Elgin County stretches from Port Burwell in the east to Port Glasgow in the west and from the shores of Lake Erie in the south to Belmont in the north. It has been home to First Nations for over 12,000 years. The first European settler to live in the area which is now Elgin County was James Fleming, who arrived in 1796. Settlement did not begin in earnest, however, until the arrival of Thomas Talbot, a retired British army officer, at Port Talbot in 1803. As the Crown Land Agent, Talbot settled hundreds of immigrants on lands from Long Point to the Detroit River. In the process, he built several roads that are well-travelled highways today. The county was created in 1852 and named for then Governor-General of Canada, James Bruce, Earl of Elgin and Kincardine.
Towns and villages dot a countryside devoted to agriculture while several lake ports draw tourists and boaters.
This project was completed in partnership with the Elgin County Museum & Archives.
We acknowledge that Elgin County is within the traditional territory of the Oneida, Munsee Delaware, Anishnabek, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), and Ojibway/Chippewa peoples. This territory is covered by the Upper Canada Treaties.
The Nugents were a Loyalist family who were forced to leave New York following the Revolution. They settled in Prince Edward County, where their son Thomas was born in 1812. He moved to North Dorchester in the 1850s and bought a farm, part of which he subdivided for building lots. He provided lots to each of three religious denominations for their churches and one for a burial ground. Two of these churches, the United (Methodist) and the Presbyterian, still stand on their original locations.
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He built this house, known as Springdale Glen, around 1860. He chose a Gothic style, which can be seen in the pointed upper window and the shape of the decorative stone work over the windows. This photo shows the front of one of two wings, really almost separate buildings, which are joined together by a large central room. Sunday services were held in the house before the churches were built. This substantial house had 22 rooms, enough for the Nugent’s large family of eight boys and one girl.
In 1886 at the age of 74, Thomas Nugent moved with part of his family to Ontario, California and started an orange ranch. Ontario, just east of Los Angeles, had been founded by the Chaffey Brothers from Brockville, who named the new community after their home province. Nugent was one of the earliest settlers. He died in 1895, leaving a plot of land to the city for use as a park. Today Nugent Park can still be found in downtown Ontario, California.
The village of Belmont is unique in that it was split among four different municipalities. It had been created when three other farmers along with Nugent joined him in subdividing part of their land. An array of businesses arrived in town soon after, drawn by the prosperous farming community that surrounded it. Most notably, three mills were founded to process the flax crops grown in the area.
By 1875, Belmont had a population of 500. The Credit Valley Railway came through in 1881, soon taken over by the Canadian Pacific Railway. The railway allowed for cattle, hogs and crops to be shipped out and was likely the reason that Canadian Milk Products started a plant for making powdered milk in the village in 1911. The Borden Dairy Company took it over in 1928 and it eventually started making ice cream, becoming one of Borden’s largest Canadian plants. It closed in the 1980s.
Belmont remained in four different municipalities until 1948 when it was joined to South Dorchester for municipal purposes. In 1961, it was incorporated on its own. The village became part of the municipality of Central Elgin in 1998 and now has a population of 1140.
This photo from 1957 shows Port Bruce's beach and pier, popular today for fishing and recreation. A group of fishermen, mostly young boys, are gathered near the pier for a day of fishing.
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Port Bruce, once called Catfish Harbour after the nearby creek, was renamed in 1851 in honour of the Governor-General of the day, James Bruce, Earl of Elgin and Kincardine. When the County of Elgin was created in 1852, it too was named in his honour.
The port was a busy place from about 1840 to 1870, when grain grown on farms in the area, and timber from the nearby forests were both shipped out of the port. The timber was largely in the form of staves, used to make barrels. Grain elevators and warehouses lined a wharf which had to be built out into the lake to reach a depth that allowed the vessels of the day to safely dock. The owners were a group led by Amasa Lewis, whose substantial home can still be seen at the top of Levi Street. He also built the Rocabore Inn on Water Street in the 1850s, now a private home.
Lewis and his partners also formed the Aylmer and Port Bruce Gravel Road Company, which leased the main road out of the village, now Imperial Road. They were given the right to levy a toll from travellers in return for maintaining or “gravelling” the road. A graded, gravelled road was the best condition a road could be in during the 1860s and 1870s, and it made hauling the grain to the wharf much easier.
As the railways took over the grain trade and the supply of trees gave out, the business of the port turned to fishing. As well, some ship building occurred. The most famous perhaps was the Mary Roe, which was built in the 1860s and once sailed to Europe with a load of lumber. Today, the village has many cottages, a fine beach, and a provincial park.
This photo from c.1930 shows one of the oldest buildings in Sparta, known as “the old blacksmith shop”.
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It was built around 1827 by Mr. Keller. The building is made out of cob, a mixture of clay, mud, and straw, and today looks much the same as it did almost two hundred years ago. The shop, now the Forge & Anvil Museum, is said to have been a meeting place for the rebels during the Rebellion of 1837 and was used to stable their horses. Later, it then served as a carriage-making and woodworking shop around 1839 after John Oille purchased the building. However, the building was most often used as a blacksmith shop, producing oxen and horse shoes, as well as items such as logging chains and wagon wheels.
In 1944, E. A. Smith presented the building to the Sparta Sorosis Women's Institute (W.I.), who used it as a meeting hall for many years. Calling it “Ye Olde Forge and Anvil”, they undertook renovations and repairs on the building while maintaining its original clay walls. In 1995, they turned it over to the Sparta and District Historical Society, who established a museum with a focus on local and pioneer history.
The village of Sparta is one of the oldest communities in Canada to be founded by Quakers. It was established in 1813 by Jonathan Doan, who was a Quaker who, with other Quakers, had settled in the Niagara region after fleeing the United States during the American Revolution. As the War of 1812 approached their settlement, he set out to find new, safer land to the west. Although Quakers were allowed to avoid war service by paying fees, many refused to pay since these funds still supported the war. As a result, many had their possessions confiscated.
Doan ended up being appointed agent for Colonel James Baby, who had received a grant covering much of what is now the southern part of Central Elgin. Doan purchased land for himself as well and settled permanently in the area. The next spring, he returned to Niagara to encourage other Quakers to take up land in the area. He also returned to Pennsylvania, where he was born, to encourage other Quaker families to move to the Sparta area. Doan opened a grist mill, a sawmill, and a tannery.
Doan's attempt to get other Quakers to follow him to Sparta paid off, and within a few years, Quakers had purchased and settled over 3,000 acres of land in the area. By the 1870s, the village had a population of nearly 1,500. Regular Quaker worship first began in the town in 1817 and still takes place today.
The Uncle Tom was a steam-powered fishing tug owned by the Young Brothers, pictured here circa 1890. It was one of about 15 tugs that fished out of Port Bruce in the early 1900s. In those days, whitefish, herring and blue pickerel were the predominant catch. Most were packed in boxes of 100 pounds each and taken by wagon to Aylmer where they were put on the train for Chicago, Detroit, or New York.
A small steamboat on Catfish Creek in Port Bruce on a summer’s day circa 1900. The steam engine, mounted in the centre of the boat, was possibly burning naphtha or boiling petrol. The boiler in these vessels was mounted over a three-cylinder engine which drove the propeller. They were popular because they did not require the owner to have the engineer’s licence normally required to run a steam engine. This personal craft was also seen cruising around Port Stanley on occasion.
Built about 1850, this former hotel and tavern had several owners and names over the years. By 1902, however, it was the Sparta Public House – a temperance hotel, meaning no liquor could be sold. It is pictured here circa 1905. A petition, organized by the Baptist minister and a Dr. Shannon, had led to the suspension of the hotel’s liquor licence. On the last day of operation, the patrons, following an evening’s drinking, armed themselves with torches and headed down the street to the minster’s home, which they intended to reduce to ashes, only to find the doctor waiting on the front steps with a loaded shotgun. The minister’s temperance organization then bought the building to operate as a public house without spirituous liquors. To help fund the purchase, a cookbook was published by the women’s auxiliary. The book became very popular, eventually selling thousands of copies. Next door is the livery stable. The current address is 46349 Sparta Line.
The Credit Valley Railway company built a railway through Belmont in 1881, which was quickly taken over by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). The CPR built the first station on the north side of the tracks. It later burned down and was replaced by a station on the south side. This photo shows the railway station circa 1905. Passenger service ended in 1957, and the station was then moved to the corner of Belmont Road and Ron McNeil Line where it became a private residence. In 2009, the Ontario Southland Railway Company took over the track from CPR and continues to run freight trains on it today.
This yellow brick building was constructed in 1886 and served as a Methodist Church until 1925, when it became a part of the new United Church of Canada. It’s pictured here in 1909. A frame Methodist church previously occupied the site. The house next door was the parsonage or minister’s home, built in 1879. The sanctuary has fine cross beams in an attractive herringbone ceiling. The nave easily accommodates several hundred worshipers and the choir has two memorial windows dedicated to local persons. There is a full basement once used for Sunday Schools. Due to decreased attendance, the small congregation decided to disband in 2012. The Sparta and District Historical Society then bought both the church and manse. They now use the church to mount a series of annual history exhibits using items from their collection, augmented by loans from the community. The current address is 6073 Quaker Road.
Two roads, Glencolin Line and Springfield Road, share this bridge over a section of Catfish Creek. Glen Colin, a little village with a blacksmith, one hotel, a post office and a store, was once on this corner. It appeared following the building of the Great Western Railway line through the area in the 1870s. It was named by the postmaster after the village in Scotland from which he had emigrated in the 1850s. Though the tracks are gone, the path the railway once took can still be seen. The bridge is pictured here in 1913.
This photo looks west from Sparta's main intersection in 1924. On the left, one of the houses still stands. The building on the right was built in the 1830s and still exists today, now housing the Sparta Tea Room.
Springfield’s Main Street, now called Ron McNeil Line, is pictured circa 1925. This photo looks east, with the Springfield Methodist Church, J.I. Thomson Dry Goods and Grocery store, Royal Bank of Canada, D.C. Gillies store, and the IOOF (Independent Order of the Oddfellows) block visible down the street.
The Rocabore Inn is pictured here in the 1930s. The only hotel for many years in Port Bruce, it was built in 1855 by Amasa Lewis, a grain merchant and land owner who lived nearby. In 1882, a dance hall was added to the building and space was provided in the basement for both a shooting gallery and a bowling alley. In 1924, it was moved back from the river, raised several feet, and renamed. Its new name, the Rocabore, was from a mythical animal with a long and a short leg on either side, the better to scale the area’s steep hillsides. Its current address is 3237 Water Street.
Members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) parade down the main street in Belmont, now Belmont Road, circa 1935. The IOOF is a nonpolitical, non-sectarian fraternal organization, with roots in the Odd Fellows fraternity that was established in England in the 18th century. The IOOF Lodge in Belmont, Victory Lodge #465, was established in 1920. A Rebekah Lodge, the women’s auxiliary of the IOOF, was established later in 1922. IOOF Lodges, along with other fraternal organizations, were extremely popular across the USA and Canada during the late 19th and early 20th century.
Nothing is left of the King’s Cupboard, a combination drive-in, gas station, and dance hall that once sat near the pier in Port Bruce, pictured here in the 1930s. It was built in the 1920s and was still operating in the 1970s. Many people can remember going there on a date. The current address of the site is 3209 Hale Street.
Thayer’s Standard Gasoline Station is pictured here circa 1940, at the intersection of what is now Imperial Road and Calton Line. Herb Thayer bought this station from Henry Percy in 1938, which started the Thayer Petroleum Company. The current address is 6663 Imperial Road.
Catfish Creek provides a natural harbor where it empties into Lake Erie. As was the case with other rivers in the county, a port was established at its mouth, which is now known as Port Bruce. In 1851, a 120-meter pier was built out into the lake so ships would be able to dock and take on cargoes. These river ports were used by merchants to ship out the region’s grain and lumber, much of it in the form of barrel staves. By 1870, this trade had declined thanks to the railways, and the port became home to a number of commercial fishing tugs. Pictured is the Port Bruce pier circa 1947.
The RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) Station Aylmer Band is pictured leading a parade of Oddfellows and Rebekahs down Springfield’s main street, now called Ron McNeil Line, in 1960. The Oddfellows and Rebekahs, numbering around 200 in this parade, represented many IOOF lodges from around the area. The IOOF is a nonpolitical, non-sectarian fraternal organization, with roots in the Odd Fellows fraternity that was established in England in the 18th century. The Rebekahs are the women’s auxiliary of the Oddfellows.
The Malahide United Church Cemetery in Dunboyne, pictured here circa 1970, is associated with the Malahide United Church, previously the Dunboyne Methodist Church. The church was built in 1910 and today is a private residence. The cemetery’s current address is 49480 Calton Line.