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The Stories of the Counties of Ontario
WELLINGTON


“When first I settled in the woods
There were no neighbours nigh,
And scarce a living thing save wolves,
And Molly dear, and I.
We had our troubles, ne’er a doubt,
In those wild woods alone;
But then, sir, I was bound to haw:
A homestead of my own.”

Alexander M'Lachlan.

THE latest change in the boundaries of Wellington County, giving it its present size and shape, occurred in 1883, but tht name of Wellington has been on the map since 1838, when the district containing the present county of that name and also Waterloo, Grey, and part of Dufferin County was set apart. At that time Galt ana Fergus contested for the honour of being the county seat, but it fell to Guelph, the story of which begins somewhat unusually with a deliberated dramatic scene

This was imagined and carried out by John Galt, the popular Scotch novelist, two of whose sons won distinction in Canadian public life. Mr. Galt at this period of a changeful and chequered career was acting as Commissioner of the Canada Company. Early in 1827 lie visited the village on the Grand River, called by his name, and on April 23—a dismal, wet St. George’s Day—walked through the woods from Galt to the site of the future “Royal City.” In a straight line the distance is about thirteen miles, but Galt and his companion, Dr. Dunlop, lengthened it by losing their way. Men were waiting for them at the appointed place, and on their arriving at what was to be the centre, or "radiant point” of the new settlement, Galt, with solemnity, struck the first blow on a great maple. The doctor then produced a flask of whisky, and they “drank prosperity to the City of Guelph"—a name chosen in compliment to the Royal Family, because Galt “thought it auspicious in itself,” and because he “could not recollect that it had ever been used in all the King’s Dominions.” In after years the stump of the maple was nicely levelled, and upon it was placed a sun-dial which served as the town clock. This historic landmark, near the River Speed, was ultimately obliterated by the throwing up of the embankment for the Grand Trunk Railway.

Of course the first necessary business was to erect houses. Amongst these was a log building of an unusually imposing character, costing between £1900 and £2000. It not only served as a dwelling for the heads of the settlement, but one wing was used as a tavern and post-office. It overlooked the river, and in honour of Mr. Prior, one of' Galt’s friends and assistants, was dubbed "The Priory".

That year the King’s birthday fell on Sunday, but it was determined to celebrate it on the following day, August 13, and hold a kind of formal “opening” of Guelph. A frame market-house, 40 by 50 feet in dimensions, with open sides and a flour 18 inches above the street, was hastily finished for the occasion, and very early in the morning the traditional “whole ox” was set to roast before a huge bonfire. Unhappily the six hours allowed for cooking proved insufficient, and many of the five hundred guests at Guelph’s first civic banquet found the meat too “rare” for their taste. Fortunately, potatoes also had been cooked on a grand scale—in two potash kettles—and there was no lack of bread or of hemlock tea, whilst the supply of whisky was plentiful enough to be responsible fur a few fights before the close of the day. A band from Toronto (“Little York” then) discoursed sweet music, arid in the evening a grand ball was held for the aristocrats at the Priory. A special feature of the day was the laying of the foundation-stones of Guelph’s first stone buildings, a bank and a schoolhouse. (By the way, the provision made by Galt for education was one of the early attractions of the place to settlers.) In their rejoicings the pioneers showed their usual ingenuity, having prepared for the occasion a number of wooden cannon of hollowed-out beech and maple logs. They were bound with hoops of iron, but this did not prevent their adding to the excitement by bursting after the second firing or so.

Roads are always a pressing need of a newly-opened district, and Galt did his best to meet it; but when the way led through swamps the task of road-making was as unhealthy as it was difficult, and on one occasion the Commissioner was shocked by the return of forty men, who were the “colour of mummies,” from ague. He had tried to induce the company to engage a doctor, but as they neglected to do so, was obliged to meet the difficulty by taking on a surgeon as clerk and “making him compensation for his skill.”

In the Historical Atlas of Wellington County are scattered various interesting notes on its “first things" and events and of its representative personages. For instance, the first physician—Welsh by name—who settled in Guelph speedily earned by his eccentricities the title of “the mad doctor.” He built himself a log house without a door, having an aperture six feet from the ground, through which he climbed. Only two patients trusted themselves to his tender mercies, and both died. The first death in the settlement was that of a “beer peddler,” killed instantly by a tree being blown across his wagon. A house and lot was promised for the first baby born in Guelph, but the parents of little Letitia Brown, who was born in October 1827, never claimed it for her. Guelph’s first baker had, it is said, a sad experience when trying to bake in an oven of limestone. The heat crumbled down the oven, and people helped themselves to his loaves. The first horse in the district, while it was “the only one within a radius of fourteen miles,” was so much in request that it became "a wreck of skin and bones,” and was only saved from becoming an absolute "martyr to civilisation” by the arrival of a team of horses.

In 1834 the first political contest in Guelph resulted in the ruin of both candidates and the election (from lack of a sufficient number of votes) of neither. One of the rivals, Captain Poore, organised a company of loyal volunteers during the rebellion. The other, a young Englishman, Roland Wingfield, after acquiring in Puslinch Township an estate of 800 acres, which he stocked with imported Durham cattle, Southdown sheep, and Berkshire hogs, was forced by that luckless election to sell out. his successor, John Howitt, continued to improve his Durham herd, and at the first Provincial Exhibition, in 1845, his cattle took nearly all the prizes. This was a good showing for the district, which,, some twenty years later, through the establishment of what is now the Ontario Agricultural College, was to become a centre of “light and leading” for Canadian farmers. Much more recently the Macdonald Institute and the consolidated schools near Guelph have begun to make their valuable contribution towards the solution of some of the country problems, especially touching women and children.

A decade before Guelph was founded with flourish of trumpets, the neighbouring township of Eramosa received its first settlers in the persons of three Irish brothers, Ramsay by name. They are credited with raising the first crop of potatoes, and the wife of one of them grew from pips the first apple-tree ever grown in the county. That was in days when wolves were alarmingly plentiful, and when the whole carcase of a deer was sometimes bought for a dollar, to salt down. During the Rebellion, seven farmers were arrested for having attended a meeting in an Eramosa schoolhouse to discuss public affairs, but all were acquitted.

Guelph Township was settled in part by Scots, who came to Canada after eighteen disappointing months in Venezuela, and Peel Township, during the days of “Abolitionist” activity, received many escaped slaves from the United States. The neighbouring Township of West Luther was once a kind of “dismal swamp.” It; was said that it had only one dry spot, and that “if you ran thirty yards on that knoll and then took a long jump, you could feel the whole township shake and quiver beneath you." But during the early ’seventies a dry summer with repeated fires burned oft the mud and greatly simplified the work of clearing.

The picturesque village of Elora had, as its first pioneers, the Matthews family of father, mother, and nine children, who, arriving on the spot as night was falling, built a huge fire and lay down under a rude shelter of hemlock bows. In the night a great snowstorm came on. Their cattle wandered off, and the father, seeking them, lost his way, but was guided back by his son’s shouts. In due time Matthews and his boys cleared a little patch on which they grew grain. But in order to reach a market they had to hollow out a huge pine, and in this “dug-out,” 30 feet long, they took down sixteen bags of wheat to Galt and sold it to Absalom Shade, who gave them 50 cents per bushel cash. They sold the “dug-out” also for $2.50, and marched home cheerfully on foot.


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