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.
The ill-fated villages of the 19th century all have their fascinations, but none can equal the story of Kinnettles and its founder, Alex Harvey.
The townsite of Kinnettles is located on the western edge of Fergus. As originally laid out in 1855, it consisted of some 225 town lots, plus locations for factories and mills along the Grand River.
Alex Harvey, like many other landowners in the 1850s, intended to cash in on the real estate boom of the early 1850s. The Crimean War caused a sudden and dramatic increase in grain prices. For the first time, a lot of money jingled in the pockets of Canadian farmers. Everyone believed that the new country would become prosperous.
This was the general condition in Canada, but additional factors intensified the real estate boom in this area. There were plans for a railway from Guelph to Fergus and Elora. The townships of Peel, Maryborough and Minto had recently been opened to settlement; these would increase greatly the trading area of Fergus and Elora.
Finally, there was the Grand River. Water power was still, in the 1850s, the primary source of power for industry, and the Grand River had the best power potential of any river in the southern part of the province.
A few people made a great deal of money in 1854 when land prices suddenly jumped. In 1855 and 1856 others jumped in, Alex Harvey among them, all believing that the Fergus-Elora area would become a major industrial centre.
Born in Scotland, Alex Harvey looms in our history as a mysterious, enigmatic figure. Before looking at his doomed village, it is useful to understand as much as possible of the man. He has fascinated most Fergus historians, from A.E. Byerly and Hugh Templin to Pat Mestern.
Born in 1822 in Forfar, Scotland, Alexander Harvey came to Canada in 1838 in the company of James Webster, his cousin and the co-founder of Fergus. Webster had been in Scotland on a visit. Less than two years after coming to Canada, Alex Harvey, at the age of 18 married Matilda Shade, a niece of Absalom Shade, the founder of Galt. Matilda had grown up in Mobile, Alabama and had come to Galt after her parents died.
Shortly after the marriage, the couple returned to Scotland and lived with his family. Around 1840 Alex Harvey left his wife and a couple of children to undertake some kind of adventure in India and elsewhere.
After a couple of years Alex returned to his family in Scotland. With Matilda and daughter Angelica (the other child died in infancy) he set out once again for Canada and Fergus.
One story in local folklore has him appearing in town on a fine stallion with two saddlebags filled with gold. In any case, he apparently had significant financial resources. He purchased the farm on the west side of Fergus, north of the Grand River from James Webster. The property included a large stone house, reputedly the oldest stone house north of Guelph and built in 1838 by Webster when he married.
He invested money in the milling, distilling and saw milling complex in Fergus, located on what is now the parking lot across the river from the Fergus market. His partners were his cousin James Webster and A.D. Fordyce, who was also a relative.
For a while Alex Harvey seems to have settled down to a relatively tranquil domestic life. He and Matilda had seven more children. A snob and social climber, Matilda quickly carved out a place for herself at the peak of Fergus society, hosting frequent balls and parties.
Alex, meanwhile, pursued two great passions: whiskey and fast horses. He set up a race track near his house, and outraged some of the straight-laced citizens of Fergus by racing on Sundays. A tall, black-bearded figure in a long-tailed coat and grey beaver hat, he liked to preside over the proceedings as the Laird of Kinnettles.
Unfortunately, he was also running out of money, and began borrowing from Matilda’s uncle, Absalom Shade. Later, financial and legal trouble developed over the mill properties. Harvey tied up the A.D. Fordyce estate in court in order to salvage some of his investment.
There can be little doubt that Alex Harvey decided to subdivide his farm as a quick fix for his deteriorating financial situation. He sold much of Kinnettles, but few of the purchasers made payments, and only two actually began houses. Most purchasers were themselves speculators, hoping to pay for their lots when they resold them at a higher price. The bubble soon burst, leaving Harvey with little more than a nicely lithographed plan.
According to Harvey folklore, Matilda sent money back to Alabama to help finance the Confederate effort during the Civil War. In any case, the Harveys had fallen on hard times by the 1860s. Matilda and the children attempted to scrape out a living by raising cattle and pigs. Alex, with no visible source of income, spent much of his time befriending the bottle. He made numerous enemies. In 1866 one of his foes attempted to burn down his house.
Things came to a head on March 19, 1869. Early that evening John Thomson and John Wilson brought Alex home in a drunken stupor. They were met by Harvey’s 20-year-old son Absalom, who pleaded with Thomson and Wilson to never bring his father home drunk because he was a terror to the family. Absalom brandished a pistol, and said he would use it if necessary.
Later that night Alex sobered up a little and went to Matilda’s bedroom in search of a bottle of brandy. When Matilda pleaded with him to stop drinking he struck her. She called out to Absalom for help. There was a struggle. Someone knocked the lamp over and it went out. Then there was a pistol shot.
The bullet grazed Alex above the ear, creating a two inch gash. Bleeding profusely, he eventually wandered off to Dr. Munro to get patched up.
Alex pleaded with Dr. Munro to keep the story quiet, but the medic did some investigating on his own the next day. Absalom admitted to the shooting. Unrepentant, he vowed he would do it again under similar circumstances. Dr. Munro advised the local magistrates, and two days later a preliminary hearing heard sufficient evidence to hold Absalom Harvey for attempted murder.
The trial took place in Guelph five weeks later. George Drew, the Elora lawyer, defended Absalom. Other than the bandages around the head of Alex Harvey, the prosecution could produce little evidence. All the witnesses seemed to suffer from amnesia. Matilda said it could not have been Absalom because he did not have a gun. The jury, after a few minutes of deliberation, returned a verdict of not guilty.
Following the trial, Alex Harvey abandoned his family, and Absalom and his two brothers left home. To those familiar with 2 Samuel Chapters 13 to 16, the whole affair must have had some unsettling biblical resonances.
Absalom Harvey secured a job with the Great Western Railway and rose rapidly. His elder brother Sebastian moved to Chicago and became a successful businessman. Matilda, with her sister Caroline and daughters Angelica and Isabella, tried for a couple of years to scratch out a living by farming.
In 1873 the family reunited in Palmerston, abandoning Kinnettles in a pile of unpaid bills and legal briefs. Absalom had been appointed the station agent at Palmerston, and was probably the principle means of support for the family. Railway construction created the town of Palmerston, and the promise of quick profits in the booming local economy probably attracted Alex. Isabella Harvey married a lawyer there. After a few years the Harveys moved to Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, then in the North West Territories.
I have discovered little about the Harveys’ later life in the west, but two of the children did well there. Angelica married a doctor, and Omar worked for the railway. Alex was still alive in 1891, the village of Kinnettles existing as a set of very mixed emotions in his memory.
(Next time: More about Kinnettles and its legends.)
*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Jan. 7, 1998.