Regular residents an important part of 19th century Elora

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.

From time to time, strangers drop by to solicit my help in tracing a person who they believe once lived in Elora.

More often than not, the ancestors left little evidence of the portions of their lives spent here.

The figures who loom large in the historical records are only a fraction of the total population. Anyone who did not get involved in public life, who declined to join organizations, who did not operate a business, who owned no property, and who stayed out of jail has left little trace of themselves.

Their names appear only on the census records and, perhaps, on one of the few surviving assessment rolls.

A couple of weeks ago Terry Green of Toronto appeared at the door seeking information on his ancestor John Rady.

Mr. Green’s notes informed me that Rady lived in Elora from the mid 1850s until 1887, when the family moved to Toronto.

I could not recall ever seeing this name. Perhaps they used a different spelling. Sure enough, he was in a couple of directories and in the 1871 and 1881 census rolls as John Ready, occupation: labourer. The census information provided the names of several of the family’s 13 children that Mr. Green did not have.

Elora’s 1867 assessment roll shows Ready as the tenant of a small farm on the south side of Colborne Street. The house survives at 261 Colborne.

In the 19th century this property was owned by David Foote, who rented it to his hired man. The Foote farm was directly across the street. Ready soon moved across town. Four years later, he appears in a directory as living on McNab Street.

John Ready differs from the vast majority of Elora’s common labourers in the 19th century. Most stayed only a few years, then moved on, seeking new opportunities. Ready seems to have been in the area for at least 35 years, a good portion of his working life.

Why did he choose to live in Elora for so long, and why did he leave in 1887? Did he accept only farm work, or other tasks as well? Who were his employers? His 13 children added considerably to the enrolment of the Separate School. Did some form close friendships, and stay in the area after the parents moved to Toronto? At this stage, we don’t know, and there is a good chance that no further information can be readily found.

One day some time ago John Weaver of McMaster University called me up to ask about Catherine Hill of Elora. He was working on the records of one of the 19th century mortgage companies, and came across an 1873 letter from Mrs. Hill pleading for an extension of a mortgage payment. It was a heart-wrenching missive, speaking of the sudden death of her husband, many outstanding bills, and a house full of young children.

I was able to find a couple of references in my notes, and subsequently stumbled on additional information. Sam and Catherine Hill came to Elora as newlyweds about 1850. He was 20 and she was 16. Catherine was Irish and Sam was English by birth. Sam found work as a labourer and the couple joined St. John’s Church. Jim, the first of seven children, was born in 1852.

By 1867 the Hills, with six children, were renting the house (still standing) on the east side of John Street, two doors south of Church. Sam had learned some carpentry skills by this time, and frequently worked for railway contractors. His employment took him away from home for weeks at a time.

With brighter employment prospects, Sam purchased two lots on the south side of Church Street between John and Mary Streets in 1870, and that summer built a small frame house with the help of a mortgage.

On April 12, 1873 Sam Hill was working on a railway bridge at Caledonia during construction of the line from Hamilton to Port Dover. He fell about 30 feet, sustaining intensely painful internal injuries that proved fatal 11 days later.

The funeral took place from his almost new house. Catherine immediately had to contend with financial problems. Jim, the oldest boy, was working as an apprentice butcher, but there was no other income or insurance to pay the mortgage and support the other children, the youngest of whom was little two-year-old Ben.

To keep the household afloat, Mrs. Hill accepted housecleaning work and took in washing. She ran an advertisement beginning three weeks after her husband died. It continued into the fall of 1873.

The mortgage company was not as heartless as we might imagine. They took no action over Mrs. Hill’s tardy payments, and the property remained in the family for another 38 years.

Household finances improved after a couple of years. Her eldest son married and moved out, but the next two joined the labour force: Sam Jr. as a labourer and Walter as a brush maker in Robert Dalby’s brush factory.

The Hills left Elora some time during the 1880s. Catherine Hill joined her son Sam when he moved to Detroit. She died there in 1899. After she left Elora, she retained the house as a rental property. Edward Jones, a labourer, was the tenant during the 1890s. Sam in turn held on to the house, selling it in 1911 for $180.

By this time the place was a wreck, suffering from years of neglect and deferred maintenance. The property changed hands a couple of times. Alex MacDonald bought it in 1915, removed the old Hill residence, and built a new brick house on the site. This is presently the Bergin house.

Although the Hills lived in Elora for almost 40 years, this is all we know about them at the present time. The Hills, like the Readys, are representative of hundreds of other families who lived here in the 19th century.

Life was a continuing struggle for these people, and their fortunes rested largely on other people and events over which they had no control.

They formed an important part of the fabric of the community of their time, but they cast only a faint shadow across the pages of history.

Our understanding of history is badly slanted without them. They should not be forgotten.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on July  31, 1996.

Thorning Revisited