By Vic Schukov
Born in Wallbridge on the same land he lives on, author of A Place Called Wallbridge (2016 Epic Press), Alex McNaught is unquestionably an authority on the village’s rich history. Laughing he said “People ask me why I call it the Forgotten Little Village of Wallbridge. I ask them, ‘Do you know where it is?’ They say, ‘No.’ ”
“My father, a Scottish immigrant, came to Canada in 1927 at the age of 16 to work on the Graham family farm — Scots who came in 1823. In 1858, Captain John Graham of the local militia inherited the family’s 200 acres.” For McNaught, “Canadian history and literature … inspired me to employ a variety of research techniques to discover the local history of the Quinte region.”
As a young man he moved from the village to graduate from the University of New Brunswick. His 40 year absence spanned a career that began in a classroom and morphed to the founding of the provincial secretariat/federation, Sport New Brunswick — ultimately closing within the City of Edmonton’s Department of Recreation and Parks. When he and his wife of 42 years decided it was time to retire, they “selected a hill top location on our farm — the place of my roots.”
Now a widower, father of two and grandfather to four, McNaught is a living library of village history, beginning with the road into town: “The Wallbridge Road is an old First Nations trail, from Frankford east on Frankford Road through Wallbridge village where the Indigenous peoples camped before following the edge of the drumlin (a hill created 12,000 years ago by the last continental glacier) then southward on Wallbridge-Loyalist through Tuckers Woods, Aikens Flats, ending at the mouth of Potters Creek.” He goes on to say that “the area was settled by United Empire Loyalists in the late 1780’s.Years 1788-1789 were termed the hungry years when the British government cut off supplies to the Loyalists. Concessions 4 and 5, where some settlers died of starvation, were referred to as the back Concessions, un-surveyed. Concessions 1 and 2 were most desirable because of rich soil and proximity to transportation on the Bay of Quinte.”
By his account, “Sidney Township pioneers figured they needed local government, so in 1790 they formed Ontario’s first municipal government. The federal government being Lower Canada, Quebec did not recognize this frontier. The settlers elected officials, enacted by-laws and kept minutes of meetings — the first to do so in Ontario.”*
“Typically, you did some form of mixed farming depending on the season. Milk was sent to the cheese factory. You collected your dividends annually and collected for milk monthly. Old Hastings County Directories list tax assessments based on the value of livestock and amount of land owned. Your assessment determined how many days of labour you were required to contribute under the Statute of Labour. Citizens would meet at the town hall and say they want a road. A Pathmaster** would then approach each farmer — more assessed value meant more days contributed in clearing plant growth and levelling roads. No one had cash. Deeds were currency. They would sign over a deed for a horse and a plow. A barrel of salmon was once exchanged for 200 acres.”
Emigration to the area included the 1800 arrival of the William K. Ketcheson family. From New England, they became movers and shakers in founding Wallbridge. Ketcheson had been a Colonel in support of the British during the American Revolution and was granted 600 acres on Concession 5.
During the War of 1812, Wm. K. Ketcheson and his four eldest sons volunteered for active duty.
Fortunately, they and other Wallbridge residents never defended their properties because the American-Fennians did not attack the Bay of Quinte area.
“In 1837, we had the Rebellion of Upper Canada against the two-caste Family Compact system where the elite of Ontario wanted the British system of control. The government received things from England and did not disperse them properly. The government elite favoured each other with land grants and nepotism while the semi-literate farmers, tradesmen, and labourers were oppressed. The Reformers came from this second class of citizens, opposing large land grants to the Church of England, lack of funds for roads, schools and other local needs. Elitists empowered local militias to arrest accused Reformers and send them to jail without a hearing or trial. The poorly trained militiamen would come into an accused Reformer’s home and confiscate his belongings. If three people accused you of being a reformer, it was enough to be arrested. And, by the way, we are ransacking your home to ensure you have nothing hidden such as a gun.”
“The majority of Ontario residents were Loyalist farmers not used to dictators. England sent over a gentleman in 1840 to try and smooth things out. As a result, the Baldwin Act in the late 1840’s introduced representative/responsible government, the beginnings of today’s Department of Municipal Affairs in Ontario. William K’s son William was one of the magistrates who determined which person received compensation for losses during the rebellion. Very few accused Reformers ever received anything.”
In 1850, John Ketcheson donated land for the Sidney Town Hall and for the next century, Wallbridge became the hub of Sidney Township. Up to 1863, the village was called Sidney until it became the Postal Village of Wallbridge named after a prominent family in Hastings. Elected councillors were mainly farmers. In 1850, the Municipality of the Township of Sidney was one of the first to become incorporated when Upper Canada became the Province of Ontario. The first order of business was to build an edifice.
“Wallbridge was conveniently located dead centre in the township so people could come for civics. Due to increased traffic, many trades set shop; blacksmiths, carpenters, carriage and wagon-makers, cobblers, bakers, etc. By 1878, almost every house was occupied by a tradesman. As the area thrived from sale of farm produce, log and frame houses gave way to brick and stone.”
In 1858, the currency changed from pounds to dollars. That same year, municipal taxes replaced payment in labour for road construction and maintenance.
“In the 1870’s and 1880’s, we had the Riel Rebellion out west. In the spring of 1885, Captain John Graham had camped 160 militiamen on his farm, preparing for deployment to the North West Territories. His youngest daughter Violet (born 1872) remembered this event, and I grew up knowing her. She was probably the first woman from Wallbridge to graduate with a university degree, from Queen’s.”
McNaught is a fountain of historical anecdotes:
“In late October 1819, Wm. K. Ketcheson’s granddaughter Gatrey age five was sent into the woods to deliver a message to another family. She didn’t come home. The next day, they sent a search party of 500. On the seventh day, she curled up, said her prayers and planned to die. They found her on the eighth day and she lived to the age of 84, raising four children.”
“In 1863, the cheese factory, called Sidney Town Hall Cheese and Butter Manufacturing Company, commenced operation due to the high demand by England for protein for their industrial workers.”
“The residents of Wallbridge loved the Town Hall so much that the first church in 1869 was named Town Hall Episcopal Methodist Church. In 1876, the Wesleyan’s named their new church the Town Hall Wesleyan Methodist Church. A blacksmith also got into the act and named his son Sidney Wallbridge Gartner.”
McNaught said that by the late 1890’s, Wallbridge was booming with artisans and people arriving daily for meetings. At least two dozen benevolent organizations used the Town Hall. In 1906, the Women’s Institute magazine, Tweedsmuir stated that, “Wallbridge had everything anyone could ever want.”
He pointed out that David Graham’s ledgers show from 1909 to 1928, up to 40 percent of his annual income came from the Wallbridge cheese factory; in 1928, it won seven of nine gold medals for the world’s best Grade ‘A’ cheddar in European international competition.
“The joke was that there was a cheese factory on every four corners of Hastings County. They say that the limestone in the ground gave the milk a special flavour. By the late 1950’s, most factories had folded because the milk was more valuable sold to Western Ontario. Also, the Sanitation Act demanded expensive pasteurization and cold storage. In its day, Wallbridge’s cheese brought honour to Canada. Hastings County is still designated Cheddar Capital of Canada.”
By the 1950’s, people began to gravitate towards bigger centres. Farm kids moved away. Artisans left and stores shuttered. The Town Hall burned down in 1943, and was never rebuilt. The United Church burned down in 1970. Even the remains of the cheese factory, closed in 1958, burned down in 1979.
"Whenever I tell this story, someone asks, ‘Do you have an arsonist down there?’ By 1980, Wallbridge was about to dry up and blow away. It was saved by movement back to the country from cities. By late 1990’s, entrepreneurs had developed two sub-divisions here. Wallbridge was resurrected as a desirable quiet residential place to live.” McNaught told me that, “Just before you arrived, five deer walked across my front lawn.”
If an historical village ever had a curator it’s certainly Alex McNaught. Through his perseverance, a memorial park was built in 2011 on the sacred grounds of the Town Hall. Photos of the building by professional photographer Clarence Herington cannot be found, as after he died, his photographic plates of historic sites of the region were either lost or destroyed.
Instead, McNaught sketched the Sidney Town Hall based on measurements in old Council minutes and accounts by locals. He researched, wrote and installed all six memorial plaques and designed the Old Sidney Town Hall Park at 84 Wallbridge Road.
McNaught’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 2013, the City of Quinte West presented their appreciation of this truly remarkable man’s contribution to the preservation of village history with the Volunteer of Excellence Award. An award well deserved.
In his own words returning home must have been a natural choice as: “My love for the community is probably intuitive; it is a feeling of peace, being close to nature and experiencing the changing seasons, begin away from the hustle and bustle forces of electronic life styles. I find Wallbridge’s rich cultural heritage fascinating, unique in its own way.” Indeed!
* (Ed. Note: The Constitutional Act of 1791 split Quebec into The Canadas: Lower Canada east of the St. Lawrence-Ottawa River confluence, the area of earliest settlement; and Upper Canada southwest of the confluence. Ontario’s name originated from the Iroquois word Kanadario, or sparkling water.)
** (Ed. Note: A Pathmaster was one of two professions: a person who drew area maps or a commissioned officer of roads and highways.)