The Story Of Vankleek Hill’s Postal Service
Pandemic times puts to the test our Canadian tradition of quietly waiting-in-line in an orderly fashion. At the Vankleek Hill Post Office, clients today are to be congratulated for their consideration and patience as they wait outside.
Our post office staff compare the unprecedented number of boxes arriving to be sorted and managed to working in a mini-Amazon warehouse – without the benefits of space and robotic technology. Everyone, inside and outside, has done their best in a challenging situation.
Christmas arrives in short days. As I waited in line at the post office, I thought it may be a good time to take a closer look at the history of postal services in Vankleek Hill.
Never take postal services for granted. Before post offices were formalized by the British in Canada, anyone writing a letter had to depend on the goodwill of family, friends, travellers to take and pass their letters along – traveller to traveller – to hopefully reach the final destination.
Rural post offices have a long history of being located within the home or business of the postmaster. Vankleek Hill has only ever had post box service, and like most rural villages, no door-to-door delivery.
In Vankleek Hill, formal postal services arrived in 1827 when Neil Stewart was appointed as the first Postmaster. The date 1827 is given in an 1896 history of Prescott County. However, the Ontario Archives holds the Certificate of Appointment of Neil Stewart as Deputy Postmaster in Vankleek Hill dated July 6, 1831. No matter the year, he was the first Vankleek Hill Postmaster.
Stewart arrived in Canada with his mother from the Isle of Skye, Scotland in 1816. He then came to Vankleek Hill in 1825 at age 32, where he took over the general store of John Glass McIntosh in the general location of the northwest corner of Main East and Home Avenue. He was active in the community – he joined the Prescott Militia, was our Member of the Legislative Assembly for Prescott 1844-1848, was a Justice of the Peace, and the County Treasurer.
Neil Stewart was also the Crown Land Agent for Prescott and Russell. Stewart was a prolific letter writer, exchanging prickly political opinions with his brother William Stewart who was MPP for Russell County. The Ontario Archives holds his remaining records.
During these early years of government services, Stewart’s community activities and politics made him an easy choice for appointment as Postmaster. At the outset of this public service, there was no one with experience. The notion of having an application process is more than a century away.
Thomas Higginson was the second appointment as Vankleek Hill Postmaster. We do not have any official record of just when Thomas Higginson became the postmaster. Researcher Dorothy Jane Smith discovered, “There are no entries for Vankleek Hill in the Library and Archives Canada Postmaster card entries, indicating that the die card has been lost or Vankleek Hill was missed when the cards were created in the 1950s.” This lack of information is confirmed today on the government web page providing names of postmasters for post offices across Canada – there is no entry for Vankleek Hill, not even the village name.
We are left to rely on mentions in available local histories, diaries, family history, maps, directories, census. And juggling dates.
According to the 1851 Lovell Directory, Neil Stewart is still the Vankleek Hill Postmaster. However, it is in the 1850s that the general store building used by Neil Stewart was sold, and torn down to make way for the first town hall at what is now the corner of Main East and Home. Though it no longer exists, it was a 28’ x 40’ brick building – the bricks came from Hiram Johnson’s brickyard on Highway 34 and cost under a penny each.
This suggests that Thomas Higginson may have became postmaster in the mid to late 1850s when he was in his 60’s. Postal services remained under the British until 1851. The service became a federal department with Confederation in 1867.
Although local histories state Duncan McDonell became postmaster in 1874, the 1862 Walling map states Duncan McDonell is “P.M., Dealer in Drugs and Patent Medicines.” In the 1869 Gazeteer and again in the 1871 Lovell Directory, Duncan McDonnell remains the Vankleek Hill Postmaster.
The question is, where was Duncan McDonnell’s Drug & Patent Medicine store? For almost 200 years, Main Street East has been the mainstay for the post office. Angus McDonell is a carriage maker on the south side of Main Street East. Were their stores side-by-side? This deserves more research.
Peter R. McLaurin
In the history Argenteuil, Quebec; Prescott, Ontario, author Cyrus Thomas reports that Peter R. McLaurin was appointed Vankleek Hill Postmaster in 1876. As he was in touch with McLaurin, Thomas reports: McLaurin “still holds the position.” McLaurin operated the post office at 117 Main Street East, today Vert Fourchette, for a couple of decades until 1902.
William McAdam, a bookkeeper, was employed to keep the books at the McCuaig, Cheney General Store (location of the Vankleek Hill Museum). He was civic minded, and provided his skills as treasurer at: Knox Presbyterian Church, Vankleek Hill Agricultural Society. McAdam was treasurer for West Hawkesbury Township, and had his hand in several business ventures.
William McAdam became the fourth Vankleek Hill Postmaster in 1903. Clients could gather on the porch of his building overlooking Main Street to chat and exchange vital community news. That same year, the rumour of a new government building for the post office gets well underway – it is reported in the newspaper!
“The Post Office is in connection with the residence of the Post Master, Mr. Wm. McAdam. It is a neat office with private lock boxes of the very latest pattern. There is some talk of the Government erecting a new office building in the Town, but for the present, Postmaster McAdam has made everything convenient and comfortable for the public.”(Holiday Issue, The Eastern Ontario Review, 1903)
The post office remained within the McAdam Family for almost 45 years: William McAdam was Postmaster until 1911, his wife Hattie McAdam from 1911 to 1923, and their oldest son Frederick McAdam from 1923 to 1945.
It is Frederick McAdam who moved the postal services into the brand new government post office which opened in 1938. It is the same building that services Vankleek Hill today.
Postmaster Fred McAdam, who never married, died in May, 1945 at age 68. Staff member Mariette Sauvé became interim Postmaster.
John “Jack” Hurley, WWII Flying Ace
John “Jack” Hurley of Vankleek Hill enlisted into the RCAF in 1940; trained at No.10 SFTS in Dauphin, Manitoba between 4th May 1941 and 15th July 1941. He went overseas in August 1941. By October 1941, he had a total 150 hours flying time to his name with 19 hours on the Hurricane. He was amongst several Canadians assigned to the RAF, and served in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and Burma. He is celebrated as one of seven Canadian Flying Aces whose courage thwarted a deadly surprise attack by the Japanese air force on their Ceylon airbase.
Under the Civil Service Act, veterans who had seen Overseas Active Service (OAS) in the First or Second World War, or their widows, were given hiring preference for government jobs. In 1946, WWII veteran Jack Hurley was appointed Vankleek Hill Postmaster.
When Jack retired in 1987, Jeannine Duval Seguin was appointed postmaster. We will write more about Jeannine in another Vankleek Hill Stories instalment.