIA is bringing the Tourist of the Week out of hiatus.

At some point this week, a random vehicle or family visiting from out-of-town will discover they are indeed in the Friendliest Town in Ontario.

Instead of police stopping a vehicle, East Kent Councillor John Wright and BIA members will be walking down Main Street looking for candidates to be the ‘Tourist of the Week’.

“It could be someone stopping in at Pinnell’s for a coffee or someone driving through town,” said Jim Brown, BIA board member. “We’ll give them a ‘citizen’s citation’ that they’ve entered the friendliest Town in Ontario.”

“We’re going to give them a gift basket and take their picture to be put in an album,” Brown stated.

The promotion only takes place every other week this summer, intending to return to a weekly format next summer.

The late Doug Smith, the town’s recreation director, was instrumental in getting the Tourist of the Week program started in 1968, and later with the assistance and cooperation of Elsie Reynolds, the town’s event coordinator and Ridge House Museum curator, the Chamber of Commerce and the Ridgetown OPP.

The Tucker family, from London, were the inaugural ‘Tourist of the Week’ arrested visitors after OPP officer Tim Larkin pulled their vehicle over at the Main-Erie intersection. They received a police escort to OPP headquarters, where they were met by A.J. Sales, President of the Chamber of Commerce, Smith and other town officials. The Tuckers were presented with gifts and certificates from town merchants and received a summons which read:

“You have been duly charged with entering the Friendliest Town in Ontario, Canada … Ridgetown. You have pleaded guilty to this charge, and We, the Merchants, sentence you to sign our guest book, be photographed for our files, accept these gift certificates on behalf of the merchants, and be our guest as Ridgetown Tourist of the Week. We sincerely hope you enjoy your stay in our town. Have a safe journey and return again to ‘The Friendliest Town in Ontario’.”

Police continued to pull people over on a weekly basis – in a respectful manner so they wouldn’t be alarmed – for the rest of 1968 and for another 40-plus years.

Dozens of visitors from across Ontario and other provinces, as well as Michigan, Ohio and other states, were surprised to be arrested and showered with gifts and friendly smiles from town officials.

One American visitor was so impressed by the promotion and the friendly attention they received from the police and town officials they sent a letter to Reader’s Digest that led to the ‘Friendliest Town in Ontario’ mantra.

After amalgamation in 1998, things started to change as there were fewer Chatham-Kent Police officers in town than there had been OPP officers (Ridgetown hired the OPP to conduct police services before amalgamation, and a full detachment was located in the town; now, there is a small office space for the CKPS in the municipal building, but the office is not regularly manned). Furthermore, many CKPS officers were reluctant to participate in the promotion, and even the interested ones often got called away for duty just as town officials were prepared to conduct the promotion.

“It got to the point where we couldn’t do it when we wanted because there was no guarantee we would have an officer available,” Brown said.

The Chamber and merchants tried to keep the promotion going, but it eventually ceased around 2012.

But with a renewed interest sparked by the BIA, the ‘Tourist of the Week’ is back as committee members, merchants, and town officials are eager to earn back their ‘Friendliest Town In Ontario’ label.

By Michael Bennett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jul 10, 2023 at 13:19

This item reprinted with permission from   The Independent News   Ridgetown, Ontario
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