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The Stories of the Counties of Ontario

“But here’s to the man who ran laugh when the blast
Of adversity blows; he will conquer at last
For the hardest man in the world to beat
Is the man who can laugh in the face of defeat.”

Emil Carl Aurin.

THIS fertile county, with its three or four towns, its many pleasant villages and numberless prosperous farms, with its long water-front washed by the waves of Lake Huron and the currents of the St. Clair River, bears a name which no Canadian should be willing to forget. John George Lambton, the Earl of Durham, had faults which gave his enemies a ready handle against him, but his brief sojourn in Canada (immediately after the Rebellion) was productive of great good to the whole of the Dominion. The county of Lambton, therefore, may be proud to bear the name of the much-maligned statesman, whose celebrated "Report” opened the eyes of the authorities at home to actual conditions in this country and led to the long-desired concession of responsible government and to the establishment of the present municipal system.

Curiously enough, several of the other names written upon the map of Lambton County recall incidents in the life of that stern soldier, Sir John Colborne, whose blunders, when Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, had helped to raise the storm of insurrection. Plympton Township is called after a town in Devonshire, near which was Colborne's—or Lord Seaton’s—beautiful mansion, “Beechwood,” and the not-far-distant township of Moore recalls the dead hero of the midnight burial at Corunna, who

“Lay like a warrior taking his rest,
With his martial cloak around him.”

Colborne was Sir John Moore’s military secretary, and almost with his last breath the General expressed a wish for his advancement. Lastly, there is a tradition that it was Sir John Colborne who gave the name of Sarnia to the county seat of Lambton and the township in which it is situated. In 1835 the Governor visited the place (then known as “The Rapids”), with some idea of erecting a fort at that point to defend the shores. He was feasted royally, and an excursion (the first on record in Lambton) was planned for a trip up the rapids into Lake Huron,” but a stiff breeze forced the party to turn back. At the time a hot discussion was going on over the choice of a name for the village. It was decided to refer the matter to the Governor, and perhaps that experience of Huron's boisterous seas reminded him of the little surf-beaten island of Guernsey, in the English Channel, where he had spent some years as Governor. At any rate, he bestowed upon the village the Roman name of the Isle of Guernsey—Sarnia.

Lambton County has now a population of about forty-five thousand to an area of something over a thousand square miles, but, as much of the land is suitable for growing fruits and vegetables, there is still room for multitudes more workers to till the soil and gather in the bountiful harvests. About half of the present population are dwellers in towns and villages, but the farmers of to-day have advantages which are rapidly giving a new character to rural life. There are schools, post offices and churches within comparatively easy distance of almost every farm. Rural telephones are numerous, and a rural mail delivery has been tried with success.

The county is crossed from east to west by the lines of three railway companies. The principal centres of population in the neighbourhood of the oil-fields of Lambton County and the farmers living along the pipe lines use natural gas, whilst other farmers have their own gas-wells, from which they obtain light and power for lessening their labours in many different directions.

By way of contrast to such conditions, it is worth while to give a backward glance to the state of things as described in Smith’s Canada, some sixty years ago. In Moore and Sombra there were then a few good farms, but in general the clearings were small and the buildings poor. In the former township lots in a Chippewa Indian Reserve were being offered for sale at from five to twelve shillings the acre; but the only white people as yet settled on it were half a dozen squatters. As at present, there were reserves in Sarnia and Bosanquet Townships and on Walpole Island, and at the latter place, in 1842, no less than 1140 Indians claimed presents. The Lambton County Indians are chiefly Chippewas or Ojibways, but in 1837 several bands of the wild, roving Pottawa-tamies, famous as hunters, settled on Walpole Island. A few of the red men attempted the culture of the soil on a small scale, but the largest amount of land cropped by an Indian was twelve acres, and their descendants do not take very kindly, as a rule, to farming their own land.

Though Bosanquet was in Lambton, it belonged to the Canada Company, and therefore was reckoned as part of the “Huron Tract.” Till after the middle of the last century settlers were few. A little over sixty years ago a road through the new township was a new luxury, the unfortunate settlers having previously had to content themselves as best they could with an Indian trail unfit for vehicles. But lack of roads was a common grievance. The Government had spent over twenty thousand pounds in making a road from Port Sarnia to London, but in a short time it was allowed to fall into such a bad condition that it was almost useless. The township of Plympton, where much potash was made, suffered seriously from want of good means of communication with Sarnia. A great grievance which Lambton shared with other counties was that immense quantities of land were held by absentees and speculators, and it was not to be expected that a settler, after making a road through his own lot, would "do it through five hundred or a thousand acres more." In Warwick there were good clearings, though the farmers showed an inclination to exhaust the soil by sowing wheat repeatedly; but Enniskillen and Brooke were little settled, and much of the land was wet and marshy. In the strangelv-named township of Dawn, a Virginian gentleman, King, had settled a little colony of slaves whom he had set free.

The county seat of Sarnia (now a prosperous town of nearly 10,000 inhabitants and a port “with two miles of water-front, at any point of which boats can dock safely”) was laid out about eighty years ago. It was, indeed, in the thirties that many of the first settlers of Lambton came in. One of the most notable pioneers of Sarnia itself was the valiant sea-captain of Huguenot descent, Richard Emeric Vidal. Having served thirty years in the Royal Navy and taken a hand in "the capture or destruction of thirty war vessels and sixty-eight merchant ships,” he came to Canada, and took up land within "the corporate limits" of the future chief town. Not prepared for the severity of the weather, he got so badly frozen that "a portion of each hand had to be amputated.” After returning for a short time to England, he settled in Sarnia in 1834, and became first collector of customs at the port. One of his seven children, Alexander, who had been educated at Christ's Hospital, in London, and ultimately became a surveyor, took up land, at the age of eighteen, seven miles from Sarnia. On this farm he lived as a bachelor for five years. He had few neighbours but the wolves; and once when he was returning to his cabin with a round of beef that his mother had prepared for him, he was much alarmed by their howling close to him, as he was unarmed, save for a pocket-knife.

Another young fellow, James Houston, who, following his family to Canada, had had a long, adventurous journey from Greenock to Sarnia, set out to walk through the woods to his father’s homestead in Plympton, but was so terrified at the sight of some Indians that he ran back to the town again. Assured that they would not hurt him, he made a second venture and reached his journey’s end safely. Soon afterwards he took up land for himself, and lived for a while by making potash, which he sold in Sarnia. It was very cheap, however, while provisions were high; flour brought from Detroit costing $14 per barrel. Ultimately Houston prospered. In 1837 he enlisted on the Government side, and was stationed for some time at Sarnia.

Another Plympton pioneer was John Morrison, who came in with his father in 1827, as a child. The family drove from Hamilton, in an ox-wagon, containing all their worldly goods; and the mother had taken the wise precaution to fill every pot and pan with seed potatoes. These were experienced pioneers, and the father sent on a grown-up son in advance to put up a log shanty. But when they reached the shanty it had neither doors nor windows. There were no neighbours within reach, no ditches in the swampy land, no grist-mill nearer than London; but they triumphed over all difficulties, and John Morrison became noted in the county for the fine stock he raised. He was a Liberal in politics, and was proud in his latter years to think that in 1851 he had helped George Brown, “one of the Fathers of Confederation,” to win his first seat in Parliament for the new constituency of Lambton-Kent.

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