For centuries, long before Europeans arrived in Canada, the land where St. Mary’s would one day sit was home to several Indigenous groups including the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Chippewa people. The river that goes through St. Mary’s served as rich hunting grounds for the Indigenous groups, as well as an excellent transportation conduit through the area. The rich natural resources in the area meant that it was frequented heavily by the First Nations for centuries. The Anishinabewaki were known to use the river to catch whitefish, using nets from their birchbark canoes.
This area is within the boundaries covered by Treaty 29, known as the Huron Tract Purchase, and is protected by the Dish With One Spoon wampum agreement. Today, many Indigenous peoples continue to call this land home and act as its stewards, and we are grateful to have the opportunity to live and work on this territory.
With the arrival of Europeans, the cultural landscape of the area began to change. Various groups would live in the area, but the community of St. Mary’s that we know today would get its tart thanks to the Canada Company. This land and colonization company had purchased 2.5 million acres of land from the government for $295,000 in 1826 and in 1839, the area was surveyed by the company. By the 1840s, the first settlers were coming to the new community thanks to its location on the banks of two rivers, which meant that it was perfect for running mills. The area was also rich in limestone, which meant there were ample building materials for the community.
The formation of St. Mary’s owes a lot to the Ingersoll brothers, Thomas and James. When the Canada Company opened up that land for development, they saw the opportunity to get land in exchange for building mills and providing services. Through that method, they acquired 337 acres of land that would eventually become the centre of the new village. James never lived in the community but his name would be on the abstract for the land transactions. Thomas was the one who would do the settling of St. Mary’s. He would bring a group of women to the area in 1841 and they would erect a sawmill and grist mill. In 1842, Thomas and his wife officially moved to the community as their permanent home. Their son, Charles, would give them a lifetime lease to their property on Jan. 19, 1847 but sadly Thomas did not live past March of that year. Other members of the Ingersoll family would have a large impact on the community, including Justus Ingersoll would set up the first foundry in the community. One interesting story about the Ingersolls comes from the father of Thomas and James, Col. Thomas Ingersoll. Thomas Sr. had been married three times and had 11 children. His oldest daughter was a woman named Laura, who would marry a man named James Secord in 1797. As any Canadian can tell you, Laura Secord would become a hero of the War of 1812 when she journeyed through the night across 30 kilometres of bush to warn the Canadians of an American attack and to lead to the American defeat at the Battle of Beaver Dams. I did an entire episode on Laura Secord, which you can find on my website.
As for the name of St. Mary’s, that comes from one of the directors of the Canada Company, who named it for his beloved wife Mary. But there is more to it than that. The story goes that Mary was at a meeting with her husband Thomas Jones in the village in 1845. In return for her name being chosen, 10 Pounds was donated towards the building of the first school in the community.
According to legend, prior to the visit of Thomas and Mary Jones, the community was called Little Falls.
That is not all there is to the name though. The Mary that St. Mary’s is named for may not have been Mary Jones. In 1842, George Dartnell sketched what are the first views of the settlement, which included the Ingersoll grist mill, log house and lots of forest. The work is titled New Settlement of St. Mary’s, which predates the village meeting in 1845 by three years. On Jan. 2, 1843, a meeting was held at the house of Reuben Martin and the minutes of that meeting also say St. Mary’s. That same year, when James Ingersoll wrote a letter on June 23, he refers to the hamlet as St. Mary’s.
So, St. Mary’s is likely named for a Mary, as for which Mary that is not known but the name was likely kept as St. Mary’s in 1845 in honour of Mary Jones.
The first industries in the community were the mills and the limestone quarry, which provided a great deal of financial stability to the community and its residents. By 1844, the community had 120 people, one grist mill, one saw mill, a doctor, two asheries, three stores, one tavern, one shoemaker, one tailor and a blacksmith. The community quickly started to grow and in 1855, the hamlet officially became a village. Due to the abundance of limestone in the area, St. Mary’s quickly developed the nickname of “The Stonetown”. Many of the buildings in the community, and its homes, were built of limestone, giving the entire village a unique look.
One family that arrived around this time were the McCully’s from Ireland. A descendant of those early pioneers, Norman McCully would clear the land and develop the farm, producing some of the finest livestock in the country throughout the 20th century. Today, McCully’s Hill Farm continues to operate and it can be visited. Visitors can see the animals, enjoy a big pancake brunch, and take a horse drawn wagon to collect maple tree sap directly from the tree and see the entire syrup production process directly.
In the 1850s, the Grand Trunk Railway would arrive greatly increasing the growth of the community as new residents started to flood in. In 1858, the St. Mary’s Junction Railway Station would be built. The railway that ran through St. Mary’s was part of the line that went from Sarnia to Portland, Maine. This was the first railway of a significant length to be built in Canada. The station itself is of course made of limestone, locally sourced from the quarries. It served as both a passenger and freight depot and is one of the few remaining stations from that era still in Ontario.
The same year that the station was built, so too was the Sarnia Bridge. Described at the time as, quote:
“The greatest ornament in engineering to any town in Canada West”
The structure soon became a landmark in the community. In 1995, it was purchased by the community and was then transformed from being an old railway line to being a trail that everyone could enjoy. Today, the bridge is part of the Grand Trunk Trail, which is three kilometres of paved, accessible trail. On the bridge, you not only get some beautiful views, but you can also read the interpretive signage that details the construction, operation and repurposing of the railway monument. The original bridge deck is no longer there, but the stone piers that were built in 1858 are. The current super structure was built in 1905. In 1973, it was made a National Historic Site due to its heritage value and it can still be visited today in St. Mary’s.
In 1860, a man by the name of Timothy Eaton would come to St. Mary’s and it was there that he would open a dry goods store after several failed businesses elsewhere in Ontario, including nearby Kirkton. That dry goods business would prove to be successful and it would allow him to open up a new store on Yonge Street in Toronto. His brother would continue to operate a store in St. Mary’s for some time. The Toronto business would become Eaton’s, one of the most successful businesses in Canadian history and one that defined Canadian culture for a century through its catalogues and mail order items that brought high end consumer goods to millions of Canadians.
By 1863, the community transitioned from being a village into a town thanks to its increased growth.
One year later, the Mill Race was constructed along the river in St. Mary’s, running south from Trout Creek and under Victoria Bridge. This Mill Race, which was once lined by many different mills during the early history of St. Mary’s, is still there today and can be enjoyed during a visit to the community. Today, the Mill Race survives as a reminder of the importance of the milling industry in the development of St. Mary’s. Today, the Mill Race is a Municipal Heritage Property.
On June 16, 1874, a baby would be born in the community named Arthur Meighen. Meighen would grow up in the community and attend St. Mary’s Collegiate Institute, later to be renamed North Ward Public School. That school would be demolished but there is an Arthur Meighen Wing at the current St. Mary’s District Collegiate Institute. As a student, he was known for being an expert debater. That skill would prove very useful not only during his time as a lawyer in Manitoba, but his later career in the House of Commons. After 15 years as a member of the Conservative Party, he would become the party leader on July 10, 1920 and that same day, the prime minister of Canada. He would serve until 1921 when he was defeated by the Liberals and William Lyon Mackenzie King. He would again be prime minister in 1926 but only serve for three months before another election defeat. I did an entire episode on Arthur Meighen on my other podcast From John to Justin, and I encourage you to check it out.
In 1879, construction began on one of the most impressive structures not only in St. Mary’s but in the entire area. The St. Mary’s Opera House was built between 1879 and 1880. While it is one of about 120 stone buildings in the community, it is arguably the most impressive. The origin of the Opera House comes in the late-1870s when the local Independent Order of Oddfellows purchased the property to build a new meeting place. After spending $22,000 to build the structure, which is four-storeys tall, soon became a focal point of the social life for the community. Many well-known performers would perform at the building including Agnes Knox Black, Nora Clench (CLENCH) and Breatrice Lilly. Sir John A. Macdonald would speak at the Opera House about the dangers of free trade with the United States in 1891. As that was the same year he died, its likely one of his last ever speeches given in his life. The building would be bought by G. Carter and Son in 1907 and by 1919, the entire building was devoted to flour production. It would remain as a flour production facility until 1973. Today, the structure still stands and has commercial businesses on the main floor, and residential units on the floors above.
In the 1890s, a local citizens group began to push the town to install a proper municipal water system to help with the industrial growth of St. Mary’s. Town council agreed and in 1899, a 75,000 gallon water tower was built, connected to 10 kilometres of water mains. Willis Chipman was the engineer of the project. He had overseen more than 50 water towers and sewage system installations across Ontario and he felt that the system installed in St. Mary’s was one of the best he ever designed. The tower is built with local limestone with a steel tank and the structure served as an important landmark for the community. The water tower served as a part of the water system of the town until 1989 when a new tower was commissioned. The original tower was not demolished, and stands to this day and can be visited when you go to St. Mary’s. The water tower was made a Municipal Heritage Site in 1978.
In 1912, the St. Mary’s Cement Company would start up, which would be a business that would have a huge impact on the community. Before I talk about that business, I want to talk about John Lind, a fascinating man who made St. Mary’s his adopted home. After growing up on a family farm near Pond Mills, Lind would travel to the United States to work construction on the railroads. Crossing the continent, he would work his way across the continent and by 1895, he had worked his way up the Pacific Coast to the Klondike, two years before the arrival of the Klondike Gold Rush. During the winter of 1895-96, he would find several gold nuggets of Chicken Creek. Those claims would prove to be profitable enough that by 1898, he had equipment and a team of workers managing the claims for him. Lind would find his fortune in the Klondike and become enough of a figure that even today, the Dawson City Museum has the John G. Lind storage facility and the John G. Lind Gallery. In 1903, now a wealthy man, he returned to Ontario to get into the cement business. Around 1910, he and his partners had had success in Owen Sound with their cement company, and they decided that St. Mary’s, with its abundance limestone, clay and water, along with access to the railways, was perfect for a new location. Construction soon began on the plant in 1911 and the plant opened on Nov. 12, 1912. With his cement works now serving as a major employer in the community, he would begin to contribute to his adopted community. One way he did this was through his investment in public parks and recreation. He would buy land to the north of the Flats to enlarge the sports field and he paid for contributions to improve the grounds. He then purchased bought the land for Cadzow Park, and also financed the construction of the Cadzow Pool. He then created a parks committee and was the first chairman of the group. In the early 1930s, he bought land close to his home that had become derelict and he hired a professional landscape architect to develop the grounds, which included stone walls and a pillared entrance. This project helped a lot of people pay the bills as it was the heart of The Great Depression when many people had difficulty making ends meet. In 1942, Lind transferred the park to the community and today, a statue of Prime Minister Arthur Meighen stands there.
Lind would retire from the cement works in 1943 and his son took over the plant in 1945 after serving with distinction during the Second World War. A total of three generations managed the cement plant until it was purchased by Blue Circle in 1992.
The limestone quarry would continue to be an important part of the fabric of St. Mary’s until 1930 when it official closed. The limestone quarry wasn’t done being a part of the lives of residents though. It was then converted into one of the largest outdoor swimming pools in all of Canada, a role it continues with to this day.
Overall, St. Mary’s has been luckier than other towns when it comes to disasters, but it has not been completely free of them. On June 7, 1933, a tornado ripped through the community, taking many by surprise. The storm that produced the tornado actually hit several communities but St. Mary’s was one of the worst hit. Houses, barns and businesses lost their roofs, and several were completely demolished. Hundreds of trees were also uprooted, while telephone, telegraph and electrical service was completely wiped out in the community. William Bruce, who owned the Parkview Creamery, was also injured when the roof of his office collapsed on top of him. It took firemen an hour to get him out, but thankfully his injuries were minor. The Royal Edward Hotel and the White and May Company store were both heavily damaged, as was the entire Brown’s Garage. There were several close calls as well. A 15 foot by 50 foot piece of metal roofing flew through the air before slamming into a building, missing several occupants. The wife of R.E. Beemer was also in the gasoline station and had just left it and gone into her apartment when the storm hit, destroying the gas station in the process.
St. Mary’s has had several important visitors over the years but few had as much fanfare as the arrival of Pierre Elliott Trudeau in August of 1968, right in the middle of Trudeaumania. The prime minister arrived in the community on Aug. 9 and even took a dip into the quarry, along with several others who dove in fully clothed to swim with the prime minister. Trudeau then climbed onto a raft in the quarry and everyone climbed on with him, causing it to submerge into the water. One photographer was in the water waiting for the prime minister to jump in and he yelled quote:
“If you don’t jump, I will drown”
Trudeau, then tossed him a life preserver before jumping into the water to continue his swim to the delight of everyone who gathered. Throughout his visit to St. Mary’s, Trudeau was followed around by young residents who wanted to see the dynamic new prime minister for themselves.
One of the most iconic parts of St. Mary’s would come along on Nov. 19, 1982 when the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum was incorporated by Bruce Prentice. The facility actually started in Toronto but it would close its doors in 1991. At that point, several communities expressed an interest in having the Hall of Fame in their own, and one of those was St. Mary’s. On Aug. 25, 1994, it was announced that St. Mary’s would be the new home of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. One reason for the choice was that only 30 minutes away in Beachville, the first recorded baseball game in North America was played on June 4, 1838. The town also provided 32 acres of land for the facility, which also played into the decision. The Hall of Fame officially opened on June 4, 1998 and has been in the community ever since. Many Canadian baseball stars, and those who played for Canadian teams are enshrined in the Hall of Fame including John Olerud, Roy Halladay, Carlos Delgado, Tony Fernandez, Roberto Alomar, Gary Carter and Fergie Jenkins.
If you want to learn more about the history of St. Mary’s and the surrounding area, then the best place to go is the St. Mary’s Museum, located in a heritage home that was built of local limestone in 1854 by George Tracy. At the time it was the largest building in the community and was called the Castle in the Bush. Since 1959, it has been the St. Mary’s Museum. Visitors to the museum can not only take in the building itself, but the many exhibits and collections stored inside. The building still has its original pine flooring, fireplaces and crown moldings as well. In the collections, there are over 2,500 photos of St. Mary’s from the past, going back to the dawn of the photography era. As for exhibits, there are displays that highlight the life of Dr. Marion Oliver, a doctor and missionary from the area, the Canadian militia, the history of time keeping, farm implements, the early forms of transportation and the local history of the area.