The whole Opeongo settlement project was all wrong. There was no farmland here, just rock. It’s really tragic,” declares 75-year-old Hank Legris, whose grandparents were part of the settlement. It was advertised as the land of promise, and Europeans endured unimaginable hardships to arrive at the land of rock, part of the Laurentian Shield. “In many cases it was worse than what they left behind,” says Legris. “It was rough, hard, hard work.”
But settle they did, opening up the countryside along the meandering 80-kilometre road, across 14 townships from the Ottawa River at Farrell’s Landing, through the town of Renfrew, pass Fergus Lea, along Hwy. 132 and up to Wolf Lake near Kazuby. Legris pauses to reflect in the soft, late October daylight, “They were adventurous souls, the settlers of the Opeongo,” says Legris, rolling out “Ah-Pee-On-Go” in typical valley fashion. To honor their spirit, Legris has arranged to erect a monument in his native Dacre, 25 km southwest of Renfrew, on part of his grandfather’s original property donated by local residents Thomas and Lorna Rupert. Heritage Renfrew, the Ministry of Culture and Communications and four area townships contributed $2,000 for the project.
On Thursday, Heritage Renfrew is host to a bus tour along the Opeongo (leaving the Renfrew bus station at 12:30), culminating in the unveiling of the monument at 3:30 by Legris and Hank Legris: Rocky road 88-year-old Allan Davidson, whose family was the first to “come up the blaze.” The Ottawa and Opeongo Line was originally conceived of during the War of 1812 as a route to Georgian Bay in case routes through Lakes Ontario and Erie were cut off. The road was blazed, or marked, by Dan Mac-Cauley around 1850.
Valley legend has it that the road is crooked because of MacCauley’s fondness for brew. In the end the road wound up being one of the principal colonization roads and a major supply route from the Ottawa River into the shanty towns during the logging heyday of giant white pines and legendary tales. When the Parry Sound to Ottawa railroad was completed in 1893, the Opeongo was used less and less. But Legris’s grandparents moved to Dacre from Calabogie Lake in 1874. In those days the bustling community of Dacre had a population of several hundred and four hotels. “You had to have a drink every few hundred feet because the road was so rough,” says Legris, his eyes twinkling. Legris was the last of his clan to live in Dacre, eventually leaving in 1980 after a career as timber limit agent for the legendary Renfrew millionaire M. J. O’Brien, and with the Ministry of Natural Resources. Legris still has 250 acres of his grandfather’s farm and a lifetime of memories in the area. He drives leisurely along the line, pointing out where gypsies once camped out, where the famous unresolved Sampson (in valleyese “Saw-Saw”) murder took place, where buildings used to stand, where the K&P (Kingston to Pembroke or Kick and Push) railroad bed crosses.
He knows the Opeongo, the springs, the side-trails, the 152 log buildings and a zillion tales about wayward wives, drunken fights and mouching relatives. “They’d come for a stay with $10 and one shirt and never change either all summer,” says Legris. Despite the hardships of growing up in the area, the gruelling winters of salt pork and potatoes, the six brothers and sisters who died, the three-hour wagon ride to Renfrew, and the back-breaking farm work, Legris treasures his memories. “A lot of descendants of original settlers still live here. They have that sentimental feeling you just don’t find that often these days,” says Legris. Perched on top of Legris’ monument is a 19th-century bell, used at a farm supply centre to call the lumberjacks home. Today, Legris is using it to call the memories home.
CLIPPED FROMThe Ottawa CitizenOttawa, Ontario, Canada25 Oct 1989, Wed • Page 3
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