By Barry Penhale
How different winters are from those of a hundred or more years ago, the time when men spent long winter months in the bush toiling in the employ of lumber-camp owners, some of whom were among the most entrepreneurial and optimistic businessmen of their day. Be they true timber barons or among the ranks of the smaller camp operators it cannot be overlooked that all were gutsy individuals and records of lumbering history confirm that within their ranks were some colourful larger-than-life characters.
Any careful reading of the history of old bush days in Hastings County would suggest that logging in its heyday may have had an even greater influence than the colonization roads of the 1850s. In a letter dated December 30, 1972, written by the noted author and playwright Merrill Denison, he suggests that the history of the hinterland representing the front and back country extending to at least Flinton and beyond may need to be rewritten.
Denison’s letter, written on the letterhead of the Queen’s Hotel in Kingston, was addressed to Mrs. G.A Bennett who, at the time, was the secretary of the Hastings County Historical Society. The letter contained some true gems of information and delightful observations by the then up-in-years Denison.
In his prime, he was one of Canada’s notable literary personalities. At the time of writing Denison was researching the area around Bon Echo Provincial Park, as the result of a contract with the Ministry of Natural Resources. Denison was ideally suited to this project partly through his successes on stage and in print. But his ace-up-the-sleeve was his family’s long association with Bon Echo, in particular, his mother’s memories of the area. Flora Macdonald could tell of great log drives on the Skoot River and remember tales told by daring river drivers of hidden caches of pure silver and the intriguing, but unfounded, interpretations of local native rock art.
The letter by Denison made obvious his need to know more about the trio that truly made up the key local players in lumbering at the time — the Gilmour Company of Trenton, the Rathbun Company of Deseronto, and the Bay of Quinte-Belleville lumber king Billa Flint, whose vast holdings included Bridgewater and Flinton as company towns, and who was eventually appointed to the Canadian Senate.
In reference to the publication, “Historic Hastings” (1967), Denison’s letter made generous mention of Flint’s remarkable achievements including the construction of a lumber mill at the mouth of the Moira River, which Denison concluded likely had no equal in North America. He further explained that the mill’s source of pine logs were cut on limits encompassing Lake Skootamatta in North Addington County and driven down the Scoot and Moira Rivers to timber bays on the Bay of Quinte. Both a businessman and a politician, Flint’s dominating position spanning 50 years of lumbering caused Denison to label him a kind of feudal overlord.
Yet another source of interesting background to Flint may be found in the writings of Nila Reynolds. In “Bancroft: A Bonanza of Memories”, she informs readers of how the community of York River, with a post office since May 1, 1861, became officially known as Bancroft solely due to the enormous political clout of one Billa Flint — Senator Flint, if you please. Reynolds rightfully called him “a mover and shaker” of no mean proportion.
Flint was enough of a heavyweight in Ottawa that by October 15, 1879, the hub of the north ceased to be known as York River and instead became Bancroft. It was widely reported that Bancroft was the maiden name of Flint’s wife, Phoebe. This mistaken idea persisted and those local citizens with responsibility for Bancroft’s Centennial celebrations found themselves baffled by the existence of conflicting accounts as to the origin of their community’s name. Fortunately, as Reynolds informs us, the esteemed Hastings County historian, Gerald Boyce, came to the rescue just in the nick of time with documented evidence confirming that Bancroft was named after the mother of Senator Flint’s wife — the mother being Elizabeth Ann (Bancroft) Clement — and not after her daughter Phoebe.
Flint’s vast enterprises involved a baker’s dozen of eastern Ontario villages and towns in addition to his headquarters in the bigger settlement of Belleville. His formidable influence was evident in Actinolite, Bancroft, Flinton and Troy (later to be known as Bridgewater) among other communities. At his peak it has been reported that he employed more than 300 men and that the annual revenue from his mill operations was believed to have been minimally $300,000 — a whole heap of money for the time.
On June 15, 1894, Senator Flint died in Ottawa at the ripe old age of 89. Truly a giant in his field, the colourful Flint put his personal stamp on Hastings County like few others of his time. In any examination of old bush days, his is a story that not to be forgotten.
Dedication and Sources
Other than publications mentioned, research materials for this article are from my Penhale Historical Files. Particular mention must be made of the information related to Billa Flint compiled by my friend, the late Larry Turner. A fine Canadian historian, Turner left astounding research and many unfinished historical goals. Some of his papers now form an important part of my sizeable collection pertaining to the history of Ontario. This contribution to Country Roads is respectfully dedicated to Larry Turner.