Ernest and Dennis Duce
The history of the Sherwood Restaurant as built by Ernest Duce.
Tim Ford, November 30, 2022 // Brantford, OntarioA vintage image of the original Sherwood Motel. Stock photo.
If you’re driving east down the fading end of Colborne Street, you’ll be quick to notice a batch of innocuous motels clinging to the sides of the road. In what seems like a disproportionate amount on such a small stretch of road, the tradition of building affordable but personable lodging in that spot of our city dates to the early 1950s, when the Beauview Motel (now The Galaxy Motel) was built at 950 Colborne St. E. Its immediate success was attributed to it being positioned on Highway 53, which was the main thoroughfare through Ontario and beyond in a pre-400 series era. Having the advantage of location, location, location, it was also plotted at the very edge of the city line, making it the first glowing vacancy sign visitors saw as they made their way into town from Hamilton.
Soon, other would-be proprietors saw an opportunity and decided to try their hand at the “motelier” business as well. Each inn that sprouted up tried to find their own unique approach and offered distinct amenities to vie for the attention of the tired travellers passing by. In 1951, The Gage Motel (now the Four-Star Motel) was built down the road at 568 Colborne St. E. and boasted of their proximity to downtown. The Bell City Motel was built just across from The Galaxy at 901 Colborne St. E. in 1953 and adorned a small eatery for its patrons. In 1955, The Mohawk Motel was erected at 769 Colborne St. E. and declared itself to have the best view for the best price, as it was beside historic Echo Villa.
A look inside Sherwood. Stock photo.
Then, in 1959, the echoes of hammers were heard popping through the traffic at the site of 797 Colborne St. E., just down from the Mohawk Motel. In a soon to be familiar sight, local resident, Ernest Duce, was thwacking nails into meticulously measured boards on the corner of Locks Road and Colborne Street. He followed the blueprints that he drew up himself and began to build the framework of what would become the grandest inn on the strip. Weather permitting, throughout 1960, Ernest was out at the edge of the road, fighting through blisters and throbbing muscles to build his vision. He would add onto his own labour with the plan to adjoin a restaurant to the motel.
Perhaps in a bout of one-upmanship, Duce’s diner would have a larger number of seating and a more extensive menu than Bell City’s. Once Ernest finished erecting the exterior of the building, his focus was drawn indoors. To set himself apart from his very nearby competition, Earnest felt a theme was needed for his restaurant. He chose a concept taken from his childhood love of Robin Hood and angled his motif around the beloved tale. Christening it as “The Sherwood Inn Restaurant,” the menu focused on Robin Hood-y puns and wordplay, coupled with meals and recipes vaguely from that period. Duce even brought a charcoal broiler into the kitchen to cook the steak and ribs, giving it that traditional campfire smoke. Over the walls that he raised himself, Ernest painted giant murals during the dimmed evening hours, after darkness forced his construction to cease. He would depict stunning landscapes inspired by his memories of visits to England and Canada’s east coast, using them as centrepieces for his restaurant.
A painting by Ernest Duce found in Sherwood. Stock photo.
On the frigid morning of February 4th, 1961, not even two years after the first thwack of the hammer, Ernest Duce and his two partners, Peter Lucek and Paul Kuchma, opened The Sherwood to rapturous acclaim. People driving into the city via Colborne witnessed line ups out the door and anyone phoning in for reservations would be met with the piercing blank throb of the busy signal. Wafts of turkey and fried potatoes bellowed from the kitchen, filling the Echo Place air. The waitresses zipped through customers with hot pots of coffee, and kept the mugs bottomless, while every few minutes exclaiming “two more Friar Tucks, hun” to the line chef in the background.
The Sherwood’s reputation only grew with every cracked egg and puffed pillow. The success was so great, Duce had to clip on his work belt several times throughout the decade to renovate and expand the eatery. Ernest remained a community fixture, building two other motels on Colborne Street East, which brought the number up to a brimming seven motels within a three-minute drive. In 1979, The Sherwood officially became a family affair when Ernest’s son, Dennis, took over the business, shaping and reimagining it to the iconic diner known today. Keeping with tradition, Dennis, with help from his father, personally built an addition onto the dining room seating 70 more people.
During the 1970s and 80s, the Echo Place area had its own vital commercial strip at the mouth of Brantford with The Sherwood beaming as its brightest star. Then, in the mid-90s, a pivot made by the city would be felt in every shop down Colborne Street East. Highway 403 was constructed parallel to Highway 53 a few blocks north, taking the commuters and crowds with it. Colborne Street ceased being used as the entryway into Brantford and it devastated businesses in the east end. The tides of traffic were no longer in their favour, which meant fewer people passed through their little edge of town. The strip between Murray Street and Johnson Road has been forced to adapt and reconfigure many times since Ernest Duce first clipped on his work belt and began to thwack nails into boards on the corner of Locks and Colborne. Of the few proprietorships that survived the great traffic migration north were the seven Brantford motels, all of whom are still in operation to this day.
The Sherwood persevered because they established themselves as a destination early on. Through their reputation, creativity, and years of gruelling labour, they have become a vital reason why people still regularly travel into Echo Place. They were even immortalized as the backdrop in the finale of the beloved TV series Schitt’s Creek in 2020. In an ever-changing city scape, it’s hard to tell what the Colborne Street East strip will develop into down the road. One thing is for sure The Sherwood has survived the test of time and Brantford’s city planning. The Duce family and their band of merry men and women have been on the corner of Locks Road for over 60 years. Here’s to another 60 years of comforting meals with loved ones, and warm cups of bottomless coffee.
Please refer to the back of The Sherwood menus on your next visit for more info.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Ford is freelance hobbyist who lives in his twelfth home in Brantford, Ontario…so…yeah, he knows a thing or two about aluminum siding.