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Grand Bend - Our Stories, Our Voice



GRAND BEND AND THE HURON TRACT (Michael J. Ash, April 2008)

The purpose of this document is to build on my previous genealogical research into the Huron Tract, and connect it to Grand Bend. How was the early development of the Grand Bend area helped or hindered by the political and corporate dealings of the Canada Company as it tried to bring settlers into this part of Upper Canada?

In 1825, the Crown purchased 2.2 million acres of undeveloped land from the Chippewas for an annuity of 1,100 per year in goods. One million acres of this land was subsequently sold to the Canada Company as part of their charter.

The Canada Company was formed in 1824, chartered in 1826, by business men from England. The objective was to buy Crown land and Clergy Reserves in Upper Canada from the government and sell them, at a profit, to individual settlers. Instead of the Clergy Reserves, the company acquired 1 million acres called the Huron Tract. Later purchases increased this holding to 1.3 million acres, the Crown having only just purchased the latter land from the Chippewa First Nation.

In 1829, the Canada Company was experiencing financial difficulties with its Huron Tract property due to slow land sales. There was insufficient money to provide the infrastructure of roads, mills and schools needed to command the land value that the Company wanted. The Company established agents in Quebec City, Montreal and New York in order to promote the tract to immigrants. Newspaper advertising in the United States and Canada was also conducted.

The community of Brewster's Mill started in 1832 when a group of Scottish pioneers purchased lots from the Canada Company to log the original oak and pine forests. Benjamin Brewster dammed the Aux Sable River and established a lumber mill. Lumber was a major focus for Huron Tract settlements. All the land was dense bush; land needed to be cleared and houses built. The size of the mill workforce indicates that the town of Brewster's Mill must have been of some size unless the workers were seasonal. For 18 years Brewster's Mill was an isolated community, presumable dependent on boats and ships to provide supplies and sell the mill production.

The damming of the river caused annual flooding in the farmers' fields. Apparently the Canada Company initiated legal proceedings to get payment from Brewster to the flooded-out farmers. Brewster's enterprise came to an end in the 1860s when flooded-out landowners burned the mill and the dam.

I could not find any references to the nature of life in the area. However, a first-hand description of early life in the Huron Tract (Ellice Township) by Barbara Durst, related in a 1905 interview, is probably typical of what the Brewster group experienced.

"The New Home. The Kastners arrived at their destination in May; others followed later in the summer. They spent a few weeks at the tavern, but it was not long before they had a home of their own, which was built on the Stratford side of what is now Mr. Jacob Pfrimmer's place. The home was not a palace. That may be imagined from the utter wilderness which surrounded it. Yet it was the best of all homes, because its people were a contented people, busy with daily toil.

"Tools Were Limited. With an axe, an augur and a saw, Mr. Kastner set about building his house. These were all the tools he had. Elms were cut down and from their logs were made the thick walls of the new home. From their bark was made the roof. It was bound to cross poles by means of tough withes. The door had wooden hinges. Its latch worked with a string. Protection against invasion it did not afford, but the inhabitants feared not, for they were at peace with all men and crime was not a common thing in the district during the early days.

"Indians Were Friendly. Nearby were Indian wigwams, but the settlers did not fear the Indians, who proved always friendly. Little Barbara used to delight to watch them at their work of basket-making. She has nothing but the kindest recollections of the red men, who were wise enough to learn the word "thanks" as their first English, and were also quick to grasp the spirit of Christmas and New Years, on which occasions they would be sure to come around for presents.

"The Early Customs. No one knew better than the pioneers what it was to make the best of the few materials at hand. Their chimneys, for instance, were constructed of layers of mud and wood, with stones at the back to protect the walls. The plows used were largely of wood. Indeed, the hoe replaced the plow in many cases. The clearings, such as they were, did not lend themselves easily to a plow at first, as they were full of stumps and tree-roots. It was much easier to use the hoe in such a place. The land was very rich, and deep plowing seemed hardly necessary."

After 1843, land could be obtained on a lease purchase arrangement. You could not get title to your land until all payments were complete. Many farms were abandoned when people moved west or to the United States, hoping for something better. Farmers were jacks-of-all-trade, responsible for making lumber, building schools, churches, building roads, and fishing or raising crops for food. Life was indeed hard and dangerous - fishing on the lake in all weather, accidents with no medical care, illness, harsh winters, poor crops, malnutrition. The farm wife had to make cloth, butter, cheese, wax candles and preserve food. It wasn't until the 1870s that factories began to supply such needs.

Prior to the 1850s, Grand Bend settlers had to take their grain to the grist mill in Goderich, a trip that could take several days. Stores were housed in small board or log shanties. In 1850 the road from Goderich was opened and opportunities for commerce and new settlers developed.

By 1870 fishing had become an important industry, in addition to various lumber and finishing mills and farming. By this time a stagecoach served Grand Bend from Parkhill.

Bosanquet Township was named after Charles Bosanquet, MP, Chairman of the Canada Company's provisional committee set up in 1824. He was the first governor or chairman of the company and a member of the Committee of Correspondence. He ceased his involvement with the Company in 1829 and there is no reference to his coming to Upper Canada.

The directors of the Canada Company in 1827 suggested to John Galt, that, "It would be expedient to build a road through one of the blocks belonging to the company in the township of Wilmot and hence to lay out two great roads in the tract, one to the river Aux Sable[s] and the other to the River Menesetung (Maitland) Settlement would commence at the mouths of rivers." The road to the Maitland was cleared between June and November, 1828. This road was unique to the Huron Tract. Generally settlers built roads only as the adjacent farms became occupied.

The Huron Tract was administered, prior to 1842, by a board of government appointed magistrates in London. The first district council was elected in 1842 and by 1847 the electoral district of Huron was created. This district included all the lands of the Huron Tract except Bosanquet and Williams townships which were transferred to the London District.

Wm H. Smith published a gazette in 1846 based on his travels in Upper Canada. Here is the

excerpt for Bosanquet:

"Bounded on the northwest by Lake Huron, 3,490 acres are taken up of which 295 are under cultivation. The Aux Sable[s] River divides it from the townships of Williams, McGillivary and Stephen. Mud Creek enters the river one mile from its mouth, and Lake Burwell about three miles from Lake Huron is surrounded by considerable marsh.

"A ridge of sand hills about three miles wide extends from the mouth of the Aux Sable[s] River to the end of the township. A point on the shore, called "Kettle Point" has excited considerable curiosity from its constantly being on fire.

"The land in the south of the township is of fine quality. The timber is principally pine and a saw mill was established soon after the first settlement. There is an Indian Reserve at Kettle Point and another about three miles above.

No separate census has been taken of this township."

But even in 1875 a Wyoming visitor described Grand Bend as " thoroughly uninviting with its three taverns, two stores and a mill."

By 1870, the town was still named Brewster's Mill, and had a post office, a store, a school and a log church. Landed seamen had a choice of three pubs in which to toast their health.

According to the 1879 Belden Atlas, " there is now a smart little town at the Grand Bend containing saw, planing, moulding, grist, shingle and oatmeal mills, two good hotels, a post office with tri-weekly mail off Parkhill, mechanics shops and stores of every kind." From what I have read, this is typical of towns in the Huron Tract. The businesses that started first were the ones that could make the settlers self-sufficient. Much of the development of the area was based on the quality transportation. At this time Grand Bend was still without a harbour, which put it at a disadvantage versus other Lake Huron ports.

The dredging of the channel from the bend in the Aux Sable[s] River to the lake in 1892 created a harbour and contributed to the growth of the fishing industry, even though the main purpose of the cut was to drain farmland upstream. By 1910 the Hamilton Bros. were still operating a lumber mill, but it was now catering to cottage builders.

By 1880, the population of the lakeshore from Grand Bend to Goderich was about 15,000. Settlement and development in the Huron Tract might have progressed more quickly if the Canada Company had lived up to its promise to provide infrastructure - roads, grist mills, schools and churches. The company's financial constraints meant that amenities were few, and towns prospered because of the industry of individual entrepreneurs, supplying the needs of the farmers once the land was cleared.

The tourist trade had started on the Lake Huron coast as early as 1870, and took off in the early 1900s when roads improved and new facilities opened up. By 1901, the Zurich Herald stated that Grand Bend was the most popular resort town on the eastern shore. The Imperial Hotel, built in 1905, was the first hotel along the eastern shore to have hot and cold running water in its rooms. Around the turn of the century, camping gave way to the construction of permanent cottages, which could be built for as little as $90. Like resort areas in Georgian Bay, the growth of private cottages gradually reduced the market for grand resort hotels. With the arrival of the automobile, tourism expanded further and has continued to grow to what we know in 2009.

The geography of Bosanquet was changed significantly by changes to the Aux Sable[s] River. The Port Frank Cut was completed in 1875 and the Grand Bend harbour in 1892. This resulted in the stretch of the Aux Sable[s] River between Grand Bend and Port Franks becoming the "old river bed".

In 1894, 70 700 men fished the Canadian waters of Lake Huron, on 1 178 large and 34 100 small vessels. By the first World War, the fishing industry was still flourishing and important to the local diet and to gain export revenue, but by 1940 fishing had decreased to a mere shadow of its former glory. Pioneering seems to have a pattern of exploitation of natural resources and then a gradual transformation to a more sustainable economy. The trees are gone, and the fish are gone.

The First World War period marked several transitions: from the horse and buggy to the automobile; the introduction of electricity and the telephone; sons and daughters from large farm families moving the city for job opportunities; a more civilized tone to social life with glee clubs and concerts; the demise of small factories and mills that supplied local needs; retired people becoming common in the town demographics; and the end of the Canada Company.

By 1938 only 23 711 acres of land remained to be sold and the mandate of the Company was exhausted. In its liquidation phase, the Company's holdings had diminished to 4 207 acres by 1950. One of the last parcels to be sold was the 4 200 acres of The Pinery Provincial Park land to the Province of Ontario. The company was dissolved on January 21, 1953.

Due to a lack of infrastructure, particularly transportation, the Grand Bend area was slower to develop than other parts of the Huron Tract. The lack of a harbour slowed progress, and it was many years after initial settlement that a real community emerged. The fishing and lumber industries have come and gone, but tourism has played a central role in the area's economy since the late 19th century. What will happen to the nature of the area as a new industry come becomes prominent in the 21st century - "retirementville"?


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