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Galt was once a heavily-wooded valley full of bears and wolves

'Our area has a fascinating and complex history which I know a little about but would love to hear more,' writes Jill Summerhayes
USED 20231023goodmorningcambridgedc04
The founding story of Galt in Centennial Park.

Our area has a fascinating and complex history which I know a little about but would love to hear more. My friend Joe Lethbridge frequently posts segments sharing part of the history of our city. His posts are fascinating, well researched snippets of our past, which would be gems for any local online communication.

A recent one reminded me of a fundraising dinner that was held in 1986.  A Heritage banquet was organized and held at the Cambridge Armories for the Community Heritage Fund 

At the time my late husband Stuart was heavily involved in heritage preservation, and somehow, I got roped into organizing the entertainment. I decided to have citizens act out various parts of our area’s history.  Dressed in costume of the time they would act out certain  happenings of former days of Galt, Preston and Hespeler, before it amalgamated into Cambridge in 1973.

This was the Cambridge archives' description: “In 1986 Ms. Summerhayes accepted the task of organizing the first ever Cambridge Heritage Banquet to assist in raising funds for the Community heritage Fund, held at the Cambridge Amouries. She organized and researched and wrote the script for the highly successful event.”

That makes it sound as though it came about quickly and naturally, but as you can imagine that was not the case. It took hours of searching through documents, photos, meeting with people who knew the history and collaboration with a playwright from the Galt Little theatre, Maurice Dubras.  

In 1986 Joe Cote of the CBC radio acted the role of Governor Simcoe on all formal occasions, since he had previously interviewed me, we persuaded him to come to the banquet. We planned his spectacular arrival, accompanied by Mayor Claudette Millar with a team of horses and an open Landau carriage, with bagpipes accompanying their entrance.  

Local citizens were invited to play various roles including Joseph Brant, Absolem Shade, William Dickson, Reverend Boomer, and others. We selected entertaining characters based on our research into early history. 

We found the most useful resource was the small book “Reminiscences of the early history of Galt and settlement of Dumfries” by the Honourable James Young. But as heritage buffs and very knowledgeable people were to attend, we knew it would be under scrutiny, so we tried to edit the very detailed history into an amusing, if not entirely accurate, play.

We learned that this area was formerly used as hunting grounds for the Six Nations, with trout fishing especially prolific in the Hespeler area. 

In 1798 Colonel Brant, on behalf of the Six Nations, sold one block of 94,305 acres of land to one Philip Steman. A formal deed was made, and Six Nations surrendered all their interest in the lands. Some time elapsed before the British government issued letters patent to Stedman.  

Where Galt now stands was a forest of huge pines, elms, oaks, and the occasional beech. The natural beauty of the area, to later become Galt was strikingly pleasing with its gently sloping oval shaped river valley, and surrounding hills and riverside cliffs.

A gentleman lawyer, originally from Scotland, then living in Niagara, the Hon.William Dickson purchased the lands from Stedman’s surviving spouse. After many adventures, numerous legal battles, and changes of ownership, after the 1812 war ended, it was not until 1816 Dickson purchased blocks of land paying approximately one dollar per acre. Dickson was determined to possess some of the large tracks of land.

William Dickson, had met Absalom Shade, a young carpenter, previously. Shade left Niagara, due to a failed negotiation for a contract and decided to live in the wilderness. William Dickson, who was not familiar with the lands he had purchased, trusted Shade and so they journeyed together to inspect the area.

One afternoon in July 1816, Shade while inspecting the area was so enamoured that he reported back it was a prime area for cultivation. If a grist mill could be utilized, this would be a perfect spot to build a town which would thrive.

However, the early pioneers dealt with every phase of bush life, with no roads, scarcely a tree felled and the almost impassable Beverly Swamp between them, the solitary settler Mr. Shade, who had built himself a wooden structure, tackled the problems with great determination and slowly others followed. 

The land, mostly wilderness, was slowly cleared and cultivated but settlement was extremely slow.

Mr. Dickson was still in Niagara but took the role of encouragement and found other settlers and in 1817 thirty-eight families had settled here, comprising of one hundred and sixty-three persons, less than the number of animals on farms. 

The early settlers, being poor and dependent on one another, were always ready to assist their neighbours. There was much excitement in 1827 with the arrival of John Galt who had been at school in Edinburgh with William Dickson. Galt wanted to open the road to Guelph and Shade wanted the contract. At this point Dickson moved from Niagara to what became known as Galt. 

John Galt was a friendly and clever fellow and greatly liked by the early settlers who were happy with the change of the town name from Shade’s Mill to Galt.

Most business was conducted by barter back then as money was rarely seen. An English shilling was a curiosity and battered brass buttons passed readily as coppers, on occasion they would be cut off the jacket the owner was still wearing. 

People were eager to get married and it was customary then, as now, to offer a small fee to the officiating clergyman upon completion of the ceremony. One amusing story is that Reverend Dr. Boomer, after tying the marriage knot, was surprised when the bride stepped aside and whispered in is ear, they had no money but would, the next day, pay his fee in sausages. He graciously accepted but could barely suppress his merriment at the unexpected payment.

For a few years, bears and wolves were numerous and in 1834 a bear hunt arose in an unusual way.

One afternoon at about four o’clock a full-grown black bear wandered down what is now Main Street, in Galt and at the corner of Water Street, where a small tavern stood, dogs began barking alerting citizens to the presence of the bear.

The excited dogs began the chase, followed by citizens armed with rifles, shotguns and even clubs. Here the story varies as the where the bear went and whether it was captured, but the bear swam across the river to the island, then covered in tall pines and climbed one of them. One citizen claimed to have shot it, another disputed that story.

The local distillery was very profitable and with whisky at 20 cents a gallon temperance was the last thing that interested local citizens. On holidays it was reported they drank as much in a day as a hotel sold in a month.

As the town prospered there are many stories; a vibrant debating Society was formed and The Galt Curling Club formed in 1838.  

In 1841 it was settled on permanent footing. The Galt Thespian Amateurs, in 1843 held an open performance, with an accompanying orchestra. It always played before crowded audiences in the old Fireman’s Hall, the locals loved live theatre and music.

There are hundreds of amusing stories some of which we were able to incorporate into the Heritage banquet Entertainment. The funds raised later laid the groundwork for the restoration of McDougal cottage on Grand Avenue

Thanks to the early settlers and the author The Honorable James Young for documenting the various occurrences in his book, published in 1879, we can look back at our early beginnings. The City Archives and the Libraries have much well documented information should you be interested.