| Jun 01, 2006

Feature Article - June 1, 2006

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Feature Article - June 1, 2006

Visions of aVillage:Ahistory ofSydenham

by Wilma Kenny

"Draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice, and I’ll tell you a story..."(F. Scott Fitzgerald)

In the 1790s, at a location one day’s ride (more or less, depending on the horse and trail) north through Cataraqui Village from Fort Frontenac and Kingston , Michael Sloat received a land grant at the end of a medium-sized lake. Other settlers soon followed, attracted by the sheltered valley with a small waterfall for power, and pockets of good farmland nearby on the level limestone.


The lake became known as Sloat’s Lake , and the settlement, Sloat’s Landing, or Loughborough. Along with others, Henry and Catherine Wood arrived from northern New York State in 1804: their stone homestead still stands on the south shore of the lake. Henry and his sons occasionally turned up arrowheads and other small stone tools as they ploughed their fields, evidence of earlier settlement. By 1819, it was recorded, "English squires Rutledge, Sloat, Wood, Blake, Purdy, Simpkins, Sills and MacMillan owned the only wagon in Loboro, a much used and often repaired treasure." In 1841, the settlement was renamed Sydenham, in honour of the first Governor-in-Chief of Canada , who had died that year in a fall from his horse. Eventually, the name of the lake also was changed to Sydenham.

For the next century industry flourished; minerals were found in the granite shield country nearby, and the village became a commercial and social centre for the surrounding district. There were numerous mills, up to seven hotels and taverns, breweries, brickworks, stores and bakeries, a tannery, schools, churches, mining companies, carriage makers, blacksmiths, dressmakers and milliners. The village had a local band, a library and a volunteer militia company. A small steamboat towed barges of mica down the lake: daily trains carried goods and passengers to and from Kingston and points north.

After WWII, the village grew much quieter. The mines which had reopened during the war closed permanently as demand for mica dropped. Two devastating fires forced many men to seek work in the plants that were opening in Kingston , and the popularization of private cars reduced the need for trains and hotels.

The Fires

If you walk into almost any older town or village in Canada and ask when the big fire happened, an old-timer’s unlikely to ask what fire you’re talking about: they either witnessed it, or remember the stories. It would be a rare town that has survived even one century intact. Sydenham had three major fires, and many smaller ones. In 1897, a three-storey stone sawmill located in the side yard of 4449 George Street burned to the ground. It was replaced by an equally large frame mill, which became part of an industrial complex, including a box and veneer factory, a grist and feed mill and a saw and planing mill. These burned the night of Saturday August 16, 1947. According to a Whig-Standard account: "Heat was intense. Hydro poles across the street caught fire. Telephone poles began to blaze and telephone lines fell down, cutting off communication with the entire area north of Sydenham. Paint on the Anglin house sizzled and burned and it was necessary to play a continuous stream of water on the entire side of the house. Across the street at the Acme Farmers Dairy, ‘You couldn’t hold your hand on the side of the building, it was so hot,’ said Clarence Kemp. Row boats moored (in the millpond) were set on fire." Thirty local men lost their jobs that night, for only a small part of the sawmill was restored.

A few years earlier, in 1935, the three-storey brick American Hotel across from Trousdale’s general store had burned, taking with it a two-storey bank, the earliest apothecary store, and a home, all downwind along the creek. Only the bank vault, holding irreplaceable records and villagers’ savings survived the fire, and it was too hot to open. For three days local citizens stood guard day and night. The vault was opened on a Sunday afternoon, to reveal its contents unharmed.


Sydenham’s connection with the Church of the Latter-Day Saints comes as a surprise to many. Most early settlers belonged to one of the usual Euro/British mix of Anglican, Baptist, Methodist Presbyterian and Roman Catholic churches. Initially served by itinerant preachers, the Anglicans and Methodists built churches or meeting halls in the village -- the Roman Catholic church was located two miles south, at Railton. But in 1830, Mormonism began in northern New York State , and in 1832-5, Brigham Young made several trips to the Kingston area, and preached in Sydenham at the home of Daniel Wood. He made a number of converts, some of whom, including Daniel, followed him to Salt Lake . Other leaderless converts stayed behind, unsure just how to proceed with their new faith. Having the impression that Mormons were baptised by immersion, they somehow persuaded a travelling Baptist preacher to baptise them in this manner. It was February, and accounts vary as to the thickness of the ice on Sydenham (Sloat’s) Lake that winter, but all record that several of the participants spoke in tongues after the event.

The Mines

The granite of the Shield area just north of Sydenham is rich in minerals: Feldspar, Phosphate, Apatite, Lead, Iron and Mica. Foxton Mining of Sydenham sent a large block of phosphate ore to the Chicago World Exposition in 1893. Ironically, by that time the McKinley tariffs had destroyed the Canadian phosphate trade. However, from 1890 to 1914, Sydenham became a centre for splitting, cutting and grading mica from most of the seventy mines in South/Central Frontenac. Mica crystals can be split into thin, transparent sheets that are tough and flexible. It remains stable when exposed to light, electricity, moisture and extreme temperatures. As such, it was used for woodstove windows, lanterns, kerosene heaters and high voltage electrical equipment. The Lacey/General Electric mine near Eel bay, off Sydenham Lake , produced the best amber mica (phlogopite) in the world: samples are in museums around the world, and the largest crystal ever found came from there. It was 9 feet in diameter, 33 feet long, and produced 60 tons of trimmed mica. Both supply and demand dropped after 1914, though there was a brief resurgence during the second war, when even the mine dumps were re-worked.

Hotels and Trains

By the late 1880's, trains had come to Sydenham: it was a shipping point for mica, phosphate, hogs and cattle, as well as passengers and consumer goods. As she turned 100, Mabel Sigsworth recalled the role of trains in the local economy. Kingston was a long day’s trip by horse and buggy, and even with a car, the roads were rough and slow. However, there was seldom need to go to the city to shop: the stores came to Sydenham, by way of traveling salesmen. Salesmen came by train, and stayed in one of the several hotels in the village for a few days, while they went door-to-door with pictures of their wares. Mabel’s family bought a piano that way, and a rubber-tired buggy, and enough tea for six months at a time. These items were delivered by train to the village station.

Newcomers also took up temporary residence in the hotels: as well as the three-storey American (brick) and equally large Union (frame), there were many smaller hotels and taverns which now are private homes.

The Trousdales

Trousdale’s is the oldest family run general store in Canada . In 1836, John Trousdale, great-great grandfather of today’s John, came to Sydenham. He was a man of many skills. He could build a log cabin, starting with the standing trees, he taught Sunday School and grammar school, and he opened a general store in Sydenham. His son, John Wesley, operated two stores, and four of JW’s six sons had stores and bakeries in Sydenham. One of them, PJ, decided in 1929 to build a new, larger store on the Mill and George Street property. His son, Noble recalled the building of ten-inch thick concrete walls: "We had a concrete mixer...concrete was wheeled away constantly. Even though I was small, my job was to put a board where the concrete came out, and hold it there, until the wheelbarrow arrived. We raised the store 30 inches in one day!"

Sydenham Today

Today, though much has changed in over two hundred years, Sydenham remains a thriving community. Many of its residents commute to work in Kingston , but numerous cottagers, campers and hikers pass through in the summer, and the rest of the year the population more than triples on weekdays when fleets of buses bring students to the two large schools that have continued to grow. Both the Rideau Trail and the Cataraqui portion of the Trans-Canada Trail pass through the village. Come pick up a copy of the free self-directed historical walking tour booklet and learn more local stories. Stop for a meal or a snack there are two restaurants, a tea room, and a coffee importer. Take time for a swim at the Point. Look for gifts, antiques or souvenirs or do some serious shopping for home and garden. Check out Trousdale’s General Store, which is still here.

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