January 07, 2009

Historical atlases sketch progress of Erin pioneers

As published in The Erin Advocate

Back in high school, I cared little for history. We were told that those who forget their past are destined to repeat it. I did not believe the race could improve itself by studying the past. Technology may advance and wealth may grow, but human nature remains the same.

Over the years, however, I have developed a fascination for some of the details of history, perhaps because they give our current reality a little twist. How would we have managed in an environment so different from the present?

In the Erin library last week, I noticed on display the Historical Atlas of the County of Wellington, published in 1906, and a similar one from 1877. I was hooked for an hour.

In its brief historical sketch, the 1906 atlas reminds us that Wellington was once part of Quebec, in the 18th century. Under English rule in the early 19th century, immigrants from the British Isles began pushing out into areas like Erin.

The township was surveyed in 1819 and the first European settlers, George and Nathaniel Roszel, arrived in 1820. By 1924, there would be 29 households and a population of 116, according to census data.

William How and his brother arrived in 1821. He later told the Mercury newspaper that they had to cut 10 miles of road at their own expense and labour, to access their property at lots 22-23 in the 7th concession. His wife was six months in the woods without seeing another woman.

Henry Trout arrived in 1822 and Daniel McMillan in 1824, both of whom would build mills on the West Credit River. The first township meeting was held at the house of Abraham Buck in 1824, with Henry Trout, Sr. appointed Clerk.

By 1830, there were 75 households and 1,154 acres of land cultivated. The town of Guelph was the county capital, but there was no road to Guelph until 1844. And if you think modern rural roads are poor, consider that the road to Guelph was not graveled until 23 years later.

Smith’s History of Canada described the road as “villainous” in 1851: “After crossing the seventh line in Erin, the road, which is new, becomes very bad, consisting of almost impassible hills, and long pieces of corduroy crossing several cedar swamps varying in size and two or three extensive tamarack swamps.”

Corduroy is the ancient technique of laying logs together across a roadway to provide a stable, yet bumpy base for vehicles in mushy terrain.

The Smith’s account notes that some of the homesteads are “enlivened with flower gardens, which give them a cheerful and pleasant appearance, particularly in so rough a country.”

The 1877 atlas lists J.W. Burt and Charles McMillan as the Erin representatives on Wellington Council. By then there were 915 families in the township, with a population of 5,326 -– 24 percent born in the British Isles and almost all the rest in Canada. There was one American and 18 people from other nations. At that time, Erin land was assessed for taxes at $20 per acre.

The 1906 atlas notes that Hillsburgh (linked to Erin village by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1879) had three churches, two hotels, a flour mill and a tannery. “It is surrounded by a fine farming country and is an important shipping point. It has always been famous as a resort for trout fishermen, and near the place are the hatcheries of the Caledon Mountain Trout Club.”

Both books have fascinating maps, especially for anyone with ancestors in Wellington. Every farm is inscribed with the family name. I see that my own property was part of a larger tract owned by the Hannah family, and that the McLean farm just to the north at Ninth Line and 5 Sideroad was owned by a D. McLean in 1877.

The earlier book has no map of Erin Village, since it was not incorporated at the time, but there is a 1906 map at a scale of 1 inch = 10 chains. (A surveyor’s chain is 66 feet, and 10 square chains is one acre.)

Along with every housing lot (all within two blocks of Main Street), the map shows interesting details like the Erin Grist Mill raceway and a Village Park behind Main Street properties, between the Agricultural Society lands and Centre Street.
Woolen Mill Lane was called Factory Lane (off Mill Street) and Wheelock Street ran from Church to what is now Dundas, through the grounds of the current elementary school.