Forgotten Irvinedale settlement known as county’s ‘Sodom’

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 map of Wellington County is splattered with proposed and ill-fated townsites.

The majority date from the heady years of the mid-1850s, when land speculation knew no bounds, and Wellington’s economy floated on a wave of new settlers and rising agricultural prices.

Most of these townsites attracted only a couple of settlers, and when things settled down they boasted only a store and tavern, and perhaps a couple of other businesses. Others did not achieve even this level of success.

Among the notable failures is the settlement of Irvinedale. A modest development in the context of the period, Irvinedale consisted of nine town lots and five larger lots on Lot 9, Concession 15 of Nichol Township. This is immediately south of the Irvine River, on the west side of Highway 6.

The developer was Thomas Valentine, the first permanent settler in this part of Nichol and a man of some means. In 1835 he had purchased 291 acres of land. His brother John had acquired land nearby.

Valentine had been building up his farming operation for over 20 years when he decided to become a land developer. He was inspired not only by the economic conditions of the 1850s, but also by the fact that the road fronting his farm had been designated as the main route to Grey County and Owen Sound.

The Guelph and Arthur Road Company had been chartered in 1847, but no major expenditures on road improvements north of Fergus were made until 1855 and 1856.

Stage coach drivers and teamsters liked to make a stop every five or six miles. Valentine’s property offered a potential location for a tavern and blacksmith and wagon shops, which could offer repairs. A steady parade of traffic past the Irvinedale site was a certainty.

Valentine’s basic concept was sound, but he was slow off the mark. A tavern had operated for four or five years about a mile to the north of his property, and Richard Gluyas had already laid out a village site of some 50 lots near the Nichol-Peel boundary.

Nevertheless, Valentine did manage to sell some of the lots in 1859 and 1861. At least four modest dwellings went up. During the 1860s there was a rapid turnover of occupants. Most, it seems, were labourers employed by Valentine and the other successful farmers in the neighbourhood.

Based on these facts it would seem that Irvinedale got off to a slow and rather dull start. In truth, this was anything but the case.

Old store – The old Cumnock general store and post office circa 1890. It was located halfway between Fergus and Arthur and run by Mr. and Mrs. James Magwood. Seen here is the old Fergus stage coach that carried both mail and passengers. At one time it was driven by Mr. Draper.  Wellington County Museum & Archives, ph13356

Several of the residents were young single men with a fondness for drinking, gambling and carousing. Their frequent debauches quickly attracted other single men from the neighbourhood, and increasingly, a goodly sprinkling from Fergus as well. They would go to Irvinedale to do things they wouldn’t dare do at home. It wasn’t long before Irvinedale was renamed “Sodom” by both envious wags and nosy moralists, who were convinced that this was the worst place in the county.

Irvinedale’s unsavory reputation persisted through the 1860s and into the 1870s. The large population of single men under 30 who sustained it can be explained by the demographics of the local population. These were the sons of settlers who arrived in the 1835 to 1850 period. Almost invariably, these settlers brought up large families – often eight, ten or even more children.

There was no local land for these men to take up, and insufficient steady work in Fergus to go around. As the years rolled, local employment prospects declined. Some of these men eventually moved on, to jobs in larger centres or to fresh prospects in Manitoba or the American west.

Some, of course, married and stayed in the area, perhaps taking over the family farm. As the carousers grew older and settled into respectability, “Sodom” passed into memory. Tales became embellished in the retelling, but generally died as the original participants passed on.

The latest reference I have found to the notorious days of Irvinedale is a short piece written by Hugh Templin in the Fergus News Record in 1931. The piece contains a factual error, a rarity for Templin. He called the settlement Irvineside. This was the name Tom Valentine attached to his own homestead, not the townsite.

Socially, Irvinedale served as a safety valve for the youth of Fergus. Other towns had similar retreats.

For Elora it was the notorious Dog’s Nest Tavern in Inverhaugh. Young men in Guelph had several alternatives, among them the Bullfrog Inn on Eramosa Road.

Irvinedale lacked a licensed tavern, but through the 1860s there were three within easy striking distance to the north. Oldest of them was that operated by James Sampson until his death in 1863, and by a succession of operators after that. This hotel dated back to 1852 or 1853, when it was established as a by Sampson and his partner John Muir as the Red Lion Hotel.

Muir struck off on his own in 1856. Sampson, meanwhile, had also opened a store, and in 1855 he secured the appointment as postmaster of the new office of Cumnock. The name comes from Sampson’s home town in Scotland.

This post office, and the name of Cumnock, sealed the fate of both Irvinedale and the townsite of Gluyasville, just to the north of the post office. The name of Cumnock became attached to all the settlement along the Owen Sound Road, strung out like beads along a couple miles of the road.

After he left Sampson, John Muir built a new hotel on the Gluyasville town site. At first he called it the Wellington, but soon changed the name to the British Hotel. Benjamin Deans operated the third hotel in the early 1860s; it had been built by Richard Gluyas in 1856 to help promote his Gluyasville speculation.

Muir was the only operator to remain in business for a lengthy period, probably because he was also a successful farmer. The other two changed frequently – a total of 12 operators between 1860 and 1880.

The Irvinedale revellers no doubt spilled into these three hotels regularly. Although the Owen Sound Road was a busy route, travellers alone could not support this many taverns. On the busier stretch between Fergus and Guelph, for example, one hotel sufficed at the half way point, Ennotville.

Like most of the small settlements on the old road system, Cumnock and its several components such as Irvinedale, declined after railway routes opened.

Cumnock did not disappear completely. A few businesses, the store, and the post office continued to support the local farmers. A strong social community, based on the school and two churches, persisted into the 20th century.

The buildings of old Cumnock, Gluyasville and Irvinedale became victims of fire and rot over the decades. Historian A.W. Wright, who grew up in the Cumnock area, wrote in 1924 that most traces of the old settlement had disappeared.

The binges, benders and general bacchanalia of old Irvinedale are remembered only through a few passing references in the historical record, but this and the other “Sodoms” of Wellington must not be overlooked when we assess the social climate of the mid-19th century in this county.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Jan. 18, 1999.

Stephen Thorning