There’s nothing like a slow drive down a narrow ribbon of gravel, under the shelter of a massive Maple canopy, to make a motorist dream wistfully of a world without macadam or chainsaws. Sadly, drivers may soon have to push much deeper into countryside to discover one of these venerable trails.
The former Township of Egremont lies within Grey County, in an area of aproximately 9.6 miles wide by 11.5 miles in length, positioned between Durham and Mount Forest. Now part of Southgate Township along with the village of Dundalk and the former Township of Proton, its physiography is that of a former glacial moraine system comprised of reminant glacial features such as kane morraines, till plains and extensive river cuts flowing generally south along a declining slope in elevation. As a result of this glacial activity, the land contains fine cover and pasture of loamy till interspersed with cobbles, boulders and heavily wooded sections. Drained by two portions of the Saugeen River and multiple creeks, several bridges populate the landscape further. Although roads were often diverted well out of the way from waterways to avoid the expense of spanning them with a bridge, Egremont Township boasts several bridges. Local history informs us that Concession 14, between Sideroads 10 and 15, contained five bridges in a very short distance. the Mill, the Nicholson, the School, the Sideroad and the Todd. Further within her boundaries, waters are spanned by the constructions of Dominion Bridge Company, iron installations dating from 1910. Both bridges and roads made a significant contribution to our rural southwestern Ontario communities’ development.
In 1854 the provisional county of Grey became a fully independent county. The first chairman of the council, during his acceptance speech, recommended that each municipality and township levy a yearly road tax for the improvement of the fledgling roads to help to bring more settlers into the county and make possible the opening of schools for the furtherment of education. There was a need for newly-surveyed townships to be linked under a county organization. Roads and local lanes were cleared out by axe and the field logs moved aside by the use of an ‘oxen and drag’ or modifed stoneboat. There was a pleasure in seeing the other clearings the neighbouring settlers had made. Concessions 1, 2, and 3, which run parallel to the Garafraxa Road, were the most populated and were witness to a significant amount of activity. Many others chose to locate and settle the ox and cart trail known as the Proton Trail, which traversed Egremont Township from the north east corner of Mount Forest through Woodlands and Maple Lane heading along a serpentine route to Hopeville.
Old Ontario settlers’ removal of the overlying trees and canopy allowed for the increase in additional square yards of tillable land which could support the growth of potatoes, wheat, barley and cash crops by hand planting, or broadcast seed to the exposed soil seen between the cut tree stumps. Before planting they had to cut or “girdle” trees. Rather than attempting to cut down the great trees, which covered so much of his acreage, the settler might girdle the trees in areas he hoped to clear in the coming years. For the settler to become prosperous, the ground had to be cleared. Anything less meant that only enough land would be cultivated to support the grant’s occupants. Only with a large clearing made and the stumps pulled, could the settler properly use a plough for the clearing of a ‘wheat piece’ or for the planting of traditional dry hay and oats predominantly the diet of local livestock. Along our local government settlement roads, once the earth was clear and effort imposed ensuring its fertility, substantial yields of produce arose. However, no pioneer engaged in the initial clearing of a land grant would hope to clear more than a few acres in the first few years.
Pioneers relied on these tree-lined, local lanes to be constructed after the “chopping out” or “brushing out” of the trails following the government settlement roads’ role of providing a method of transport into the sparsely populated upper third of Canada West. They allowed for the further requirement for linkages from lot to lot, or further afield to take products to local markets. The latter were just as important for the transportation of agri-produce as the settlement roads were to opening the area up to further settlement. These roads were a great convenience reducing the expansive distances between the lot markers and homesteads. Nevertheless, Townships struggled with road maintenance and in 1856 Egremont Council reported that some were failing to provide their Statute of Labour in maintaining the few roads that existed. As a result, in 1858, ‘pathmasters’ were appointed for the upkeep of the concession roads. These appointments lasted until the 1920s when the hiring of the first roads superintendent was required to coordinate, not only the work necessary to support the increase in rural horse traffic, but also of the Fords, McLaughlins and Chevrolets.
Today, automobile drives in and around the local farmsteads of Egremont are often on tree-lined, local road networks set out in a grid pattern that was established in the 19th century by the township survey. Although many of the roads are paved, several prominent roads consisting of narrow local gravel structures approximating a half chain (33 feet) in width with grassy ditches and sheltered by tree canopies, still lead one deeper into the township. One such road allowance is the ‘Egremont Township Heritage Trail’ which runs south of the Dundalk Road and west of Yeovil, paralleling on the east the old abandoned Wellington and Georgian Bay railway line that pushed through Holstein. The lane is a portrait of our local farmscapes and rural townships.
The ‘Egremont Township Heritage Road’ is a road allowance that was given some heritage status because the local residents wished to protect it from the usual road widening and clearing required by most municipal standards. The main value is the picturesque beauty of the road. However, heritage roads are not designated under the Ontario Heritage Act. If this and other seasonal lanes are to be protected for their historic value, then Ontario Heritage Designations would be required. As late as 2008 the Township of Wellington North, and no doubt other local townships, did not have a heritage inventory of cultural resources and no designations under the Heritage Act. Our local counties would require a “built heritage and cultural heritage landscape inventory” completed and duly referenced. Without these designations we could face the loss of our century farms, outbuildings, workshops and county lanes, and the snake back fence.