Ancestral Notes

My Family History blog

COG Local History – “The Tomato Capital of Canada”, Leamington, Ontario

Essex County was at one time, completely under ice, and when it receded the first bluff of land to emerge was the Ridge, just west of the town of Leamington, which was made as the glaciers receded. The inhabitants of the area were Iroquois Indians, who were a warring nation. Essex County was one of the last areas in the province to be settled for this reason. Samuel de Champlain made raids against the Iroqois in 1609 and 1615 and was able to penetrate the lands as far as the Detroit River. Lake Erie was the last of the Great Lakes to be explored and charted, early explorers bypassed the lands and used a northern route to the upper lakes. Militia from France arrived in 1666 and the Iroquois threat was neutralized. The first white men in the county were Robert Chevalier de LaSalle accompanied by, Rev. Francois Dollier de Casson, a Sulpican priest, and deacon Rene Brehant de Galinee, who camped at Point Pelee in the spring of 1670. Galinee called this region “the Terrestial paradise of Canada”. Essex County was a “no-man’s land” between the British and Iroquois on one side and the French, Algonquin and Hurons on the other. In 1701 Cadillac founded the settlement on the “Straits” which later became Detroit. By the 1730’s the voyageurs were using the fort at Detroit as their headquarters, while the Canadian side was still populated only by Indians.
After the British victory in the Seven Years War, and later, the Pontiac War, the area was still not attracting settlers. It wasn’t until the end of the Revolutionary War and the influx of United Empire Loyalists to the country that the Indian threat was reduced. The threat was not gone, however, and many early pioneers had to ransom their wives and children from the natives.
The first town plan in the county was Colchester, in 1787. Southwest Ontario was then known as the District of Hesse. Upon the arrival of Lt.Col John Graves Simcoe from England, in 1792, the region was renamed the Western District. The boundaries were Lake Erie on the south, the Detroit River on the east, the Thames River on the west and four miles south of Lake St. Clair on the north. These boundaries were expanded to the north, in 1800, to Lake St. Clair.
The first Loyalist settlers to come, Captain Mathew Elliot and Captain William Caldwell, arrived in 1783 to Malden Twp. The land on the Canadian side of the Detroit River was given to the military officers and Indian interpreters, so the land on the north shore of Lake Erie was purchased from the Indians in 1787 and named the “New Settlement” to distinguish it from the ‘Old Settlement” in Amherstburg and Sandwich on the Detroit River. In 1790, the name was changed to the “Two Connected Townships” and twelve lots were added to the eastern border. The entire area was open for settlement by 1788, when Point Pelee and Pelee Island, the last two parcels of land still held by Indians was leased to settlers for 999 years, but it wasn’t until the 1820’s that the Ridge leading to Leamington started to see settlers, the section was opened as Talbot Road.
The Loyalists who moved here had to cut through the thickest forests in North America. For fifty years the pioneers of the county fought to clear the dense virgin forest. Fire was the quickest way to clear the land, and the glow of lumber burning could be seen as far as Chicago, 300 miles away. Leamington was the last area to be tamed, remaining unsettled until the Talbot Road and Middle Road opened it up in 1823.
The first settlers to clear a farm in the area were Alexander Wilkinson, John McGaw and Thomas Quick. Ralph Foster came in 1826 and built a log cabin and cleared 164 acres along with his sons. In 1852 he noticed the odour of natural gas on his farm and later oil was discovered and the Leamington oil field was developed.
The first post office and store was opened 1n 1833 on Talbot Road, near the Four Corners, later Wilkinson’s Corners.
Leonard Wigle, born in Gosfield Twp., Essex County in 1804, bought a bush farm of 200 acres and cleared the land. He was a prosperous farmer and opened the first tavern in the area in 1836. His tavern was a popular stop for travellers along Talbot Road. In 1845 Eli Deming opened a store near the tavern .
With the growth in transportation and population, there was a land boom, and Essex County was the first in Canada to be affected by speculative values which led to price increases in other areas. In 1855, eggs were 25 cents a dozen, while in 1850 they were only 5 cents a dozen.
William Gaines opened a grist and saw and carding mill in 1855 which gave employment to labourers, who in turn began putting up their own houses. Warren Kimball was the first Postmaster on June 1, 1854, with the office adjoining his shoe shop and house. He also built the first house in Wilkinson’s Corners. When the first Post Office was set up, the name of Gainesville was given to it, in honour of William Gaines, but, since there was already a Gainesville post office, the name was changed to Leamington, after Royal Leamington Spa in southern England. By 1860 the village of Leamington had a population of 75, with small commercial and industrial businesses, farms, mills, and Baptist, Methodists and Anglican churches and stagecoaches ran on a regular schedule from Leamington to Windsor.
Alexander Wilkinson and John McGaw made the first survey of the community in 1855.
After the outbreak of the civil war in the US, the farmers started raising livestock, to sell to the US. army. After the Civil War, the US ended the pact for foodstuff crossing the border without tariffs from Canada and the farmers were forced to go into specialized farming of fruits and vegetables.
After the railway service was extended to Leamington, markets in Windsor and Detroit were more accessible and the agricultural industry flourished. Before this the area had excellent dock facilities and an active shipping trade in timber, lumber and agricultural goods. Tobacco was being grown with 10,000 pounds exported annually.
At this time, the settlement had a grist mill, owned by John Askew, a sawmill operated by Russell and Wigle, saddlers Pulford and Sherwood, two carriage factories of W.S. Pulford and W.F. McKenzie, sash, door and blind factories, a telegraph office and four teachers in a public school.
The community was incorporated into a village on Nov. 26, 1874 with George Russell as it’s first reeve and John Selkirk as it’s first village clerk. Members of the first council were Charles H. Fox, William Hazelton, John Setterington and Peter Conover.
John Askew built the first flour mills in 1868 and in 1884, remodelled them with a complete modern roller system. He bought and brought the first Hungarian system rollers into the country. In 1872, after the great Chicago fire in 1871, Leamington developed it’s first fire department, which was a volunteer bucket brigade. The population at this time had reached 300. In the late 1870’s the department got it’s first pump. On May 14, 1883, the main business section was destroyed by fire.
Leamington’s first electrical lighting plant was set up in a saw-mill in 1888.
In January, 1890 Leamington was incorporated as a town. The first concrete sidewalks were starting to be constructed in 1895. By 1899 water-mains were installed and fed by Artesian wells.
The marshland around the area was drained to provide more fertile land by the turn of the century. The area was producing grapes, peaches, and other vegetables.
In 1905, a report in the Toronto Globe and Mail described Essex County as “Eden without the serpent”. the report lists corn, wheat and tobacco as the three major crops. A Leamington dispatch of that year states “South Essex puts crops first on the market before any other part of Ontario. New potatoes, peas, beans and tomatoes are being shipped out, cherries on the market for some time and strawberries about due”.
On November 16, 1908 the town purchased the Henry Ward Tobacco Co. building and turned it over to the H. J. Heinz Company along with free water as incentives to relocate here. The H.J.Heinz Company established a food-processing plant in 1909 which was the most important single event in our economic history. The greenhouse industry was introduced to the area in the 1940’s to extend the growing season for tomatoes to supply H.J.Heinz Company, and by 1959, Leamington was the source of 2/3 of the tomatoes produced in Canada.*


The Leamington area boasts one of the world’s largest greenhouse industries and is still growing. The Tomatofest is held in August at the start of the processing season.
Pelee Island Winery is world-reknowned and Point Pelee National Park has been recognized as one of the best places in the world for bird-watching. The population in the town has increased to over 20,000.

*Source: Leamington’s Heritage 1874-1974 – Compiled by Francis Selkirk Snell

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Filed under: Carnival of Genealogy, Carnivals, , , ,

3 Responses

  1. Janet Iles says:

    When I worked in the produce department of my dad’s store as a teenager and in my early twenties, we looked forward to receiving the fresh produce from Leamington as it was available before produce farther north. It was a sign that summer was coming.Thanks for sharing the history of Leamington

  2. Bill West says:

    Earline,Great post. I never knew Heinz had a plant in Canada. And I’m always interested in reading about the Loyalists who migrated north@Bill

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