Ontario Travel: Where would Simcoe go on Simcoe Day?
SIMCOE, ONT.-That hiss is that I am dumped by a 20 year old history buff.
I just asked how Sir John Graves Simcoe, Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, chose this location to found his eponymous city.
Autumn Epple’s blunt answer: “He didn’t.”
Uh … uh … oh-kay. Then … who, where, what, when, why?
Simcoe the man, says Epple, Simcoe probably only visited the settlement once and spent the night under a tree.
“It wasn’t even Simcoe then,” she adds. “It was Birdtown, after William Bird who ran the general store.
“It was Duncan Campbell, the first postmaster, who years later said, ‘Let’s call it Simcoe.’ ”
As the long weekend of Simcoe Day begins, few of the 15,000 townspeople are likely to waste a thought on it. Their annual three-day friendship festival features everything from a soap box derby (ball-bearing wheels are not allowed) to a beer garden and cow dung bingo. But not Sir John.
While I’m curious about the lieutenant-governor, I’m here to see the alligator too. But that is also missing…. not a refugee from the Everglades, but an amphibious tug that was invented in Simcoe at the end of the 19th century.
Two hundred and thirty were built capable of winding their way between lakes over land, where they dragged tree trunks. The restored WD Stalker is the last alligator in operation and usually makes a lot of steam on the Lynn River. However, it is on loan to Renfrew near Ottawa by the fall.
Rick Danko, bassist and vocalist for The Band, was born in Simcoe, as were a number of hockey players: Rob Blake, Jassen Cullimore, Red Kelly, Dwayne Roloson, Ryan VandenBussche and Rick Wamsley, and baseball pitcher John Axford (recently as the Milwaukee Brewers’ closer).
It’s a classic rural southern Ontario town with lots of low red brick buildings and the occasional gem – including an older chip truck that is considered a building.
More legitimate structures include the Eva Brook Donly Museum and Archives, built in the 1840s by Thomas Jefferson Mulkins, Campbell’s successor as postmaster; and Lynnwood, known for its Greek Revival architecture and now home to the Norfolk Arts Center.
The mansion was built by Campbell, a Scottish immigrant who Epple says was a bit of a Sir John groupie, near the tree where Simcoe camped.
Epple, who works as a “desk girl and archivist” at the Donly Museum (named after a local artist) over the summer, knows her Simcoe story, says archive coordinator Robin Dickson.
Lynnwood Park got a new monument in May, a 1.4 meter high slab of white oak that took root there (if you count its rings) in 1720 and was felled a few years ago. Epple likes to think that it could be the tree that protected His honor.
In 1795, Simcoe gave Aaron Culver a land grant on the Lynn River to build a mill.
Some believe it was Culver who named the hamlet after Simcoe in 1823. But whether he was in 1829 or Campbell, the man himself had been dead since 1806.
He never wanted the post of lieutenant governor, but was turned down as the first British ambassador to the United States. His four-year tenure began when he was a lieutenant in the British Army on December 24, 1791, and it probably wasn’t his favorite Christmas present. He called it “a kind of exile”.
Simcoe’s salary was £ 2,000 a year, about £ 70,000 or $ 110,000 these days – exactly what David Onley, 42nd person in the job, is getting paid. Given that Birdtown wasn’t his target when he fell under the tree, where was Simcoe? walk?
“Probably between Port Rowan on Lake Erie and Toronto,” says Epple. “Probably very close to the Autobahn 24 that leads to Paris, but after that …”
Let’s try to follow at least some of his tracks along Old 24 rather than the newer ones.
Through Waterford, Dundurn, Scotland … a cross section of Ontario rural life, from lush farmland to new subdivisions that are lush in a very different way.
The Canadian Legion 463 branch will provide you with a full breakfast in the morning and fish-and-chips in the evening and promises a tractor pull for next Saturday. (August 11th)
Norfolk County Fire and Rescue Station 3 is missing Wayne, who is retired, and is not afraid to say so with a large sign outside.
Here is a lovely stone farmhouse that looks in good shape but is boarded up. There is an equally lovely large red brick house that was taken over by a swimming pool company that is promoting a “BioLab blowout sale”.
And so after Paris, the third largest (after France and Texas) of a few dozen parishes, mostly in the US, with this handle.
Another classic Ontario city founded by Hiram Capron in 1830 and named not for the City of Light but for the plaster of paris mined nearby to make plaster of paris.
Athletes born here include alpine skiers Todd Brooker and Syl Apps, Maple Leaf, pole vaulters and former conservative MPPs. Wayne Gretsky’s father Walter went to high school in Paris. And when Alexander Melville Bell made the world’s first long-distance call, his inventor’s son Alexander Graham picked up the phone at 91 Grand River St. N. probably thinking, “If this is another water heater sales call? … ”
Hang up and wind your way through the increasing traffic towards Hamilton. Turn off 403 onto Lincoln M. Alexander Parkway and find your way to Beach Blvd.
That takes us across the strip of land that bisects Hamilton Harbor. If you are pressed for time, you can do the same at the QEW. But the boulevard is closer to the dam Simcoe knew when he built the King’s Head Inn in 1794, both for “traveler accommodation” and for storing military supplies – which is why it was set on fire by the Americans during the war 1812.
Simcoe’s wife, Elizabeth, stayed there once and made a list of the local flora, everything from ginseng and sarsaparilla to “Toothache Plant, Sore Throat, Dragon’s Blood, Adam and Eve, and Magical Night Shades.”
From QEW north to Highway 5, past Bronte Creek Provincial Park. On the outskirts of Oakville, it becomes Dundas St., which Simcoe measured as a military road in 1793.
And so to Fort York, which was built in 1793 by the Lieutenant-Governor’s authority. It had mixed success as a defense in the War of 1812 and is now besieged by high-rise buildings.
Sir John would hardly recognize the place. And to tell the truth, he never recognized Simcoe.
ONLY THE FACTS
WEBSURF For more information about Simcoe and the surrounding region, visit www.norfolktourism.ca.