Agriculture recognized as historically important in Saugeen Township

Saugeen Shores Municipal Heritage Committee has created another interpretive sign in recognition of the importance that agriculture has played in the history of Bruce County.

The sign, with information researched by Committee member Bill Streeter, was erected at the Rail Trail where it crosses County Rd. 25. at the south end of Port Elgin as part of the Interpretive Sign Program.  The Municipal Heritage Committee partners with local organizations to install interpretive plaques at significant historic locations throughout Saugeen Shores. View the complete list of interpretive plaques.

“This signage puts together the development of agriculture from the times it got started, through the last 170 years to where it is today,” said Streeter.  “To have it in an historical piece will enable people in the future to see it documented. Sometimes we tend to forget about our past but there are lots of people who are interested in history and there are those who are interested in the transition of how they got from where they were to where they are today.  These types of plaques enable people to see those stories and we receive funding for one a year.  Our Bruce County Museum is a wonderful resource in our County for those who want to learn more.”

        (L-R) Heritage Committee members – Councilor Cheryl Grace, Gerard Walsh, Jane Kramer,                                                  Bill Streeter, Councilor Matt Carr

Saugeen Shores Deputy Mayor Don Matheson, a secondary school history teacher said that he encourages his students to “… talk to the oldest family member that they have and listen to their stories”.

“Bruce County has a rich history thanks to the Germans, Irish and Imperial Loyalists who came here as pioneers,” added Matheson, “and we have to thank the Heritage Committee who have become the keepers of the history of Saugeen Shores and area.”

(L-R) Vice-Deputy Mayor Mike Myatt, Deputy Mayor Don Matheson, Rail Trail member Gerry Boucher and Bill Streeter

The (complete) Plaque Story – by G. William (Bill) Streeter

Mr. A. Vidal, Land Surveyor, arrived in Saugeen from Sarnia with a party of men on April 18, 1851. His instructions were; “Commencing at the north-west corner of the township of Brant, to carry the Elora Road, as originally projected, through to some place near the mouth of the Saugeen River, and then survey into farm lots.”

A few weeks earlier Alexander Wallace and his wife Mary-Ann pulled a toboggan loaded with household effects, while they carried heavy bundles, coming from Owen Sound to the Saugeen First Nation village. From here Mr. Wallace canoed along the Saugeen River to a spot that he chose, and he became the first settler of the township. A short time later he was joined by his wife. Their log home was located at what is known today as Concession 1 on Lots 32 and 33 very close to the far south-east corner of the Township.

In the spring of 1852, Mr. Wallace travelled to Guelph and returned with David Kennedy Sr. and James Scott bringing with them two yokes of oxen and four cows. They proceeded on a long and arduous journey up the Garafraxa Road and near Owen Sound they turned west, past Inglis Falls, on a trail that took them through what is now Tara and Burgoyne and on to the township.

On July 30, 1852, township lands were opened for sale at the price of 10 shillings (about $2) per acre. Those that had arrived earlier were required to take immediate steps to establish their squatter’s rights.

The rapid expansion of settlement brought about the township being granted municipal standing in January 1854 and a five-member council was elected and Alexander McNabb, the Land Agent, was unanimously conferred as reeve.

Very quickly walking trails between settlers occurred and trails soon became passable roads. Contact with the villages in the township created trade and they all became an interactive community. Regular overland mail started from Elora in 1856 and the Elora Road and the Goderich Road developed gradually into connecting overland routes.

The normal mode of freight travel for many in the early years, was by ship freighter to both our towns from Goderich. Farmers could bring their crops to the docks in town for sale and for shipment outside the community. Then, in 1873, the railway arrived and changed the lives of all in a very significant manner. The settlers cleared more land, grew more crops and raised more livestock as the opportunity to send them to the city markets in the south became a reality. Stock yards opened in Port Elgin and at Turners to accommodate farmers with cattle and pigs to ship out of the community.

Logs cleared from the land could be transported to the local saw mills for processing into lumber. Commerce in the township and in both towns benefited in a major way.

Farming in Saugeen continued in this way for a significant period with some farmers expanding their operations while others maintained small family farms. It was after the second World War that change started in a big way. The dairy industry became specialized as milk contracts occurred between dairies and some of the bigger milking farm operations. Beef farms started to expand to include multiple farms with the elimination of milking. Most farms also kept pigs and chickens as a part of their operations, but this also presented opportunities for those that saw a future to expand in these areas of farming as well.

It was about 1946 that it became known that much of the land around Port Elgin along Highway 21 was very suitable for growing tobacco. Two men named Fred Owens and Harvey Wales, from near London, started growing the crop at two farms; one each at the south and north end of Port Elgin. This quickly turned into a “rush” to secure or develop suitable land to take advantage of this new opportunity. The influx of knowledgeable crop specialists began, and many came from South Western Ontario as well as new immigrants from Hungary, that had worked in tobacco before their country became part of the Communist Eastern Bloc.

Very rapidly many farms converted to tobacco and the industry flourished in Saugeen Township and crossed the Saugeen River to the edges of both Arran and Amabel Townships as well.

Over the years, hundreds of local people spent many weeks each year harvesting the crop. In 1972, there were 27 farms identified as “tobacco farms” with over 1,000 acres growing the crop. Value of tobacco grown exceeded $1,000,000 annually in 1972. Tobacco was a major part of the Saugeen Township economy.

By the mid 70’s, after more than 30 years, with the demand for tobacco declining rapidly, tobacco farms started closing. Saugeen Township was hit hard, and the farms were converted to growing grain, corn and bean crops. Farms adjacent to Port Elgin were gradually converted into housing subdivisions.

The era of TOBACCO had ended.

Many of the people from small family owned mixed farms had started working in town and at the Douglas Point operation during the 60’s and 70’s, thus making their farms available for those committed to larger long-term farming operations. The era of the “100-acre family farm” was ending.

Today, in the rural areas of Saugeen Shores, we see large expanses of open fields with crops being grown for cash and there remain a few large beef cattle operations along with some dairy, pig and chicken operations. In recent years we have also seen growth in the number of sheep farms in the township.

Agriculture has gone through many changes in Saugeen Township since 1851 and we can be assured that “change” will continue.

Included are excerpts and quotes from “The History of Bruce County” by Norman Robertson 1906, from “Pioneer Days at Guelph and the County of Bruce” by David Kennedy Sr. 1903 and from verbal quotes and notes from residents of our town.