By Colin Gibson
Surrounded by rolling farmlands and hilly terrain, the community of approximately 1,700 residents is indeed, a little bit of heaven.
The headwaters of both the Credit and Grand Rivers originate nearby and the area is dotted with a myriad of small lakes and streams, which can only be described as a fisherman’s utopia. Flora and fauna abound.
Hillsburgh, is located in Erin Township, Wellington County, the town straddles Hwy 25 -basically an offshoot of Trafalgar Rd., which originates in Oakville, Halton Region.
The Elora Cataract Trailway passes through the community. This 47-kilometre, multi-use facility is open throughout the year. It originates in Elora and ends near the Forks of the Credit Provincial Park. The Grand Valley Trail passes along a section of the Trailway and the Bruce Trail can be accessed at the Forks of the Credit Provincial Park. The Trailway is owned and managed by the Credit Valley Conservation Authority in cooperation with the Elora Cataract Trailway Association. Its route rests on the rail-bed of the abandoned Canadian Pacific Railway Line, which once serviced the area.
As in many small communities, sports play an integral part in the everyday life and lifestyle of Hillsburgh. Sports, especially those involving youngsters, also allows for the blending-in factor of residents, which in turn leads to respect of the individual and an acceptance and resolve, as well as the realization that for a community to survive, the whole is better served when the sum of the parts work together. Hillsburgh has achieved that and pride of place also translates into pride of community. Victoria Park, located roughly in the middle of town, features ball diamonds and a soccer pitch. The Community Centre is located just a long foul ball away.
Hillsburgh Arena nudges Hwy 25 and Mill St., near the centre of town and when the weather turns cold, the thwack of the hockey puck is often interspersed with the soft swish of a successfully completed figure skating toe loop. Hillsburgh also boasts a curling club.Service clubs, through their yeoman-like good works and volunteer efforts, also help to raise the level of civic pride in Hillsburgh.
It’s the three churches Hillsburgh Baptist Church, St. Andrews Presbyterian Church and more recently, the Christian Disciples Church, that contribute to the spiritual and moral sustenance of the community. Hillsburgh Baptist Church dates back to 1853, while St. Andrews Presbyterian Church was built in 1870.
For any community to survive, regardless of its size, -much like a building- it must have a solid foundation. Hillsburgh indeed has a solid foundation, dating back to the 1820’s.
The 1776 American War of Independence and the subsequent skirmishes of the War of 1812, between the Yanks and the Canadians, found the British government somewhat out of sorts. Roughly 10,000 people, termed United Empire Loyalists, fled northwards to what we now call Ontario into native Indian lands. A deal was struck, somewhat belatedly, in 1818, and the Brits purchased, under the Mississauga Land Tract the land that we now regard as Wellington County and Halton Region.
The first settlers in the region, mostly of Scottish and Irish origin, came by what might be best termed, a circuitous route. Some were United Empire Loyalists, fleeing what they viewed as a radical form of government in what was to become the United States of America. Some were immigrants yearning to escape from the suffocating class system, which in fact still exists in Britain. Yet others were former British soldiers who had served during the Napoleonic Wars.
United Empire Loyalists and former British soldiers were given land grants; others had to purchase their land. Hillsburgh was originally named Howville, to recognize its first settlers, in 1821, William and Mary How, of Kent, England, (sometimes spelled Howe) and William’s brother, Henry. Their allotments were Lots 22 and 23 on the 7th Concession. But in a conjoining of settlers, the Howes were aided by Nathaniel Roszell, recognized as the founder of Ballinafad, and possibly, the first settler in Erin Township. As the story relates, the Howes arrived cold and somewhat downtrodden at the Roszell homestead. They were put up for the night, and then set forth with Roszell to what we know now as Hillsburgh.
A treetop canopy provided original shelter, but then a shanty (rough house) was built and Roszell returned to hearth and home in Ballinafad. Other settlers began to trickle in: the Tarzwells, Lanes, McGills, Awreys and Grahams. A community was being established! But not without its travails and tragedies.
Numerous diseases often ran unforeseen and rampant and plucked lives from the community. Scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, typhoid fever, croup and most dramatically, tuberculosis, at the time called ‘consumption’. But the community held strong!
The area farms at first concerned mainly with feed crops and raising stock turned their attention to cash crops. Wheat was the first cash crop in the Hillsburgh area, but the fluctuation of prices-year by year- saw area farmers looking for a stable market. They turned to potato growing and Hillsburgh Dakota Reds and Irish Cobblers were sold to both national and international markets.
Grist mills, sawmills and woolen mills, as well as a tannery, were in full production in Hillsburgh. And in the 1890’s, the Canadian Pacific Railway was running four trains daily through the community.
A Post Office was established in Hillsburgh in 1851, at Bousteads, a local store and William Gooderham Jr. was the Postmaster from 1851-1857.
A stagecoach delivered the mail, but it was noted by local residents that it also stopped at the three local watering holes: The Wellington Hotel, the Grand Central Hotel and the Exchange Hotel. The stagecoach run is, obviously, no longer in existence. The three hotels have suffered a similar fate. As has the train service. But a community like Hillsburgh, that has the will and the stubbornness, not to mention pride, will survive.
Many residents commute to jobs, but a cottage industry reflecting both self and community self has also become a defacto part of Hillsburgh. Taking a drive through Hillsburgh you can visit Butcher’s Furniture, where you can browse through furnishings crafted by an array of different manufacturers. Then stop in Morette’s Furniture, family owned and operated since 1958, offering their customers custom-made furniture. Both stores offer traditional quality crafted furnishings in a comfortable atmosphere.
You can visit the Pantry Shelf owned by Karen Bassie, operating out of an historic century home, and relax with lunch or afternoon tea. Tocher Piano, owned and operated by Lee and Barb Tocher for over 39 years, specializes in re-conditioned grand, upright and apartment-sized pianos.
Then there’s Franca Spagnuolo. A mother of three, who moved from Barrie with her husband Nat, 11 years ago, she has established her own catering operation (Franca’s Catering) and developed a delicious pasta sauce that has been scooped up by Harry White Supplies which could end up in 300 stores across Canada. Franca does all this by the way, while working a full-time job in Georgetown. Her eldest daughter Lina, 19-years-old, recently completed a Professional Makeup Course for Film and Theatre in Toronto with a 93% average. Franca has thoroughly enjoyed living in Hillsburgh and found it, "a wonderful place to bring up a family."
Jeremy Fraser at 18 has lived in Hillsburgh all his life. And he wouldn’t trade it for anything. He plays softball, hockey, is into winter sports and is an avid fisherman." I wouldn’t trade living in Hillsburgh for anything," he says." I might like to experience a bit of city living, but when I settle down and decide to have a family, Hillsburgh is where I’ll look first."
Hillsburgh is alive and well in both its pioneer and entrepreneurial spirit.