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History of the County of Bruce, Ontario, Canada
Town of Chesley


[The name Chesley was given to the post-office without any regard to the wishes of the people of the locality being shown by the Post Office authorities. Solomon Chesley an erstwhile official in the Indian Office, is he whose name is preserved in the name of the village.]

The greater part of the lands situated in the vicinity of what is now Chesley were taken up in 1854, but not settled upon until the following year. In the early spring of 1855 the brothers, John, Alexander and Peter McLaggan settled on lots 30 and 31 in the third concession, and the same summer John and Archibald McDonald on lots 29, 30 and 31 on the second concession of Elderslie. On these farm lots the major part of the town of Chesley now stands.

Very little progress had been made in the way of clearing the land when, in 1858, A. S. Elliot [Adam Scott Elliot, the founder of Chesley, was a native of Howick, Scotland. He was but nine years of age when his parents emigrated to Canada in 1816, along with their family, and settled in the county of Lanark. In early manhood he engaged in farming and milling. As early as 1843 he visited the county of Grey with the thought of settling there, but did not carry out the idea until 1856, when he purchased property in Sullivan township and built there a saw and grist mill. In 1858 he purchased the land which forms part of the present site of the village of Chesley. In 1868 he sold out his Chesley business to his son, John H., and moved to Williamsford, in the county of Grey. In later years he returned to Chesley, where he passed away, July 3rd, 1899, in his ninety-second year. He was married to Janet Halliday, and had a family of ten children. Active and enterprising, he was a successful business man. In religion a staunch Presbyterian of the old school; kindly of heart, he did much good. Chesley has every reason to be proud of the man who was its founder.] purchased lots 30 and 31 on the second concession from Archibald McDonald, and he with his sons began to make preparation to develop the water power of the river flowing by and to erect mills. In 1859 they had a sawmill started, and in 1860 a small grist mill was in operation. In 1865 a few building lots of a quarter acre each, situated on each side of the side road, were sold on the easy terms of twenty dollars apiece, conditional upon immediate occupation, which condition secured the commencement of the village. In 1866 the population of Chesley consisted of the following named and their families: A. S. Elliot, miller; J. H. Elliot, storekeeper; John Cameron and William Ross, storekeepers; John Dobbie, blacksmith; John Shea, shoemaker, and Martin Schruder. A census taken the following year gives the population as but sixty persons. The little village made but slow growth at first. A plan of the survey of village lots made in the summer of 1868 shows only ten houses on the west side of Main Street, three on the east side, and seven other houses scattered about, making twenty in all, besides the saw and grist mill. Such was the extent of development attained by Chesley ten years after its beginning. It was in 1868 that John H. Elliot [J. H. Elliot was born at Smith's Falls, Lanark County, in 1836. He moved, with his parents, to near Chatsworth, where they established what was known as Sullivan Mills, and in 1858 came with his father to Elderslie and laid the foundation of Chesley. They started a sawmill and gristmill, and Mr. J. H. Elliot soon became famed far and near as a first-class miller. He also started the first store in Chesley. When Mr. Elliot surveyed his lands into village lots he did not reserve every other one for himself, as a. selfishly-inclined man would have done, but sold them at $20 each, and gave buyers as long as they chose to pay for them. The 30th side-road was at that time in an almost impassable condition, and to the improvement of this road Mr. Elliot devoted his attention, and to him more than to any other man is due the credit of transforming the forest road, through frog pond and boggy ground, into: a highway which to-day is one of the leading roads of the county. At this time all goods had to be teamed from Paisley to Chesley, and as this gave the business men of the former town a decided advantage over Chesley merchants, the commercial life of this place was threatened, Mr. Elliot saw the,, crisis, and when the opportunity arose he threw his whole energy into 'the railway project and was a leader in the struggle to have the Lake Erie and Georgian Bay division of the G. T. R. constructed from Stratford to Wiarton. J,' H. Elliot assisted a great many men in their business ventures, and there was scarcely a business man in the village, especially in the early days, who was not indebted to him for assistance rendered. Mr. Elliot not only encouraged others to erect buildings, but he built many himself. Two grist-mills, one of which is. the present large mill, two sawmills, and scores, of houses were built at his expense and under his personal supervision. He was one of the company that built the town hall, took shares in and strongly advocated the erection of the chair factory, and was a leading spirit among those who encouraged the locating of the furniture factory there. It would be impossible to give in detail the industries that he assisted in Chesley, suffice it to say that whatever was for the advancement of Chesley Mr. J. H. Elliot could always be counted on to give it his active support. His private interests were a secondary consideration where the. welfare of the village was concerned. It is not surprising that one who had been such a public benefactor should hold a warm place in the hearts of- the people. Before this village was incorporated he had been elected deputy reeve of Elderslie, and when Chesley was incorporated as a village, in 1879, he was elected by acclamation as the first reeve, at the elections in January of the following year. He occupied this position for eleven years, and before retiring was honored by his fellow county councillors by being chosen warden of Bruce County. Mr. Elliot carried on for eighteen years a private bank here, known as J. H. Elliot & Co. Nor was it only in material prosperity J. H. Elliot was anxious to see this village progress; everything that tended to. the moral and religious life of the cornmunity had his active sympathy and support. Mr. Elliot's end came May 11th, 1901. He was survived by his widow and five daughters. The funeral was large and representative, both town and country people being anxious to show the last mark of respect to one broad in sympathy and strong in faith, whose aim was to promote the glory of God and the good of man. The village council, on the occasion of Mr. Elliot's decease, passed the following resolution: ''Resolved, that this council feels impelled to express its profound regret at the death of Mr. John Halliday Elliot, who, in company with his father, laid down the foundation of this village, and to whose fostering care, perhaps more than to any other man, is due the credit of its present prosperity. We know that in its early struggle for existence he was the principal, if not the only, promoter of its business enterprises, and at every stage of its growth he was its most constant friend. He was at all times most anxious to render assistance to all proper schemes for promoting its welfare, and he has left us a noble example in the many sacrifices he made to improve the material condition as well as the mental and moral welfare of the residents of this village. In him the business men have lost a wise and prudent adviser and the poor a generous friend.'' —Chesley Enterprise.] purchased his father's property at Chesley and proceeded to have a survey made of village lots. It was in the same year that a post-office was opened in the village with Mark McManus as postmaster. Up to this time all mail matter was obtained at Scone, and Sconeville was the name Chesley was known by.

A resident of Chesley writing about the village in the winter of 1870-1, said: "We have got one of the best oatmeal and flour mills in the county, owned by Mr. Elliot, a cabinet factory, a shingle factory, three first-class general stores, two blacksmith shops, two waggon shops, two first-class hotels, kept by Messrs. McGaw and Adams, two cooper shops, one shoe shop, a tannery, a limekiln, and last but not least a skilful and obliging physician in the person of Dr. George Cooke.[Dr. Geo. Cooke, a native of Cookstown, Simcoe County, settled in Chesley in 1866, and was for many years one of its prominent citizens. During the years 1887 and 1888 he was reeve of the village. Dr. Cooke continued the practice of medicine at Chesley for a third of a century, when, owing to failing health, he removed to Toronto. His end came in December, 1903.] Nor are the intellectual wants of the people neglected, not by way of preaching, however, for sermons in Chesley are like angePs visits, few and far between, but by way of lectures under the auspices of the Chesley Literary Association." In October, 1875, another resident, in describing the village, after reporting the above-mentioned industries, increased somewhat in number, adds to the list a pottery, a brickyard, a sash and door factory, and a woollen mill operated by T. M. Chase. He mentions two churches—the Canada Presbyterian, with the Rev. John Bethune as pastor; the other a Baptist church, then without a pastor. "We have about five hundred inhabitants, but have no school-house," he adds, in closing.

The village from the time mentioned in the last paragraph made rapid progress. The prospect of a railway being run through to the Georgian Bay gave a feeling of security to all efforts made to develop the place. It was on September 3rd, 1881, that the first locomotive reached Chesley. In a week from that date the first shipment of freight by rail was made. For some months after this Chesley was the most northerly station on the line, making it indeed a busy little place.

The prosperity and development mentioned in the previous paragraph led to the taking of steps necessary for the incorporation of the village. On a census being taken the population of the village was found to be nine hundred and five. On this being represented, along with a petition, to the County Council, it passed, December 12th, 1879, the necessary by-law of incorporation, and appointed D. M. Halliday as the returning officer for the election of a reeve and councillors, which was to be held at Kilbourn Hall. Just here a hitch occurred which had not been foreseen. The Municipal Act required that such election should take place on the first Monday in January occurring after the by-law had been three months in existence. This would throw the first municipal election over until 1881. To avoid this the aid of the Legislature was sought, which passed an Act [43 Vic. Chap. 39.] validating an election made on the last Monday of December, 1879. The following were the councillors then elected: J. H. Elliot, reeve; Jas. Halliday, George Stanley, Dr. 1ST. B. Gillies and Alex. Ramage, councillors. In a footnote [Names of the reeves of Chesley: J. H. Elliot, 1880, '81, '82, '89 to 1896; H. A. Bonnar, M.D., 1883; George Stanley, 1884,' '85, '86; George Cooke, M.D., 1887, '88; J. M. Stewart, M.D., 1897, '98, '99, 1900, '01: W. A. Crow, D.D.S., 1902, '03, '04; Conrad Krug, 1905, '06.] are given the names of those who have filled the reeveship from 1880 to 1906. The first village clerk was John McBain. D. M. Halliday was appointed treasurer of the village, [The salary fixed for both the clerk and treasurer was but $25 per annum.] an office he held until his death in 1904. His successor, William McDonald, still holds office. The first assessor was Geo. Husband, who was expected to perform the duties of that office for a yearly salary of ten dollars.

Chesley has been broad-minded and liberal in its willingness to assume financial obligations when the interests of the village at large were concerned. The first public indebtedness was assumed in 1876, when the first school-house was built. To accomplish this $1,650 was raised by the sale of debentures. In 1878, when the first bonus was asked for by the Stratford and Georgian Bay Railway, Chesley, as part of the township of Elderslie, voted that $35,000 be given as a bonus. [The total of the annual levies Chesley raised to pay its share of this bonus aggregated nearly $6,000.] In 1879, when the railway came begging for a second grant, Chesley in response assumed a sectional indebtedness of $10,000. The next debt contracted was in 1888; this was for the purchase of a steam fire-engine at a cost of $5,200. The decision to erect the present school-house in 1897-8 called for the issue of $15,000 worth of debentures. In 1900, and in each year since, debentures have been issued to pay for local improvements, such as granolithic sidewalks and sewers. The aggregate of debentures so issued up to time of writing, six years in all, form a total of $31,411. Large as is the debenture indebtedness of the municipality, the villagers would not recall this expenditure, as it has been wisely and prudently invested for the good of the public.

As mentioned in a previous paragraph, up to 1875 (and for a year later, in fact) Chesley was without a school within its own limits. The following facts regarding the cause of education in Chesley are, by permission of the editor, extracted from The Chesley Enterprise, souvenir number:

"The children of the earlier settlers studied and recited their lessons in an old log school-house [A Mr. Murray, in 1858, seems to have been the first teacher of this school.] situated on Donald McGregor's farm on the second concession of Elderslie, and at least two Chesley matrons have personal recollections of the early school life. When the school became too small the classes were held in the old Presbyterian church on the second concession, the frame of which was afterwards moved to Chesley, and formed the skeleton of the old Methodist church.

"But Chesley's first, really, truly own school was built in 1876. This is the old school-house [This old building cost $1,650. At least, that was the amount of the debenture issued to pay for it.] across the river, which still remains although now used for other than educational purposes. The original building consisted of but two rooms, and it was much later, when these quarters became too small, that the addition on the north side was built. This was until 1897 the hall of learning, and around it cluster the school-day associations of most of the present generation. Walter Bell, who taught in the pioneer school on "the Second," labored here also and ruled, not by the rod, but by moral suasion. W. M. Atton forced ideas into the young minds by the frequent application of the tawse. A. W. Robb, of the Walkerton Telescope, urged the children gently but surely along the thorny path of learning. Mr. Cullen succeeded him, but proved inefficient. D. F. Ritchie built up a reputation for the school that caused it to figure frequently at the top of the list in Bruce County. It was Mr. Ritchie who was principal when the school removed to its present commodious quarters, where there are nine class rooms, a teachers' room, a trustees' room and a large assembly hall. After teaching for two years in the new building Mr. Ritchie resigned his position to remove to Owen Sound, and R. D. McMurchy, who had been for four months teacher of the private high school, was appointed principal in his place, and the high school was merged in the continuation classes, which became a noted feature in the work of the school. [R. C. Halliday, of the Chesley Public School, had the honor of being ' the first public school student to ever gain a scholarship in the Departmental Examinations, which he did in July, 1903. He stood fourth in the province.] At first only two high school teachers were employed, but a third was subsequently added."

In 1903 an effort was made to have Chesley made a high school district, which was acceded to by the County Council, and the required by-law was passed in January, 1904. The Chesley school building [Erected in 1897, at a cost of about $15,000.] ranks as the most complete and up-to-date of any in the county. Within its walls are accommodated both the public and high schools. The present principal is James T. Luton, M.A., who is doing excellent work. Chesley of to-day has indeed right to be proud of its school.

The church life now centred in Chesley commenced to take form in the locality of which it is now the centre in the summer of 1859, when the Rev. Alex. Stewart, a Baptist minister stationed at Durham, preached in the house of Archibald McGregor. In September of that year a congregation was organized which formed part of a charge that comprised Durham and Hanover as well. Over this widely extended charge the Rev. Mr. Stewart ministered. Lacking a church building the congregation at Chesley held services in the schoolhouse and in public halls until 1875, when a modest church edifice was erected, which is still in use.

Following close in point of time to the Baptists, the Presbyterians commenced to form the nucleus of a congregation afterwards to bear the name of the Geneva Presbyterian Church. The little body of worshippers met for worship in the log school-house which stood on lot 26, concession 3, of Elderslie. Every other Sunday from 1860 for a number of years the Rev. Geo. Bremner, the then lately ordained minister at Paisley, conducted the services. At times the village part of the congregation held services in Elliot's Hall. In 1872 a church was built in Chesley, and on October 20th, 1874,' the Rev. John Bethune was inducted as minister of the congregation. He was succeeded in 1879 by the Rev. John Ferguson, who after a most successful pastorate passed to his reward in 1890. It was while Rev. Mr. Ferguson was the minister of Geneva Church that the present commodious church building was erected, [The old church was sold for $1,000 to the Church of England congregation.] the opening of which took place January 11th, 1885, the Rev. Dr. Grant, Principal of Queen's University, officiating. The Rev. David Perrie was the next minister of the congregation. He resigned in 1894, and was followed in the pastorate by the Rev. E. A. MacKenzie (now filling a professor's chair in the Presbyterian College, Montreal), and he in 1900 by the Rev. J. J. Paterson. In 1904 the Rev. E. Atkinson, the present minister, was inducted.

The Associate Presbyterian congregation was organized in 1873. At first it existed in connection with the United Presbyterian Church of the United States. The congregation consisted of two charges, one at Chesley, the other at Williamsford in Grey County. The Rev. Thos. Hannay, D.D., who resided at Williamsford, attended, as far as his health permitted, to the spiritual needs of the flock. In 1876 the Rev. Wm. Findley was inducted to the pastorate, which lasted for three years, during which the church and manse were built. Then came a long vacancy. In 1889 the congregation was transferred to the Associate Presbyterian Church of North America. The present pastor, the Rev. S. H. McNeel, was inducted to this charge in July, 1890.

The Methodists were late in the day in organizing a congregation at Chesley, the date being about 1875. The Rev. W. B. Danard was the first minister. Services were held at first in Halliday's Hall. In 1876 the old frame church built by the Presbyterians on the second concession of Elderslie was purchased, taken down and re-erected in the village with the addition of a veneer of brick. This building being too small to accommodate the growing congregation, the present large and handsome edifice was built, the corner-stone of which was laid August 29th, 1898. The cost of this building was about $8,000.

The Church of England has not a large congregation at Chesley. At first it held services in Kilbourn's Hall. Then in 1884 it purchased from the Presbyterians their original church edifice. After worshipping there for twelve years, in 1896 steps were taken to build, and on August 4th of that year the corner-stone of the new church was laid. This congregation for a long time formed a joint charge with that at Hanover.

The settling of a number of German families at Chesley necessitated the forming of a congregation in connection with the German Evangelical Church, which in 1887 built the neat looking edifice in which they worship.

The press, as represented by The Chesley Enterprise, made its bow to the public in the early part of 1877, E. H. Spedding being the original publisher. Since he ceased to be the proprietor of the paper it has passed through the hands of the following: J. B. Stephens, Wm. Kay, A. W. Robb, Adolph & McDonald, and is now edited and published by Wm. McDonald. When Adolph & McDonald dissolved partnership (1893) the latter continued to publish The Enterprise, and the former, John Adolph, started The Free Press, which existed for about five years. In 1902 The Enterprise did itself credit by publishing a souvenir number, in which the story of Chesley, past and present, were ably told and delineated. The author was courteously permitted by Mr. McDonald to make use of anything therein which might add to the interest and value of this history, which offer has been gratefully accepted.

The growth of Chesley has arisen in a large measure from its manufacturing industries. The first of these were the mills built in the fifties by A. S. Elliot. The grist mill as it now stands was built by J. H. Elliot and Alex. Ramage in 1875. At that date it was the most complete mill of its kind in this district. Even to-day there are only two or three in the whole county to be compared with it. The Krug Bros.' furniture factory is a large industry that adds greatly to the output of Chesley's manufactures. Commencing in a modest way during the eighties, the business has now a market extending over the Dominion. In 1884 Stevens Bros. started a planing mill that has continued to increase year by year. D. Stevens is the present proprietor.

The first banking institution to open business in Chesley was a private bank known as that of Hay Bros., J. McBain, manager, After being in business for a few years they were bought out in 1879 by J. H. Elliot & Co., this latter firm being composed of J. H. Elliot, D. M. Halliday and J. McBain. Continuing to do a profitable business for twenty years, the firm sold out to the Merchants Bank of Canada in 1899. The first chartered bank to commence business in Chesley was the Bank of Hamilton, which opened a branch there in November, 1889.

June 9th, 1888, is a date that will be remembered in the history of Chesley as that of the great fire. At the time it certainly looked like a crushing blow, but it has proved rather of the nature of a blessing, in that the burned-over tract has been rebuilt with a handsomer class of buildings than were there before. The stranger entering Chesley from the south and looking down the main street from the top of the hill is struck by the handsome appearance of the business part of the town. It is unfortunate that the back and side streets do not convey as favorable an impression. Streets only forty and fifty feet in width are not in conformity with modern ideas. These narrow streets are the result of private surveys of village lots, which were not conceived on a broad and generous plan. The private residences of Chesley are a marked feature of the town, impressing the visitor with a sense of the number of well-to-do people in this community.

For many years the good people of Chesley were ambitious to have their municipality numbered among the towns of the province. A census taken in the summer of 1906 revealed the fact that the required number of inhabitants dwelt within the bounds of the corporation. The preliminary proceedings were then completed, and the Lieut.-Governor issued a proclamation erecting the village into a town and dividing it into three wards. The proclamation came into effect on October 1st, 1906.


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