A brief history of Verona and Harrowsmith: settlement, growth, and religion

Written by  M.R. Field-Green Wednesday, 12 July 2017 11:20
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Free methodist Committee – Free Methodist Camp Meeting, Verona 1908. Free methodist Committee – Free Methodist Camp Meeting, Verona 1908.

(A continuing series of articles to be used as part of the build-out of the Villages pages on Frontenac-live.ca, this look at the history of Harrowsmith and Verona is based on the book, Portland - My Home by Wiliam J. Patterson)

In 1802 Micajah Purdy registered the lots in what was later (1807) called Portland Township. In 1804, John Shibley, where this story really begins, bought the south-west corner of the township (what is now essentially Harrowsmith) for £175. He split up his land in three, giving a piece to each of his sons Jacob and Henry. Portland Township then had a population of at least six because each Shibley man was married at the time.

From that point forward the township began to grow in population. Between 1810 and 1830 land was being sold at bargain prices in the township because the government of Upper-Canada had more land than money and they would often use land in places like Portland as a reward for loyal service, military pensions, civil servant wages etc. In 1819, there were nineteen households in the township. By 1826, the population was recorded at 279, and by 1829 had risen to 343. In the 1830’s the population had even more growth due to the high number of immigrants from the United Kingdom. In the 1840’s the population of Portland spiked yet again, creating a township that was two thirds full with the majority of vacant lots being in the north. Verona and Harrowsmith contained little vacant area at that time.

Now that there was a full community, Jacob Shibley went to work ensuring it was a well governed and just place. He became justice of the peace and was one of the first two councillors along with Clark Nicholls. Shibley has served in the War of 1812 as a regiment commander and later became a captain. He even became the county’s first member of Parliament. He was “undoubtedly the most important man in Portland” according to local historian William J. Patterson, who wrote the book, Portland my home.  

In the 1840’s with a relatively stabilized population and a growing government, there was a movement away from pioneer subsistence farming practices (mainly growing wheat) and on to mixed farming. The number of farm animals dramatically increased during this period as did the average acreage of cleared land per farm. Because of this change in farming practices, there was a higher annual salary per household than ever before. By the 1840’s the populations of Verona and Harrowsmith had significantly improved their quality of life.

In the early years, education was limited. Parents needed their children to help on their farms. Upper Canada eventually established a public elementary school system in 1846 although less than half of the township’s child population attended. Small school houses started popping up in Portland Township and were used for worship on weekends because it was too expensive to build both a church and a school house.  

A number of new occupations were possible from the 1840’s and afterwards because of schools, government, and the building of the Kingston & Pembroke railroad. The prosperity in Portland over the second half of the 19th Century funded the building of the K&P, the establishment of a Board of Health, and providing limited support to low-income members of society. By the 1880’s Verona and Harrowsmith provided such opportunities to their populations that there are records of railway workers, undertakers, bakers, miners, plasterers, photographers, nurses, store clerks and seamstresses in addition to farmers.

By 1848 Joshua Hicks had opened the first tavern in Verona. And by 1849 the first Methodist church was built in Harrowsmith (Wesleyan Methodist Church). As William Peterson points out in Portland My Home, the two events are related and had implications for a very long time. Patterson wrote that  “Methodism taught that salvation came from separating oneself from the temptations of the world. It was a denomination with a strong social conscience that believed in one’s duty to one’s neighbour”.

Because of this strong community oriented conscience during the 1870’s there was a movement by the Methodists to stamp out drunkenness. This movement led to the establishment of temperance organizations and the building of temperance houses such as the Verona Temperance House which was completed in 1910. The Verona organization had over 100 members. Religion was also linked at this time to a political identity.  Methodists were Reformers and Anglicans were Tories. Jacob Shibley was a Reformer.

Unlike the religious affiliations in the rest of Upper Canada in the second half of the 19th Century, favouring the Church of England and Presbyterian Church, in Portland 52% of the population was Methodist. At the end of the 19th Century a new wave of Methodism arrived in Portland, called Free Methodism. In 1889 Rev. A.H. Norrington tried to bring Free Methodism to Harrowsmith and received rotten vegetables in return – lots of them, thrown at him and his followers. Norrington moved on to Verona with greater success and by 1891 they had built a church. The Verona circuit became the strongest Free Methodist community in Canada by 1895 – producing 23 Methodist ministers, and gaining popularity due to the mass baptism of converts in Rock Lake. Eventually Free Methodism made its way back to Harrowsmith and in 1919 the Presbyterian church was bought and converted into a Free Methodist church. The Harrowsmith congregation continued to grow throughout the 20th Century and at one point even published a newspaper, called The Harrowsmith Banner.

Harrowsmith and Verona have a long history of industry and resource extraction as well. In Verona, the mills and factories of the 19th Century were mostly in service of the local population but some of the produce was destined for export – cheese most notably. Today, there are few remnants remaining to tell us how many mills there were or what they were producing. We do know that in Verona there was a saw mill and a flouring mill in the 1870’s around the same time that Verona was supplied with a source of power. In 1912 Davy Well Drilling was established by Charles Davy and his son William. This is the third oldest well drilling firm in Ontario and still in business today. It is currently run by the 5th generation and services over three hundred homes a year, a far cry from the 1940’s when they were drilling at most 40 wells a year. The first saw-mill in Portland township was in Harrowsmith opened in 1826. Many more saw-mills were opened later in the century as well as nearby associated industries such as barrel factories, tanneries (using tan bark), and carriage factories. Eventually all of these wood-associated businesses closed down and in the 1930’s only Harrowsmith’s cheese box factory was still running. Eventually the resource industries in Verona and Harrowsmith died out and their economies relied on small shops and stores.

What is really special about Harrowsmith and Verona is their social and community development. In the first half of the 20th Century the township hall in Harowsmith was used for visiting troops of actors and in 1927 - under sponsorship from the Women’s Institute – for local amateur productions. Verona had a local group of entertainers called The Dumbells from the 1920’s on. The Women’s Institute was an original Canadian organization for rural women, the Harrowsmith branch opened in 1924 and the Verona branch in 1927. These organizations provided a social focus for women outside of church circles and involved work for the betterment of the community. Thanks to the Harrowsmith Women’s Institute, the library was built in 1926. Both the Verona and Harrowsmith branches provided aid to less fortunate families during the depression and made countless contributions to charities such as the Red Cross during WW1. In the second half of the century the focus of their work was in education, scholarships for local students at Sydenham High School, public speech competitions, etc. The Verona Women’s Institute has since closed but the Harrowsmith branch is still going strong. Just last month they celebrated their 92nd anniversary.

Verona and Harrowsmith share much of their rich history. Both hamlets are today home to thriving communities and the beautiful countryside. In the 1900’s there was a natural rivalry between the two township centres in the form of hockey matches and baseball games. Organizations and clubs that were founded in one were immediately duplicated in the other. Thankfully that rivalry has been put to rest and we can appreciate the positive impact that these twin hamlets have had on our local rural history.

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