The History of Halton Hills

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Over the course of many episodes about small towns, I can honestly say that Halton Hills has one of the most unique histories of any community I have come across. It isn’t just the story of one town, but of several hamlets and towns that came together into one community in 1974. Due to this, as I go through the history, I will jump between the communities at first as each was founded at different points in the 19th century, and will circle back to talk about the other communities as we go through the years. One common thread through all the histories of these communities is the milling industry, which would help power the Canadian economy throughout the 19th and into the 20th century.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the area was occupied by the Attawandaron, who were an Iroquoian-speaking people. Other groups who occupied the land included the Anishinaabe and the Haudenosaunee.

By the 1800s, the Mississauga people had moved into the territory.  The Hurons were also drawn to the area thanks to the beauty of the landscape, as well as to hunt, fish and live in the area.

In 1819, the British government would negotiate the purchase of the land of the Mississauga, under Treaty 19. It is from the Indigenous that we get the name of Esquesing, which translates as likely as That Which Lies At End.

The communities that make up Halton Hills today have a history that dates back over 200 years. The community of Esquesing was first surveyed in 1818 and it would open to settlement one year later.  By the time the first township meeting was held in 1821, the community had a population of 424.

As Esquesing was beginning to grow, another community would spring to life. George Kennedy owned land in the area and in the early-1820s, he would build a sawmill powered by Silver Creek, followed by a woolen mill, gristmill and a foundry. Around these businesses, a place called Hungry Hollow would grow. In 1837, William and James Barber purchased the mills and land from Kennedy, and renamed the community Georgetown in his honour.

With Georgetown seeing prosperity arrive, another community named Williamsburg was becoming a major industry centre for the area thanks to its mills that were running along the Credit River. This community had begun in 1825 when a man named Benajah Williams set up Williams’ Mill with his son Charles and Joel. The Williams family became the central family of the community, with Charles Williams serving as the Justice of the Peace there in the 1860s, along with being the owner of several mills. As for the original Williams Mill, you can still see that building today. It no longer operates as a saw mill as it did in 1825, but it has been in continued industrial use since it first opened. The Georgetown Electric Light Company Power Plant operated out of the site in 1898, and today it joins the original saw mill as a historic site that can be enjoyed. Today, the saw mill is an apple processing factory.

Norval would start up in 1820 when James McNab, a United Empire Loyalist who fought in the War of 1812, bought land to build a mill and raise sheep. In 1836, a post office was established and within 10 years 200 people were living in the community that had two churches, a gristmill, an oatmill, two stores and a tavern.

Acton began life in 1825 when three brothers, all of whom were referends, named Ezra, Zenas and Rufus Adams arrived in the area. The settlement slowly grew and by 1840, there was a mill and a tanner. Originally named Danville, it would later change its name to Adamsville to honour its first three settler brothers.

The mills were not the only industry that the area was blessed with in those early years of settlement. Limestone is abundant and that led to the development of lime kilns along what is now called The Bruce Trail, which goes through the Halton Hills and Limehouse within it. Many of the kilns from the 19th century still stand for the most part, but the largest of them, the draw kiln, is currently being restored. Along the Bruce Trail a train station still exists and the railbed for the former Toronto Suburban Railway can also be found near Limehouse.

The community of Acton would go through a change in 1844 when it went from being Adamsville, to Acton, named for the area of Acton, London in England. That name comes from a corruption of Oaktown, which is what that English community was originally named due to the great amount of oak trees found in the area.

By 1846, Georgetown was humming along with a grist mill, sawmill, cloth factory, tavern, two tailors, three wagon makers, four blacksmiths and a population of 700 people. Ten years later, in 1856, the Grand Trunk Railway arrived. This allowed Georgetown to grow even quicker. In 1864, the community became a village, and in 1869 it had a population of 1,500 people.

With the arrival of the Grand Trunk Railway, it brought something else to the area, the Iron Bridge. This bridge, which crosses the credit river, runs for 842 feet and is considered an engineering marvel. It was also the longest span on the Canadian National Railway when it was built.

In 1852, the community of Williamsburg went through a name change, becoming Glen Williams. Two years later, a man arrived in the community and set up a haberdashery shop. This man, named Timothy Eaton, would remain for several years in the community before he left to start a bakery in Kirkton, Ontario. In 1869, he founded a store at 178 Yonge Street in Toronto that would become Eaton’s, a Canadian cultural institution that lasted for 100 years. If you head to Glen Williams, you can see the store that essentially starting it all, or at least the building. Today, Reeve and Clarke Fine and Rare Books is set up in the building, where Timothy Eaton cut his teeth in retail.

The same year that Williamsburg became Glen Williams, the general store and post office opened out of a building that still exists. While it no longer operates as a general store, it is still a great place to visit. The Copper Kettle Club now occupies the building, offering traditional British cuisine and the atmosphere of an authentic British pub.

When the railroad arrived in the area in 1856, Adamsville saw a spur of growth as a result. Several businesses began to appear including more mills, a carriage works and other establishments. In 1874, the community became a village.

In 1870, the Glen Williams Town Hall was built and used for a board meeting that year in the community. Over the years, this building would house many society meetings, church meetings, political meetings and also served as a polling station for elections. Celebrated Canadian author Lucy Maude Montgomery would stage many of her works in the building with the Union Dramatic Players, and we will talk more about her later. You can still visit this building in the community, and experience its history that goes back nearly to the founding of Canada itself. Even today, the building plays an important role in the life of the community.

Did you know that two hockey players from Halton Hills have won nine Stanley Cups in total? The first was born in Acton on Aug. 25, 1880. His name was Arthur Moore and he would win four Stanley Cups in a row with the legendary Ottawa Silver Seven from 1903 to 1906. He would end his playing career in 1908, and died in 1935. I will get to the second player in a little bit. 

In 1883, a new town hall opened in Adamsville, which stands to this day. This two-storey brick building provided space for town and organization functions, and it was where not only council met, but it also housed the library, fire brigade and police. On the top floor, a concert hall operated, and the building remained a central part of the community until 1974. Today, the building still stands and you can visit it today and relive over 125 years of history. It was also the first designated historic building in the history of Halton Hills. Of course, no talking about the Acton Town Hall would be complete without learning about Jimmy the Ghost. Jimmy, the former caretaker, apparently still resides in the town hall. Jimmy is best remembered for when he woke up to the smell of smoke and realized the town hall was on fire. He quickly found the source of the fire and, by himself, put it out as a one man bucket brigade. Some say he still protects the building to this day.

The community of Acton, by this point, had almost 1 million square feet of floor space dedicated to tanneries, which was the main industry for the community. The Beardmore Tanneries in Acton would actually become the largest tanning operation in the British Empire by the turn of the century.

On Aug. 18, 1895, a man by the name of Henry Thomas Shepard was born in Stewarttown. The son of a former slave who fled the United States via the Underground Railroad. His family would live in the area of Dayfoot Drive Park, and he would spend his entire life living in the community. He attended school in Stewarttown and Georgetown, and worked on area farms, while delivering mail to bring in extra money for the family. When he was old enough, he began to drive a bus to take passengers to and from the train station.

In 1911, Shepard joined up with the military, becoming a Sgt-Major with the Lorne Scots Regiment, helping to lead recruits in marches and weapons training.

When the First World War broke out, Shepard wanted to his part and he would enlist with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Many Black Canadians wanted to enlist with the army but were turned away by racist recruiters. In the end, only about 1,000 Black soldiers served in non-segregated units, while over 1,000 served in the No. 2 Construction Battalion. Shepard was one of the few to be accepted into a non-segregated unit, and he would serve all four years of the war. He would fight at Ypres and the Battle of the Somme. He was also one of only 23 Black Canadians to fight at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. During the war, he was wounded twice in battle. Following the war, he would receive the Star and Victory Medals, and the General Service Medal.

When the Second World War started, Shepard wanted to fight again but his two wounds from World War One prevented that. Instead, he was recruited to serve as the Sgt. Major of a company at Newmarket Training Camp 23.

On Oct. 18, 1940, the Globe and Mail would write of Shepard, stating that he was, quote:

“One of the ablest soldiers on the field and the most popular man in the Newmarket sergeants’ mess. There is no colour line in the Canadian Army and the rookies take their orders from Sgt. Major Shepard as willingly as they would from the Colonel himself.”

He would serve there from 1940 to 1944 and used his skills as a former fire chief of Georgetown to lead the firefighting squad at the camp. By 1944, he was the deputy fire marshal for military camps in Ontario. In June of 1944, he was awarded the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for fighting a fire that broke out at the camp in the early morning hours. Shepard continued to live in the community until his death in 1960.

In 1907, the Glen Woollen Mills Company was organized in Glen Williams, as was the Melrose Knitting Company, which was a subsidiary of the main mill company. That company quickly began to succeed, producing 45,000 dozen pairs of men’s wool socks and lumberman’s socks ever year. Not to be out done, the Beaumont Knitting Mill would open under James Bradley when he bought the Tweedle Saw Mill, which had been built in 1878. The Dominion Glove Works would then start producing 200 dozen pairs of socks every single day, and 40 dozen pairs of mitts and gloves. That business would operate until 1982 when it closed, but you can still visit that building that helped keep so many Canadians warm. Today, it is Beaumont Mill Antiques and Collectibles.

Remember when I said there was another player who won multiple Stanley Cups from the area? Well he was born on May 12, 1922 in Georgetown. His name was Robert “Golden Boy” Goldham and he would begin his NHL career with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1941. Over the course of his NHL career, he would play in 650 NHL games, recording 171 points as a defenceman. Along the way he won the Stanley Cup with the Maple Leafs in 1942 and 1947, followed by three more Cup wins with the Detroit Red Wings in 1952, 1954 and 1955. He also played in five NHL All-Star Games. He would pass away on Sept. 6, 1991 but in 2015 he was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.

In 1923, a momentous event would occur in Georgetown when 50 orphans, eventually increased to 109, arrived after enduring the Armenian genocide, which happened from 1923 to 1927, which killed an estimated 600,000 to 1.5 million. They would be educated at Cedarvale Farm, which is where Cedarvale Park now sits. The farm had been purchased by the Armenian Relief Association of Canada. At 135 acres, it would be where the children would learn to farm and grow fruit. While there were 250,000 Armenian orphans, a Canadian doctor chose the ones best fitted mentally and physically for coming to Canada. Canadians did what they could to help raise money to bring the orphans to Canada, considering each one cost $500 to bring over. A school in Chatham would raise $3,000 for the care and education of the boys. Mrs. M. Smythe and Mrs. Hugh Kidd would be put in charge of the Georgetown group.

One boy, Paul Adourian, would stay at the farm from 1923 to 1927 and he would say in 1985, quote:

“Canada took care of me.”

By 1928, the orphans were placed with families in southwestern Ontario. Most of the children who came to Canada became citizens, and important members of our society. Even as late as 1985, 50 of the original 109 orphans could still be found in Ontario, while others settled elsewhere in the country or the United States. Called The Georgetown Boys and Canada’s Noble Experiment, many consider this to be Canada’s first humanitarian effort. If you go to the park today, you will find an Ontario Provincial Plaque honouring this part of our heritage.

One interesting fact would help Acton stand out in 1925 when a man named James Matthews passed away. What made him special was that he had served as the postmaster for Acton since before Canada was a country. With 70 years as a postmaster behind him, beginning in his first year in 1855, he became the oldest postmaster in point of years of service in the entire country. He only stopped delivering mail six weeks before his death when he was stricken with paralysis at the age of 90.

In 1926, Lucy Maud Montgomery, who wrote the Anne of Green Gables series, moved to Norval. This was not a quick stopover for the celebrated author. She would remain until 1936. While living in the community, she would publish Pat of the Silver Bush and was often seen in the community. Calling Norval one of the prettiest villages in all Ontario, she would write in her diary, quote:

“I love Norval as I have never loved any place save Cavendish. It is as if I had known it all my life.”

Today, the Lucy Maud Montgomery Memorial Garden exists in the community to honour her time there. The community also celebrates Montgomery Christmas on the weekend of November closest to her birthday, and various Lucy Maud Montgomery Seminars and Readings are held through the year.

A.J. Casson had a deep love for Glen Williams. As a Group of Seven artist, he wanted to paint the beauty he saw and he would capture that in 1938 with his painting Street In Glen Williams. That painting of a quiet road in Glen Williams would sell for $542,800 on June 1, 2010, the most ever for one of his paintings. Casson would paint many other works in the community including Village Street October, Farmhouse Near Glen Williams and Country Road – Glen Williams. All are now in the Ottawa Art Gallery.

On Jan. 1, 1974, arguably the biggest event in the history of Halton Hills occurred when Georgetown, Acton, Esquesing and several other hamlets amalgamated into the Town of Halton Hills.

If you head over to Halton Hills to see the amazing history for yourself, then be sure to check out the Halton Hills Sports Museum. This museum celebrates the history of sports in the community and the many individuals who have helped to put the town on the map with their excellence in sports. The community has had several NHL hockey players, Olympians, baseball players and more, many of which who are honoured in the Hall of Fame portion of the museum. Come explore the history of the community, through the history of sports.

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