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 last two weeks’ columns, on the early years of Nichol and Pilkington, made use of the oldest written material that exists on the Elora area.
Few documents of any sort from this period have survived and historians must make the most of what does exist.
Land registry records and some government records exist, of course, but these produce a very dry brand of history. Though there are only scattered fragments of other sources, the Elora area is luckier than most communities. Enough has survived that we can achieve a basic understanding of the experience of the early settlers.
We owe much to two earlier historians. John Connon began to pursue local history seriously in the 1890s. His main interest was the early years of settlement in the Elora area. There were still members of the first generation alive at the time, and Connon interviewed and corresponded with them.
One problem he had was that the memories of his subjects had begun to fade. Sometimes he was able to corroborate information with others, but there is also much of what he collected that must be filed under the categories of gossip, rumour and tall tales.
Connon also collected letters, diaries, photographs, and documents. Dr. A.E. Byerly, who took up local history seriously in the 1920s, quickly became a more serious collector. He used the documents and letters he collected as the basis for his popular columns and books in the 1920s and 1930s. Regrettably, much of Byerly’s collection seems to have disappeared into other hands or been destroyed. A large portion of Connon’s collection has suffered a similar fate.
Substantiated information is well sprinkled with conjecture, inaccurate recollections, gossip, rumour and old-fashioned tall tales. Even using the work of Connon and Byerly, writing about the early years of the Elora area is like solving a crossword puzzle with 90 per cent of the clues missing.
The best of the tall tales remains the one about buried gold near the mouth of Carroll Creek, on land that is now in the Elora Gorge Park. Several versions of this story circulated over the years, the oldest going back to the 1860s.
One version is that the Six Nations Indians received some gold after the American revolution, and buried it along the Grand River for safekeeping. Another version dates the payment to about 1817. In this one, the Indians received $25,000 in gold in return for their help in the War of 1812.
Yet another version claims the gold was the payment for the land sold by the Indians in the upper Grand valley. A variant of this story is that the Indians told some of the early Pilkington settlers about the location, with the settlers promising to make sure that it was not molested.
Every version of the story is, of course, absurd. The money received by the Indians for their land sales was deposited in a government-supervised trust account, and no one would be foolish enough to bury money on land they had just sold and then have it watched by strangers. No one ever thought it curious that the Indians seemed to have completely forgotten about their horde.
There were embellishments over the years. In one of these, an old Indian came to Elora to visit Hugh Roberts during his final illness. The Indian, reportedly, revealed all the details before Mr. Roberts expired. His son, Griffith Roberts, scoffed at all versions of the story, and claimed it had originated in the mind of Captain Tom Smith, a pioneer settler near Winterbourne.
There were plenty of believers without the skeptical Griff Roberts. During the 1860s, many Elora people scoured the area with picks and shovels.
One of these was David Boyle, who in later life sheepishly admitted that he had spent the best part of a summer looking for the gold. Boyle, who at the time taught at Middlebrook school, was later principal at Elora and afterward became the provincial archaeologist.
John Connon, in the 1870s, was another of the diligent treasure hunters.
The buried gold story resurfaced every few years for decades. The most recent revival occurred in 1931, when some unemployed Elora men made a last, desperate attempt to find the long-lost treasure.
Not every unsubstantiated story is as preposterous as the buried gold tale.
There was once a widespread belief that General Robert Pilkington had originally intended to retire to an estate in the middle of his township on the north side of the Grand River. Since we do not have any personal papers of the general, it is impossible to verify the story. John Connon believed it, based on what he had heard from old-timers.
One fact cited in support of the story is that Pilkington had surveyed only the southern part of the township into farms. The balance of the township was not surveyed until a decade after Pilkington’s death.
A number of army officers and rich Englishmen owned tracts of land similar to Pilkington’s, but few ever lived on them. It is unlikely that Pilkington would have abandoned a comfortable life in England for retirement in the backwoods of Canada.
Another famous rumour was about two Frenchmen.
Two of the early squatters in the Elora area were known as the Two Frenchmen. There is no official record of them, but they are noted in several oral sources. John Connon has placed their cabin on Lot 4, Concession 3, of Nichol township, near Swan Creek. This stream was once called Frenchman’s Creek in their honour.
All versions of their story are consistent: The two men deserted Napoleon’s army, and found their way to Upper Canada and seclusion.
The Frenchmen seem to have made no attempt at farming. Connon wrote, rather coyly, that “they are supposed to have done something in France that compelled them to travel for their health.” One of Connon’s informants told him that the pair left the Elora area in the early 1820s in company with Bill Wolcott, an early Pilkington pioneer, and that the trio went to New York state to teach school. We will never know for certain.
Not all tall tales date from the early years of settlement. Those that appeal to greed and avarice seem to be consistently popular.
This was the case with the discovery of oil in Elora in 1861. The oil story was obviously inspired by the Oil Springs discovery in Lambton County in the late 1850s. The Oil Springs field was close to the surface, and it was not long before people everywhere believed that oil could be found near the surface, and that it would spurt forth in freshets from underneath rocks or from shallow wells.
The main “discovery” occurred on the west side of Fergus, at Kinettles (between the town and the current Wellington County Museum and Archives) in May 1861, with large reservoirs reportedly found between the layers of limestone.
Further “discoveries” were soon made in Elora. Reportedly, oil was seeping from cracks in the rock near the Victoria Street bridge, and traces were found bubbling up on Metcalfe Street.
The whole Elora oil boom may well have been the work of a prankster. In any case, the rumour of oil brought out the picks and shovels of the get-rich-quick brigade.
Twenty-one years later, a serious attempt to find oil was made at Kinettles. Several investors formed a joint stock company to buy drilling equipment in the summer of 1882. The project soon foundered. We do not know whether this group had geological evidence for oil, or was merely acting on the events of 1861.
The oil story resurfaced occasionally in later decades. In the most popular version, oil had actually been discovered, but the quantity was too small to exploit commercially.
Everyone in Elora is familiar with the story of Rev. John Smithurst and Florence Nightingale. This is Elora’s most jumbled tangle of fact and speculation. The story appeals to the romanticism in many people, some of whom have added their own embellishments over the years. The most ridiculous of these is the report that someone commenced construction of a house for Florence Nightingale in Elora.
False rumours and inaccuracies are occupational hazards of historians. Evidence must be assessed carefully, and individual facts must be checked with other facts for consistency.
On the other hand, the more imaginative tall tales become historical artifacts in their own right. Such stories are not vital to our understanding of history, but they certainly make it more interesting.
We must not forget that William Lyon Mackenzie hid out in a back kitchen (or attic, or cellar, or barn, or well) near Elora — and that the gang of thieves and highwaymen who preyed on travellers all over southern Ontario lived by day in secret caves in the Elora gorge …
*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on April 14, 1992.