Slick Elora operators lost shirts in attempt to sell Kenilworth

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.

While researching the branch banking boom in Wellington County, I began to wonder whether those branches operating in the smaller hamlets had much real impact on their communities.

From the evidence that has survived, the Royal Bank branch in Kenilworth, opened in 1906, was the most important of this group. 

Its opening triggered a boom of activity, particularly among grain dealers and cattle buyers shipping from the Kenilworth station of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The history of Kenilworth goes back a half century earlier, to the land boom days of the 1850s. It is a fascinating story of failed attempts to build a thriving village, so it is best to go back to the beginning.

Work began on the Owen Sound Road in 1843 on the stretch between Arthur and Mount Forest. This route is now Highway 6, and it has existed as the main road through Arthur Township since the very beginning of settlement.

The first settlers to secure land grants from the government in the Kenilworth area received their papers in 1847 and 1848. During the 1850s traffic on the road increased. 

Arthur Township farmers used the road to visit Mount Forest and Arthur Village, but a growing and much more important portion was the freight to and from the north. The Owen Sound Road became the primary transportation route in southern Grey County.

Hotels and blacksmith shops opened along the route. Soon there were five hotels between Mount Forest and Arthur. The beginnings of a settlement sprung up at the important crossroads located about halfway between the two towns. 

This was Kenilworth. The Catholic Church built a log church at the new hamlet. The government of the Province of Canada nodded its support by opening a post office named Kenilworth in 1857.

Meanwhile, much bigger plans were afoot. A boom in agricultural prices as a result of the Crimean War triggered a rapid rise in land prices, and the founding of new villages.

It was a simple strategy. A speculator would purchase a farm or two, hire a surveyor to divide the land into town lots, and then advertise and promote the new town. The usual terms were 20% down, and the balance over five years.

If the scheme worked as it should, the down payments more than covered the initial costs. Later payments would be pure profit.

That is the way the plan was intended to work. It did so for a few speculators in 1854 and 1855.

The largest operator of this land scheme in Wellington County was Charles Allan of Elora, who operated in partnership with James Geddes, an Elora lawyer with an increasingly unsavoury reputation.

Seized with the optimism possessed by all real estate speculators, Allan founded a whole string of townsites and subdivisions.

The potential of Kenilworth captivated Allan in the fall of 1855. He and Geddes purchased a tract of land on the east side of the Owen Sound Road, to the north of the crossroads in October 1855. The partners were already so stretched that they had to give the owner, Michael Madigan, a mortgage for the purchase.

They moved quickly. Soon the 150-acre parcel was divided into some 250 town lots and 22 larger park lots, along with a grid of new streets. Allan and Geddes hired a Toronto firm to lithograph large, colourful maps. Their promotion stressed that the site was halfway between Fergus and Durham, implying that it would become a major stopover point on the Owen Sound Road because that was the distance a freight wagon could travel in a day.

They placed advertisements in papers across the province, tacked up posters, and scheduled a sale at the Queen’s Arms Hotel in Fergus for Dec. 27.

Wellington County had experienced a flurry of such sales during 1855, with fewer and fewer sales as time went on. No one, though, was prepared for the results of this one. 

Allan and Geddes plied potential buyers with drinks and refreshments, but purchasers signed up for only a half dozen lots, and these agreed to buy only on the condition that they could make their down payment at a later date.

They, too, were speculators, but on a small scale. They planned to sell their lots at a higher price, pay off Allan and Geddes, and pocket the profit with no actual cash investment. A sale to sell their newly-surveyed village lots in Kenilworth on Dec. 27, 1855 was a complete bust. They had more success the next day with the sale of lots in their village of Maryborough, now known as Rothsay.

In all likelihood, this was the least successful land promotion and sale in the history of the county. The few buyers did not make their payments. Recognizing that he had lost his shirt, and faced with charges of unprofessional conduct, James Geddes bailed out, selling his share to Charles Allan.

In 1859, the creditors took title to about 30 of the lots in partial payments of unsettled accounts. Later that year, Allan died without seeing any further interest in Kenilworth.

In 1864, the Allan Estate sold the “village,” which was nothing more than a field full of surveyor’s stakes, to David Foote. He was an Elora-area farmer who speculated in land and had been the village’s first reeve. Foote had heard rumours that a railway might build through the area, and with it, bring a revival of Kenilworth land prices.

Nothing came of this set of railway proposals, and in 1867 Foote sold the Kenilworth lots to George Drew, the oversharp Elora lawyer who later became the county judge.

Foote had paid no taxes on the property in the three years he had owned it. There were protracted negotiations between Drew and the township before a settlement was agreed upon.

The ill-fated village site had little impact on the actual economic activity of Kenilworth, which was centred on a handful of buildings at the crossroads, to the south of the ill- fated village site. Here there were two or three stores, one containing the post office; a blacksmith; a small steam-powered flour mill; and a hotel.

After more than a decade of proposals and hot air, a railway project actually materialized in the late 1860s. The Toronto, Grey and Bruce (TG&B) received a charter in 1868. The provisions included a line from Orangeville to Mount Forest.

The directors proposed to raise about 70% of the cost in the form of bonuses or grants from the municipalities to be served. Soon the company became embroiled in a long and acrimonious battle with Arthur Township.

The railway surveyed a route to maximize the amount that could be raised from municipalities. They demanded $35,000 (equal to three or four million in today’s currency) from Arthur Township.

The township voters turned the idea down in 1869. Undeterred, the railway put continuing pressure on the council, and mounted a promotional campaign among the voters. Council agreed to another vote in early 1870. This time the measure carried by a vote of 268-139.

Arthur Township council was still unwilling to hand the money over. Councillors made new demands, the most important of which was a station in or near Kenilworth. The railway did not agree until October of that year. 

Construction was under way, though. A gang of 275 men and 30 teams pushed past Kenilworth in the summer of 1871, and the line opened to Mount Forest that December.

The early years of the Kenilworth station, located about a quarter mile north of the crossroads, are somewhat mysterious. Some accounts state that it did not open until 1878.

However, the Township council in 1872 initiated a legal action against surcharges being made on freight shipped from Kenilworth, particularly firewood. According to its charter, the TG&B was to ship firewood from any station for two and a half cents a cord per mile.

Arthur Township also fought the railway over grade crossings, many of which were impassable. It appears that the railway was doing all in its power to discourage traffic at Kenilworth as retaliation for the uncooperative attitude of the council. It is possible that station may have closed, and later reopened in 1878.

In any case, Kenilworth remained only a minor station until the early years of the 20th century. This would change dramatically with the arrival of the Royal Bank in 1906.

And what happened to the old townsite?

George Drew held the land until his death, with the exception of a portion sold to the railway.

He was unable to capitalize on the lots after the station opened. His widow sold the land as a farm to John and Isabella Park in 1903.

Next week: The bank-induced boom in Kenilworth.

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

Thorning Revisited