Elora and Pilkington: shifting boundaries, political power, growth in the 1800s

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 union of the village of Elora with the Township of Pilkington is a rather important event in the history of the ‘model village’ …”

These words are not from some future issue of the Elora Sentinel, but from the Guelph Advertiser of Jan. 8, 1852.

The establishment of local government in Upper Canada was a slow and agonizing process, and the annexation of Elora to Pilkington represented one step on the path that would lead to Elora’s incorporation as a separate municipality in 1858.

Unlike the current efforts at municipal restructuring, the annexation of 1852 sought to decentralize government.

In the early 19th century, local government was virtually powerless. The authorities believed that local government, and its best-known institution, the town meeting, had led to the American revolution. Upper Canada was set up to follow a more loyal course.

At the higher level, Upper Canada was organized into districts whose primary function was the administration of the court system. Townships were set up at the beginning, but their government consisted of a council of appointed magistrates with very limited powers of taxation and jurisdiction. Nichol township was governed this way until 1842.

For political and practical reasons, a better system of local government was gradually introduced. Legislation in 1841 provided for the election of township councils, and greatly increased the power of townships.

In 1849, the current county system was introduced, and urban areas were permitted to incorporate.

Pilkington township was a product of the 1849 act. Pilkington had been a tract of land at the northeastern side of Woolwich township. These 30,000 acres were purchased by Gen. Robert Pilkington in 1799, who intended to subdivide it into farms. He even surveyed a large “retirement lot” for himself in the centre of the tract, but he died before much settlement took place.

His estate was held up in court for decades, and it was not until the late 1840s that significant settlement took place.

By 1850, it was clear that the farmers of the Pilkington Tract were oriented much more to Elora than to Elmira. As well, there were ethnic differences with the German majority in the rest of Woolwich township.

Elora, meanwhile, was engaged in a spirited battle with Fergus for the leading position in Nichol township. Nichol had been sold in two sections to rival developers.

William Gilkison established Elora as the commercial centre for his half, while Webster and Fergusson founded Fergus as the hub of their development. The situation worked well from a commercial aspect, but the two were incompatible in a single political unit.

The solution to the political dilemma was engineered by Charles Allan, the leading Elora developer and businessman of the 1840s and 1850s.

By 1850, he had been hired as the local agent for the Pilkington estate, and as the most influential councillor in Nichol township he pushed through the incorporation of Pilkington as a separate township.

In addition to the original Pilkington lands, the 400 acres containing the village of Elora (half of which belonged to Allan) were severed from Nichol and added to the new township.

Pilkington township council at the beginning consisted of five men, elected from individual wards each year. Elora had one councillor. At their first meeting the councillors decided which one of them would be reeve. The ward system lasted until the 1860s, when it was replaced by a general vote for four councillors and a reeve.

The rival centres of Fergus and Guelph immediately began a campaign of derision and ridicule of Elora, which Allan was promoting as “the model town in the model township.”

The decade following the annexation proved to be the boom period in the village’s history, with growth rates of 12% to 20% each year. In 1858, Elora itself was incorporated as a separate municipality, largely on the initiative of Charles Allan, who was now the MP for North Wellington.

The incorporated area included farmland and over 800 unoccupied lots. Interestingly, neither Salem nor the town lots in Lot 18 were included in the incorporated village. Optimism at the time was so strong that most people believed Salem would soon be a municipality in its own right.

After 1900, there were efforts to make the boundaries of Elora correspond with the built-up part of the village.

In 1908, Elora became one of the few municipalities to shrink in physical size — when 187 acres at the south and east sides of the village were transferred to Nichol township.

As early as 1907, there were serious efforts to expand the village to the north by annexing Lot 18 and Salem.

An agreement was reached with Nichol in 1912 for the transfer of Lot 18 to the village, but the effort was opposed by 49 of the 56 householders in Lot 18.

At the time, Elora was about to install an electrical distribution system, and wanted to distribute the costs over as large a number of users as possible. The Lot 18 residents, mostly tight-fisted retired farmers, feared the higher taxes that would come with annexation. They forced a Municipal Board hearing — and won.

Until the period after the Second World War, there was only one annexation: the 17 acres around the Elora quarry. This land was taken in at the request of the Alabastine Co., operators of the lime business there. In return for higher taxes, it received fire protection from the village and electricity at Elora rates.

Until recently, the close association of Elora with Nichol and Pilkington has been based on a clear distinction between urban and rural activities. Only recently have the townships viewed residential and commercial development as desirable.

Similarly, the question of physical expansion for Elora is a relatively new one. The population of the village declined from 1,650 in 1875, to 1,100 in 1930.

Controlling growth, obviously, was not an issue for much of Elora’s history.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Dec. 24, 1990.

Thorning Revisited