Kinnettles founder too late to cash in on 1850s land boom

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.

(Note: My previous column covered the highlights of the life of Alex Harvey, founder of the ill-fated village of Kinnettles on the western boundary of Fergus. This week I take a closer look at Harvey’s business career.)

At the age of 17, and shortly after arriving in Fergus with James Webster in 1838, Alex Harvey purchased Lot 8 on the north side of the Grand River. This was a huge parcel, some 346 acres, to the west of what is now known as the Beatty Line.

Obviously, Harvey had some money. Two years later he married Matilda Shade. She had an inheritance from her parents, both of whom died while she was young.

After his marriage, Harvey worked for the flour milling, distilling and saw milling business in downtown Fergus between St. Andrew Street and the river. It was owned by Harvey’s uncle, A.D. Fordyce Sr., and his cousin, James Webster (a parking lot now covers most of this property).

It appears that Harvey, though very young, took an active role in the management of this business, which flourished through the 1840s. James Webster was often occupied with his numerous other ventures. A.D. Fordyce functioned as business manager and accountant. Fordyce and Webster admitted Harvey as a full partner in 1846.

A year later Harvey purchased a half interest in the property. Fordyce left the firm, and it operated as Webster and Harvey for about two years.

Early in 1847 Harvey purchased the two farm lots to the west of his own holdings. This land extended west almost to the site of the Elora Quarry, and increased Harvey’s property to about 570 acres, appropriate for the role of country squire that he was beginning to affect.

Harvey financed his additional land with a mortgage of £2,000. The equivalent in 1998 dollars would be in excess of $500,000. This debt marked a turning point in Harvey’s career, which later sunk in a spiral of debt and litigation. His affairs were further complicated when his wife’s uncle, Absalom Shade of Galt, took over the mortgage from the original mortgage holder.

Meanwhile, things were not running smoothly at the mills downtown. Webster had his own financial troubles, and Absalom Shade became involved as a mortgage holder. Alex Harvey left, or was forced out, of the partnership early in 1849. Then Fordyce died. Both Harvey and Webster owed him money at the time of his death.

In 1852, on the basis of the unpaid debts, the Fordyce estate took over the milling property, leaving Harvey out in the cold. Legal fees added up over the next nine years as Harvey tried to recover some of his investment. He lost the civil case in 1861.

Shut out of the milling business, Harvey turned seriously to farming in 1850. He sold two 55 acre farms off the top of his original Lot 8 (the Elora-Cataract Trail now crosses these two farms). This left him with about 460 acres. Still, his income failed to meet his obligations. In 1854 he renegotiated his mortgage with Absalom Shade for a higher sum.

Early in 1855 Harvey sold his two westerly farm lots, totalling 243 acres, to Charles Allan and James Geddes of Elora.

Track to town – A view of Fergus taken from Kinettles and looking east along St. Andrew Street West (now Wellington Road 18), circa 1865. It is a dirt track lined with a cedar rail fence. St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church and St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church visible at left.
Wellington County Museum & Archives ph 20550

Immediately, Allan and Geddes hired a surveyor to lay out this land into town lots. The partners did well selling this land as the new village of Aboyne. There were serious plans for a railway through the area, and the station to serve Elora and Fergus was to be located in Aboyne.

The success of Allan and Geddes inspired Harvey to try the same thing. He hired a surveyor to lay out the part of his property between the Fergus-Elora Road and the Grand River as the village of Kinnettles. He planned a lavish day in November for the sale. A Toronto firm lithographed colour maps of the village, and newspapers carried advertisements. Rented carriages brought potential buyers from Guelph. When they arrived on the site, he plied them with food, drink and band music.

Unfortunately, Harvey was a little late to cash in on the land boom of the 1850s. Purchasers signed up for most of the lots, but the first payments were not required for three months. Many buyers thought they could resell their lots before the first payment was due. In the end, most defaulted, and it is doubtful that Harvey recovered his huge expenses.

Four months after the sale Harvey sold the remaining farm portion of his property, some 154 acres to the north of the Fergus-Elora Road, to James Cannon. He took back a mortgage for $10,000, which he immediately sold to Absalom Shade to liquidate his indebtedness.

It is unclear what Alex Harvey did, if anything, in 1856 and 1857 to earn a living. It seems likely that Matilda, with her inherited money, actually supported the family. When Cannon was unable to make his payments on the farm, Absalom Shade took over ownership and allowed the Harveys to farm the land.

Absalom Shade died in 1862, leaving his niece Matilda Harvey a one-eighth share in the estate. Harvey thought this was the end of his financial troubles. Shade had been extremely wealthy, but most of the assets were in property and mortgages. The affairs were not settled for more than a decade. As well, Matilda had become prudent in allowing her husband near her money.

Through the 1860s Alex Harvey descended into hopeless alcoholism, coupled with domestic acrimony and violence. His benders kept him away from home for days at a time. In rare moments of sobriety he plotted lawsuits against his numerous enemies.

Matilda and the children attempted to scrape out a living on the farm. She was joined by her sister Caroline, who had enjoyed a colourful career of her own, operating a hotel and saloon of doubtful repute in San Francisco through the height of the 1850s Gold Rush.

Caroline Shade died in February 1869. Her will, written without legal assistance, says much about the state of the household: “All I am worth at my death I wish to be taken care of for my only pet Hannah Jane Harvey [Matilda’s youngest daughter, 4 years old at the time].

“The money that is or will come to me as my share of the Estate of Uncle A. Shade I want put out at interest for her, and I want it in such a shape that no drunkard can spend it for her.”

Because Caroline named no executor, Alex Harvey tried to dispute the will, and then tried to be a trustee for the funds. Matilda held firm, much to his chagrin. Three weeks later he was further agitated by news of the death of his elder brother in England.

The situation reached a climax with the attempt on Harvey’s life by his son Absalom in March 1869. The local paper commented that “The whole affair presents a picture of domestic discord and unhappiness deeply to be deplored.”

The evidence is sketchy, but it appears that the Harveys’ marriage effectively ended at this time, and that they did not live together. The eldest son Sebastian had already left home, and had a job in Chicago. Absalom, the second son, joined the Great Western Railway.

Hannah Harvey died in 1871 at the age of six, creating further tension over her share of the Shade Estate. Matilda was now the largest beneficiary. As the Shade Estate was being wound up, Matilda took much of the Kinnettles property, including the Harvey homestead and the farm, as her share.

Matilda signed some legal papers in the spring of 1872, and then went on an extended trip to stay with her son Sebastian in Chicago. She died there on Dec. 20, 1872 at the age of 54.

In her will, she left nothing to Alex, but allowed him to live in the house until he died or remarried. The rest of her estate was to be divided among the surviving children: Sebastian, Absalom, Isabella, Omar and Angelica. The last two were still minors.

The will named Sebastian and John Beattie, the Fergus banker, as executors. Sebastian, in Chicago, was unable to act. Incredibly, John Beattie, who regularly handled estates as part of his business, refused the job. Were the affairs so complicated that not even he wanted to tackle them? Was he afraid of Alex and his increasingly volatile temper? We don’t know.

Within months of his wife’s death, Alex Harvey and the youngest children moved to Palmerston. Thus ended, after 34 years, one of the most colourful careers in Fergus history.

Isabella Harvey, the eldest daughter, remained at Kinnettles until at least 1874. In April of that year she secured letters of administration to wind up her mother’s estate.

(Next time: Kinnettles after the Harveys.)

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Jan. 21, 1998.

Stephen Thorning