The quiet dirt road is canopied by large maple and elm trees. The edge of the road drops off towards small lakes and marshes bordered by poplars and willows, with dogwood and reeds along the shores. On the other side, the low, rolling hills of this, the beginning of the Laurentian Shield, are tree-covered, as well. There are no squared log farmhouses, no cleared fields, no domestic animals, no barns, no schoolhouse, no mail delivery, no blacksmith, no stores, no Orange Lodge, no community dances, no picnics, no children playing… There is a church and cemetery -- that’s all. Shrewsbury -- the settlement that used to be, the farms that the forest has swallowed, the people who are gone…
Shrewsbury is in the Municipality of Gore, or The Gore, as it was often called in the past. The Gore also includes Lakefield, parts of Dunany and a section bordering Lake Hughes. All that indicates Shrewsbury now is the road from the Lachute Highway, just west of Lake Barron.
In the History of Shrewsbury Church (1983), by Kathleen Morrison, the early settlement of Shrewsbury is described as follows: “The pioneers were largely Irish and left their homeland, where poverty was rampant, and faced the perils of the Atlantic, a journey of six weeks or more…Those who arrived at Montreal came up the St. Lawrence by boat…to St. Andrews and walked the twenty miles to Shrewsbury looking for a new home. Some say they were looking for the hills of Ireland; and they found hills alright and a wilderness…One of their early sources of income was potash, made from cutting down and burning the trees. The potash was transported to Montreal, sixty-five miles away, which was a two days’ journey…”(1)
The first settlers came in the 1830s and, about twenty-five years later, had established a community strong enough to build St. John’s Anglican Church in 1858. This is now the only remaining building from the village core of Shrewsbury. At first, there was relative prosperity, with the land sustaining livestock and good crops, despite the short Laurentian growing season. Family incomes were supplemented by the production of potash and later on, by the sale of lumber from the forests cleared to create fields. Many men found work on the canals that were then being built at Grenville and Carillon, and eventually in the winter lumber camps. In the early days, the future seemed positive.
Historian Donald Parker, whose family, the Parkers of Gore (Lakefield) were among the first farmers settled in the “wilderness” areas past Lachute, writes, “Whatever the hardships they had to endure, the people of the Gore survived. During the years 1820 to 1850, an estimated one million people died in Ireland during the famine… at the very least the Gore gave relief from famine, for some it provided a jumping off point to more prosperous settlements in Canada, for others it became home.”(2)
In Cyrus Thomas’ history of Argenteuil County (1896), many (but not all) of the original families of Shrewsbury are described, some of them included in a section called “The Glen”. Thomas writes, “A post office was established at this place, which is in the extreme west of the township (of Gore) in 1860 and John Chambers was appointed Postmaster. His father, James Chambers, came from the County of Sligo, Ireland, to Montreal, in 1831… About 1850 he came to Gore and bought a farm of 100 acres; ten years later he bought 100 acres more adjoining it and 100 adjacent in Mille Isles… John, the eldest son, who now owns the homestead, with 250 acres he has since bought – having in all 550 acres…”(3) It was this John Chambers, who in 1861, sold the land for St. John’s Anglican Church. As the church was already built, in 1858, this was probably just a legal formality. The first pastor was the Rev. Joseph Griffin and the first church wardens were Jacob Williams and Samuel Rathwell.
A passage from the church archives states, “I hereby declare that I have given this piece of ground adjoining the church in Shrewsbury to the Bishop of Montreal and his successors for the use of the residents in the Mission of Gore, for the interment of the dead according to the rites of the Church of England and that the deed of sale is in the Registry Office, St. Andrews.” Signed, John Chambers.(4)
One of the most notable early inhabitants of Shrewsbury was Samuel Rathwell, or “Rothwell”, as Thomas spelled the name. According to Thomas, William Rothwell had “sometime in the last century (the 1700s) moved from Margate, Kent, England to Ireland, where he reared his family. Charles Rothwell, one of his sons… came to this country in 1831 and took up parts of Lots 2 and 3 in the 6th Range of Gore. He was Sergeant in Capt. Alex Johnstone’s Company in the Rebellion of 1837 and lived here until he died in August 1846: his wife died in July 1868. They had nine children, of whom two sons and four daughters grew up…”Continuing, Thomas writes, “Samuel, the youngest son, was married in February, 1845, to Margaret McCullough, of Gore.” Margaret was the daughter of Hance McCullough and Mary Rooney, also among the very first settlers of Shrewsbury, who had come to Lower Canada in the 1830s as well. Samuel and one of his brothers “were also in Capt. Johnstone`s Company in 1837-38… and he... joined Capt. McKnight’s Company of Rangers at its organization and went with it to the various places to which it was ordered during the Fenian Raids… Mr. Rothwell was for some time a School Commissioner, and has been Church Warden thirty-six years; he is the oldest Orangeman in the township, having belonged to the organization for fifty years, and he has held all the offices in his Lodge. He has two sons and six daughters; two of the latter are married… Though age prevents the performance of the labours they once enjoyed, Mr. and Mrs. Rothwell are fortunate in the possession of kind and intelligent children, to whom they have surrendered the management of their estate, which comprises 400 acres…”(5)
Margaret McCullough (Rathwell) (1827-1894), was, as mentioned above, the daughter of Hance McCullough, “who was born in County Down, Ireland,” and who “eloped with Mary Rooney. She was a member of a well-to-do Catholic family who disowned her for marrying a Protestant, possibly the reason Hance, Mary and daughter, Margaret, came to Canada in 1832. They had a farm in Shrewsbury next to the Rathwell farm. Mary died in the 1850s, and was buried in Morin (later called Morin Heights) possibly because there was no cemetery yet in Shrewsbury. The last of the children were born in the 1850s, so must have been very young when their mother died. Hance remarried Sarah Williams and they remained on the farm. When Hance died he was buried in Morin with his first wife, Mary. Sarah remained on the farm and was known as Granny Williams to the family of Samuel Rathwell…”(6)
In this brief but interesting story of one of the original settler families of this district, we can sense the kind of world that existed at the time. The overwhelming influence of religion (with its attendant prejudices), the greater chance of death in early adulthood – especially for women in childbirth – and, on the more positive side, the strength of the family unit and the priority given to the care of children. Perhaps the precarious nature of life in those days – the dangers of sea voyages, isolation in the wilderness and total absence of what we would call medical care – made family and community more valuable.
That part of Shrewsbury known as “The Glen” was described by Thomas in a section which he called “Wentworth Glen”: “In the eastern part of Wentworth, on the 4th and 5th Ranges, adjacent to Shrewsbury, in Gore, is a moderate depression of land which has long been known as the Glen, and which is itself considerably diversified by hill and dale. A road leading from Louisa to Shrewsbury passes through it, and Dalesville Creek also runs through quite a portion of it.”(7)
The Glen was first settled about 1833, the first permanent farm being that of Joseph Creswell, who came from Donegal, Ireland in 1840. This family, like so many others, suffered great disasters during their first years on the land -- in 1846, their house burned down, killing three of their small children. Yet they persisted, and rebuilt. “Mr. Creswell cleared up the first 100 acres he purchased, and a lime kiln, having previously been opened on the other Lot, he repaired and worked it for some years…” His son, also called Joseph, took over this homestead in 1877, and “he reconstructed the lime kiln, and has since kept it in active operation, his farm possessing a large quantity of superior limestone.”(8) It is interesting to learn that some of the settlers had sources of income beyond farming, such as this lime kiln. Income such as this could elevate a family above the basic subsistence level.
DEPRESSION, DISEASE AND DECLINE
According to the newspaper, The Perspective (1992), the 1880s brought “a great lumber depression and killing disease. Diphtheria and measles swept through the land in 1885, decimating and impoverishing the population. This was followed by years of drought. Many families in the area began leaving, seeking the wider expanses and opportunities that beckoned in western Canada and in the United States.”(9)
By 1915, there were less than half the people living in Gore than in 1891. The out-migration had not all gone to the West or the United States. Many families had moved into the Arundel area when that township was opened up for settlement in the 1870s and 1880s, the Rathwells and the Morrisons among them. Some had bought or received grants of farms in Mille Isles or Morin though neither of these districts was especially suited to agriculture as the land was much more mountainous and rocky in that area. On the other hand, there were more opportunities for employment outside of farming in these areas. Morin and Arundel had prosperous lumber industries and were on the direct railway line (1895 in the case of Morin Flats) of the Canadian National, unlike Shrewsbury and Mille Isles, which never had access to rail transportation.
Furthermore, municipalities with rail service (and larger lakes and higher mountains) developed first a summer and later (with skiing) a year-round tourist industry. This, of course, provided employment for the local population, even in times of depression. With the building of second homes by affluent Montrealers, the resulting increase in seasonal population created more non-agricultural employment. Shrewsbury had some second home population eventually, but not as soon, nor on the same scale, as Morin Heights and Arundel which developed real town centres, with boarding houses, hotels and related services. Morin Heights had both cross-country ski trails and alpine ski lifts starting in the late 1920s, and by the early 1940s was a thriving resort, in spite of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Meanwhile, Shrewsbury continued as a mainly agricultural community, and declined…
According to Morris Rathwell, “Shrewsbury was never more than a centre where the school, the church and the Orange Lodge were located. It is known there was a school there by 1841 and it burned in 1935. St. John’s Anglican Church was built in 1858. It is the only place of interest left in Shrewsbury. It has been maintained in good order and the cemetery where our great- grandparents were buried was completely restored in 1961. The Orange Lodge was probably built in the last half of the 1800s and it burned down in 1942 and all the records were lost. It had been the mecca of social life in the community. The July 12th picnic and dance was the event of the season with people coming for miles to participate… There was a real exodus from the area in the 40s and by the late 50s only one all year-round family, the Goods, remained. There are no farms left and the whole area has been returned to the forest almost as if the farmers had never been there…”(10)
FADING FROM THE MAP
In a sense, Shrewsbury had now faded from the map. The busy settlement it had once been had, by the 1960s, become a sparsely populated backwater on the edge of the Laurentian Sheild. Every so often, however, there would be a reference to this ghostly area where the forest was quickly returning. In April, 1961, an article appeared in The Montreal Star titled, “Picturesque Little Church Is a Monument to Pioneers.” At the time of the Star article (1961), the church wardens of St. John’s were John Good, 88, (the Goods were the only remaining family) and Edward Morrison, 95, of Lachute. According to the article, “the two veteran wardens recall the days when the community was one of bustling activities... Mr.Morrison remembers when the church was filled to capacity each Sunday. Today during the winter months, it is closed and the handful of parishioners attend service, conducted by Rev. Canon Cyrus Baugh, in the home of the Good family… Mr. Morrison’s father, William, son of Henry, the first Morrison to settle in Shrewsbury, made potash for soap. Mr. Morrison was for many years a fur trader. Some of the older people of the district remember the days when it was said that wherever there was a mink prowling Eddy was not far behind… Mr. Morrison’s wife, Catherine Rathwell, also of Shrewsbury, died eight years ago (1953), They had five children, two of whom are still living. Edward, of Ottawa, and Kathleen, a teacher at Verdun High School… His lifetime friend, John Good, son of Captain William Good of the 11th Regiment, Argenteuil Rangers, whose father, James Good, came from County Cork, Ireland, was one of a family of seven. A grandaunt of his married into the Henry Ford family and walked from Quebec to Rochester to be married… Besides being warden, Mr. Good is also the chuch bellringer and custodian of the cemetery where all the earlier residents of Shrewsbury are buried. Many of the tombstones have tumbled over with age but on the facing are still visible the names: Morrison, Good, McCulloch, Swail, Copeland, Kennedy, McNeil, Chambers, Foot, Carruthers, Napp, Thompson, Clifford and McKnight…(10)
In Kathleen Morrison’s history of St. John’s Church, we learn that the once decaying cemetery was completely restored in 1961 through the efforts of the parishioners. Money was raised and men were employed to do the refurbishing. After expenses, a sum was deposited with the Anglican Synod and its interest used for future upkeep. Other repairs have been carried out on the building since that time and there appears to have been an increase in interest in preserving and maintaining the church – the last relic of Shrewsbury and its pioneers. At the present time, services are held only occasionally – from May through to October.
By the time of our last visit to Shrewsbury in 1999, however, a large branch had fallen from one of the giant trees in the cemetery upon the gravestone of Captain William Good. The ranks of brushy fir trees at the rear of the cemetery appeared to be closing in on the McCullough family plot. A few more stones seemed to be cracked and broken, their inscriptions only partially readable now…
It was less melancholy in The Glen, but still there was a certain air of sadness and abandonment. The William Morrison farm is now a large sand and gravel pit that looks like the Moon. The Rathwell farm is now the Manitou Club, a hunting and fishing preserve. The former schoolhouse has been a family home for many years now but still keeps its scholarly architecture. Several other former farmhouses (and one former summer boarding house) seem quite empty or down on their luck. However, the several old-style wooden bridges that remain over the Dalesville Creek and other smaller streams are very attractive.
RETURNING TO FOREST
Those parts of Shrewsbury towards Mille Isles and Morin Heights (near the church) are almost completely returned to forest and barely inhabited by anyone. The Good homestead remains, on the way to the Lachute Highway, but is now occupied by another family. An old square log house that is identified as the Sarah McCullough house on Kathleen Morrison’s map, has been renovated and appears occupied. Most homes, however, are in ruins – some vanished completely, some mere traces, heaps of stone under the accumulated leaves and forest debris of over fifty years.
Shrewsbury and its fate cannot help but make us think. Ruins, deserted homesteads, lonely churches with eerie cemeteries and encroaching forests are the stuff of gothic novels and melancholy poetry… Real history, however, is important, as the settlement and development of our area is reflected in Shrewsbury’s rise and fall. The personal family histories of many people now living in the nearby but still thriving districts of Mille Isles, Morin Heights and Arundel are rooted in Shrewsbury. Perhaps what remains is a kind of living ghost, to tell us of our past…
1) Kathleen Morrison, St. John’ Anglican Church, 1858-1983, Shrewsbury, Quebec, 1983.
2) Donald Parker, The Parker Family History, 1990.
3) Cyrus Thomas, History of the Counties of Argenteuil, Quebec & Prescott, Ontario, 1896.
4) Morrison, 1983.
5) Thomas, 1897.
6) Morris Rathwell, The Rathwell Family History, Arundel, 1999.
7) Thomas, 1897.
8) Thomas, 1897.
9) Perspective, September, 1992.
10) Rathwell, 1999.
11) Harold Poitras, The Montreal Star, April 29, 1961.
Thank you to Helene Pagé Riddell for the article from The Montreal Star, Louise Johnstone for the information about maps of Argenteuil and Kathleen Morrison for added assistance.
**Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of an article that appeared in The Porcupine, Morin Heights Historical Association, Vol. 3, July 1999.