Coming of First Settlers— Landmarks of Old Days—Leckie’s Corners and Bennie’s Corners – Once Rivals of Shipman’s Mills—Royal Carriage Tour to Almonte
Written for The Journal by Harry J. Walker
“I set out for the Ramsay Settlement to pick out 100 acres, but after six days hard labor travelling through swamps and untrodden paths through woods I had to return without land and now have to do the same thing over again”
Thus the scholarly Arthur Lang wrote in his diary on July 19, 1821. In addition to the difficulties of navigation through swamps and swales, he also complained about the rocks and boulders in Lanark and Dalhousie (he surely must have wandered off into the “barren lands” of Huntley). It would not have been surprising if he had abandoned his intentions to settle, but he didn’t. And eventually became Almonte’s first school teacher.
FOR this week’s historical sketch of Almonte and Ramsay we are indebted to Mrs. (Dr.) T. R. Paterson, of Almonte, who prepared a splendid paper on the pioneer story of her district for the North Lanark Women’s Institute. This paper was kindly loaned to us by Mrs. D. N. McLeod, president of the Historical Section of the Women’s Institutes of Eastern Ontario.
Beginnings of a Settlement
ACCORDING to Mrs. Paterson’s account, the date of the actual first settlement of the township is not within the knowledge of any of the old settlers, although Thomas and Robert Wilkie are credited with being the first to erect a human habitation there on the banks of the Mississippi. Four other men— Thomas Lowery, Archibald Muir, Edward McNamee and Andrew Rae— settled there about the same time, making a little community of six families. It is thought that these settlers must have located there previous to 1819. They were apparently the only settlers in Ramsay until 1821 when the township received an accession to its population from several shiploads of Scotch immigrants, chiefly Highlanders or Paisley weavers. Among these arrivals were William Hamilton, Robert McFarlane, John Smith, Arthur Lang and Alexander and Robert Duncan. Others who made the journey into the hinterland, via log rafts on the Mississippi, were john Downey, John Steele, Thomas and James Craig, William Moir, John Neilson, John Black and William Hart.
THE late Hon. Andrew Haydon in his story of this settlement tells of the arrival of a young Scott, David Sheppard, in 1819. He constructed a saw-mill which was destroyed by fire. A “Yankee from Brockville” by the name of Boyce bought out Sheppard. A strapping lad, Daniel Shipman, married Boyce’s daughter, Prudence, and became the leading citizen of the hamlet by virtue of his mills. By 1822 the Ramsay colony was showing signs of permanency. Three other stalwarts—James Metcalfe, Robert Mansell and John Gemmill—had taken up location.
Naming of Almonte.
ALMONTE was the centre of population in the new township. Its early names were successively: Sheppard’s Falls, Shipman’s Mills, Waterford, Ramsayville. For a time, too, it was called Victoria-ville, due to an enterprising villager, Mitcheson, who purchased 50 acres of land on the east side of the river, built another grist mill, arranged his property in lots, and tacked to it the name of Victoria. It was not until 1870 when Almonte became incorporated a police village with its present name. In that year a meeting was held to give the place a permanent name, and the villagers decided on Waterloo, but this was rejected by the post office authorities because there already was a Waterloo in Lower Canada. It would be interesting to know the historical significance of the name Almonte.
THERE are few of the old landmarks left in the town and township. Daniel Shipman’s cabin is said to have been located on the spot where the Almonte post office now stands. In 1835, he built a large store house on the corner of Mill and Bridge streets, which later became the Almonte Hotel. The first store in the community was established by John Gemmill soon after Shipman built his mills. Nancy Duggan was the first milliner in the village, her shop being in the vicinity of the present Trinity United Church.
DEALING with church history, Mrs. Paterson’s data goes back to the days of Rev. William Bell, the great grandfather of the late Major J. MacKintosh Bell, who is referred to as the father of Presbyterianism in the settlement. There was the Church of Scotland, called the “Auld Kirk,” which is still standing, and a little to the south the Free Church, while the third, a couple of miles north, near the old Baird homestead, was known as the Reformed Presbyterian or Camerion-ian (sic) church. This was perhaps the oldest church in the township.
MRS. PATERSON tells of another settlement on the Eighth Line of Ramsay, named Lackie’s Corners called after a man named Lackie, who owned the general store. This store had a dressmaking and millinery department in charge of two sisters, Margaret and Elizabeth Waddell. Another prominent building was the tannery. Leather was tanned for harness, boots and shoes, and a Mr. Drury was the harness maker. The village tailor was Robert Yuill.
IF our recollection of Ramsay is correct, Bennie’s Corners also was a once prominent little community. To that wilderness of the Indian river came the Toshacks, the Bairds and others by batteaux and canoe. Baird’s Mill is one of the few remaining landmarks of colonial times, and today it is the Summer-studio residence of two distinguished Canadians—Dr. and Mrs. R. Tait McKenzie. Bennie’s Corners basked in glory for a few fleeting minutes in 1860 when the late King Edward (then the Prince of Wales) drove by with his carriage and escort of out-riders en route to Almonte. One of the few of that great throng alive today who witnessed the arrival of the Royal party in Almonte is Mr. S. Moffatt, the town of Renfrew’s grand old man. Mr. Moffatt as a boy remembers quite clearly the dust covered carriage drawing up beside the waiting train (Almonte was then the end of steel) to proceed to Brockville. And that historic Royal carriage, especially made for that tour, is now the property of the Ottawa Women’s Historical Society.
MRS. PATERSON, in her sketch, refers to the social and economic conditions of the pioneer period. Life was hard. Before the advent of grist mills, the settlers had to carry bags of grist and flour many miles through bush trails. She relates how Mr. James Paterson, grandfather of George Paterson, and Dr. T. r. Paterson, one of the earliest tailors in Ramsay, had to trudge to Brockville for thread, and at one time was said to have had to use the bark of a moosewood tree as a substitute. The bark of this tree was also used for bag strings.
IN concluding her paper, Mrs. Paterson refers to the previous history of the present Union Hall in Almonte, which was a meeting place and a community centre of other days. It was in this building that a singing school was conducted by Mr. Doherty, and it was used, too, by the Sons of Temperance.
MRS. PATERSON credits the assistance received in the preparation of the paper from Mrs. Stevenson, Mrs. Robert Philips and Mrs. J. Bennet, grand-daughter of Arthur Lang, and an honorary member of the Institute in Almonte.