Lambton Heritage Museum
Grand Bend, Ontario

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Grand Bend - Our Stories, Our Voice
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LAKE SMITH (from Our First Fifteen Years by John Russell & Peter Stanojevic, 2007 and from www.lakesmithmarsh.ca)

After the last ice age Lake Huron had a shore-line two to ten miles inland from its present position. The eventual build-up of a substantial series of dunes between the lake and the interior prevented the Ausable River from finding an easy outlet to the lake. The river meandered. Because of the barely perceivable ridge on the east side -- the former Lake Huron shore-line -- and the dunes of the present lake on the west side, the area between them assumed a convex shape. These low-lying lands developed over time into a large marsh -- the Thedford Swamp or Bog, approximately 17, 375 acres, featuring three small lakes which changed their shape and size depending on the availability of water. These three lakes were named Burwell, George and Smith, named for the surveyors of the lands. This area was part of the Huron Tract.

In 1826 the Canada Company, a British land development company, purchased the Huron Tract from the Crown. The Ausable River, in its meandering north to the "grand bend" at present day Grand Bend, flooded annually, sometimes in the spring and sometimes in the fall. The Canada Company tried to sell off these lands flooded by the river but was unsuccessful; hence, Bosanquet Township was not a money maker for the Company.

In an attempt to improve the land for farming and development and thereby attracting settlers, in 1873 the Canada Company decided to provide a short-cut for the Ausable River by digging a "cut" or "canal" through the sand dunes to Port Franks and Lake Huron. This meant the Ausable no longer flowed north to Grand Bend but directly west to Port Franks. In this fashion the seasonal flooding was abated and Lakes George and Burwell were drained. The way was now clear for intensive agriculture. Finally buyers were being attracted to these previously difficult-to-sell lands. Eventually "the cut" or "canal" became known as the Ausable River Cut.

Of the three lakes only Lake Smith was left, because it had no outlet to Lake Huron. Lake Smith had a total area of about 1 000 acres: 314 acres of open water and 678 acres of floating bog. Most of the open water was on the east side of the lake. As the only inland lake in a very large area, Lake Smith was an important staging area of the Great Lakes bird migration flyway. It also provided excellent cover and food for large numbers of wildfowl.

Despite the financially challenged times of the 1930s, two very well-known and wealthy doctors from Preston (now Cambridge) were quite interested in this area. In 1937, Drs. Gordon Hagmeier and Edwin Hagmeier bought the tract of land comprised of Lake Smith and the surrounding wetland. In time, the 7500 acre "Haig Farm" became Canada's largest cultivated farm.

Dr. Gordon Hagmeier liked this area very much and consequently invited his friends to join him in hunting on the land and on his lake. Even a float plane was used to ferry his guests to the Haig Farm. The "Doc" treated this entire property as his private hunting preserve, ignoring Ontario's game and hunt regulations. He also ignored the Ontario Drainage Act. Hauled into court, he shunned legal representation and decided to speak to the judge directly after the crown attorney and opposing lawyer made a very strong case against him. Dr. Hagmeier produced his original deed of transfer from the Canada Company and presented it to the judge. After a detailed examination of the document, the judge dismissed all charges against the "Doc."

The Department of Lands and Forests wanted put an end to his practice of using Lake Smith as a private year-round hunting preserve. Eventually a stake-out by local authorities caught the "Doc" red-handed, in violation of Ontario's hunting regulations. Dr. Gordon Hagmeier was charged, taken to court, found guilty and fined. The defendant was told by the judge, "You can't hunt on it!" Reputedly Dr. Hagmeier, on leaving the court, was heard to say, "Nor will anyone else!" Thus was born his determination to drain Lake Smith. He did so in 1955, creating productive farmland for the growing of vegetables.

Another version of the story attributes the "Doc"'s eagerness to eliminate the wetlands to the fact that the municipality forced him to pay the same property taxes on the marshlands as it charged on the cultivated fields.

The lands in the former Lake Smith are drained by a series of diked drains which are kept at appropriate levels by large pumps. Control gates and large holding ponds on area farms help with irrigation needs in the summer.

The pumps are not running during the annual spring waterfowl migration. This flooding of the land causes a temporary re-appearance of Lake Smith. For a brief period the waters once again teem with wildlife. This sudden gathering of thousands of tundra swans, Canada geese and all sorts of ducks in March give but a brief glimpse of what was once in and around Lake Smith. The subsequent winter-spring flooding helps control crop pests, including nematodes, which are detrimental to potatoes. It is easier and ecologically sounder to use water than to employ chemicals and fumigation to achieve the same end.

In 1992 the Lake Smith Conservationist (LSC) organization was formed. Members took the name of the former lake because they remembered the lake from their youth. On this lake, they had hunted waterfowl and had trapped muskrat. In the forest and on the lake's borders they hunted deer, fox and racoon. Their fathers and grandfathers were the first to clear and farm the lands drained by the Canada Company and Dr. Hagmeier. A mosaic of Irish, Scottish, English, French, Polish , Belgian and Dutch Canadians dug their roots deep into these lands and made the Thedford-Grand Bend Marsh one of the more productive vegetable producing areas in Ontario.

The first challenge tackled by the LSC was The Pinery deer problem. The Ministry of Transportation of Ontario (MTO) and Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) had records showing a steady increase in car/deer accidents in the Highway 21 corridor past The Pinery Provincial Park to Grand Bend between 1986 and 1990. The population of the deer in The Pinery Park had doubled between 1985 and 1986 and the accidents had increased proportionally. Damage to farmers' crops had also increased proportionally.

OPP warnings in the media about the dangers, MTO's "danger deer crossing" signs in the corridor and Swareflex reflectors on posts along a 6 kilometre stretch of Highway 21 hoping to deter deer crossing the highway did not work.

Supporters of the LSC proposed to have a volunteer controlled hunt in The Pinery Provincial Park with the LSC supplying all labour necessary, at no cost to the government, and that the meat be prepared on site, inspected and shipped to food banks. Support came from the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (OFVGA), the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), Lambton Mutual Insurance, other insurers and adjusters, the Port Franks Community Policing Committee, Bluewater Recycling Association and 450 individuals. Letters of support detailing damage to crops were received from most of the vegetable growers.

In time, a controlled deer hunt was established, under Ministry of Natural Resources guidelines. Each year the count of deer taken in the hunt and killed on the road has decreased. The hunt has become an annual maintenance program that runs safely and successfully with an average harvest of 30 plus deer.

The Lake Smith Conservationists continue to work towards improving the environment and heritage through conservation efforts. They work with and support many local not-for-profit organizations. Members have fundraised to provide equipment to the Lambton Heritage Museum. They have also developed a school outreach program which has included building bird feeders and bat houses and reforestation projects.

The LSC continue to work on the Lake Smith Marsh Project. This project is about rebuilding an important habitat for hundreds of thousands of birds and other wildlife. As well as providing a habitat for a wide range of wildlife, the marsh will act as a natural filter, soaking up large quantities of excess nitrogen and phosphorus, and reducing downstream water pollution. The area involved is primarily sandy farmland of limited agricultural value. Residential neighbours will have the benefit of a nearby natural parkland with a wide variety of interesting wildlife.

 

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