By Jennifer Enright
The village of Lowville may seem like a blur to motorists traveling along Guelph Line, hurrying on their way from one destination to another. The frenetic pace of our hop-in-the-car-and-grab-a-coffee lifestyle doesn’t always allow for time to survey and take delight in our surroundings. But for those who choose to stop in Lowville, there can be rich rewards found within this small community.
Situated near the Niagara Escarpment, Lowville is an interesting study in contrasts. The village, which is home to less than 300 people, got its name from being the lowest point on the road between Guelph and Lake Ontario. But close by, you can view the peaks of Mount Nemo and Rattlesnake Point. Within the village itself, there is a hilltop referred to as Highville that in days gone by was the site of a post office and several hotels.
Nestled in a valley close to Bronte Creek, Lowville is a place that harkens back to an earlier era when small communities dotted the landscape. Here there is no heavy industry, no fast food restaurants, and no large-scale residential developments. In fact, there are few reminders that Lowville is close to larger urban centres, except perhaps for the sound of traffic along Guelph Line, (a road that bisects the community).
The population includes descendants of some of the earliest families: are the Auklands, Bradts, Collings, Coulsons, Gunbys, Ramshaws, and Readheads. There are also people who have moved to the area more recently, having been attracted by its rural charm.
Many locals show a concern about maintaining the beautiful landscape of the area and it’s not hard to see why.
With its proximity to the Niagara Escarpment, Lowville is close to one of the most environmentally sensitive areas in the world. In 1990, the escarpment, which extends from Tobermory to the Niagara region, was declared a UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Biosphere Reserve. This designation makes the escarpment an internationally recognized ecosystem. Like the Galapagos Islands off South America, and the Florida Everglades (two other biosphere reserves), the escarpment is home to many rare species of flora and fauna, including stunted eastern white cedars. Not far from Lowville, these trees can be found growing from the cliff face of the escarpment. Scientific studies suggest these trees are up to 1,000 years old.
But its environmental surroundings only represent part of Lowville’s story. There’s also the story of its people and its history - a history that residents show a keen interest in preserving.
The historical Round House, an eight-sided building, was built in 1860 by Thomas Ebenezer Pickett, the son of Reverend Daniel Pickett (one of the earliest settlers who arrived in 1822). Born in 1774 in New Milford, Connecticut, Daniel Pickett journeyed outside his native country to Upper Canada as a saddlebag preacher. In the 1800s, some preachers travelled over large sections of Upper Canada to preach the Gospel in remote communities. They rode on horseback, carrying their Bibles and other belongings in their saddlebags and became known as saddlebag preachers.
Daniel Pickett was a proponent of the Methodist faith and by all accounts a rather stern character. As Dorothy Turcotte notes in Burlington: Memories of Pioneer Days, Daniel was reported to be "spare, sharp-featured, hook-nosed, bald and slow-spoken."
In the 1820s, Pickett received a grant of land on the north side of Mount Nemo and there he set about raising a family with his first wife Lavinia. But illness and hardships, not uncommon during that era, plagued the family. Pickett’s two children with his first wife died; one as a result of a cholera epidemic. Pickett would marry three times and have a total of seven children, two of them with his second wife, Elizabeth Ingersoll, who was the younger sister of Laura Secord.
One of Elizabeth’s children, Thomas E. Pickett, would be responsible for building the Round House on property purchased for one-hundred dollars in the mid-1800s. Pickett became fascinated with the ideas of Orson Squire Fowler, a New York phrenologist, who also had an interest in architecture. Basically Fowler believed that octagonal structures ensured domestic bliss for those residing in them.
Like his father, Daniel, Thomas would wed someone with ties to colourful characters in Canadian history. His wife, Anna Smith, was the daughter of Absalom and Anna Mary Smith, a couple who offered shelter to William Lyon Mackenzie after the botched rebellion of 1837. With a reward over his head, Mackenzie fled to the United States with his companion Allan Wilcox. Along the way he sought protection in Trafalgar Township (part of modern-day Halton) at the home of Wilcox’s uncle, Absalom Smith.
The Smiths’ home would enjoy the distinction of being the place where Mackenzie lost his shirt – and where he almost lost his life. As he made his way across Sixteen Mile Creek, he fell in the water. Apparently Mackenzie was chilled to the bone.
Upon arriving at the Smith house, the pair found that the family had visitors, one of whom was a staunch government supporter armed with a gun. According to Dorothy Turcotte in Burlington: Memories of Pioneer Days, George Langtry, a friend of the Smiths, informed his hosts that he was ready to shoot if he saw the reform leader.
Once Langtry left, Mackenzie and his friend ventured inside where Mackenzie was offered a shirt, newly made by Mrs. Smith. A short time after, leaving his once, sodden shirt behind, he journeyed to the safety of Canada’s southern neighbour. The shirt apparently remained in the Smith family, but its whereabouts now is uncertain.
It was the Smiths’ daughter, Anna, along with her husband Thomas Pickett, who would watch a small community known as Lowville emerge on the corner of their farm. The village also grew up around property owned by Squire James Cleaver and Joseph Featherstone.
These early settlers and their descendants come across as a hardy pious lot when you read the pages of Turcotte’s book. William Gunby promptly started looking for work as soon as he arrived in Upper Canada after a thirteen week journey with his family. This was the same Gunby who observed such a strict brand of Methodism that he wouldn’t have his picture taken or even use a mirror. On yet another page you learn about the local men who toiled many hours to make roads passable in the spring.
Today lovely stone structures along Guelph Line announce that Lowville was established in 1853. In subsequent years, the village would prosper as a busy commercial centre. By 1869, Lowville had a blacksmith shop, iron foundry, saddlemaker, wainwright’s shop, tanner, shoemaker, cabinetmaker, miller, four general merchants, and a post office. But Lowville as a centre of commerce would not last, perhaps due in part to the absence of a railway station in the community. Railways did not appear to be popular in the area. In 1871, villagers successfully blocked plans to construct the Credit Valley Railway Line in the village, and they celebrated their victory by creating a bonfire of stumps intended for fences.
Fast forward to the 1940s, and we see Lowville as it was then in the eyes of resident Irma Coulson. Coulson, who first came to the area in 1941, began working as a schoolteacher at Limestone School, now a private residence off Derry Road. In 1946, she would marry Howard Coulson and go to live in the home of her in-laws in Lowville, Edwin Byron Coulson and Eleanor Coulson. Irma Coulson still resides in this historic home off Guelph Line which was built in 1872 by the Collings, another family prominent in the community’s history.
In the 1940s, Lowville was essentially an agricultural community. The Coulsons operated a beef cattle farm with some horses off Guelph Line. Most of Irma’s students in those days came from farm families.
She remembers taking the horses out of the barn at noon with her mother-in-law, so that they could go to a nearby creek for a drink, but apart from that she did few other farm chores.
"When I was married my husband said to me, ‘Don’t learn to milk a cow and you’ll never have to do it’… So, I didn’t."
In those days social life revolved around either Lowville United Church off Guelph Line or St. George’s Anglican Church north of the village. Coulson says it wasn’t uncommon for people to attend social activities at both churches.
In some ways, very little has changed in this village since Irma first arrived. The churches remain social centres in the community still, though Coulson says the numbers are down. Old homes are still here, many of them more than seventy-five years old. Some residences have been designated heritage homes by the City of Burlington’s Local Architectural Heritage Committee (LACAC).
Nowadays many of the entrepreneurs and farmers of yesteryear are gone. The people who gravitate to the village now come to visit Lowville Park in the warmer months or to attend the winter carnival held in February. Near the park, they also browse at the Garden Studio Gallery, guarded from the outside by an inukshuk, a life-like stone sculpture. There is also the park’s historic building, a one-room schoolhouse built in 1888.
There have been other changes too. Lowville, once a largely agricultural community, is now a bedroom community. Guelph Line, once a gravel road free of the spoils of human refuse, is now a busy paved thoroughfare that sometimes has its share of garbage. "People come up here because it is a pretty place and then they proceed to deface it," laments Coulson. "That’s what I find most annoying."
Coulson is concerned about maintaining the unspoiled atmosphere of her home, and that includes preserving her house as well. For example, an embossed tin ceiling in one room, is hidden by a newer ceiling but remains intact. From the outside the house has changed little.
Younger generations have also taken an interest in preserving the past. Rodney Coulson, a son of Maurice Coulson who was born in Lowville, recently completed a history of his family. He admits that no history of this kind is ever finished and that the genealogical search is ongoing.
Both he and Irma Coulson would probably agree that delving into the past is often an interesting and engrossing journey. You never know, where you may make a discovery.
Not too long ago, Irma Coulson found the tombstone of a young man under a tree on her property. His name was Isaac Landfear Wallace. The tombstone indicates that he was born in 1807 and died in 1826.
It’s likely that his family lived on the property before the Coulsons and the Collings, bringing to light yet another piece of Lowville’s rich history.