Fergus post office opened in 1836; first postmaster served 63 years

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.

With the instantaneous communications available to us today — telephones, fax, modems, cellular networks — in addition to the post-office and courier services, it is hard to imagine what it was like before there were communications services of any kind.

But, this was the situation in central Wellington before 1836, when postal authorities decided to open a post office at Fergus. It was the second post office in present-day Wellington County. The Guelph office had been opened eight years earlier.

In the early 19th century, the British government controlled the Canadian post office, and the British viewed it as a money-making proposition to offset losses incurred in military and administrative expenditures in Canada.

The postal network of Upper Canada was limited to a small handful of routes connecting the largest centres, and it lagged far behind the settlement of new areas such as Nichol, Garafraxa, and Eramosa townships. 

Rates, based on distance, were prohibitively expensive. Not surprisingly, the quality of the postal service became a major political issue during the 1820s.

Complaints declined in quantity and vehemence with the appointment of Thomas Stayner as deputy postmaster general in 1827. Stayner answered to the British postmaster general, but he quickly gained support in Upper Canada by extending and improving the service.

Guelph was the first new office he opened. By the time he authorized the Fergus post office in 1836, he had more than tripled the number of post offices in Canada.

Stayner kept the confidence of the British authorities through sound management practices. He opened offices only where there was a real need for them, and he chose his postmasters carefully. Increasing revenues more than made up for the extra costs of the expanded system.

James McQueen, Stayner’s choice for postmaster at Fergus, is a good example of the type of man he sought for the postal service. McQueen was a graduate of Glasgow University, and might have lived a quiet and comfortable life in the old country, but he and his wife, Christina, chose instead to emigrate to the United States in 1834. Disliking the atmosphere there, he moved to Halton county, where he taught school.

Early in 1836, McQueen came to Fergus.

He soon had two jobs: not only was he appointed postmaster, but he was also hired as the schoolmaster for the village’s one-room log school, located on the site of the current Fergus school that bears McQueen’s name. At the beginning of 1837, when township government was established in Nichol, McQueen acquired additional responsibilities when he was appointed clerk and treasurer.

It is a certainty that McQueen’s clerical ability and intelligence were known to prominent people in Fergus before he arrived. Oral tradition links his appointments with lobbying by James Webster, A.D. Ferrier, and Adam Ferguson, the key figures associated with Fergus in its early years.

To the modern observer, it would appear that McQueen had undertaken an impossible work load, but in the conditions of the 1830s, this was not the case. High postage rates continued to hamper mail volumes, and in the 1830s Fergus had only twice-weekly service. Weekly mail volumes rarely exceeded a few dozen letters and newspapers.

This was an era of extremely limited government, and McQueen’s township duties required only a few hours per month. Schoolteaching involved few administrative duties beyond the classroom. McQueen had time left over to clear a farm and to work as a volunteer in church and community projects.

Mail volumes grew through the 1840s, but still were comparatively light. McQueen operated the post office from his house until 1848, when increasing usage and changes in transportation prompted an office on St. Andrew Street.

Mail had originally been brought to Fergus by way of Elora, by a man on horseback, or sometimes on foot. In the early 1840s, a stagecoach followed the same route. By 1847, this service was daily, and in that year Stayner authorized a new tri-weekly stage route to Owen Sound, serving a series of new offices along the way.

Many residents and all businessmen now visited the post office daily, and it was necessary for it to be located in the midst of the business sector of the village.

In 1857, McQueen relinquished his position as schoolmaster in order to devote more attention to the post office and his township responsibilities.

McQueen later built a fine stone block on St. Andrew Street to house the post office and a store. It still stands, though few now refer to it as the McQueen Block. The post office remained at this location until the current post office was constructed in 1912.

Mail volumes expanded greatly after 1851, when Canada took over control of the service. The mileage-based rates were replaced by a single flat rate, effectively reducing the cost per letter by 33% to 80%, depending on distance. As well, new post offices in small hamlets and crossroads communities were added to the system after 1851. There was a further 40% reduction in postage rates when the Dominion of Canada post office began operation in 1868.

By 1870, the outgoing mail at Fergus passed the 1,000-letters-per-week level, with a larger level of incoming mail. Mail for the smaller offices in the area increased the workload. There were also money orders to sell and redeem.

In 1871, the Fergus post office was designated a savings bank office, allowing residents to deposit small amounts in savings accounts. Few banks at the time offered savings accounts.

McQueen’s salary, based on the dollar volume of business at the office, varied between $500 and $600 per year in the 1870s. Out of this he was responsible for hiring necessary help and maintaining the office. In order to make an adequate living, postmasters such as McQueen had to have other sources of income.

During the 1870s, most of the actual work at the post office was performed by his daughter Christina, while McQueen concentrated on his township duties and his farm in Nichol township. Christina McQueen formally took over the position of postmaster in 1882, retaining the position for the next 40 years.

James McQueen continued as clerk and treasurer of Nichol township until 1892. He died in 1899, at the age of 89, having served the community for 63 years in a variety of official and voluntary roles.

Beginning in 1851, the Fergus post office began to handle mail for other post offices, as well as for customers using the Fergus office. Over the years at least a dozen small rural post offices received their mail from Fergus. Most of these offices were located to the east of Fergus in West Garafraxa and Eramosa townships.

The first of these offices, and the one which would become the most significant, was opened at Belwood in 1851, though the hamlet was not known by this name at the time. Canadian postal officials preferred to name rural post offices after the township in which they were located. This policy not only avoided confusion when sending mail to rural residents, but it helped in the establishment of the rural postal system by encouraging at least one post office in every township.

In 1851, Belwood was a relatively young settlement. The major activity there was a flour and saw mill operated by George Skeen, who became the first postmaster. He attempted to name the settlement Skeenville, but postal officials insisted that the post office be named Garafraxa. 

Later in the 1850s, developers surveyed and laid out a proper village, which they called Douglas. This name had already been claimed for a post office in Renfrew County, and the name Garafraxa remained until 1885, when Dr. Mennie, a local physician, pulled some strings to have the name changed to Belwood.

The Garafraxa office received mail tri-weekly from Fergus through the 1850s and 1860s. A second route from Fergus was set up in 1863, when a post office opened at Speedside. This route, with a twice-weekly frequency, was extended to the new office in Oustic in 1866, and eventually to Shiloh and Mimosa in the 1870s. The route was about 17 miles in length. Shiloh opened in 1874; Mimosa was established earlier, in 1860, and was originally served from Hillsburgh, a few miles to the east. Two additional offices were added to the Fergus-Garafraxa route: Metz in 1872 and Hereward in 1867. By 1870, the Garafraxa office had become an important one, with revenues hitting the $300 per year mark. It became a distribution office in its own right in the 1870s, with a three-mile route to the south at Craigsholme in 1870, and routes north to Peepabun and Tarbert. The latter two were later served from Grand Valley and Arthur.

The post office preferred to locate post offices in stores, but these small rural offices were often in houses. The postmaster’s salary could be as low as $25 per year at these offices. The revenue generated by these offices varied greatly, with the average in the $60 to $70 range per year during the 1870 to 1900 period, indicating a volume of 1,500 to 2,000 outgoing letters. At the low extreme, Craigsholme brought in only $1.78 in its first six months. The amount of incoming mail was greater; many farmers mailed their letters when they went to Fergus.

The completion of the Credit Valley Railway (later CPR) in 1879, from Cataract Junction through Erin, Hillsburgh, Belwood, and Fergus to Elora, dramatically changed the distribution network for mail. The Garafraxa office became more important as a distribution office, and Fergus less important.

A new office was opened in 1882 at John Wilson’s blacksmith shop at the corner of Concession 6 and Sideroad 20. In 1883, the post office opened yet another office, Spires, on the railway between Fergus and Belwood; a weekly service connected Dracon and Spires. For a time, the Ennotville and Ponsonby post offices were served from Fergus, but these offices were part of a route from Guelph that also served Marden for most of their existence.

The rural mail system underwent a major shake up in 1913 and 1914, when the post office extended rural delivery into West Garafraxa and Eramosa townships. Because of its location on the railway, the Belwood office’s position was enhanced; there were two mail-carrying trains each way at the time. It became the base for five rural routes.

Once these routes were running, all other post offices in the area closed within an 18-month period: Speedside, Oustic, Shiloh, Mimosa, Metz, Hereward, Craigsholme, Dracon and Spires.

Meanwhile, the federal department of public works had commenced a building program for post offices, based on standard designs. Those put up in Elora and Fergus were built of stone, rather than the customary brick, and both were occupied at the beginning of 1912.

In 1922, Christina McQueen resigned as Fergus postmaster, a position held by her father and herself for 86 years. She was succeeded by John Bayne and, following his death, by J.C. MacDonald.

With increasing mail volumes in the 1940s, the Fergus post office rated a machine canceller in 1947. Two years later, Fergus was upgraded to the full-staff category.

About two decades later, the town had a sufficient number of mailing addresses to justify the implementation of letter-carrier delivery.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on March 30 and April 6, 1993.

Thorning Revisited