With its location along Lake Erie, the future county of Norfolk was a popular place for the Indigenous. Due to the location along the shores of the lake, and the abundance flora, fauna and fish, many Indigenous groups would occupy the territory over the centuries.
These groups included the Haudenosaunee, the Anishinaabe, the Neutral and the Mississauga. Many artifacts have been found in the area including arrowheads that are still found in field areas around the county.
Due its location, the county was one of the earliest places reached by explorers as they journeyed towards inland North America. In 1626, Larochee-Daillon, and two other Frenchmen, arrived in the area and spent three months with the Neutrals Indigenous nation. Another two Jesuits would visit the area in 1640.
On July 6, 1669, the French explorers De Galinee and Dollier de Casson reached the area of what is now Port Dover. They would explore throughout the area and set up a winter camp near current Port Dover. Deciding that the land was perfect for settlement thanks to its aesthetic appeal and abundant food, they decided on March 23, 1670, to erect a cross to claim sovereignty for King Louis XIV over the entire region. The site where that cross was put into the ground would become a National Historic Site in 1920.
While explorers were coming through, there was no settlement until over a century later. William Smith came to the area and he settled where Port Rowan is today in 1793. This would be the first community in the area and it was called Long Point Settlement. Mills in the area would be built by United Empire Loyalist settlers who left the United States after the Revolutionary War.
Norfolk County itself would be created as a constituency for the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada in July 1792. Six years later, the county was reduced in size.
One year after Norfolk County was formed, Cartwright’s Landing was established. Named for John Cartwright, who had settled in the area, the village would suffer during the War of 1812 when Americans burned all the mills along the north shore. The community would rebound and in 1819, its name would change from Cartwright’s Landing to Port Rowan in honour of Colonel Rowan, the secretary to the Lt. Governor of Upper Canada.
In 1794, Waterford was founded as a saw and grist mill locale. The first successful grist mill would be operated by Paul Averill and due to the abundance of mills, the community originally went through several names including Sayles Mills and Sovereign’s Mills. It was not until 1826 when the first post office opened and the name of Waterford was chosen.
James Graves Simcoe would establish a settlement, divided into two areas, named Birdtown and Queensway. Birdtown was named for William Bird. In 1795, Simcoe gave land to Aaron Culver on the agreement that he would build mills to help the economy of the area. By 1812, a small hamlet had formed but it would be burned down by the Americans in 1814. Rebuilding would begin and Culver would lay out a new village between 1819 and 1823. A post office was built in 1829, and at that point, the community was officially named Simcoe. The community quickly began to grow and became one of the most prominent communities in the county and the largest community. In 1850, it would become the county seat of Norfolk. By 1869, it had a population of 2,100 people.
In 1798, the Backhouse Mill was built in the county and unlike many other mills that would be burned to the ground during the War of 1812, this one continues to survive. In fact, it would operate until 1957. Due to the fact that it is one of the few surviving grist mills from the 18th century in all of Ontario, it was made into a National Historic Site of Canada in 1998. The Backus Mill Conservation Education Centre has been established at the mill to educate visitors on the natural history and traditions of waterfowl hunting. There is also an open-air heritage village there that includes restored and reconstructed buildings and structures. Some of the buildings include a carriage shop, a barn with antique agricultural equipment, a drive shed with buggies and wagons, two log houses, a saw mill and a school house. Within the museum itself, there are several displays that highlight the history of the area, as well as the shipwrecks of Lake Erie.
In the early 1800s, Daniel McQueen would settle in the area and created the village of Dover Mills. While McQueen created the village, the unofficial founder is Peter Walker, who was the first settler in the area in 1794. The village would be attacked by the Americans during the War of 1812, and would be burned to the ground. After the war, it was rebuilt and its name would change from Dover Mills, named for Dover, England, to Port Dover. In 1835, Port Dover would be incorporated as a village.
To learn more of the history of Port Dover, a great place to visit is the Port Dover Harbour Museum. The exhibits are always changing but some of the permanent exhibits include the tug boats that worked through the years at Port Dover, as well as the importance of the beach to the cultural aspect of the community. A history of the beautiful greenhouses that have been a part of Port Dover for a century, and an exhibit honouring the sinking of the Atlantic in 1852 are also in the museum. The sinking of the ship resulted in the largest loss of life in the history of Lake Erie and many artifacts from the wreck are now found in the museum. The main gallery explores the marine history of Port Dover, as well as the overall history of the community.
Around 1812, Frederick Sovereign settled in the area of Delhi after immigrating to Canada following the American Revolution. Another settler, Joseph Lawson, bought land in the area but did not build a home for several years. A village would spring up and was named Fredericksburg in honour of Sovereign. This name would remain until the post office was opened and the community was named Delhi. Sovereign was an important member of the community for decades. For over 30 years he was the tavern keeper and he would also grow tobacco, cure the leaves and press them to make plug tobacco. When he passed away, he donated his land to the Baptist Church, where he had served as the deacon for decades.
The War of 1812 was one of the most transformative events in the history of Canada, which would eventually lead to Confederation itself. Due to its location, Norfolk County was an important location during the war as the Americans invaded in the hopes of expanding their territory. In an effort to reinforce the area, Fort Norfolk was built. This was a small fort consisting of walls and a single blockhouse structure that was built by the 37th Regiment of Foot during the winter of 1814-1815. The blockhouse served as the living quarters for several hundred soldiers. There was a plan to build a larger fort that included a shipbuilding facility but this would not happen. After the war was over, the importance of the fort began to diminish and it was abandoned. All that remains of the site is a memorial cairn erected in 1922. Three years later, the site was made a National Historic Site of Canada.
On Nov. 13, 1813, the Battle, or Skirmish, At Nanticoke Creek would occur. An expedition of Norfolk County militia had been sent out to capture some American marauders who were active in the area and causing problems for residents and the soldiers stationed in there. A decision was made to attack the cabin of John Dunham, where there is now an Ontario Hydro generating station. This was not an official military action, but more of a vigilante action organized by a group of men who had met in the home of William Drake in Dover. The men arrived at the cabin and encircled it, while another group went into the woods to block any escape. As the first group approached, the cabin seemed as if it was deserted. A Lt. Austin then kicked in the door of the cabin and found a crowd of men staring at him. The Americans quickly grabbed their guns but as they did, they were told by Colonel Henry Bostwick that they were surrounded. Most of the men decided not to fight but as Bostwick waited for the men in the trees to arrive at the cabin, the Americans decided to fight. At this point, the second group arrived and met with the first group around the cabin. Gunfire was heard in the cabin and the Canadians fired at the cabin immediately. Only one Canadian, Benjamin Chandler, was killed. Bostwick would say of him quote:
Among the Americans, three were killed and 18 were taken prisoner.
Bostwick would write quote:
“Too much praise cannot be given to the militia who composed our party for their steady perseverance, coolness and courage. Most of them had been out the whole night before, and notwithstanding the very fatiguing march through the woods and swamps, not a word of complaint was heard.”
In 1850, a home was built in Simcoe for Duncan Campbell, who was a banker and the first postmaster for Simcoe. He would retire around the same time that the building was finished, which covered 10 acres of land including the landscaped grounds. While the estate was broken up in 1911 so the land could be developed for the growing community, the house would remain and still does to this day. Today, the house is a National Historic Site of Canada and the Lynwood Arts Centre is located there.
In 1855, George Teeter purchased land in Norfolk County and laid out the village of Teeterville four years later. By 1870, the village had two churches, a school, town hall, two general stores, two shoe shops, three carriage shops, three blacksmiths, two doctors and three hotels. The major industry in the community was Teeter’s Mill, which employed 25 people who worked the saw mill, shingle mill and grist mill.
With Port Dover serving as an important centre for shipbuilding and the fishing industry, there was a lot of boat traffic coming through the area. All that traffic meant that boats had to be kept safe in adverse conditions. To accommodate that, the Port Dover Lighthouse would be built in 1850, replacing a smaller light house that had been built at the same spot in 1846 but was destroyed by fire. The Port Dover Lighthouse was built in the typical economic fashion of a square, tapered, wooden lighthouse, using materials from the nearby mills and forests using local labour. Today, the Port Dover Lighthouse continues to stand and is the dominant structure at the pier, as well as a symbol of the maritime character of Port Dover. Due to its importance to the maritime history of the area, it would be designated as a Heritage Lighthouse in 2014.
On Sept. 15, 1897, a terrible fire would sweep through Teeterville. The fire began early in the morning and by the time it had burned through, 14 buildings were destroyed including a general store, two hotels, a cabinet shop and several homes. Citizens attempted to fight the fire with a bucket brigade but before long the wells of town dried up. Unfortunately, most of the damages from the fire were not covered by insurance.
In 1908, the St. Williams Forestry Station was established, which was the first reforestation project to ever happen in Canada. On over 100 acres of sandy land, the Ontario Government began work replanting forests under the guidance of Edmund John Zavitz. Through his leadership, a huge area of what was wasteland was restored to productivity. Today, that history is celebrated at Canada’s First Forestry Station Interpretive Centre, which educates the public on the reforestation and conservation of land in Norfolk County.
On June 17, 1925, the Norfolk Carillon Tower was built to honour the men, as well as one woman, who died during the First World War. This memorial, easily one of the biggest in Canada, was built through funds raised by Norfolk County citizens and the site itself was donated by the Simcoe High School. It stands at 60 feet high and 22 feet square, made completely of stone in the Norman architectural style. The limestone was quarried nearby. Inside, the Carillon features 23 bells, including the largest bell that weighed over 1,500 pounds. The smallest bell is only 60 pounds. The carillon is considered to be one of the best in the world. Every hour, the bells ring and have become a feature of the community. Around the base of the tower, there are five memorial plaques. The plaque on the left side of the door lists the names of the 217 soldiers from Norfolk County who gave their lives during the First World War, as well as one nursing sister. The right side of the door has a plaque honouring the 141 Norfolk County soldiers who gave their lives during the Second World War. A plaque on the North wall honours the 133rd Norfolk County Battalion, while a fourth plaque honours Petty Officer Second Class Douglas Craig Blake, who died during the Afghanistan War on July 3, 2010. The east facing wall has a plaque with the names of 12 soldiers who were students at the high school prior to enlisting in the First World War. The tower is one of only 10 that still remain in Canada that is manually operated, with others including the Peace Tower in Ottawa. It was also the second carillon ever installed in Canada after the Metropolitan United Church carillon in Toronto.
On July 9, 1927, a man named Leonard Patrick Kelly was born in Simcoe. He would gain the nickname of Red due to his red hair and he would go on to become one of the greatest NHL players in history. After attending school at Port Dover, and growing up listening to Foster Hewitt call Toronto Maple Leaf games, Kelly dreamed of becoming an NHL hockey player.
He would achieve that, debuting with the Detroit Red Wings in 1947 on his way to a legendary career. From 1947 to 1967, he would play in 1,316 games, recording 823 points along the way. He would have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup eight times, four with Detroit in 1950, 1952, 1954 and 1955, and four times with Toronto in 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967. He is the only player to win eight Stanley Cups and never play for the Montreal Canadiens. He would also win the Lady Byng trophy in 1951, 1953 and 1954 and the James Norris Memorial Trophy in 1954. Even more amazing is that during his NHL career, he also served as a Liberal Member of Parliament from 1962 to 1965. Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1969, he would be named one of the 100 greatest NHL players in history in 2017.
One of the most unique museums in Canada has to be the Delhi Tobacco Museum. It is a common misconception to think that Canada did not grow tobacco, and that was something only grown in the Southern United States. In truth, tobacco was an important part of the economy of the area of Norfolk County. That history is celebrated at the Delhi Tobacco Museum. Built in 1979 as a model of a typical tobacco pack barn, the museum houses a collection of agricultural artifacts that look at the growing of tobacco, ginseng and other agricultural products in the area.
Another great museum to check out is the Waterford Heritage and Agricultural Museum. The museum contains several exhibits and artifacts that show the history of Norfolk County, from the soldiers who fought in the world wars, to the Indigenous, to local settlers and much more. The museum also features the Norfolk County Agricultural Hall of Fame, which honours the achievements of local farmers and producers to the rural development of the county.
In 2018, the Eva Brook Donly Museum and Archives was transferred to Norfolk County with the intention of establishing the Norfolk County Archives. Since 2018, several areas of the building have been converted to archival storage spaces to accommodate the new archival records that have been transferred from the County. In 2020, Norfolk County Archives was officially established under By-law #2020-91 as the official municipal archives for Norfolk County.