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Reminiscences of the Early History of Galt and the Settlement of Dumfries in the Province of Ontario
Chapter II


Absalom Shade—A man on whom Nature had left an imprint—Meeting with Mr. Dickson at Niagara in 1816—Shade fails to get a Contract, but finds a home in the Wilderness—Earliest settlers in Waterloo Township —Dickson and Shade visit Dumfries—They follow the Indian trail— The valley in which Galt stands selected for a Village—Its Natural Beauty—A Colisseum in Leaves—Shade returns to the Wilderness.

“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.” So at least it is said, and so it appeared, at all events, in connection with Mr. Dickson’s new enter-prize. He occupied at that time the position of chairman of the Quarter Sessions of the Niagara district, and, in conjunction with two other Commissioners, was empowered to take steps to secure the erection of a court-house and gaol in the village of Niagara. They advertised for tenders, and among those who applied for the contract was a young carpenter named Absalom Shade. His residence at this time was the town of Buffalo, where he was engaged in following his calling as a builder, but he was a Pennsylvanian by birth, having been born in Wyoming county in that State, in the year 1793. His father was a farmer, and Absalom was the youngest son of a numerous family. There are some men upon whom nature has left such an imprint that once seen they are seldom forgotten. Sometimes we are attracted, at other times repelled, but a man of unusual energy and force of character generally carries some of their insignia about him, and seldom escapes the notice, and even memory, of close observers.

Absalom Shade was a man of this description. His appearance was striking. He was tall and wiry, straight as an arrow, with regular and sharp features—more particularly the nose—the whole face being lit up with the sharpest of bluish-grey eyes; in short, he possessed a temperament and formation of body and head rarely disassociated with mental and physical strength and acuteness. He was then in the full flush of early manhood, and looked every inch of him the typical “live” Yankee, minus the dyspepsia, slang, and tobacco.

Young Shade failed to get the court-house contract, but it proved a fortunate failure. The chief Commissioner, Mr. Dickson, whose mind was then full of schemes for the opening up of his Indian lands, was so attracted by the appearance and enterprising spirit of the young contractor, that he determined to make an effort to induce him to expatriate himself to the wilderness of Dumfries, in the hope of carving out a fortune as settlement advanced.

The only settlement in the neighbourhood of Dumfries at that early period, was in the adjoining Township of Waterloo. Some years previously a few families had come in from the State of Pennsylvania. Amongst the earliest of these were, Messrs. Samuel Betzner, Joseph Sherk, the Bechtels, John Bear, Benjamin Rosenberger, the Reicharts, and George Clemens, the two first-named of whom arrived in the summer of 1800.

The foregoing families, with the Shontzs, Bowmans, Erbs, Sararas, Cressmans, and other early Pennsylvanian settlers, must forever remain associated with Waterloo and Wilmot, for they were the Pioneers of these fine townships, and their names have ever been synonymous, except in rare cases, with all that is industrious, honest, and law-abiding. Not a few of these early Pioneers came all the way from Pennsylvania in their own waggons. The trials and difficulties of such an undertaking can only be fully understood by those who were acquainted with the wilds of Upper Canada at that early period. Their first clearances were on the Grand River, opposite where the village of Doon now stands, and in the neighbourhood of the old toll-bridge.

With the exception of the lands settled upon by these Pennsylvania settlers, the entire surrounding country, including the Township of Dumfries, was unbroken forest. A few persons had, indeed, squatted here and there along the banks of the Grand River, but their attention was chiefly given to hunting and trapping. The work of settlement had, consequently, to be begun ab initio. The plan resolved upon by Mr. Dickson was, to found a village at some suitable and convenient point, by the erection of grist and saw-mills, and make this the centre of operations for populating and utilizing his lands. And it was this difficult task, as well as the duty of acting as his general agent, which Mr. Dickson asked young Shade, after a few days acquaintance, to undertake.

Ready for any enterprise which promised success, Shade promptly offered to visit the township and "prospect,” in other words to judge for himself. It was consequently arranged that they should make a joint visit of inspection, Mr. Dickson himself knowing very little of the quality of his lands, except what had been learned from published reports, or from the statements of other persons. Shortly afterwards, during the month of July, they set out together upon what proved to be an important journey for both of them.

They proceeded westwards by way of the Governor’s road, which was the only leading thoroughfare to the western part of the Province in those days. They reached the Grand River, near where the pleasantly situated Town of Paris now stands. Here an Indian guide became necessary. Under this escort they proceeded up the east side of the river by the regular Indian trail, which in many places a single pony and rider had difficulty in making their way along. As they proceeded leisurely northwards, they examined the country from various elevations, and especially the points where streams intersected the river, and which promised to be suitable for commencing operations.

Where Galt now stands was then a forest solitude. Huge pines, cedars, and elms, intermingled freely with oaks, and occasionally with beeches and maples, studded the valley and surrounding hills. Close to the liver’s banks, cedar predominated. This was particularly the case where the waters of Mill-creek join the river, the cedar being very dense and the ground swampy for a considerable distance up the former stream.

When the travellers reached this point they dismounted, tied their horses, and Mr. Shade proceeded to examine the creek, sufficient water-power for a grist mill being always borne in mind as a necessity to the embryo village. Near where Mr. James Scott’s planing mill now stands, he encountered a small, dilapidated frame building, the only semblance of civilization to be found. This ruin has sometimes been spoken of mysteriously, and apochryphal stories of an old grey-haired trapper, his mysterious disappearance, and the aversion of the Indians to visit the ruin, especially at the full of the moon, have at times had a fitful and misty currency. Careful investigation, however, has taken the romance out of this promising legend. There is no longer reason to doubt that, years before, one Alexander Miller, of the Niagara district, had bargained with the Indians for several hundred acres of their land, composed of the site of Galt and its immediate neighbourhood. He erected the little frame building, the remains of which were found by Mr. Shade, with a view to do rough gristing, and part of a shaft which remained adjoining the structure, indicated that a rude saw mill was either in operation a short time, or had been contemplated. The weight of evidence favours the idea that neither of them were ever completed, and that Miller, finding out that his Indian title was worthless, abandoned the enterprise shortly after it was begun.

Passing on from this point, Mr. Shade followed up the stream as far as the present stone bridge at the head of Main Street, and no doubt was tempted to ascend the adjoining eastern bluff, the better to observe the surrounding landscape.

The natural beauty of Galt and its surroundings, has been much admired, and seldom fails to arrest the attention of strangers. It can boast little, perhaps, of the grand or sublime in Nature, but its scenery may be described, nevertheless, as strikingly picturesque and pleasing. As Mr. Shade surveyed the scene stretched out before him during that July afternoon in 1816, it must have appeared infinitely grander than at the present time. The gently-sloping, oval-shaped valley at his feet, the waters of the Grand River * passing—like a broad band of silver —straight through its centre, the graceful hills encircling around, and the luxuriant profusion of summer foliage rising from the centre, tier above tier, until the highest peaks of the sombre pines upon the bluffs were reached —these peculiarities of the landscape, so suggestive of a vast natural amphitheatre, must have made up a striking and beautiful picture. It must have looked like an immense Colisseum in leaves!

* The Grand river, spanned as it now is by three handsome bridges, with massive stone piers, is one of the most attractive features of the Galt landscape, the stream itself, as it flows over its rocky bottom, being one of the prettiest in Canada. The beauties of the river have excited the muse of local Poets on various occasions. The following verses from the pen of “Jeanie Bell," a well-known native of Galt but now resident in Scotland, are deemed worth preserving.

“O come sweet Muse, and try to sing
The praises of my native river,
It does not boast a classic name,
And yet it will be ‘Grand’ forever.

We cannot vaunt of battles fought
Upon its banks; nor tell the story
Of brave deeds done—of martyred dead
Who’ve rested near for ages hoary.

But we can tell of happy days,
When we have seen its waters gleaming
Beneath a summer’s sun—and we
Had spent the hours in idle dreaming.

O happy days'! when free from care,
We played beside my native river;
In memory of those joyous hours,
We’ll love thy sparkling waters ever.

We know thee well in all thy moods,
When smooth and calm, when swiftly flowing,
When lashed by storm, when clear and bright,
Beneath an Autumn’s sunset glowing.

We’ve seen thee in the sweet Spring time,
When Summer winds were softly sighing,
When Autumn leaves, grown sere and brown,
So thickly on thy banks were lying.

We’ve seen thee under sullen skies,
When moonlight’s softest beams were shining,
On rock and bank and streamlet fair;
AH kinds of beauty there combining.

Shade evidently lingered over the scene, for, before he returned to Mr. Dickson and the guide, they began to wonder, and even to express some concern, at his prolonged absence. The emphasis with which he declared, however, that this was the place suitable above all others he had yet seen for a village, soon put his companion in good humour, but the practical difficulties in the way of their enterprise were too many to induce fanciful pictures of the future, even if the gentlemen had been more poetic and less matter of fact than they were.

They were soon mounted and on their way again, following the Indian trail up the same side of the river. As sunset drew near, they sighted a clearing about three miles up the stream, the curling smoke arising from which gave them a thrill of pleasure. It indicated the existence of some human habitation, however humble, and helped to solve what was fast becoming a perplexing question—how they were going to find shelter for the night.

After some difficulty they succeeded in fording the river, when they found the clearance belonged to an adventurous settler named Nathaniel Dodge, a Pennsylvanian by birth, who had located on the flats forming part of what is now known as Cruickston Park. He heartily welcomed them, and “old Dodge,” as he was long afterwards called, found in future years that he had lost nothing by keeping the tired travellers, and treating them to the best of the humble fare which he possessed.

The next day they returned to the junction of Mill-creek with the river, and re-examined the location. Their first impressions were strengthened, more especially after ascertaining the water-power which could be obtained from the river, with a moderate outlay of capital and skill. Both felt satisfied- that the selection would be a good one, but Shade desired to prospect further, and so they parted for a few days at this point, Mr. Dickson to make his way as best he could to Flamboro’ by what was known as the Dutch trail, and his companion to visit the more eastern and western parts of the township.

Shade first struck out in the direction of what is now the pretty Village of St. George, and from thence southwest until he reached the Grand River again. This he followed until a small tavern and ferry were sighted in the neighbourhood of what is now the City of Brantford. Assisted still by a guide, he next proceeded through the woods to Smith’s creek, in the neighbourhood of Ayr— which was the westerly limit of Mr. Dickson’s lands—examining the country as much as possible as he went along. After satisfying himself as to its character, he determined, aided by his compass to take a straight course eastwards to the river, hoping to come out opposite Mill-creek, more than ever satisfied with his first impressions of this particular locality.

At sundown the river was sighted, but three miles farther down than was expected. Shelter was obtained for the night in a solitary little log shanty, on the east-side of the stream, traces of which could be seen on the Campbell farm, near the road-side, until a few years ago. The occupants were one Ephraim Munson and his wife. They had sailed down the river from Waterloo in a boat some time before, and, attracted by the fine spring entering the river at this point, determined to erect a shanty and locate. They had very little to offer their unexpected visitors for supper but some suckers which Munson had caught during the afternoon. These fish were, however, fresh and abundant, and Mr. Shade frequently declared afterwards that he had seldom relished anything better in his life.

Taking a last look at the site of the proposed village, Shade rejoined Mr. Dickson at Flamboro’, fully prepared to make the venture pressed upon him. Satisfactory terms were soon agreed upon between them, and after visiting Niagara and Buffalo, and making as complete arrangements as were possible under the circumstances, Absalom Shade returned to make his home in the wilderness, and begin what was destined to become an important town, in the centre of one of the richest agricultural districts of Ontario. And thus Galt was founded!


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