September 15, 2010

Erin pioneers forged a strong community

As published in The Erin Advocate

After recently taking a picture of the date stone on the old Hillsburg town hall (now Morette's) I was poking around to find out when the "h" was added to the village name.

An article on the town website says it was about the time the police village was incorporated, 1899. The final "h" can be seen in the 1877 Wellington Atlas, but not in the 1906 Atlas, a 1907 insurance map or the 1911 census. C.J. McMillan, in his Early History of Erin Township in 1921, also uses no "h". I am told the "h" was added to make it sound less German. Perhaps the spelling is optional – some people still omit the "h". If anyone can shed more light on this, I would be most interested.

My main purpose today is to recommend the McMillan book, reprinted in 1974 by Boston Mills Press with an assortment of early photos, and available at local libraries. It is fascinating not so much for the historical facts, not all of which are accurate, but for the colourful portrait of Erin's pioneer society that had been passed on to the author through diaries and "tales told by the early settlers of their trials".

Writing 100 years after the first settler arrived, McMillan boasted that Erin Township had never had a crop failure. He was also impressed by the modern technology of his own era, "with news flashed across the continents in a minute of time."

Charles Kennedy, an early township surveyor, was offered a tract of land on the Ninth Line (part of the current Erin village) as payment for his work. McMillan said Kennedy, "not being favourably impressed with the wilderness, refused to have anything to do with Erin. He reported the land as of little value. His report made it easier for grandfather to get all the land he wanted at his own price and terms."

His grandfather was Donald McMillan, who made a 14-week voyage with his family from Argyleshire, Scotland in 1819. After renting a poor farm near Stoney Creek, he met a soldier who had been granted 100 acres in Erin Township. The man wanted $25 for it, but Donald dickered it down to $20. He acquired more land nearby, which now includes the Erin Pioneer Cemetery, just north of Erin village. "As his wife was the first white woman in that section, the Crown made her a gift of lot 18, concession 9."

The family of the first settler, Nathaniel Rozell, is described as "hard-working, frugal and friendly". They were granted land after serving in the War of 1812 and settled in 1820 at what would become Ballinafad.

"More settlers came and everyone was received with joy...All in the township were considered neighbors, and they would go a long way to put themselves to any inconvenience to help one another. They brought very little money, but they brought good health, strength and determination, which is the best asset after all.

"There were very few spongers and no loafers in those days...Whenever there was a logging bee or raising it was not necessary to give an invitation to all, just mention the fact, it soon got to the farthest away settler, and all would be on hand early. Whiskey was cheap and easily obtained and it was considered a necessity at all such gatherings." A two-gallon jug of "Cornick's" best could be filled for 25 cents.

"To consult a doctor was considered the shortest cut 'across the river'. If one was unfortunate enough to get a deep gash with an axe the neighbor with the best nerve was called to sew the wound with a common sewing machine needle, without administering anesthetic." When Matthew Smith bought the first buggy in the township and "rode in state to church," some jealous folk demanded he be disciplined for "showing an example of extravagance".

Of course, there were bilingualism issues: "As the township was settled by Scotch, and very Scotch at that, Gaelic was the universal tongue and later in court sittings one who was pretty well up in English and Gaelic, was sworn in as 'Court interpreter'. Laughlin McLean, being pretty free with the tongue, often acted as interpreter, giving general satisfaction."

Henry Trout had settled on the Ninth Line in 1821. C.J. McMillan does not mention that Trout built the first dam and mill in Erin village in 1826, at Charles Street, nor that it was bought by Donald McMillan's son Daniel, the entrepreneur responsible for the growth of MacMillan's Mills – later known as Erinsville, then Erin Village.

C.J.'s account says Daniel and his brothers Hugh and Charles, made the "first break in the wilderness where that beautiful village of Erin is located," by clearing three acres in 1832. He describes a mill-raising bee: "All the men available were on the ground to assist, accompanied by a dozen or more women, who volunteered to come to feed the men after their strenuous task. The men were hungry, the food prepared was excellent, but when all were satisfied, there was none left for the women, who had so generously supplied the food, and the most of them had come a long way on foot."