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Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015

Kinnettles history: Macdonald visit, ghosts, missing body

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.


(This is the third and final part of the story of Kinnettles, Alex Harvey’s ill-fated village on the western edge of Fergus.)

In 1872 Alex Harvey moved to Palmerston, and his wife left for an extended stay with her son in Chicago. This did not end the Harvey presence immediately. Their property at Kinnettles was tied up in a tangle of mortgages and lawsuits that took more than a decade to unravel. The legal mess was made all the worse by Matilda’s death at the end of 1872.

The Harvey property can be considered in two blocks: the Kinnettles Farm, to the north of the Fergus-Elora Road, and the 225 lots in the Kinnettles town site, between the Fergus-Elora Road and the river.

The history of the farm, some 144 acres, is fairly straightforward. The lawyers handling Matilda’s estate and the estate of her uncle, Absalom Shade, sold the farm to Charles Kay in March 1873, taking back a mortgage for most of the value.

It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast than that between Kay and Alex Harvey. A quiet, respectable and hard-working man, Kay began as a modest tradesman and over four decades became a prosperous man.

Charles Kay arrived in Fergus in the early 1860s, and worked as a carpenter and in various sawmills. By 1867 he was leasing the downtown sawmill from William Robertson, who operated the adjoining flour mill. It was located immediately upstream from what is now the Templin Gardens.

As a sideline, Kay farmed on a small scale. He rented about 50 acres at the rear of the Wellington County Museum, and lived in a house there, which vanished long ago.

The history of the Kinnettles town lots is more complicated. About a quarter of them were held by speculators, but no one attempted to commence building a town. The balance were in Harvey’s name, though title was disputed by the lawyers handling Matilda’s estate. She had left no real estate to her husband in her will.

Joseph E. MacDougall, the Fergus lawyer, handled Matilda’s interests through the 1870s. Much of the Harvey property wound up in the hands of F.J. Chadwick, one of the most active speculators in Wellington County. Chadwick was already hopelessly over-extended with mortgages.

In 1885 the mortgage holders foreclosed, and sold most of Kinnettles village under power of sale. Charles Kay purchased the property, which included the house and grounds of Alex Harvey, to provide more grazing land for his cattle.

Between 1886 and 1896 Kay completed his purchase of the entire Kinnettles townsite. He purchased some lots at low prices from unsuccessful speculators.

Others were sold by the county when the owners failed to pay back taxes.

Kay lived on the Kinnettles farm for 29 years. He sold the entire property in 1902 to James Wilson and Sons, proprietors of Monkland Mills. He received $14,000 for the property, a huge sum at the turn of the century. It should be remembered that there was an unused mill site on the river adjoining Kinnettles. The Wilsons may have considered building a mill there. In any case, the Wilsons had become involved in the cattle business. The farm became the residence of one of the brothers, Matthew.

In 1919 Matthew Wilson sold the farm to John B. Ketchen. Several generations of Fergus residents have associated the farm with the Ketchen name.

Three 19th century buildings exist on the old Harvey lands: The Kinnettles farm house, the old Harvey residence on Bon Accord Street, and the old creamery building on the Fergus-Elora Road. With available information, it is impossible to put exact dates on any of them.

The Kinnettles farm house (immediately west of the Freshco Plaza) probably dates to Charles Kay’s purchase in 1873, though it may be older. The Kinnettles Creamery building in its present form dates to 1892, when a butter making business was established there by a local co-operative. It was reconstructed from an earlier building.

The old Harvey House has been dated to 1838 by some authorities, but in the view of other evidence this is impossible. The original Harvey residence, a frame building, was located immediately to the south of the surviving stone one.

One tale attributes the house to Absalom Shade, who built it for his niece Matilda Harvey.

This tale sounds more plausible, and the style of the house suggests a date between 1850 and 1870.

In addition to these structures, there were at least two, and possibly as many as four, other modest residences and shanties on the Kinnettles lands in the 19th century.

Legends about the Harveys began to circulate soon after the family left town. The old house remained empty for decades, and not surprisingly, was soon believed to be haunted. There were tales of blood stains in the kitchen, blood stained clothing in various parts of the house, and spectres moving through the house.

The haunted house myth gained additional credibility when Charles Kay discovered the body of a young woman in the house one winter morning.

He immediately informed the authorities, and an inquiry was called for the following morning, to be held in the Harvey house. When officials arrived, the body was nowhere to be found.

In the days following it was reported that the body had been taken away by a medical student who wanted a skeleton, and that the girl was a runaway from the House of Industry (now the museum building).

I suspect there is much more to this story. The girl had not been reported missing and it seems odd that the coroner did not take the body away for an autopsy. With no body and no coroner’s report it was impossible to assign any responsibility.

Kinnettles was the site of a happier event in 1887, when the Conservative Party hosted a picnic there featuring Sir John A. Macdonald. A crowd of about 2,000 showed up for speeches and sandwiches, and a holiday atmosphere pervaded both Fergus and Elora. It was an attempt to inject life into the straggling campaign of Dr. George Orton. On polling day Dr. Orton needed more than a Kinnettles picnic; he lost to Fergus miller Andrew Semple.

The old Kinnettles townsite remained a farmer’s field until the spring of 1933. The former manager of the Cutten Club in Guelph rented about 20 acres of the townsite and the old Harvey residence, and laid it out as a nine-hole golf course. He ploughed up the turf, and piled it up to make small hills. The old house became a combination residence and club house.

Local golfers began play later that summer. This was the start of the Fergus Golf Club. There were frequent improvements during the following years, but no formal agreement until 1949, when the club signed a lease with John Ketchen for $350 per year.

The Fergus Golf Club vacated the site in the 1970s, and the old village of Kinnettles became a subdivision, using in large part the street layout of Alex Harvey.

The Harvey legacy still can be seen in the old house on Bon Accord Street, and in a couple of street names, Angelica and Omar, named for two of the Harvey children.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Feb. 4, 1998.


Vol 51 Issue 34


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