Author Archives: VKH Historical Society

A history of the Black population in Eastern Ontario as shown through the 1861 census

In February, for Black History Month, I asked Alan Campbell of the Lambton County Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society for his help. I am a member of the Lambton County group, and I read a report by Alan about his Black history research into Ontario census records. He was most helpful, and generously pointed me toward research conducted by Michael Wayne PhD at the University of Toronto, and by Barry Christopher Noonan in Wisconsin. That 1861 Census research brings us the names and locations of identified Black persons in Prescott (2), Russell (9), and Glengarry (39). Here, we take a look at the Prescott findings of: John Dawson of Longueuil Township and A. Robertson of South Plantagenet.

Column #13 1861 Census

In 1995, Michael Wayne was a social history professor at the University of Toronto. He published a paper in Histoire sociale/Social history, a York University publication. It was entitled: The Black Population of Canada West on the Eve of the American Civil War: a Reassessment Based on the Manuscript Census of 1861.
Wayne’s research was aimed at reviewing the rate of repatriation of freed Blacks from Canada West back to the United States after the Civil War. He wrote that the 1861 Census showed that the Black population of Canada West (Ontario) —

… had made their way to all corners of Canada West and had become an integral part of the provincial economy. More than half were from the United States, but contrary to popular opinion they were mainly free Blacks, not runaway slaves. …

Wayne and his research team performed a detailed review of the 1861 Census for Canada West. The 1861 Census had a column, #13, for “Coloured Persons, Mulatto, or Indian.” The research team captured all the Column #13 entries per county, including Prescott, Russell, and Glengarry.
In 1861, enumerators were provided with this instruction:

13th. In this column mark a figure (1) for every coloured person’s name, i.e. negro or negress. This was much neglected last census, and the number of coloured persons was not ascertained. If Mulatto, mark M after his or her name – thus, (1) M; and if Indian, mark “Ind”.

The Prescott County Census Commissioner for the 1861 Census was Charles Waters of Vankleek Hill. He wrote to his superiors questioning if it was even reasonable for enumerators to gather census information from Black or “Indian” residents. His disdain was palpable, as he appeared to believe that to obtain information from “Colored, Mulatto, or Indian” for their name, religion, birth place and age would be problematic.
However, according to Michael Wayne, enumerators did do their job.

The Prescott County representative wrote his superiors asking how much information on Blacks they wanted him to gather: “It would be difficult in most cases to ascertain their Names Religion Birth Place Ages or any thing else…”. Negligence in recording data on religion, age, or even names is not the same as leaving individuals off the rolls entirely, however, there is little evidence to suggest that enumerators failed to take seriously their responsibility to provide the Bureau officials with an accurate count.

While the 1861 Census in Canada was underway, the American Civil War began in April, 1861 to end in April 1865. This was a war about economics, governance, and underpinning it all, slavery.
There was slavery in both Upper Canada and Lower Canada. In Lower Canada, there was slavery first under the French regime, and then under the British regime.
The British Slave Trade Act of 1807 did not abolish slavery. Rather, it brought an end to the slave trade, the slave markets. Those already enslaved remained so. Children born to slaves were still considered slaves. It was only with the 1833 British Slavery Abolition Act that slavery finally officially ended throughout the British Empire.
Eminent Canadian historian, Marcel Trudel (1917-2011) catalogued in detail 4,200 Indigenous and Black slaves in Lower Canada from 1632-1834. Trudel itemized names and owners. He discovered that about two-thirds of slaves were Indigenous, identified by the derogatory slang “Panis” (for Pawnee). (Dictionnaire des esclaves et de leurs propriétaires au Canada français / Canada’s Forgotten Slaves, Two Centuries of Bondage, Marcel Trudel 1960, 2009)
Trudel was encouraged to perform the same detailed study of slavery in Ontario; regretfully, he had to decline.

In 2010, author Frank Mackey published his book: Done With Slavery, the Black Fact in Montreal 1760-1840 (McGill-Queen’s University Press). In his Introduction, Mackey writes:

“We cannot know who we are without knowing who we were, and we in Canada — whatever our origin or skin tone — will never know that without understanding the black experience and what it tells us about Eurocentric culture that has dominated our history. But we cannot begin to restore the missing black element to its rightful place without first establishing who the blacks were who have been left out.”

In 1841, the Province of Canada was formed. It contained Canada East (Quebec) and Canada West (Ontario). Professor Wayne’s 1995 work addressed the presence of the Black population in Canada West (Ontario) in 1861. Although many were born in the province, they did not have freedom from pervasive racism.

Although entitled to equality before the law, they experienced persistent discrimination. Whites called them “nigger” to their faces, and worse. Still, when the Civil War ended most chose to remain. Canada was not all they had hoped for, perhaps, but, despite what their white neighbours may have believed, it had become home. For the 40 per cent of the black population who had been born in the province, it had never been anything else.

We know from the 2022 article in ‘Vankleek Hill Stories’, History of Racism & Stereotyping in Vankleek Hill’s Past [link here], that the “N-word” was used in The Eastern Ontario Review which began publication in 1893. No readers’ letters of complaint were published about its use which sadly infers that the term was longstanding and deemed acceptable.

A word search in The Eastern Ontario Review for the “N-word” finds it intermittently used in the purchased pages of fiction and international news from 1894 to 1915. In 1916, the term appears in seven issues of the newspaper, then fewer times in 1917 and 1918, until disappearing in 1921.
… The intent of racism is to objectify and dehumanize a race. To make “those people” appear both lesser and less deserving; and, in turn “we” become both more deserving and entitled to hold the power.

The 1861 Census enumeration forms officially indicated the racist term “Mulatto”. The term was historically used to describe a person who had one Black parent, and one White parent. The derogatory term is derived from the Spanish for mule, which is half horse and half donkey. This racist term was successfully designed to be demeaning and offensive.  
Other races do sadly share in being the subject of racial epithets. However, unlike the Black population, no other racial group is defined by their percentage of White. “Mulatto” immorally implies that to be less than Black is better.

Dingman’s Electric Soap‘ advertising pamphlet, c.1890. Developed by Archibald Dingman at his Toronto soap factory. It is a laundry detergent in bar form. This racist promotional material was available in the ‘McCuaig, Cheney General Store‘ which today houses the Vankleek Hill Museum. The prejudiced graphic demonstrates that Black children can never be as clean as White children. It forces the racist conclusion that Black children, indeed Black people, are shamefully less than white. (Donor: Ken & Daisy Brock)

Wayne’s research of the 1861 Census for Canada West provided the quantity of those enumerated in Column #13 “Colored Persons, Mulatto or Indian.” The results for our region were: Prescott County: two; Russell County: nine; and Glengarry County: 39.
In 2000, Barry Christopher Noonan, for the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, published Blacks in Canada 1861. He compiled the names of everyone identified in the 1861 Census Column #13 as: “Black, Mulatto or Indian”.
Noonan’s valuable work provided names. He noted that ‘more than half the people listed as Black or Mulatto in the 1861 Census were born here and not ‘freed slaves’.’ That conclusion agreed with Michael Wayne’s research.
With the assistance of these two publications, for Prescott County we are able to locate:

— John Dawson, age 20, in the Township of Longueuil (today part of Champlain Township).
— A. Robertson, age 19, in the Township of South Plantagenet.

We must keep in mind that these two young men were born c.1840; Dawson in “Canada East” and Robertson in “Upper Canada”. That was only a few years after the abolition of slavery in Canada. An ugly fact to consider is that although the two were not ‘freed slaves’, they very likely had parents or grandparents with direct life experience with slavery.

John Dawson, Longueuil Township

In the 1861 Census report for Longueuil Township, Prescott County is John Dawson. In Column #13 for “Colored Persons, Mulatto or Indian” there is the letter “M” for “Mulatto”. Dawson was born in Canada East (formerly Lower Canada). He was Roman Catholic, and he was unable to read or write.
There is no occupation indicated for Dawson; however, he was enumerated with Wilfrid Labelle, age 23, and his wife Mary A. Labelle, 23. Wilfrid Labelle was an “innkeeper” in Longueuil who had a one-storey log building.
Also enumerated with Wilfrid and Mary Labelle was Olive Brazeau, 20, who was a “Servant”. The census indicated that neither Olive Brazeau nor John Dawson were Labelle family members. Neither Brazeau nor Dawson lived with the Labelle Family.

1861 Census, Township of Longueuil: John Dawson, labourer, 20, single, born Canada East, “M” in Column #13. Wilfrid Labelle, Inn Keeper; Mary A. Labelle; Olive Brazeau Servant. Enumerator: J.C. Marston. (Library and Archives Canada)

To get an idea of the business that John Dawson worked for, we look at the 1861 Census Agricultural Schedule for Longueuil Township. Wilfrid Labelle’s log house sits on one acre. He has one horse and one cow valued at $70. And, he has a “carriage for hire” which was valued at $24. As an innkeeper he was in a position to provide transportation for his guests, or service to the community.
The enumerator, J.C. Marston, did not provide any value for the Labelle business, nor the wages paid to either of Olive and John in the columns provided. Marston was one of many disgruntled enumerators. Their instructions sent them to enumerate in January and February, in winter conditions compounded by what Marston referred to as poor road conditions and a “scattered” population. The official pay for enumerators was 10 shillings per 100 names. Marston and others petitioned for 15 shillings per 100 names.
Twenty years after the 1861 Census, Wilfrid Labelle appears on the 1881 Prescott County map for Longueuil Township where he now owns a hotel. We discover that he was born in Québec in 1838, and arrived in Longueuil in 1859 just before starting his innkeeping business.
Did John Dawson relocate from Québec to Longueuil Township with Wilfrid Labelle? The many facets of Dawson’s life may never be fully known.

Detail from the Prescott County map, showing a section of Longueuil Township. The property of W. Labelle is indicated on Cassburn Road. Information collected by the map-maker stated: Wilfrid Labelle had a hotel, that he was born in Quebec in 1838, and arrived in Longueuil Township in 1859. (Canadian County Atlas Digital Project, McGill University)

The 1881 Prescott County map for Longueuil Township map indicated Wilfrid Labelle’s hotel in the northeast section of Cassburn Road, at the bend.
With no more than an approximate year of birth, 1841, and the general location of Canada East, I have not been able to find out more about the life of John Dawson. In later census reports, there are a number of John Dawsons in southern Ontario.

A. Robertson, South Plantagenet

The second person to be identified as “M” for “mulatto” in the 1861 Census for Prescott County lived in South Plantagenet.
In the 1861 Census for South Plantagenet was A. Robertson, 19. In Column #13 was “M” for “mulatto”. He was born in Upper Canada, was Roman Catholic, and was unable to read or write. His occupation was listed as “labourer”.
Robertson was enumerated with Lumber Merchant James Burton, 30, and his wife Hannah Burton, 26. The couple had two children: L.J. Burton, 4 and Simon, 2.
The Burton Family had one “Servant”, Jane McCullough, 18, originally from Ireland, who the enumerator listed as single, and he indicated she was a member of the family.
Then followed a list of five male labourers, all single. Two were family members: Robert Burton, 20, R. Burton, 22. Three were non-family labourers: A. Robertson, 19; A. McPhee, 27; and, William Mackie, 25. (Mackie appears on the next page of the Census.)

1861 Census South Plantagenet, detail showing the Burton Family and their employees. Indicated is A. Robertson, labourer, age 19, single, born in Upper Canada, “M” in Column #13.

In the corresponding 1861 Agricultural Schedule for South Plantagenet we find out more about the Burton Lumber business.
It was located on the “Rear of the 8th Concession”. James Burton had livestock, two horses and two cows, valued at $110.
For the business, Burton had 100 acres valued at $400. According to the enumerator, Burton “saws logs,” and his saw mill operated on “water power”. The “Capital Invested in Business, in Real & Personal Estate” was valued at $2200. The sawmill, valued at $2000, annually produced “200 thousand feet” of “boards” with a value of $1600. This was a substantial family business that required employees.

This depiction of a private sawmill business in the late 1800s demonstrates that the workers required skills to perform their duties – whether harvesting trees, harnessing horses, sledding logs, using the sawmill. (Brault, Lucien. Histoire de Prescott et Russell, Ottawa 1965.)

James Burton reported to the enumerator that he had “four male” employees and “one female”. The individual wages listed under “Average Cost per Month for Male Labour” was $10. For the “Average Cost per Month of Female Labour”, the answer was $2.
Although we can tally five named male labourers, apparently one of them is not officially collecting wages. Were one of the two family-related labourers not collecting wages? Did the enumerator make an error in his reporting? We will never know the explanation.
On the 1862 Walling map of Prescott & Russell, we find J. Burton on Lot 23 Concession 10, South Plantagenet. A creek off the South Nation River runs through his lot.

Detail from 1862 Walling Map. The blue marks the property of J. Burton, just south of Pendleton.

Neither the Burton Family nor the Burton sawmill appear on the 1881 Prescott County map for South Plantagenet.

What do we learn?

As in the case of John Dawson, there is little information available to help enrich our knowledge of the life of A. Robertson. Perhaps there will be someone to take up that research.
The research of Professor Wayne does inform us that in 1861, Prescott County had at least two Black men in the population. Russell County had nine persons and Glengarry had 39 persons of Black race (see listings at bottom).
With the work of both Wayne and Noonan, we have added to our knowledge of the people who made-up our region in its early formative years.
As we pull ourselves away from perpetuating the narrow white European origin stories of those colonial days, we now accurately acknowledge that we are in fact on non-treaty Algonquin Lands.

Thanks to available research, we can rework our preconceived notions about early arrivals here, and recognize that there were Black neighbours — people who had to endure the deliberate racist society around them.
Critical knowledge of our community reveals new diversity, and tells us that ‘we are richer than we think’.

1861 Census report of Column #13, Prescott County, Longueuil & South Plantagenet townships. (Blacks in Canada 1861, Barry Christopher Noonan, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2000)
1861 Census report of Column #13, Russell County, Clarence Township. (Blacks in Canada 1861, Barry Christopher Noonan, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2000)
1861 Census report of Column #13, Glengarry County, Lochiel Township. The enumerator followed the protocol instruction of identifying the children of Evender and Margaret Dewar as Black, the same as their father. However, their daughter Mary Dewar, 7, is classed as ‘W’ which indicates the enumerator was grading the degree of skin colour. (Blacks in Canada 1861, Barry Christopher Noonan, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2000).
1861 Census report of Column #13, Glengarry County, Charlottenburg Township. (Blacks in Canada 1861, Barry Christopher Noonan, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2000)
1861 Census report of Column #13, Glengarry County, Lancaster Township. (Blacks in Canada 1861, Barry Christopher Noonan, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2000). The enumerators were instructed to identify the race of children in keeping with their father’s race. Louis and Elizabeth Richelieu’s children are identified as ‘W’.

The history of Pilon’s Bakery

We welcome the story of Pilon’s Bakery in Vankleek Hill, a family business that spanned five decades. It is written by Jean-Luc Pilon based on audio recordings made by his father Ambrose, and informed by his own family experiences at the bakery during his youth. Thank you Jean-Luc for sharing the history of this well-loved and long-remembered business.

“Lately there has been quite a bit of interest around reminiscences of Pilon’s Bakery. I recently completed a personal historical overview of Pilon’s Bakery that I shared on a family history website. The main storyteller is my father, Ambrose Pilon, and I complement his account with a number of photo-essays. I hope this will bring back more vivid memories and perhaps answer some questions.”

— Jean-Luc Pilon
Pilon’s Bakery, Main Street East, Vankleek Hill. (courtesy Jean-Luc Pilon)
Notice the blackboard sign propped up against the building. It’s announcing an upcoming softball game. Bill Pilon was a longtime softball umpire at Vankleek Hill games. There was never any arguing with his calls!

Click Here To Read The Story

The history of phone service in Vankleek Hill

Vankleek Hill Telephone Service: the beginnings

Compiled by Michelle Landriault from a 1962 essay, author unknown; the Stardale WI Tweedsmuir Book held in the archives of the Musée Vankleek Hill Museum; and recent research.

In 1890, cantaloupes were known as watermelons. Most young men had livery bills. The hired girl drew $1.50 a week. Lamplight illuminated every street corner 72 years ago [from 1962]. All this existed when the telephone came to Vankleek Hill.
The telephone connection was local news at this time, and a call to either Ottawa or Montreal drew as much comment from the boys around the cracker barrel in the general store as a rocket launching does to their modern counterparts today.
“Two Texas steer horns tied together with a wire, and an arrangement to make the concern bleat like a calf,” was the editorial comment of one newspaper shortly after the discovery of the telephone was announced in 1876.
By 1890, Vankleek Hill was talking to itself and to its neighbours over Alexander Graham Bell’s 14-year-old invention. Communicating by the telephone was still considered somewhat of a novelty.
In many homes across the province, for instance, it was not unusual to see a small bag of camphor decorating the telephone set as an added precaution, or so it was thought, against the spread of disease. [Eastern Ontario Review August 16, 1962]
To a pioneer lineman, the virtue of patience took on a greater significance as he travelled across the country breaking the horizon with miles of telephone poles and wire.

Vankleek Hill Bell Telephone Crew: “Bell Boys 1953” (l-r) Gabe Poirier, Fred Currier, John Nezan, Doug Hall, Jack Kitchen, Ernie Steele, Ed Mullin. (courtesy Debbie Hall)

He would politely, or not so politely as the case might be, explain to his perennial group of onlookers that the wire was neither hollow nor did it have a hole in it. At times, it became too much for even his stoic calm and the occasional whisker was nailed to the pole as well as the cross-arm.
Within a relatively short time, a vast whispering gallery of iron and copper extended across both Ontario and Quebec, and isolated areas were becoming a thing of the past. By the summer of 1890, a fine web of lines had caught-up Vankleek Hill, Hawkesbury, and L’Orignal.
That same year, an exchange service opened at Vankleek Hill shortly after a small switchboard was installed in the store of Z.J.E. Beaudry, and Mr. Beaudry was placed in charge.
The following year, further developments occurred. Pete I. Saucier succeeded Mr. Beaudry as the local Bell representative, and a direct telephone line from L’Orignal to Vankleek Hill was opened.
Long-distance calls during this time were connected at the telephone office in Hawkesbury where a call could be switched to Ottawa or Montreal. From these two centres a telephone user could reach hundreds of towns and cities in Ontario and Quebec.
As we can see from a report in the September 1888 issue of The Glengarrian, in these early years, business and professional people were usually the first to subscribe for service. Gradually, as the advantages of telephone calling became more apparent, telephones were installed in private homes.
It is extraordinary to read that by 1888 Vankleek Hill already had telephone services.

“With its numerous inhabitants and a well-built town, illuminated by over 200 electric lights, netted with telephone wires which connect the leading stores, hotels and business offices, as well as the residences of the leading citizens, Vankleek Hill has reason to be proud of its success.”

[The Glengarrian, Alexandria, September 28, 1888]

Among the first subscribers at Vankleek Hill were Doctors A. McDonald and D.J. McIntosh. The number steadily increased within the next few years and by 1897 the total of subscribers had risen to 19.
From the Stardale WI Tweedsmuir Book comes this May 1897 directory list of Vankleek Hill telephone subscribers. [The Historical Society added locations where possible.]

N. Butler, hotelkeeper (11 High Street); Canada Atlantic Railway Station (town’s east rails); Canadian Pacific Railway Station (TransCanada trail north of town); G. Constantineau Hotelkeeper (41 High Street); Durant Brothers (102 High Street); Banque d’Hochelaga (38 Main East); B. Kelly Hotelkeeper (113 Main East); E.Z. Labrosse Grocer (28 High Street); McCuaig, Cheney & Co. Merchants (Museum at 95 Main East); J.S. McIntosh Merchant (76 Main East); H. MacKinnon Physician (151 Main East); J.R. McLaurin Merchant (94 Main Street East); J.R. McMaster Hotelkeeper (68 Main East); A. Metcalfe Veterinary Surgeon; R.P. Pattee Physician; Joseph Routhier Machinist (Pearl Street); W.C. Sylvester and Son Grist Mill (Farmer Avenue); F.W. Thistlethwaite Conveyancer; and the Vankleek Hill Manufacturing Company (Mill Street).

In sharp contrast to the modern compact phones of today, were the old-time Blake sets used by pioneer telephone users here which consisted of three boxes mounted one above the other on a board.

Exhibit of telephone evolution & design. Montreal, 2018

The generator for ringing central, or other subscribers on the line, was in the top box from which the receiver hung. The mouthpiece was in the centre box and the battery or talking current was in the lowest box.
Recalling a characteristic of the old-time telephone apparatus, a notice in the directory stated:

“Face the transmitter with the mouth about two inches from the opening. Speak naturally, distinctly, and not too rapidly.”

Another footnote warned subscribers: “Do not use the telephone during a thunderstorm.”
Gradually, the Blake telephones were replaced by improved long-distance sets that greatly increased the talking range from 100 miles if “atmospheric conditions were favourable,” to about 1,000 miles.
By 1906, among those taking advantage of these improved phones were Joseph Hurtubise at the Grand Central Hotel (68 Main East); D.A. McRae Undertaker (Main Street East); H.C. Jones proprietor of the Eastern Ontario Review (Main East); the Ottawa Bank (90 Main East) and the Hochelaga Bank (38 Main Street East); Donald Shea and J. Sherman livery stables.
This 1921 report in the Eastern Ontario Review provides insight as to the annual charges for telephone services. Note that the charges are annual and not monthly.

New Bell Telephone Rates Vankleek Hill, The Eastern Ontario Review, 1921: “In Vankleek Hill, a business ‘phone costs $25.00 and a house ‘phone $20.00 a year. The increase under the new schedule will mean an addition of $2.50 a year in the one case and $2.00 in the other …. “

The year 1902 saw the completion of a long-distance line between Vankleek Hill and the neighbouring community of Rigaud.
In 1897, the telephone agent changed again to Hugh Duncan and on May 1, 1904 druggist Edward Elvidge was appointed local manager and the central office was established in the rear of his drugstore. The exchange office remained in the same building until dial service was introduced in 1960.
The telephone office remained open for business from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. during the week; from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays; and from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., and 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. on holidays – a far cry from the 24-hour daily service available here today.
Informality highlighted the early exchange. It served many purposes. It was a means of neighbourly chatting, an efficient method of business communication, and a fast way to bring help in case of fire, illness, or another emergency.
The operator knew everybody by name and everybody knew her. She was the town’s alarm clock. She woke subscribers for work, to catch an early train, and to give them an early start in the hunting season. In fact, the demands upon her time went far beyond operating the switchboard.
Miss Clara Lajeunesse, who began her career as an operator at the exchange in 1907 and served in this capacity until her retirement in 1945, was one of the first operators in Vankleek Hill.
Telephone traffic slowly but steadily increased through the years. In 1911, the number of subscribers had risen to 50; a year later, the 100 mark was passed. By 1930, there were over 200 telephones connected to the local switchboard.
In 1937, Edgar Brown bought Mr. Elvidge’s drugstore and took over management of the telephone office. His wife, Helen, assisted him both in the store and at the switchboard and was appointed chief operator in 1944. That year, the exchange was converted from an agency to a company operation which meant that its administration became the direct responsibility of the Bell Telephone Company rather than of local agents who had formerly operated the office under contract.

In 1937, Edgar Brown purchased Mr. Elvidge’s drugstore at 92 Main Street East, and managed the Bell switchboard office located at the back. The Bell operators, (back) Doris Smith (Sproule) and Helen Allen (Cameron), conveyed all local calls until dial telephones arrived in 1960. Mrs. Helen Brown was Chief Operator, and Joyce McCrimmon (Nixon) was also an operator. Priscilla Milner took over from Mrs. Brown in 1962. (courtesy Debbie Hall)

Mrs. Helen Brown served as a chief operator until her retirement in May 1962 and was succeeded by Mrs. Priscilla Miner.
Looking after the telephone requirements of over 600 customers in the town when dial service was introduced was chief operator Mrs. Milner, and a staff of eight which included Mrs. Lorraine Mooney, Mrs. Kay Hurley, Mrs. Jean Barton, Mrs. Esther Miller, Miss Lucienne Paquette, Miss Isabel Campbell, Mrs. Mary Wathier, and Miss Laura Duffy.

Bell Telephone employee James Oswald, Vankleek Hill: Bell employee James Oswald outside his home on Jay Street, early 1970s. James had a 35-year career with Bell. He served as a Vankleek Hill town councillor & deputy reeve. Each year, when the new ice was laid at the arena, Jim was the first to put on skates to glide on the fresh ice. (courtesy Dawn Pier)

The history of Sinclair Supply Company

A story of the Siversky family’s success in Vankleek Hill

In 2001, Historical Society summer student Seema Maloni interviewed Sidney Siversky. Here is an excerpt focused on the Sinclair Supply business that his older brother Alex Siversky began in the 1940s, and which Sidney joined as a partner.
The interview covered various aspects of Sidney’s busy life: arrival of the Siversky Family in Canada; his business life; and his political life when he served as Mayor of Vankleek Hill.
As Sidney Siversky mentions here in 2001, his older brother and business partner Alex Siversky died in 1996. Sidney died in 2005, and their brother Frank Siversky passed away in 2020. Frank, together with his wife Frances Siversky, founded and managed the successful Siversky Hardware store on Main Street in Hawkesbury. The brothers were a powerhouse example of entrepreneurial spirit.
Here is the Sinclair Supply Company portion of the 2001 interview, in Sidney’s own words. Additional content is clearly indicated.

Sinclair Supply: the beginning

The company my brother Alex and his partners bought in Vankleek Hill was operated by John A. Sinclair. After we purchased the company, Mr. Sinclair used to come down and sit in the office and he did this for probably four or five years. He didn’t work or anything, but he was interested in the progress the company was making. We decided to continue operating the business under the name Sinclair. Because of the different ventures, we called it Sinclair Supply Company. He was well-known in the community, and, until the end of the business we used Mr. Sinclair’s name.
The company was originally purchased in 1947 by my brother Alex and his partners. And then the partners were eventually bought out. My brother Alex and I worked together for some 50 years. He is now deceased.
The year I came to Vankleek Hill, my brother Alex had come 2 or 3 years earlier, and bought a building that operated as a building supply company in those days.

Clipping from 1945 issue of the Glengarry News. These ads demonstrate the determination of Alex Siversky to connect with a wide community, and to develop a business response.

They sold coal, they sold lumber, they had a sawmill, they had a kiln to dry lumber, and a little sash and door plant. The sash and door plant was inside the former Agricultural Society building. It was a very interesting building in the design of it.

Historical Society Note: The first fairgrounds in town were at the corner of Mill and Boyd streets, today vacant land. The Vankleek Hill Agricultural Society purchased the land in 1872, and a segment of Mill Street became Agriculture Street. There was a $575 mortgage which was discharged in 1880. As the fair became more popular and expanded, the Fair Board sold the land for $805. In 1886, they purchased a larger lot on Main Street West for $1,625, where the Vankleek Hill Agricultural Fair is held today.

Vankleek Hill Insurance Map, 1912. Alex Siversky used this old map because the property he purchased at the corner of Mill and Boyd streets still contained the same buildings. He superimposed his Sinclair Supply Company needs over the old buildings he would re-use. The L-shaped building opposite the top of Jay Street (to the right) and circled in green is the Agricultural Society Hall constructed between 1874 and 1886. (Musée Vankleek Hill Collection, donor Ted & Marcia Liddycoat)

Sidney continues: When I first came to Vankleek Hill to join my brother, I drove a truck. We had an old Model T Ford truck. I did that, delivering merchandise.
In those days, we made some changes in the sash and door plant. We started building furniture, and we built end-tables and sold them to Eaton’s in Montreal. After a few years, we found out that this wasn’t a viable profit-type of operation, so we abandoned doing that.

Sinclair Supply Company Ltd., c. 1945. This building first served as the hall for the Vankleek Hill Agricultural Society between 1872 and 1886, when the Society purchased the current location on Main Street West for the Fair. Alex Siversky re-purposed the building. (Photo Siversky Family Archives)

We continued making door frames and windows in the sash and door plant. We sawed the lumber and we had a lumber-drawing in the yard, and kept a big inventory. We had the kiln, and we had horses.

Expansion continues

As time went on, we decided to buy an oil truck. We could see that oil was the coming fuel, and we did an assessment of the area and we found that none of the trucks had meters on them, only gauges. It was a visible type of thing. So, we bought a new truck with a meter on it. We built-up quite an oil business.
We found that we had developed a lot of steady customers with our lumber supplies sales. When a large construction contract was awarded in the area, we’d complain that we were not able to sell these customers any materials. Our customers said, why don’t you get into construction and you can supply your own materials.
So, then we decided to get into construction.

Disaster strikes

And then we had a terrible fire.
We were pretty well wiped-out of the whole business of the sash and door plant. There was no town water system, so we just grabbed what water we could. That was the end of that operation.

In 1951, fire destroyed the offices and workrooms of Sinclair Supply. Decisions had to be made about whether or not to continue. (Photo James Oswald Family Archives)

After the fire my brother and I sat down and discussed, “What do we do?,” “Do we rebuild?” We had no insurance. We couldn’t afford insurance because there were no fire hydrants, no fire protection; insurance was too costly.
We did rebuild, and later we had some 200 employees. We had our own plumbers, our own electricians, our own carpenters, so it was a big responsibility.

Sinclair Supply Rebuilds Bigger

Sinclair Supply Company building, late 1950s, at corner of Mill & Boyd streets. The log home on opposite corner remains in place today, covered by siding. (Musee Vankleek Hill Museum. Photo by Archie Hardy)

We started doing repairs in the construction field. We did renovations. Somehow, we got into housing, and we did a considerable number of houses in the community. We started the first subdivision in Vankleek Hill just off Highway 34. (Hillview Subdivision)
And we built houses in the subdivision (Stevens subdivision – nicknamed the ‘new development.’). We built houses for CIP. Over a 15- to 20-year period, we built a house for every CIP President elected. We were fortunate to be awarded those houses.
During that period of time, we also worked at the Seigneury Club in Montebello. They built some huge houses.
But then because we lived in a small community, and our staff was getting larger, we felt that we had to expand.

Sinclair Supply Employees Remembered

We had several employees in those days, and a lot of them were related or inter-related. We had quite a few employees, and their names were Lapensée. We had four or five from the same family working for us. Then we had another family by the name of Cummings, and we had two of their family working for us. Then we had twins working for us, their name was Doth. They stayed with us for years and years. I’ve forgotten how many, 35 or 40 years.

Memory from J. Denis Seguin Architect of Vankleek Hill who worked summers as a student at Sinclair Supply, and credits many of the longtime employees for grounding him in construction methods.
Denis adds: When we remember the employees, it is equally important to recognize the Siversky Family as ‘donneur d’ouvrage’ – their business efforts kept countless families fed in this region.
There were in-store workers like Lionel Mercier, and Gerry Piché. Carpenters, such as René Ouimet – in my view, a man who could make anything with any material.
My stint with Sinclair began in the estimating office working under Leonce Delplancke. In 1976, I was a junior estimator at $5.00 /hr. This was summer employment while attending university.
Later that same summer I asked Mr. Siversky – Sydney – if I could join the construction/carpenters crew. He said, we need to know what you can do. He gave me the job of adding tin to the 2nd floor office rooftop. I was up for it, and jumped at it for a raise to $ 7.00/hr if I did well.
Télis Lapensée took me down to the third yard, known as the company scrapyard, and left me there to sort through secondhand tin. There was a lot of re-purposing back then. After I completed my selections, Télis returned with the big Hyster fork lift and got the sheets of tin. He raised it all to the roof and I unloaded it.
It took a few days for me to complete the roofing, and Sidney came to inspect. His response was, job well done. He brought me orange paint to make it all look good from afar.
I got my raise, and was sent out with the men to construction sites in Cornwall, Prescott, Hawkesbury and then across the river to Quebec projects. We left the shop at 7:00 or sometimes at 6:00 a.m., which made for 44-hour weeks with some O/T.
Sinclair was building homes all over the place. René Ouimet and I were on the finishing crew. We did all the touch-ups, special installs like fireplaces, poured walkways, installed floor finishes and carpet, hung doors etc.
Sinclair began doing social housing projects in Cornwall. René and I did final stairs, window caulking and deficiencies clean-up for final inspections.
Once Sinclair got the provincial contract to build and maintain OPP stations, I got to help. We also did work on their buildings in Hawkesbury and Vankleek Hill.
In Vankleek Hill, in the ‘new development,’ I worked on the 28-day house at the corner of Home and Barton streets. It was built in 28 days.
Sinclair had me build decks and even window flowerboxes such as at the Orr’s house on Barton Street. They are still there, 40 + years later.
I worked for Sidney and Alex Siversky for four summers, and it strengthened my construction knowledge which led to my becoming a successful architect. To this day, I can walk through any construction site and say, “I did that kind of work.” Because of my experience with Sinclair Supply and the employees I worked with, I know what it takes and how to do it well.

Sidney continued: At that time, I was looking after construction, and doing the estimating and pretty much everything except doing the inspection of the construction. We thought that we would have to specialize, and go farther afield.
From there, we got involved with curling clubs; there was a need for curling clubs. So, we built the curling club in Vankleek Hill; we built the Hawkesbury Golf and Curling Club. Then we went to Baie d’Urfe and built a curling club. From there we went into different types of construction, we went into schools, and we did high schools too. Another year, it was church halls. Then the Ontario government decided to subsidize housing and build senior citizens’ homes. We set-up a department to look after that. We built them in most communities from here to beyond Cornwall, and up as far as Ottawa.  We stayed out of the big cities.

Housing & Industry Markets

We built hundreds and hundreds of either individual houses that were subsidized, or senior citizens’ homes that were probably 40 or 50 units at a time, in different towns like Finch, Avonmore, Lancaster, Hawkesbury.
Alex looked after the building supply company; he looked after the financing of both that and the construction because it grew so large that we pretty well had to divide it. We still operated under the same name, but I was responsible for construction and he was responsible for the financing. As the projects grew, the financing was considerable.
Then in 1970 or 1972, there was a movement from the province of Quebec for industry, and we got involved in what we call ‘design build.’ We hired our own designers and by that time we had three estimators in the office, and we started building plants.
In Hawkesbury alone, we built about 80% of all the new plants. We expanded and went into Cornwall to build some plants, and then up to Kingston, Brockville and Napanee. During those years we were specializing in industrial buildings.
At the same time, we sometimes got involved in what is called a turn-key building, that we owned and we would lease to the manufacturers. We built some of those, kept some of them for ourselves which we still own. There was another period where we got into building banks. We built numerous of those.
At the same time, we built-up quite a large land-bank in the Hawkesbury area. Between the two communities of Hawkesbury and Champlain Township, we had some 400 to 500 acres of industrial or commercial land, and we have been developing it.
Within the town of Hawkesbury, we also have commercial land which we have sold over the years. Where the new Zellers store is, that was developed on our land.

Note: The Zellers building is Walmart today. In 1999, Hawkesbury named the street access to Walmart, Alex Siversky Street.

In the late 80s, Sinclair Supply built a second outlet in Hawkesbury. It was a 10,000 square foot building on Spence Street which had a modern building supply store and it was operated for three or four years.
But it proved to be unnecessary as it was too close to the one in Vankleek Hill which maintained its popularity.

In 1967, Vankleek Hill Mayor Sydney Siversky promoted the publication of “An Invitation to Vankleek Hill.” It was published by the Industrial Committee and the contact for investors was Cecil E. Barton, Clerk of Vankleek Hill. This page is an excerpt from the booklet. (Musée Vankleek Hill Collection, donor Michelle Landriault)

The history of Vankleek Hill’s Mill St. Park 1950-1979

A Story of Kids Finding a Way To Play

Twice, Vankleek Hill has constructed an arena on a lot facing Mill Street and backed by Wall Street. How did the arena come to be in this location?
This is the location of a small body of water known as the “tarn”, a lingering glacial depression that collected water. In this case, an underground spring. The lane that sweeps behind the current baseball field is Loch Street, named after the original pond.
From an undated scrapbook comes this nostalgic 19thC memory of the pond and the big rock that sat within the water. It was written by W.D. McLaurin – William Drake McLaurin (1850-1938) – the son of Vankleek Hill merchant John McLaurin and Hannah Drake. In his 20s, William was a cooper and at the time of his death at age 88 in 1938, he was described as a street car conductor.
The reason for his death in October, 1938 speaks to his independence. William caught a chill at his Union Street home while chopping wood for the winter, and died of pneumonia in the Vankleek Hill Hospital on Bertha Street.
His brief memoir of adventures at the pond in his youth provides us with a precious view of how children made their own fun – all year long – before the existence of modern parks and recreation. Note that W.D. McLaurin refers to knowing Peter Vankleek – this would have been Peter Cass Vankleek, great-grandson of Simon Vankleek. The memories take place about 1860 when William Drake McLaurin was 10.
What prompted him to write? He tells us it was the deliberate blasting apart of the large rock that was, for the children, the central spotlight of the tarn. Based on his reference to friends long gone, I suggest that he wrote this in the 1930s.

The Stone in the Mill Pond by W.D. McLaurin

Yes, the stone, or rock I might call it, the one that stood in the centre of the pond, is there no more, destroyed last Fall, what about it? Only a stone, blown up to make room for something else, it may mean nothing to you, but it does to me, for I miss it every time I walk down Mill Street. It may mean the same to my schoolmates, but they are silent about it.
There are only a few of us left anyway. But I remember when the pond was to us boys a “Lake, ” yes, a lake, for I have seen it roll up to the road, beautiful waves on a windy day, the sparkle of the sun light playing upon it, made it appear as if the great stone were a Scotch pebble set in a brooch of diamonds and pearls. Then, our swimming place at the foot of the old lime kiln, where the water was clean for about one hundred feet, is now all covered with weed.
On the pond I had my raft, where I spent many happy hours. Peter VanKleek made a boat and gave me a ride in it, which I enjoyed very much. I never forgot Peter for his kindness to a boy. But the stone, what was there about it, that if I went near it, it filled me with awe. I kept away from it, somehow I felt as if it were very deep there, and if I fell in, they would never find me, and I did not want to die and go to Heaven, Vankleek Hill was heaven enough for me, but I did row up to it one day, and touched it.
A party of us made a raft of four logs, and when we got near the rock two of the logs broke away, and into the water went the boys, my brother Peter among them. Dexter Flynn lifted the boys back onto the two logs I was sitting on, then Dexter waded ashore. Peter and I went home, Peter to dry his clothes; for punishment we were sent to bed at four o’clock and us hearing the boys playing out on the street, however it did not prevent me from being on my beloved raft the next day.
Then when winter came, and the pond frozen over, what a gathering place the great stone made for the skaters to rest themselves upon. The girls in the afternoon, the boys in the evening, the delightful sociability of it all, that clusters about that stone.
By and by, like our grove which was our play ground and park, the pond also like the grove, only a memory, who cares, or do you care? Well, let me tell you about another stone, when you pass away, loving relatives will place a stone at the head of your grave, plant flowers and visits will be made every afternoon, by and by the flowers will wither and die, the stone will commence to lean over, a little more next year, a few years more, it lies flat on its face. What about it, nobody thinks enough of you to straighten it up. Who cares.
— W.D. McLaurin

Where did the children find logs for a raft? A variety of small sawmills were in operation scattered around Vankleek Hill, including Mill Street. In 1883, the tarn/pond attracted Albert Cheney and Robert Dunning who opened a large sawmill business, located where the arena stands. The company expanded in 1891 to become the Vankleek Hill Manufacturing Company with general store owner Malcolm McCuaig as president, postmaster William McAdam was secretary-treasurer, and Albert Cheney remained as manager. The tarn or pond was used for floating the logs. There was a turning mill for sash and door making, as well as fancy work such as gingerbread scroll work.

Vankleek Hill Manufacturing Company, Mill Street c.1910 (Vankleek Hill Museum postcard collection)

The business prospered as local farmers now had a place to bring all types of wood from their land clearing, while at the same time they could pick-up finished products for their new buildings, as reported in the Eastern Ontario Review on March 2, 1894.
Fire was a constant threat in sawmills where sparks would easily leap and quickly find combustible materials. In 1918, the VKH Manufacturing Company sawmill on Mill Street burned down to the ground.

Report on successful Vankleek Hill Manufacturing Company activities. The Eastern Ontario Review, March 2, 1894.

Detail from the Vankleek Hill Insurance Map, 1912 showing the buildings of the Vankleek Hill Manufacturing Company on Mill Street.

In the 1920s, the property was advertised for sale for at least two years. A reduced business of milling finished-lumber continued until 1928. That year, lumberman John R. McLaurin bought the property to use for storage.

Short years later, in 1933, owner John R. McLaurin died, and the property passed into the hands of his widow Elizabeth “Bessie” A. McLaurin.
Even during those sawmill years, children still dared to have their fun at the pond. According to author Alan MacKinnon, his late father Clifford played “on the logs in the mill pond when the ice went out in the spring. The farmers would bring the logs in by bobsleigh in the winter time and leave them on top of the ice.

“The young boys would jump from log to log playing lumber jack to see who could last the longest. In the winter time they would slide down the large frozen sawdust pile (to the south-east of the sawmill building) on their feet.”
With the 1930s abandonment, town children returned to make their fun on the pond in the summer, and on the ice in the winter. Even the remaining smokestack became a target for bb guns and stones. The late Lionel Mercier, a Vankleek Hill councillor, enjoyed recounting the time as a child when he and a few friends removed – borrowed – the base of a new small coffin from the back of a furniture store on High Street to use as their boat on the shallow pond.
In 1950, widow Elizabeth “Bessie” McLaurin donated the sizeable property to the town for recreational use. Bessie was able to see the new arena completed before she died in 1955.

First Vankleek Hill Arena

Vankleek Hill Flyers posing for their photo in the 1950s arena. Photo James Oswald.

Once the property became municipal, final drainage of the pond took place and the work began to develop an indoor arena. The Vankleek Hill Chamber of Commerce and VKH town council supported the project, and money was raised in the community through auctions, raffles, benefit hockey games and entertainment.
Interviewed in 1989, retired VKH Postmaster & WWII veteran Jack Hurley recalled being on VKH council at the time. He said, “Everybody helped. There were no government grants then; it all had to be raised locally. Ninety percent of the labour was donated.”
Once built, Hurley recounted that in the early 1950s, crowds of up to 1,100 would pack the new Vankleek Hill arena to see the intermediate hockey team that he managed, made-up primarily of Hawkesbury players, defend the town’s honour in the Central Ottawa Valley Hockey League: “That was in the pre-TV years,” he said.
Hurley explained his belief in the importance of sports. “Sports are the greatest thing for a kid to get into.” He connected sports to the camaraderie he had experienced in the RCAF – the team spirit. “The same applies to sports,” he said.
The formation of the local Legion branch kickstarted sports for kids and for “old vets,” he added. Soon there was a ball club, and an outdoor rink at the current location of Country Depot on Home Avenue.
He added from his time coaching young male hockey players, “I’ve had the chance to meet so many nice people. There is a lot of comradeship. Sports can bring pride to a place. There is always a certain amount of pride, even if you lose. In the old days, our teams didn’t win a provincial or national championship, but we had a lot of fun trying. We may never have had too many big stars in town. But I’ve coached a lot of good players who grew up to become really fine fellows.”

Gregoire “Bulldog” Matte, 1953.

Jack Hurley laughed when he remembered the “good, friendly rivalry” between towns. Vankleek Hill kids taunted visiting hockey teams. With the advent of house leagues, said Hurley, that rivalry waned. And without the rivalry, the finances and team fan interest dwindled over the years.

Arena Demolition in 1971

In 1971, that first VKH 1950 arena building was condemned by provincial inspectors. The 1959 fatal roof collapse of the Listowel ON arena, that killed six young hockey players and their coach,brought changes to building codes following the inquiry. Professional building inspections were now required. Limited government grants, through the pooling of tax monies to meet various needs across the province, were available – if the VKH community raised its share of $465,000 for a new arena.

Former Champlain Township Mayor Gary Barton explains: “The first arena was closed after the province required the town to have an engineer inspect the building for safety purposes. An arena in Listowel ON had collapsed due to excessive snow on the roof.

“At that time, I was the Chair of the Vankleek Hill Recreation Committee and we were called to a meeting one Saturday morning in February, along with the members of the Town Council. Sidney Siversky was the Mayor. Gaetan Lascelles P. Eng.  from Hawkesbury presented his report, and informed us that the Arena had to be closed.

“I asked him, ‘when?’ and he replied, ‘Today!’ Obviously, shocking news to all of us. In any case, there are many other details related to the building that still stands there today.

“But most important, was the community support received in order to build the new arena that we know today. With limited government grants, the new arena was opened in 1979 and it was debt free.”

Once again, volunteers swung into action with the same 1950s list of small town fundraising activities. Building codes prevented volunteer labour from being a large part of this new 1970s equation; however, donations of second-hand equipment played an important role in the fundraising that went on for several years until the 1979 opening.

Boys of Summer Resurrect Ball Field

Denis Seguin Architect alongside Cooper Smith at the 2019 Historical Society Retro Fashion Gala. Cooper is modeling Denis’ Vankleek Hill Stones ball uniform. Photo Gabriel Landriault.

The 1971 demolition of the 1950s arena, plus the years needed to raise almost a half-million dollars, put a long pause on team sports played in town. Several Vankleek Hill hockey teams played in St. Isidore, or in L’Orignal, St. Anne de Prescott and Alfred.
The demolition made the ball field unusable as it became the debris field for the old arena trusses and other large wreckage. The ball diamond, already in poor condition, only got worse.
Over time, the old arena construction materials sank into the ground, and the grasses grew tall and wild.
On a spring day in 1971, a group of curious teenagers rode their bikes over to assess the ruins. These future ball players saw potential, and with their collective hat-in-hand, they went to VKH town council to plead their case to clean-up the demolition rubble to restore the ball field.
Council agreed to lend a hand in return for a promise from the boys to help clean-up the ball field. It was agreed, and the town removed the debris.
With step one accomplished, the ball players – Denis Seguin, brothers Michel and André Martel, and Frank Martel – persevered. Town employee Edward Seguin, Denis’ uncle, had a couple of scythes to loan them. They got to work cutting down the high grass on the field.
Then the foursome borrowed their family lawnmowers and gas, and off to the park they went to cut down the grass. Next, the white fence around the field (Loch and Wall streets) was in bad repair and they nailed it back together. Leftover white paint was used until it ran out.
Town residents noticed the efforts, and stopped to talk, and to encourage these Vankleek Hill boys of summer.
Denis Seguin recalls obtaining a roll of heavy wire from his Uncle Edward to sew together the chain link fence used as the back-stop, stitching through the holes in the wire.
He added, “The ball diamond was weeded and the whole thing raked. We started after breakfast everyday and went on into the evening. It was fun, and now and then we put on our ball caps, our ball mitts, and played a little ball.
“We got it as far as we could, and then came the time when we needed more help.”
They returned to address Council, and their work was acknowledged. “We pleaded for a load of dust stone for the diamond and I think we got two. We raked it and cherished the new look of it. We were in heaven,” said Seguin.
He added, “After that it had to be up to us.” Michel Martel was the acknowledged leader of the small band, and together with the Martel Family dedication to the Vankleek Hill community, the next phase put into motion what needed to be done to actually play ball.
“We needed to raise money, so off we went to see Mr. Levac, Furniture and Electrical Appliance, at the corner of Main and High streets,” said Seguin. The raffle was for a table-top b&w 12″ t.v. from Mr. Levac’s store.
The ticket sales had to first cover the cost of the prize. To this day, Michel Martel is amusingly uncertain whether they got a ‘real deal’ from Mr. Levac.
Michel and André’s mother, Andrea Martel, helped with the tickets. “We sat down and made them by hand, each with a number on them, in duplicate,” said Seguin.
Denis Seguin recalls standing in the middle of Main Street selling raffle tickets to people driving by. “They had to stop because I was just standing there. They would roll-down the window, probably to tell me to get out of the way, but it was business first. And I sold them tickets. I think it caused a bit of a line-up, but that was good for business back then,” he said with a laugh.
It took off from there. Within a couple of years, the boys were 16. “We played with the men who came out of their sports retirement to join us on the ball field, and guide us in many ways. The improved condition of the field returned softball and fastball to our community, and both men and women’s ball flourished for many years.”
The rehabilitation success and the learned life skills brought the Vankleek Hill Stones to the resurrected ball field. Four boys learned a lot about politics, work ethics, business, volunteering and camaraderie.

Second Vankleek Hill Arena Opens 1979

Fair secretary Jack Hurley on the phone in the 1960s at the VKH Fairgrounds. Jack served on VKH Town Council, raised funds for the first VKH Arena, coached hockey, promoted sports for youth.
Photo Jeannine Duval Seguin Archives.

The new arena officially opened in 1979, and was greeted with community fanfare. Fundraising never really stopped, and every year improvements were made to ensure success. This continues today.
In 1989, on the 10th anniversary, Jack Hurley’s efforts for the first arena were recognized and he became the first inductee into the Vankleek Hill & District Sports Hall of Fame. VKH Recreation Coordinator Janis Renwick said, “Volunteers have been the backbone of Vankleek Hill recreation …. We salute the many who have given of their time to give us all a rich sports history … minor hockey, senior hockey, broomball, softball tournaments, carnivals, dances – all in this location.”
Hurley was honoured by the VKH Recreation Board for his volunteer efforts as a coach, manager, organizer, promoter, and fundraiser. As well, he served as curling club president, flooded hockey rinks, negotiated deals with softball stars, recruited players and donations.

Doug Hall captured playing a country tune c.1970. Photo Debbie Hall.

At the 1989 event, Douglas Hall was honoured with a Certificate of Merit from the town for his volunteer work that included tending to the outdoor Legion rink, his involvement in local hockey, and his work as a Recreation Board member. Doug Hall represented the “countless citizens who have raised funds for a rink in Vankleek Hill over the years,” said Renwick.
Janis Renwick told a fundraising story about each arena. She gave a lesson – in how not everything goes according to plan.
“When the first arena was being built, Don Messer was booked as the crowning glory of the fundraising campaign. When the famous fiddler had performed his concert to a large crowd, organizers were left with a $1000 bill and a profit of 35 cents.”
“No one thought it could happen again.”
It did, when in 1978, a few weeks before the official inauguration of the second arena, another star attraction came to town. “Profits from the Family Brown concert were $36.22.”
Renwick laughed, and added, “We learn the hard way!”

Your Arena Story

Interior of Vankleek Hill Arena. Photo Champlain Township

There are many stories connected to the two Vankleek Hill arenas. Human stories, sports stories, event stories, fundraising stories. They go on and on, because for so many years this location has been at the heart of the community.
Please feel welcome to send us your story, so that we can continue to build the arena story for the future.

(With information from Le Moniteur & The Echo-Express, Feb. 25, 1989: “Replaying the glory days of Vankleek Hill sports;” “Arena builders saluted.” by Richard Mahoney.)

The history of Riverest Regency Cottage

A Story To Celebrate L’Orignal’s Past And Future

Riverest Regency Style Cottage, L’Orignal. Built 1833. To open in May 2021 as Riverest Marina & Restaurant. (photo 2012)

As always when reviewing history, particularly local history, everything is open to further research.
In May 2021, the 1833 heritage site Riverest Regency Cottage on Wharf Street in L’Orignal plans to open as the Riverest Marina and Restaurant. To mark this endeavour, we present this brief history of the first two families to live in this beautiful home.
The Regency style cottage Riverest was first occupied by John Wurtele Marston in 1833. His father Jacob Marston Jr. was one of the earliest settlers in L’Orignal. John W. Marston lived at Riverest from 1833 to his death in 1880.
The next owner was Edward Alexander Hall from 1881 to 1912, and he was head of the Ottawa Forwarding Company.


The L’Orignal Seigneury was formed in 1674 and owned by François Prevost. Next it came into the hands of the Chevalier de Longueuil. With the 1791 passing of the Constitutional Act, the seigneury became part of the new province of Upper Canada. The Chevalier’s son, J-D Emmanuel de Longueuil, put the lands up for sale. In 1796, American Nathaniel Treadwell purchased the defunct seigneury for 1000 guineas. (More detailed history of the community is available in the publication L’Orignal-Longueuil: Au fil du temps / Through the Years published in 2011.)
Some settlement had already taken place. Notably, Jacob Marston Jr. arrived in the 1790s, and there was also Joseph la Rocque-Brun and Joseph Pomeroy Cass. Treadwell got busy and encouraged wider settlement.
By 1825 the village had 12 houses, the McIntyre store, William Waite’s tannery, John O’Brien’s public house, and a schoolhouse. Formal discussion of building a court house is on the official records in 1816. The new court house would open in 1825. Today it is recognized as the oldest court house in Ontario.

County Court House for Prescott and Russell, L’Orignal ON. Opened in 1825, it is designated as the oldest court house in Ontario. To the left is the jail that is now a heritage interpretation centre, l’Ancienne Prison/ Old Jail. The court continues to be active. (Photo: Michelle Landriault)

Plans for a court house firmed in 1823 when Jacob Marston Jr. gave two acres from his holdings in trust to George Hamilton, Alexander Grant and Donald MacDonald. The court appointed John Chesfer (Chesser), Alexander Grant (Duldraeggan Hall) and Donald MacDonald as an oversight committee for the construction of the court house. Once fundraising ‘subscriptions’ began, Charles Waters was added to the committee, and Alexander Grant became the treasurer.
Heritage historians suggest the brownstone court house was completed in 1825 when not only benches were procured for the court room, but there was also the appropriation of thirty shillings to Almstead Gates, Deputy Sheriff, for the construction of a pair of stocks adjacent to the court house.
As to who designed the court house, there are two threads of thought. In the records of the Quarter Sessions of April 24, 1824, the order was given to pay William Moody “ten shillings for drawing plans for the gaol and court house under direction of the court.” Heritage historians question whether Moody actually designed the building, or if he was hired to draft the plans.
The other theory as to designer, is that the plans were drawn-up by either Charles or William Lundrum, engineers who lived in Riceville. Certainly, when extensive additions were made to the court house in 1861, William Lundrum was the architect and a Mr. Matthews was the contractor.

Marston Family

This introduction to early settlers and the construction of the court house informs investigation into Riverest. The presence of engineers Charles and William Lundrum providing services in L’Orignal suggests the possibility that the Riverest regency design arose from their expertise.
With Jacob Marston Jr. providing land for the court house, and his son John Wurtele Marston as the first resident of Riverest, we now look back to when the Marston Family arrived from the United States.
Jacob Marston Sr. was born in New Hampshire in 1750, and he married Hannah Post in 1773. Their son Jacob Marston Jr. was born in Fairlee, New Hampshire in 1774, and he was the first of nine children.
In 1784, Jacob Marston Sr. and Hannah left New Hampshire to live in the Montréal area where he held the position of High Constable – le grand Constable.
There is evidence that Marston Sr. was acquainted with Nathaniel Hazard Treadwell, an American living in Canada who had large holdings in L’Orignal and Longueuil Township. Treadwell and his wife are buried in the Cassburn Cemetery.
In the February 1796 ledger of Québec Notary John Garbrand Beek is the following entry which indicates Jacob Marston Sr. acquired land in the Seigneury Jouet on the Rivière l’Assomption. These lands were purchased by Treadwell just days before.

Excerpt from February 1796 ledger of Québec Notary John Garbrand Beek which indicates Jacob Marston Sr. acquired land in the Seigneury Jouet on the Rivière l’Assomption from Nathanial Hazard Treadwell.

Then in 1802 a land grant in Lower Canada is issued. Jacob Marston Sr. “high Constable” along with his oldest sons Elihu and Jeremiah had applied for 1200 acres. Jacob and his sons are recognized in this grant as arriving in Lower Canada in 1784, and they were granted a “warrant of survey” in Portland Township Lower Canada in 1792. Portland Township at that time was bordered by Wakefield and Buckingham. Note that in 1784, Elihu and Jeremiah were ages 8 and 4 so it is clear Jacob Sr. had their future interests at heart. In this 1802 land grant, all three are described as “deserving Loyalists.”

Page from 1802 land grant in Portland Township, Lower Canada awarded to Jacob Marston Sr. and his two sons Elihu and Jeremiah. Jacob Marston Sr. had extensive communications about land grants. Portland Township was located in the Gatineau Hills between Wakefield and Buckingham QC.

At age 75, according to the 1825 Census of Lower Canada, Jacob Marston Sr. was living in the Paroisse de Montréal. His wife Hannah Post, 70, died that same year, and the funeral service was held at Christ Church Cathedral in Montréal. Marston Sr. died in 1830 at age 80, and his funeral service was also held at the Christ Church Cathedral in Montréal.

Jacob Marston Jr.

Jacob Marston Jr. came to L’Orignal in the 1790s in his 20s, and in 1806 he married Mary Cass, a member of the United Empire Loyalist Cass Family of Cassburn. They had seven children. Mary died in 1835.
Jacob Jr. is credited with being civic minded in donating lands to further the advancement of the village of L’Orignal, including land for the courthouse.
A population shift was about to start. There was no standing army in Lower and Upper Canada until after Confederation in 1867. Military activity relied on volunteer militias. The 1st Regiment of the Prescott Militia was formed as early as 1812, and Longueuil Township residents such as Ensign Charles Waters of L’Orignal served 1812-1814.
Historically, it was service in the War of 1812 that brought many French Canadians to take up their Longueuil Township land grants awarded for their militia services defending Lower Canada at the U.S. border.
In 1842, Jacob Marston Jr. married Sarah Chamberlain of East Hawkesbury in L’Orignal. His son Josiah was a witness for this second marriage. The couple had two children. In the 1851 Census, we find Jacob Jr., age 75 and widowed a second time, visiting his son George Marston at his farm in the Township of Hull, Quebec. Perhaps this Gatineau Hills Quebec location is linked to the 1802 land grant given to Jacob Marston Sr.
In the 1861 Census, Jacob Jr. was 87 and living with son Josiah C. Marston and his family, in a 2-storey wood frame home on Josiah’s farm in Cassburn.

18th Prescott Militia payroll, 3rd Company, L’Orignal. Coming back to the local militia – Richard Henry Marston, son of Josiah and Hanna, and grandson of Jacob Marston Jr., was an active member of the 3rd Company, 18th Prescott Militia, L’Orignal. He is found present and signed-in to be paid $8 for attending drill exercises in 1865, and here again in 1873.

John Wurtele Marston, Riverest

John Wurtele Marston, son of Jacob Marston Jr. and Mary Cass, was born in L’Orignal in 1806 and christened at Christ Church Cathedral in Montréal where his sponsors were Wurtele family members who had immigrated from the U.S. and had early business dealings with his grandfather, Jacob Marston Sr.

Bio of John Wurtele Marston from the Canadian Biographical Dictionary and Portrait Gallery, Ontario Volume, 1880.

According to the Biography, John Wurtele Marston started his mercantile business in 1828. He then married Mary Ann Davis in 1836. In a 1973 Ottawa Journal feature article about Riverest, the author reports that Riverest Cottage was constructed by John Wurtele Marston in 1833. As can be seen by both his business interest and the impending marriage, this construction date makes sense.

In 1838, John Wurtele Marston was a member of the 1st Regiment, Prescott Militia. In his 1895 publication History of the Counties Argenteuil, Quebec / Prescott, Ontario, author Cyrus Thomas reports that in 1838 the Prescott Militia was “well officered”, as this was following the 1837 Rebellion. The payroll table indicates John Wurtele Marston is an Ensign who received his first appointment in 1832.

The 1st Regiment of the Prescott Militia became the 18th Battalion of the Prescott Militia at the time of the 1860s Fenian Raids. The 18th Battalion volunteers met at least twice a year to practice drilling and to have marksmen competitions. To sharpen their skills, there were competitions with their Quebec counterpart, the Argenteuil Rangers. In planning these events, they chose the farm of a member where they came together with their militia accoutrements and horses. The Vankleek Hill Museum has several 18th Battalion red military jackets.
In the 1851 Census, John W. Marston is a merchant in L’Orignal. He is 46, already a widower, and living with him are his children: Sarah, 15; Mary Ann, 13; John J., 11, Caroline, 8. The household includes their cousin Ann McLeod, 19; plus, two servants: Ann Jane Fulton, 18 born in Ireland, and Peter –? 18, a French Canadian – likely day workers who returned home at night. John W. Marston does not remarry.
The 1851 Census reports that the family lives in a stone house that is 1.5 storeys, Riverest, and there is a separate stone building which is a store.
In 1856, William Lundrum who had designed the courthouse, designed the L’Orignal quay located on the Ottawa River just north of Riverest. Wharves were largely responsible for bringing early prosperity to L’Orignal, a principal stopover for loading and unloading merchandise long before Hawkesbury took over that role.

Detail from 1862 Walling Map of the five counties, SDG & Prescott and Russell, indicating the quay or wharf located north of Riverest. Also, in the lower centre of the map is the location of the farm of J. C. Marston (Josiah), John Wurtele Marston’s brother. At the time of the mapping, their widowed father Jacob Marston Jr. lived with Josiah’s family in Cassburn.

In the 1861 Census, John Wurtele Marson is now identified as the County Treasurer. He continues to live in the stone house on two acres of land.
His one horse and one cow have a livestock value of $55. His carriage is valued at $110. Daughter Mary Ann, 22, continues to live at home. John J. Marston, 20, is a medical student. Daughter Caroline is 17. There is one servant, Alexis Boneau, age 15.
In 1863, John’s father Jacob Marston Jr. died at age 89. He had arrived in L’Orignal and Longueuil Township at the outset of settlement. He was a key contributor to the construction of the courthouse and gaol, and to lasting improvements to the village. His children were successful.
Author Cyrus Thomas provided a bio of John Wurtele Marston, undated and written while John was still living by someone who knew him. It has the tonality of a tribute for a life event, perhaps when he turned 70. It focused on his career with no mention of his militia service.

John Wurtele Marston, Treasurer of the United Counties of Prescott and Russell for the last quarter of a century was born in L’Orignal on the first day of May 1806 and has always been a resident of the place. His father, Jacob Marston, a native of New Hampshire followed his grandfather [John Wurtele’s grandfather Jacob Marston Sr.] into Canada a little before the close of the last century and visited the spot where L’Orignal now stands, in 1796, coming here with Nathaniel Treadwell, the proprietor of the township and being, it is claimed, the first Anglo-Saxon to fell a tree in this township; and two or three years later, made a permanent settlement here. The mother of our subject before her marriage was Mary Cass, whose father was a United Empire Loyalist.
Mr. Marston received an ordinary English education; clerked for some years for Silas P. Huntington and in 1828 commenced the mercantile business for himself continuing until 1851 with fair success. During a part of this period, he held office in the Ottawa District. He became clerk of the District Court and Registrar of the Surrogate Court in 1846; Deputy Clerk of the Crown in 1853; and, since 1855, has been Treasurer of the United Counties of Prescott and Russell. He has proved a very faithful county officer, is a model accountant, and a man of the highest integrity, and has unlimited confidence and greatest respect of the people. Mr. Marston has had much concern for the educational and other interests of his native village, and served for some time as Trustee of the High School. He is an adherent of the Presbyterian Church; has been a trustee of the Canada Presbyterian Church since it was organized in 1832, and is the only one of the five charter trustees now living. He is most emphatically the oldest landmark of L’Orignal. Born and reared here, the fourth season of his life already seemingly far spent, he has seen the Ottawa Valley in this vicinity converted from a wilderness into a well improved country with all the marks of thrift as well as civilization. He is a remarkably well-preserved man, and a stranger would hardly place his age as high as seventy. His life has been remarkably exemplary, worthy of being copied by young men. In 1836, Mr. Marston married Miss Mary Ann Davis of Milton Vermont, and she died in 1844 leaving four children – one son and three daughters. The son, John J. Marston, M.D. has been assistant surgeon in the American Army since 1864; Sarah, the eldest daughter, married Eden P. Johnson of L’Orignal, and died in 1867; Mary Adelia is the wife of John Millar, merchant, L’Orignal; and Caroline I. is the wife of Sturgis M. Johnson of Almonte, Ontario.

(History of the Counties Argenteuil, Quebec / Prescott, Ontario by Cyrus Thomas, John Lovell & Son, Montreal, 1896 – pp. 521-522)

John Wurtele Marston died on October 17th, 1880 at age 74. The death register entry states he is County Treasurer. No reason is provided for his death. Dr. James McIntosh of Vankleek Hill signs the entry.
With his death, the Marston Family connection with Riverest ended.

Edward Alexander Hall, Ottawa Forwarding Company

In the 1881 Census for L’Orignal, Edward Hall, 27 and Irish, is identified as a ‘Commercant’ – a merchant. He is married to Julie Soulière, 30. Their children are: Alice, 6; Frank, 4, and William 2. We know they purchased Riverest because their youngest daughter Eva was born at the house in 1881.
In 1891, their family home is identified as “Pierre 1½” with 9 rooms. Edward’s trade is listed as “merchant grain.” Knowing that Edward Alexander Hall owns the Ottawa Forwarding Company, it is interesting to see in the same census that his two brothers, James Hall and William Hall of L’Orignal, are each identified as a “Capitaine de navire”. The census stops short of identifying if they work for the Ottawa Forwarding Company; however, it does seem likely. Each had a family to support.

Ad from Ontario Gazeteer & Directory 1898-1899

In the 1901 Census, Edward, 47, is again “commercant de grain”. He and Julie, 54, lived at Riverest with their children: Maude, 24; Frank, 23 – a “Capitaine de bateau”; Walter, 22 – a “clerk”; and Eva is now 17. Edward’s earning for 12 months is $1,200. Frank earns $600 over eight months of the year. Walter earns $500 over 12 months.

In the 1903 issue of The Canadian Engineer, we find that the Ottawa Forwarding Company has commissioned the construction of a new boat by J. & R. Weir of Montreal: 107 feet in length with a capacity of 150 tons. $25,000. in cost – about $500,000 today.

The Ottawa Forwarding Company navigated goods back and forth between Montreal – Ottawa – Kingston using tugboats, barges and steamboats, and they also provided some passenger service.
Although Edward Alexander Hall maintained ownership of Riverest until his death in 1912, it appears he also had an Ottawa residence which makes sense given the nature of his business.
Edward Alexander Hall died at age 58 on April 17, 1912 in Ottawa from heart disease. His address is given as 65 Delaware Avenue, Ottawa. He is identified as a “Forwarder”. His son Frank Edward Hall came from Montreal to look after the estate. Edward is buried in Beechwood Cemetery.
Riverest was sold and has had a number of owners over the century since. According to current owners Alexandra Quester and André Chabot some of the past owners are Frank J. Pattee, Ernest Johnson, Hilda M. Elliott, Donald and Ann Mclean. Paule Doucet was the most recent owner and she was active in promoting local heritage.
According to a 1973 Ottawa Journal article, Riverest was purchased in 1959 by Douglas D. Stewart, who was still the owner in 1973 when the house was featured.

Looking across the Ottawa River to the Lower Laurentians from the Riverest Marina, April 2021. In the summer the hills are variations of verdant greens, and in the fall the famous colours of the Laurentians are thrilling.
(Photo: Michelle Landriault)

Riverest, architectural details

In their 1963 book published by Clarke Irwin: The Ancestral Roof : Domestic Architecture of Upper Canada, Marion MacRae and Anthony Adamson state that Riverest is “the finest example of Regency in Ontario”.
A 1973 Ottawa Journal feature by Audrey Blair provides us with a valuable informal inventory of Riverest. The interest Ms. Blair had in writing the feature was sparked by her familial ties with Eva Hall Blair born at Riverest in 1881. The owner, Douglas D. Stewart, who Blair states purchased Riverest in 1959, provided Blair with the interview.
Here is information provided in the feature article:

Site: The storey-and-a-half stone cottage is built on the length. The site location is “congruent to the site” as Regency architecture demanded, and is both aesthetically perfect and extremely practical. Surrounded by magnificent trees and gardens and contemplating the lovely Laurentians across the Ottawa River.


Porches: Originally there were two matching porches – on the north and south sides – the north porch was already removed by 1973. The porches are latticed with delicate supporting columns.

Front door: The front door originally opened to the river view. It is more elaborate with elliptical fanlight and moulded trim arched over the fan that sweeps out to frame the sidelights.

Central hall: This hall runs from front to back with entrance doors that have eight panels each. The hall has views of the river. The hall may have been reduced in size prior to 1973. From the hall there is a staircase with a nested newel, slim stair rails and wide steps. Originally, the staircase may have had matching newels.

Dining room: This room is now enclosed (1973). The dining room retains a Regency fireplace with two china cupboards on either side of a wall niche. There is a sideboard of rosewood or mahogany original to John Wurtele Marston.

Kitchen: Kitchen wing is at far east end. It once had a fireplace (blocked-in); huge bake oven still exists (1973) lined in brick, and large enough for an adult to stand upright inside. Over the kitchen is a small room with dormer windows; an extremely narrow staircase leads up to this room from the north end of the kitchen. Originally, this staircase rose from a library-den that became an office. By 1959, alterations had changed the kitchen wing (1973).

Drawing Room: This is on the west side. It has an elegant Regency fireplace flanked by an open china cupboard with corner-boxed corners. This matches the woodwork downstairs which is bullnose with centre trim, corner-boxed doorways, and doorways all have double-cross panels. There are two large French windows at either end of this lovely room. There is a ‘heat-hole’ between it and the hall that has removeable cover panel – open in the winter and closed in the summer.

Bedrooms: The downstairs west wing has a bedroom that opens off the drawing room and has three French windows. There are three bedrooms upstairs with a central bathroom. There are ample clothes cupboards.

Other features: French windows; decorative chimneys with dentelled trim at the top; fanlights and sidelights on entrance doors and all windows — by 1959 the fanlights had been covered (1973).