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Along the Talbot Road

By O. K. WATSON, B.A., K.C.

President Kent Historical Society.

PIONEER settlement in south Kent, along the Talbot Road, was due to the initiative of the famous Colonel Thomas Talbot. It was on May 21, 1803, that Talbot established himself in Dunwich township; and the rapidity with which he peopled the wilderness may be judged by his statement in June, 1833, that he had placed a settler on every lot in Howard township excepting, of course, the clergy reserves and the Canada Company lands.

In the year 1804 Surveyor John Bostwick blazed the road westward through Howard. As late as however, Colonel Talbot wrote that the township of Harwich was "locked up by non-residents and clergy reserve lands," and that he was not extending his road through that township.

Settlement in Howard, however, appears to have antedated Bostwick’s survey; though dates are difficult to determine because the land was sold on time and the patents were usually not issued till the last cent was paid.

The first considerable settlement on the Talbot Road in Kent was Morpeth, It seems to have come into existence as a resting place, for travellers after climbing the steep hill. At a hill, help was required. Either the settlers’ effects had to be partially unloaded, or extra ox-teams or horses secured; and, after negotiating the steep climb, the average traveller felt disposed to rest overnight before continuing his tedious journey, the more so as repairs to chains, wagon and harness were often necessary.

So Morpeth doubtless came into existence — helped by the brawling creek at the bottom of the gully, which furnished ample power for primitive grist and saw mills. At one time there were at least four mills on this stream —one located a half mile south of Morpeth, another just north of the village, Campbell’s mill on the back road farther north, and Green’s mill on lot 13, concession 12. West of Morpeth another stream provided power for two more mills. The surplus products of these mills, together with farm products, were shipped from the port of Antrim at the mouth of Morpeth creek.

Antrim in the pioneer days had an excellent basin for dockage — long since silted up — and with a little dredging could have been made a good harbor. For some years it handled a large trade and helped the development of Morpeth into the third most important community in Kent.

Tradition has it that the naming of Morpeth was done by open vote in which the pioneer settlers split into two factions, one championing "Jamestown" — in honor of James Coll, the first settler — and the other "Morpeth" in honor of Lord Morpeth, who had recently visited Upper Canada. Both sides supported their claims with speeches, argument and whiskey; till the Morpethites captured the whiskey supply of their rivals, dumped it in the road —and won the day.

A traveller in 1845 credited Morpeth with two taverns, one distillery, three stores and a number of artizans. At a later period the town possessed no less than thirty shoemakers. Between 1861 and 1872 the population must have been 800, though an old map gives it as 1200, and shows a large area — now farm land — surveyed in town lots.

About this period the shipping port of Morpeth was moved from Antrim to the farm of Mr. Hill, whose dock became a busy place. A huge warehouse was constructed and large quantities of grain stored for shipment as favorable markets were found.

But in 1872 the advent of the Canada Southern Railway, which passed a few miles north, radically changed the destinies of Morpeth, in common with other communities on the Talbot Road. New communities sprang into existence along the railroad, and farmers, instead of taking their grain south to Lake Erie ports, took it north to the railway. Hill’s warehouse and dock became deserted and dilapidated. In 1885 the Dominion government built a pier and established the place as a harbor of refuge, but today fishing is the only industry in what was once a thriving lake port.

Morpeth, still a busy community in the 80s, gradually declined; though in recent years the paving of No. 3 highway and the development of tourist traffic has brought some revival.

The newer community of Ridgetown, on the Canada Southern railway, sprang up to take Morpeth’s place as a trading centre. The high ground on which it is situated and from which it takes its name was still a wilderness when in 1823 an Englishman named William Marsh made the first clearing on Lot 9, Concession 10, Howard. James Watson same next; then Edmund Mitton and Thomas Scane, with their families. Ehenezer Colby, from New York State, came a little later. Their farms represent the larger part of what is today the town of Ridgetown.

A word as to these pioneers. William Marsh, familarly known as "Daddy" Marsh, owned the first hand mill, which was in constant use by the settlers and is still in existence. James Watson, a little Kentishman, walked all the way from Ridgetown to Philadelphia when making his first trip home to England after locating. Walking, indeed, seems to have been a common stunt; for Edmund Mitton, an old country weaver, is said to have walked nearly the whole way from New York to Colonel Talbot’s place with his wife and family, the wife carrying an infant in arms. The Mitton family, ten in all, made their first home in a 14 x 18 log cabin, one storey high.

Mrs. Marsh, wife of "Daddy" Marsh, walked more than once from Ridgetown to Toronto, a distance of 180 miles, carrying a load both ways. That such strenuous exercise did not impair her health is evidenced by the fact that she lived to be 104, and on her 101st birthday, the last of the pioneers, she was publicly honored by the entire community, and presented with a medal.

The settlement grew; but as late as 1837 the nearest stores were at Morpeth and Antrim, and for many years these remained the important trading points of the surrounding country. The building of the Canada Southern Railway in 1872, however, brought a rapid development to Ridgetown; on October 16, 1875, it was incorporated as a village; and thenceforth its growth continued steady.

Though, according to Colonel Talbot, his famous colonization road had not been extended into Harwich before 1830, a colonization survey farther west was made by Colonel Mahlon Burwell shortly after the War of 1812, when the first attempts at permanent settlement were made.

There was a considerable settlement in the south end of Raleigh by 1817, the names of D’Clute, Toll, Lytle, Goulet, Pardo, Huffman and Simpson — still well known in the vicinity — appearing on the Talbot land registers.

In 1817 the beginnings of municipal government were established in the townships; and the census taken by William Sterling, a resident of the Thames river front, in 1820, shows 45 heads of families along the Talbot Road in what are now Raleigh, Tilbury East and Romney. Most of this settlement was in the Ouvry district. A post—office named Erieus was opened in 1831, if not earlier, by Colonel James W. Lytle, the storekeeper. This gave place in 1850 to Dealtown ; while the name of Ouvry first appears in 1876. The first school had already been established in 1842.

South of the Talbot Road lies the natural harbor of Rondeau Bay. The first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, had ambitious plans for this natural port: and, when ordering the establishment of the Chatham townsite on the Thames in 1795, he also directed Deputy-Surveyor Abram Iredell to survey a "road of communication" south to Rondeau, with 200-acre lots on each side for United Empire Loyalist settlers. Simcoe’s instructions also called for a townsite at Rondeau.

The road appears to have been opened only as far as the present Blenheim; but the town was surveyed and named Shrewsbury. The extent of Simcoe’s dream may be realized from the fact that 600 acres were reserved and at least 400 acres actually plotted. The plan shows numerous streets, named after the royalty and the military heroes of the time; a large square for gaol and court house, another for a market and yet another for a church. Across the bay the present Eau Point was designated "Ordnance Lands" where fortifications were to be erected to protect the harbor of Rondeau and the city of Shrewshury. Here were built, at a later day, some of the ships of Captain Barclay’s squadron, defeated by Perry at Put-in-Bay.

Conditions changed, however, before any actual settlement could take place; and in a later era the still vacant townsite of Shrewsbury was used as a refuge for fugitive slaves from the United States, some of whose descendants still dwell there.

Another community important in the early days was the village of Buckhorn which sprang up where the "Gravel Road" from Chatham crossed the Talbot Road. Traditionally this site had once been occupied by a village of Neutral Indians. By 1840, a small village had sprung up along the Talbot Road. A tavern, the "Farmers’ House," kept by Nelson Chapman, displayed a set of buck’s antlers as a sign; and wayfarers united in christening the village "Buckhorn."

Hugh McPherson was the first storekeeper and, after 1850, the first postmaster. In 1866 he was succeeded by W. S. Stripp, then 26 years old, a man of unusual vision and enterprise, who established the beginnings of various industries, planted vineyards, and visualized a thriving town and perhaps a large city.

Unluckily for him, Stripp plunged into politics as Liberal candidate for parliament in 1872 and 1873, and though he came close to wresting the constituency from the redoubtable Rufus Stephenson, politics put a crimp in his business enterprises. Buckhorn was, however, for many years a busy place, farm products and cordwood being shipped in large quantities from Buckhorn dock just west of the present summer resort of Erie Beach; while a heavy traffic was conducted between the lake and Chatham over a plank toll road through Charing Cross. In the early 80’s Buckhorn, grown aesthetic, rechristened itself Cedar Springs.

Iredell’s survey, carried out subsequent to had blazed the Communication Road from Chatham as far as the Ridge, though at the time it seems to have gone no farther. The stretch of the Talbot Road across South Harwich, granted by the government to absentee landlords, was for a long time withheld from settlement; and as late as 1833 was known as the "Ten Mile Bush."

About that year, Richard Chute purchased a block of land from Robertson, Laird of Inshes, and built a log shanty south of Talbot Street and west of the Communication Road. Other settlers made clearings, among them John Jackson, who, after some years of pioneering in Romney, moved to the Ten Mile Bush and became one of the outstanding figures in the new community. Another leader was Colonel James W. Lytle, who came from the Ouvry settlement in Raleigh to purchase Chute’s property, add some of his own, and therefrom plat, in 1840, the original village of Blenheim.

Settlement was slow till the completion of the Communication Road through to Lake Erie in 1844; when the resulting increase in trade and population, and the demand for mercantile services within easier reach than Chatham, led to the establishment of stores and small industries. Orrin Gee, founder of the first brickyard, was also the first postmaster, in 1849.

Till that time the locality was still known as the Ten Mile Bush. Then it was discovered that Colonel Lytle’s name of Blenheim already belonged to a post-office in Oxford county; so the post-office was christened Rond Eau, a name which continued in use for several decades. Eventually the name of Blenheim was adopted.

It was long before the first settlement of Blenheim that, in 1828, Colonel Burwell completed the township surveys begun, years earlier, by Abram Iredell and Patrick McNiff. An Englishman, William White, one of Talbot’s settlers, was the first settler on the Middle Road, making the trip through the bush with ox teams, and cutting a road of his own from the Talbot Road near Blenheim to his location in Raleigh, a distance of six miles. This was the beginning of the Middle Road.

Some years later another Englishman named Cook settled close to the Harwich-Raleigh townline, giving his name to Cook’s Corners, now Charing Cross.

In course of time the tide of settlement flowed farther and farther westward, across Raleigh and into Tilbury East, and the blazed trail of the days of Burwell and White became one of the most travelled highways in Kent, linking King’s Highways Nos. 3 and 2, and the thriving towns of Blenheim and Tilbury.

The latter, youngest of Kent’s towns, owed its existence in the first instance to the Canada Southern railroad, and for many years had a keen commercial rival in the thrifty Scottish settlement of Valetta, in the early clays the commercial metropolis of Tilbury East.

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