Elizabethtown – The Early Years

Elizabethtown Township

Elizabethtown was named in honour of Princess Elizabeth, the third daughter and seventh child of King George III and Queen Charlotte. According to a recent biography, she lived an unhappy, cloistered life. Vivacious and pretty as a child, she inherited an unfortunate tendency to corpulence as she grew older. She was “artistic, emotional, bossy and outspoken,” and despite her “Heart’s Desire” to be a wife, she seemed destined to remain a spinster.

Princess Elizabeth
Princess Elizabeth

How far away her world was from pioneer Elizabethtown! And yet 6000 miles away Elizabethtown people were among the most ardent royalists anywhere in the British Empire.

Elizabethtown was the first and only township in Leeds County to be surveyed in 1874. In Elizabethtown, Upper Canada, as roads were built and communities grew, the names grew spontaneously out of the soil: the Tin Cap; Hayes’ Corners, Olds’s Corners. As each community aspired to greatness, they changed their names. By the 1830s during the political troubles which exploded in the rebellion of 1837, the idea of ‘loyalty’ among ‘American’ settlers was questioned, and ‘Yankee’ names were suspect as signs of disloyalty. Thus Coleman’s Corners became Lowell in 1837, after the Massechutes mill town, a sign of its industrial potential; in the overheated emotionalism of the day, ‘Lowell’ was too inflammatory, so it was quickly rescinded in favour of the prosaic Lyn, with its English connotations of a waterfall of pool.

There  was a whole sale purging of the old names by the post office starting in the 1850s- think how many ‘Corners’ there must have been in Ontario – which imposed names like Spring Valley that had little relationship to the inhabitants.

Elizabethtown was the eighth and last of the Royal Townships laid out in 1783-83 along the St. Lawrence River, from the Quebec Border to the Thousand Islands. Elizabethtown is the old heartland of Eastern Ontario.

About 1850 something happened. The pioneer slash and burn agriculture had been replaced by a monoculture wheat crop, simply because England needed Canadian wheat during the Napoleonic Wars. Several times after 1790 the wheat crop was virtually wiped out by a wheat midge. “It was brought to the United States in 1779 in bales of hay for the horses of Hessian soldiers brought from Europe to assist the British in the Revolutionary War. Travelling about 10 to 12 miles a year the insects reached Cornwall about 1840 and by 1842 were at Prescott and Brockville taking a toll of wheat crops” In 1843, 200,000 bushels of wheat were exported from Brockville; this dropped to 40,000 in 1844.

The collapse of the wheat economy coincided with the drop in the water table in Elizabethtown, caused by the ‘land butchers’ who cut down all the trees.

About 1850 Elizabethtown went to sleep, like an old soldier dreaming of past glories. “We left everything as it was,” the lady in Forthtown said pointing to the old calendar. It was a long sleep that lasted a hundred years. This is not to say that nothing happened, that time stood still and things fell apart. By all accounts, life was sweet in Elizabethtown. Families grew large, grew small. Farms passed from father to son, husband to widow uncle to nephew in preordained fashion. Local industries, cheese factories, tanneries and blacksmiths came and went, like the railway. “It was a very pleasant spot to be brought up in,” remembered Walter Kilborn Billings in his childhood reminiscences How Dear to My Heart. Most of the older houses in Elizabethtown were constructed between 1820 and 1850, which makes it a treasure trove of historic Ontario architecture, but relatively few after 1850. Elizabethtown became a quiet rural township, with a sophisticated urban fringe along the St. Lawrence – the summer cottage people – and log shanties and privies along the back roads.

Excerpts from the book “Elizabethtown: The Last of the Royal Townships” by Alvin Austin pub June, 2009

Map of Elizabethtown
Elizabethtown Township