Thursday 1 July 2021

The early days of Speedside

Communities are always multifacted and mutable but are sometimes defined in memory by single events. In the case of the village of Speedside, in Guelph-Eramosa Township, that single event would be the founding of the current Speedside Congregational (now United) Church. On 24 June 1880 (Victoria Day), the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone took place. The local congregants, plus a good number of others from the surrounding area and other denominations, were on hand for the special services and to see James Goldie, a prominent miller and Congregationalist from Guelph, do the honours.
(James Goldie, from "Golden Jubilee of Nurses," 1938. Goldie was on the Hospital's Board of Directors.)

In the presence of the assembled, Mr. Goldie placed a jar containing historical materials beneath the stone and then, wielding the special silver trowel, mortared it into place, declaring it "well and truly laid" according to the accepted formula (“The Canadian Independent”, 1880: v. 27, n. 24, p. 6). Unusually, for ceremonial labour, Mr. Goldie laid the mortar quite well, causing a wag in the audience to proclaim, "He's a old mason."

This was followed by some of the customary speechifying: Mr. Goldie gave "a very neat little speech of congratulation and expression of his personal admiration of tasty country churches unburdened by debt. He was followed by the Rev. D. McGregor, M.A., Guelph, who spoke briefly but very appropriately on “Congregational Principles"."

Afterwards, the group repaired to the nearby garden for tea and more oratory:

The company then adjourned to the orchard of the parsonage for refreshments, where the ladies had provided in their usual good style a bountiful repast. Ample justice having been done to this part of the programme, Revs. J. Howie, Guelph, D. Smyth (Presbyterian), Eramosa, A. McGregor, and J.R. Black, together with Messrs. Leslie (M.E), Scott and McDonald (Presbyterians), and Deacon Thos. S. Armstrong, gave brief, racy impromptu speeches. The people then joined heartily in singing the Doxology and the national anthem, when the formal proceedings closed.
The Mercury (29 May 1880) report noted some of the details of the planned building itself: "The new church will be of stone material, octagon in shape, will seat 250 persons, and is estimated to cost $2,000." The choice of an octagonal shape was unusal and no record seems to explain this choice.
("Exhibition building" in Exhibition Park. Postcard published by A.B. Petrie ca. 1910. From the John Keleher Collection.)

The American phrenologist Orson S. Fowler had started a fashion for octagonal houses and other structures in the latter half of the 19th century, for a variety of idiosyncratic reasons. A number were built in Canada, including some in Guelph, of which the Exhibition Building in Exhibition Park is perhaps the best known. Perhaps the members of the Speedside church had caught the octangular bug.

However, octagonal churches had some currency with Protestant denominations outside of England at the time (Yates 2000, p. 104). New denominations could express their distance from established ones through different architecture, such as an octagonal place of worship rather than a long, rectagular one. The Methodist John Wesley, in particular, promoted the style. So, it may be that the building committee fixed on this design to display its distinctiveness.

(Postcard of Speedside Congregational Church, ca. 1905. Publisher unknown.)

It is also possible that some of them had fond memories of octagonal churches in the old country and favoured the plan for that reason. Recent immigrants often inscribed nostalgia for the old country into their new one in this way.

In any case, there is no way to be sure. (The Speedside United Church as it appears today. Courtesy of Google Street View.)

The church was completed and opened for services that September (Mercury, 20 September 1880). The unusual building got some rave reviews. The Rev. Thomas Hall, wrote to The Canadian Independent (1883, v. 2, n. 6, p. 178) of his impression during a subsequent visit:

The church is situated in the midst of a rich farming country. Some claim that Eramosa is the garden of Ontario. Be this as it may, in my opinion the Speedside people have a model church building. I imagine it will seat 400, yet you need only to speak in a whisper to be heard in every part. It is so constructed that the congregation is grouped round the pulpit, all near enough to hold conversation with the speaker in the desk. I thought after I had spoken why do not people build their places of worship after this style, when people can see, and hear, and sing, and speak with ease, and not those long, narrow, gothic, medieval, echoing, wilderness-like constructions, to please artists, kill preachers, and tempt the congregations to sleep.
Five stars!

Rev. Hall notes that, in spite of its magnificent edifice, the Speedside congregation had been without a pastor since Rev. Charles Duff had recently resigned. In fact, the local church had experienced chronic difficulties in maintaining their pastors. First organized in 1845, the local group originally relied on pastors from Guelph or other, nearby communities to drop by to preach periodically. As this arrangement proved unsatisfactory, the congregation secured the services of Rev. Richard J. Williams of Owen Sound in 1850.

This arrangement fell through when Rev. Williams resigned in 1854. The Reverend's salary had fallen considerably in arrears and he quarreled on various matters with the deacons, who described his schemes as "despotic" and "rascally."

("Shorthand class conducted by Rev. Enoch Barker in Eramosa Township during his ministry." Rev. Barker is seated at the right side. Courtesy of The United Church of Canada Archives, 93.049P4611 N.)

The next year, Rev. Enoch Barker agreed to take Williams's place. In 1856, Rev. Barker was duly installed in a stone chapel that the congregation had built. Although Rev. Barker was liked by the congregation, his salary too fell somewhat in arrears. In 1859, he received a letter from a congregation in Milton, Nova Scotia, offering him the pastorate there. The Speedside parish undertook to catch up on his salary and he remained. However, he did resign in 1861 due to failing health.

In 1862, Rev. John Brown took up the pastorate but resigned in 1864 due to continued ill health following being thrown from his horse.

In January, 1866, Rev. Charles Duff was installed in office. In March, the debt that the congregation owed for their chapel was removed when the church received a legacy from Mrs. William Armstrong. With a well-liked pastor and a major burden on their finances relieved, it was smooth sailing ahead. Yet, in December, Rev. Duff tendered his resignation! He had received a request from the congregation at Liverpool, Nova Scotia, and decided to accept it. Money, he said, was not the issue; rather, he felt that his services were more needed in Nova Scotia than in Eramosa.

The parishoners of Speedside wrote a furious communication to The Canadian Independent (Feb. 1867, v. 13, n. 8, pp. 348–349), presenting four resolutions condeming the practice of "some persons" who lure ministers from other congregations:

1. That so long as pastor and people are satisfied with each other, it cannot be right for any one to interfere with them. 2. It is vain to attempt to advance the Redeemer’s kingdom by building up one church at the expense of another. It is doing evil that good may come. Such efforts are not likely to succeed. 3. The conduct of those who endeavour to entice pastors from their charges, by holding out inducements of various kinds to them, is deserving of severe censure, as there is generally a selfish motive at the bottom of it, and they are always acting contrary to the will of Him who said, “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” 4. God is no respecter of person; sinners need his converting grace; His people and the bread of life; and souls are as precious to him in one part of his vineyard as in another.
Robert Wilson of Liverpool, the person who had also written the soliciting letter to Rev. Barker in 1859, responded to deny guilt and imply that the situation was the doing of the parishoners of Speedside themselves (April 1867, v. 13, n. 10, pp. 406–407):
I have no doubt that inadequate support is one great cause, if not the greatest which leads to pastoral changes. We cannot blame our ministers for removing to more eligible spheres when they are being half starved in those they occupy. Who will be so hard-hearted as to argue against a man leaving his situation if he cannot keep the wolf from the door. It is utterly unreasonable to find fault with him if he cannot find support for his family. The only remedy is to give support.

In the absence of their own pastor, the church at Speedside gained the services of Rev. William F. Clarke of Guelph, who traveled from the Royal City on Sunday afternoons to preach, then returning to town for his evening service. This was the same Rev. Clarke who played a crucial role in the founding of the Ontario Agricultural College and would be its first (and only) rector when it opened in 1874.

(Reverend William F. Clarke, from Cochrane 1893, p. 337.)

In June 1868, deacon James Peters published a job ad in The Canadian Independent (v. 14, n. 12, pp. 500–501), seeking a pastor for the Speedside church. The requirements were described as follows:

1st, we want a minister of undoubted piety; 2nd, one whose credentials are all right; 3rd, other things being equal, a classical scholar would be preferred; 4th, we think every minister should be a teetotaller; 5th, we do not want on who is a slave to the vile weed, in any shape; 6th, He must not be an ultra-Calvinist; 7th, we want one who can preach without crutches, that is, without reading his sermons; 8th, a minister with a small family would suit us best, we could not support one with a large family. ... Lastly, we would like our Bishop to rule well in his own house.
Sadly, it does not appear than anyone meeting these requirements responded to this advertisement.

In 1871, Rev. M.D. Archer, a Wesleyan, did express interest in the position. Perhaps this move proved premature: After assuming his post, Rev. Archer proposed to hold revival meetings in 1872. Although these affairs were not unsual for Congregationalists at the time, the Speedside congregration was against the plan. Rev. Archer duly resigned and Rev. Clarke resumed his supply duties.

(Detail of "Rev. Charles Duff, Eramosa Twp., ca. 1885". Courtesy of Wellington County Museum & Archives, A1984.17.)

In 1875, Rev. Duff agreed to return to Speedside. The deacons had been writing to him in Nova Scotia since the previous year to induce his return, to which he at last acceded. Perhaps construction of a new and more commodious parsonage in 1874 helped to sweeten the deal. In any case, Rev. Duff was reinstalled as pastor on 11 November. With the matter of the pastorate finally settled for the meantime, plans for a new church could go ahead. Rev. Duff was on hand for this defining event in 1880 (though he had removed to Toronto before Rev. Hall's visit in 1883).

These sorts of struggles were not uncommon for rural parishes and they certainly continued for the Speedside congregation. As the 20th century began, the Congregational church in the region was in decline. Church unions were widely considered; that is, the combination of congregations, even of different nominations, in order to share resources. Rev. A.E. Cooke of Speedside spoke in favour of union at a church meeting in 1909 (Globe, 14 June):

On the ground that the “sectarian cut-throatism” which was so evident in the small town and villages of the west was working harm to all branches of the Church, Rev. A.E. Cooke, of Speedside spoke in favor of Church union. “Coming into contact as I do in the west with that unchristian policy of competition and overlapping, if there is any scheme of Church union that is in accord with the teaching of Jesus Christ, for God’s sake let us have it.”
In 1911, the Speedside and Garafraxa congregations combined to support a single pastor, the Rev. John Lyall.

In 1924, the church combined with the Prebyterian church up the road at Barrie Hill. The next year, Speedside joined the union that created the United Church of Canada, which it has remained a part of ever since.

As noted earlier, the Congregational Church was central to the early days of Speedside. However, other forms of community were present in the village also. For example, the Mitchell & Co's Canadian Directory (1865) listing for Speedside contains the following entries:
Armstrong, Jamesblacksmith
Grierson, James; Hart, William carpenters & builders
Armstrong, Johncarriage & wagon makers
Coleman, Johngeneral merchant
Loghrin, JamesJustice of the Peace
Nelson, Georgesaw mill proprietor
Tait, Johnschool teacher
Clearly, the village had a mix of commercial enterprises normal for its time and place.
(The village of Speedside, from the Wellington County Atlas, 1906.)

The two Armstrongs in the list serve as a reminder of the prominent role this clan played in Speedside's early days. Originally from Roxburghshire, Scotland, William Armstrong Sr. arrived in Eramosa in 1822 and founded the dynasty. His son, William Jr., was one of the founders of the Congregational church and donated the land on which the building was later erected. (Courtesy of Google Maps.)

Another son, John S., became a noted local miller and farmer. His livestock breeding achievements received special notice by Professor William Brown, of the Ontario Agricultural College, in his report of the herds and flocks of Ontario (1883, p. 25):

Fergus has memorable surroundings, also—so many indeed that I beg indulgence for what may be omitted—the Rennies, the Dows, and others; and then to the west the prominent breeder of—allow me to call them—Scotch Shorthorns, John S. Armstrong, of Speedside, with his clever sons. Mr. Armstrong is certainly the most cunning fattener of a steer in our province. By cunning I mean the knowing everything and not blazing it abroad, as some like to do for the sake of notoriety. To know what a calf will be exactly when three years old, is just what we would all like to attain to. Mr. Armstrong can do this, can give two thousand dollars for a bull calf when needed; the finest finished steer I have seen in Ontario came from here. He has a grand herd led by “Butterfly’s Duke” [8190], and a very choice flock of over thirty head of Oxford Downs sheep.
Today, John's legacy lives on mainly in the form of Armstrong Mills, which he built in Guelph Township in 1856, despite serious setbacks due to floods and finances, and "aided by a wife [Mary Scott] of more than ordinary ability," notes the Wellington County Historical Atlas (1906).
("The Armstrongs of Armstrong Mills," ca. 1870? John Armstrong in the mid-left? Courtesy of Guelph Public Library, F38-0-15-0-0-397.)

In terms of government institutions, Speedside also acquired a post office when the Rev. John Brown established one in 1863. James Loghrin, the Justice of the Peace, took over from Rev. Brown after his departure in 1865. The post office continued in operation until 1913, when rural mail delivery was centralized from Fergus. As was the case with the village of Gourock to the west of Guelph, this loss was quite a blow to a small village.

Besides common institutions, communities are held together by informal ties. This fact is manifested in various ways in Speedside's history. For example, residents collaborated on barn raisings. Barns were necessary for storage of grain, hay, and animals but were beyond the means of most farmers to construct for themselves. To make up for this want, residents would gather to construct a barn for their neighbors, typically without pay.

("Men and women standing on beams at barn raising held on farm of Thomas Fines, 5th line Erin Twp., 1905." Courtesy of Wellington County Museum & Archives, A1991.193.)

Barn raising was a difficult task and involved some risk, as the following example shows (Mercury, 22 July 1884):

Barn raising.—About 160 of the neighbors and friends from town and country of Mr. James Davidson convened at his farm, known as the Loghran farm, on Monday afternoon to assist him in raising a new barn 82 by 60 feet. Mr. Geo. Armstrong, of Speedside, acted as captain on one side and Capt. Mutrie as captain on the other. One of the plates fell during the raising but no one was injured. Everything passed off most successfully, and all were more than satisfied with the generous treatment they received from Mr. Davidson.
Besides joining beams, barn raisings joined the community members together through mutual labor.

In sport, baseball seems to have been an interest that residents of Speedside had in common. It was, for example, included in a community gathering (Mercury, 9 July 1872):

The Speedside pic-nic.—A correspondent informs us that the Armstrong pic-nic held near Speedside, Eramosa, on Dominion Day, was in every respect a most creditable entertainment. Amongst the various diversions of the day was a game of base ball, in which the ladies took part, and exhibited considerable dexterity in pitching and catching, and also in using the bat. It is pleasing to know that this, now popular game, is in its character so fascinating, and we would add so striking also.
Perhaps interest was increased by the great success of the Guelph Maple Leafs of the day.

We are also told of a close contest in Fergus some years later (Globe, 22 June 1886):

Sporting news. Baseball. … Speedside v. Fergus. Fergus, June 19.—A game of baseball between the Speedside Club, of Speedside, and the Fergus Club, of this place, was played on the cricket ground here this afternoon, resulting in favour of the home club by the following score:—
Speedside 1 1 0 2 0 2 2 0 0—8
Fergus 4 0 0 1 1 2 1 0 0—9
The following year, the Mercury (30 March 1887) reported that the Speedside Club held an entertainment on their home turf in which the members played not baseball but "music, vocal and instrumental, readings, recitations, etc." It turns out the event was a fund raiser for their expenses during the upcoming season. (Alas, they likely didn't sing "Take me out to the ball game," which wasn't written until 1908.)

Unfortunately, it appears that the season was not kind to the Speedside side. The Mercury (15 June 1887) records a resounding reverse: "The Aetnas went to Speedside on Tuesday afternoon and defeated the crack team of that place by a score of 18 to 3. The boys speak highly of the treatment they received at the hands of their opponents."

The Acton Free Press (20 October 1887) also indulged in some trash talk:

Our base ball team [Acton, Ontario] has been very unfortunate this summer in being unable to secure opponents. Speedside club did some stout talking, but that is the way they play best. Even at this late date our boys would very much like to meet them on the diamond.
I hope the two clubs got to engage in more than merely a logomachy.
("Speedside baseball team float in Fergus Centennial parade, photograph, Fergus, 1933." Courtesy of Wellington County Museum & Archives, A1983.19.)
Communities are defined not only by things that hold them together but by things that divide or separate them. This applied to Speedside as well.

Perhaps no better demonstration could be found than the conflict that arose in Eramosa as a result of the Upper Canada rebellion of 1837–1838. Put briefly, the establishment in Upper Canada (later Ontario) was in the hands of a small elite known as the Tories or Family Compact, a situation that did not sit well with residents who looked for a more "responsible" form of government. Matters came to a head in December 1837 when Reform leader William Lyon Mackenzie organized an armed insurrection.

Mackenzie's attack was put down in short order but resistance continued elsewhere for some time. Rumours flew across the land and people had to decide how to respond to the uncertain situation. In Eramosa, a meeting of residents was hastily called on 7 December in the Central Schoolhouse to discuss the matter. Mr. James Peters, a church deacon and the Township clerk, was appointed secretary. Although many locals sympathized with the Reformers, it appears that no one recommended taking up arms. With all the uncertainty about what was actually going on, people's concerns seemd to focus on protection of their lives and property. In the end, the meeting resolved to "mind our own business" and had Mr. Peters draw up a resolution to that effect, which many attendees signed.

This resolution did not impress Tory sympathizers in the community, who seemed to regard inaction as tantamount to joining the insurrection. Walter King laid information against the meeting organizers with John Inglis, Justice of the Peace in Guelph. On the night of 13 December, Justice Inglis sent an armed party to "break up the rebel nest in Eramosa." Mr. Peters and several others were arrested at gunpoint.

I cannot do justice here to the whole tale of the trial and travails of Mr. Peters and the others at the hands of Tory authorities. Happily, the story is recounted in detail by Quaile (2007, pp. 202–214). Suffice it to say that feelings ran high. For example, Mr. Peters and his companions were nearly exploded when a fire broke out (not by accident) at night in the Hamilton jail where they were being held for trial and where the government had elected to store 50 kegs of gunpowder!

The Crown's case collapsed at the trial, when it become clear that the attendees of the meeting had not devised to "put our said lady the Queen to death," etc. Nonetheless, the not-guilty verdict did not dissuade the local authorities and Tory sympathizers from periodically raiding the houses of Reformers to look for illicit arms, charging them with various offences, and releasing them on bail, a practice that struck Mr. Peters as something of an extortion racket.

As can be imagined, the political animosities excited by the rebellion and its aftermath opened a rift in the community that lasted for many years.

On 3 December 1892, a number of Eramosa residents formed a chapter of the Canadian Order of Chosen Friends. The Order was a fraternal society focussed on mutual preferment and life & disability insurance for members. This sort of mutual aid is laudable but the constitution of the Order limited membership in some curious ways:

The objects of the Association were (1.) to unite all acceptable white persons of good character, steady habits, sound bodily health, reputable calling, and who believe in a Supreme Intelligent Being, the Creator and Preserver of the Universe...
The racial restriction may have originated with the American Order from which the Canadian one originated but it is telling that no one sought to remove it. There were no black residents in Speedside, although some lived in neighbouring Nassagaweya and in Guelph. Would members of the local chapter not have considered admitting a black person if one had applied?

There were also no indigenous residents in Eramosa at the time. That seems unfortunate, given that the name Eramosa itself seems to derive from an indigenous word (Un-ne-no-sa), meaning, "dog." (Why the name dog would apply to the area it would be good to uncover.) However, the Speedside Women's Insitute local history (1949; v. 1, p. 6) notes that an "old Indian graveyard" was located in the field of the Dow farm. It would be interesting to know more about those people and the community they had before the arrival of settlers.

The following works were consulted for this post:


  1. Fantastic! I am thankful for your work

    1. I'm glad that you like it! Thanks for the comment.