Welcome to Cargill – a Bruce County historical gem: Part 1

The village of Cargill is tucked away in Bruce County but, at one time, it was one if the most thriving and bustling communities during the 1800s thanks to entrepreneur Henry Cargill.

      History comes alive with the Blacksmith

While many rural communities are losing their identity, Cargill is moving in another direction.  The community has formed the Cargill & Greenock Swamp Promotional Association that is revitalizing the village with its vision …  “A Place where History Comes Alive”.  Instead of moving forward into today’s frantic lifestyle of modernization, Cargill is drawing from its past and its history that includes family names whose descendants are still part of the community.

The village was named after Henry Cargill and, in a written history by Kevin McKague, he explains that Henry Cargill,  the village that bears his name, was “an enterprising industrialist and farmer, known for his broad and inclusive vision of economic and community development.”  McKague’s book features many historical photos of a by-gone era and the history of the community that he himself calls home. (available at Mill Ponds Bookstore Cargill or Amazon.ca)

Bruce County was the last county to be developed in southwestern Ontario and, beginning in 1850 and in only 30 years, most of the forested land became farmland and centres of commerce.

One of the largest swaths of land was the Greenock Swamp that held a wealth of lumber of white pine, cedar, ash, soft maple elm, beech and maple hardwoods. In a time where wood was considered a valuable asset, accessing the Greenock woodland was a challenge.

Prior to the settlers’ arrival, for 12,000 or more years, the Saugeen Ojibway Nation had called the Swamp Ah-ta-yahko-sibbi – the Drowned Lands River as the land was water logged and impassable.

Settlers soon realized however, the value of the forests in the Swamp and, by January 1879, the Greenock Swamp was almost entirely owned by Henry Cargill.

Cargill learned the value of timber from his father David who had migrated from Ireland.  Although Henry went to Kingston to study law at Queen’s University, the young Henry returned home to take over his father’s lumber business. As the surrounding forests became depleted, he turned to the Greenock Swamp with its rich timberland and between 1871 and 1870 began to buy the land and eventually had entire control of the swamp.

With prosperity, the village became a hub of modernity. It was, in fact, the first village in the area to have electricity that came from Cargill’s own powerhouse when he added a turbine at the south end of the the dam along the Teeswater River around 1900.  It also gave him however, complete control of the ‘new’ electricity that only ran from sunset until midnight, ensuring his employees would be well-rested in the morning.

According to McKague’s historical account, “Few in Ontario understood, and loved, the [lumber] business better than this father and son” [Henry and David Cargill].  Like father like son, both became politicians representing South Bruce County.

While a lumber baron, Cargill was also a philanthropist who gave back to the community by providing school funding, supported housing for his employees, was the major contributor to the building of the Walkerton Hospital, among many other charitable endeavours.

A staunch Conservative, Henry Cargill became a politician who served from 1892 to 1903, and remained as an MP until his death.

Fascinating Notes:
Daughter Margaret married William Humphrey Bennett – Conservative in the House for 22 years
Daughter Henrietta married Wilson Mills Southam of Southam News conglomerate

The Greenock Swamp Wetland complex today covers over 20,000 acres of land in the western portion of Brockton in southern Bruce County, presenting many opportunities for exploration.  It is an amazing ecosystem noted for its ability to act as a giant sponge, releasing water during periods of drought and absorbing water during heavy rainfall. The swamp also boasts a diversity and abundance of wildlife and is home to a number of significant species from the carnivorous Pitcher and Sundew Plants to bald eagles and everything in between.

Today, 2021, the Village of Cargill is going through a renaissance of “A Place where History Comes Alive” thanks to the Cargill & Greenock Swamp Promotional Association, a non-profit organization made up of passionate volunteers.

Stay tuned for the Village of Cargill Renaissance