Robert McKim established hamlet of Parker in 1860s

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.

A while back I offered a brief survey of Bosworth, the long-vanished hamlet on Wellington Road 7, on the Peel/Maryborough border.

This week I move southeast a few miles, to Parker, another hamlet that has all but vanished.

Parker’s history, through the 19th century, moved in a cycle opposite to that of Bosworth. Of the two, Bosworth is the older, dating to about 1860, with a post office established in 1863. A post office at Parker opened in 1865, in charge of Thomas Burns in the early years, but there was as yet no settlement of any kind other than farmsteads.

The post office department chose this location because it was at a crossroads approximately halfway between the existing offices of Alma and Bosworth. The name honoured Dr. Thomas Parker of Guelph, who at the time was sitting as the member of parliament for North Wellington.

The rise of Parker as a hamlet was largely due to the activities of Robert McKim. An early settler, McKim had arrived in Peel Township in the early 1850s, from Simcoe County. McKim had been born in Sligo, Ireland, and had come to Canada as a youth with his family.

McKim received a crown patent for 100 acres of land in February 1856. This parcel was at the southeast corner of the Parker intersection (Lot 10, Concession 14). Beginning in 1865, over a period of 20 years, he bought and sold other farm property in the neighbourhood. At his peak, Robert McKim owned 500 acres of farmland.

But that would be all in the future.

Through the late 1850s and early 1860s McKim established a solid farming operation, and became involved in township politics, serving as councillor and reeve. He earned a name as one of the leading men of the young township, and his qualities attracted the notice of the leaders of the Liberal party, who added his name to their list of potential candidates for higher office.

McKim’s chance came in 1867, when the North Wellington Liberals chose him as their candidate for the first Ontario legislative session. McKim took the seat, aided by his reputation as a successful farmer. He employed several farmhands, and was able to take time away from the farm for the legislative sessions.

The houses he had constructed near the Parker crossroads prompted locals to name the area “McKim’s Settlement.”

Robert McKim encouraged the notion. He provided land to the Wesleyan Methodists for a church, and a quarter acre to the township for a school, for which he received $50.

When Tom Burns quit as postmaster in 1868, McKim offered to take on the job to avoid the closing of the Parker office.

The church, which opened on Dec. 26, 1869, was a milestone in the history of the settlement. McKim had provided teams to bring in the materials, and had helped in other ways. Over 200 people crowded into the tiny church to hear four ministers at the first service.

The next milestone for Parker came in the spring of 1871, when McKim decided to branch out from farming. With $3,000 borrowed from Colonial Trusts, he constructed a sawmill on one of his farms.

Virgin forest still covered a good portion of Peel Township. Farmers typically cleared a few acres each year through the 1860s, and used some of the timber for firewood. What they couldn’t use they simply burned on the spot. Transportation costs to market exceeded the value of the timber.

All that changed when the railway opened to Alma in 1870. Suddenly, timber became a marketable commodity. Huge quantities of squared timber left Peel and Maryborough Townships in the early 1870s, and a goodly portion by way of McKim’s sawmill.

McKim put up six new dwellings for the mill workers. Soon there was a hotel, and two blacksmith shops. McKim opened a store, hoping to get back some of the cash he paid out for logs.

The mill itself was powered by a 25 horsepower steam engine, which ran a five-foot diameter circular saw, plus other equipment. The main building was a two-storey frame structure, with the big saw upstairs; a ramp brought the logs up to the saw.

On the ground floor there was a stave and barrel shop, using steam to bend the staves. The mill produced pine and hemlock boards, as well as large timber for shipment. There was also a power machine for cutting cedar shingles. Logs awaiting processing covered several acres around the mill. At times the Elora and Saugeen Road was almost blocked with piles of lumber and squared timber awaiting shipment.

The mill, and McKim, prospered for four years. Perpetually short of working capital, McKim increased his mortgage to $14,000 late in 1874.

Then, in May 1875, disaster struck. The mill burned down, leaving McKim with a loss of $15,000. He carried no fire insurance. This was not unusual for sawmills in the 19th century. Premiums ranged from 20% to 30% of the value of the property. With rates so high, most sawmill owners gambled. In this case, McKim lost.

He spent the summer of 1875 negotiating with his creditors. Eventually they reached an agreement that allowed McKim two years to get his affairs in order.

McKim’s major source of cash came from the sale of one his farms. Richard Boyle, the famous builder of wooden bridges, purchased McKim’s first farm for $5,000 in 1876. A few months later he borrowed an additional $4,000 from Col. Nathan Higinbotham of Guelph, and other lenders.

The sawmill was up and running again in 1877, but this time McKim leased it to another operator – a man named John Booth, but not the Ottawa lumber baron. 

McKim devoted most of his time to buying and selling cattle, and to dealing in grain. He listed his occupation in the 1879 business directory as a speculator.

McKim spent four years trying to rebuild his fortune, but failed. In January 1881 his creditors foreclosed on his heavily mortgaged property. They included Colonial Trusts, who had been lending to him for 10 years, and Goldie & McCullough, who had supplied equipment for the rebuilt sawmill but had not been paid.

It looked like the end of McKim and hamlet of Parker, but he managed to land on his feet again. He found a saviour in the aptly named Hamilton Provident Loan & Savings Company. This mortgage firm advanced McKim $15,000, which he used to pay off his old creditors. He was back in business, with the sawmill still leased to the Booths. With his son William he operated the store at Parker.

In addition to sorting out his business affairs, Robert McKim made a political comeback in 1881. He had resigned as MPP in 1874 to run as a federal candidate, and had lost. He reclaimed his provincial seat in the 1881 election, and retained it until 1887.

McKim’s days as a high flying businessman were coming to a close. He could not resist trying to turn a fast dollar on cattle deals.

In the summer of 1883 he lost heavily on cattle shipments to England. His creditors pushed him into bankruptcy. The statements showed total liabilities of some $40,000 (about $4 million in 1999 dollars) and assets of only $10,000.

Many of the creditors were his neighbours on adjoining farms, who had agreed to give unsecured loans to McKim to help him out.

For the next four years, between sittings of the legislature, McKim struggled to make a living from his store. His Liberal party loyalties paid off in 1887 when the Mowat government appointed him sheriff of Wellington County, a position he filled until his death.

The hamlet of Parker was clearly in decline when Robert McKim left for Guelph in 1887. With a dwindling supply of logs, the sawmill operated on borrowed time. The hotel lasted until 1890. Of the businesses, only a store and blacksmith shop survived into the 20th century.

Robert McKim died at his home on Crimea Street in Guelph in January 1900, at the age of 72. He had enjoyed the satisfaction of starting a business and residential community at Parker, and had seen it ebb and decline.

Though he is largely forgotten today, he was a household name in his lifetime, one which encompassed the best and worst of 19th century capitalism.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Sept. 3, 1999.