Mount Forest’s Post Office and Postal Heritage

By Steven Cook in Community, Places, Events, & History

“I shall need to buy more candles”, Willie thought to himself, as he waited for the ink to dry on his latest letter to his brother James. Night had fallen by the time Willie finished writing. Five pages lay before him, spread out one page at a time on the small pine cut table he often used as a desk. By the candles flickering light he scrutinized the ink on the pages closely. “Dry enough I suppose” he said out loud. “Not the driest place to be anyway in the hold of a packet ship or schooner as I remember”. He cracked a wry smile. The envelope was robin’s egg blue in colour and small, about 3 ½ inches long by 2 inches wide. Willie judged its size and began to fold the pages of the letter. The blue envelope would be packet freight and make its way back home to Willie’s brother in Glasgow. A small packet, Willie thought, small enough to fit into a well dressed man’s breast pocket or the hip pocket of a fashionable waistcoat asiding a fob. As he fumbled with the fifth page to make it fit the blue envelope, Willie recalled the words he wrote to his brother this day of March, 1857.
PKT Letter, postmarked, March 23, 1857
……”Dear Brother, I have heard that the latest surveyed lands 20 or 30 miles east of my present location have yielded about 50 bushels of wheat over the season. The land is cleared quickly and the settlers there have chopped about 6 acres this past winter per claim and are busy adding more, which they wish to get done before the spring work begins. Last years chopping is all logged and burnt off except for a few scattered logs. I admit to certain privations which have left me most challenged in my current circumstance, as the land I now call home is largely unbroken forest, in the place called “Maitland Hills”, which is only now steadily being accepting of new settlers”.

In the 1850’s mail between Britain and the new world took months to reach their destinations. Letters to be dispatched across the Atlantic were termed packet letters postmarked PKT. The port of departure was often Liverpool, the port city known for its industriousness and for its transportation linkages to the new world. (today graciously remembered by references to the ‘Three Graces’ – The Cunard Building, The Royal Liver Building and the Port of Liverpool Building). After slow passage across the Atlantic the letter was carried westward to Quebec City to reach Toronto in a week or 10 days, Canada West or (South Western Ontario) later still. As mail was charged for according to weight, letters were generally written in very small script on one side of a piece of paper, which turned sideways was again written on and still further
re-orientated to allow cross-wise news to be written. This cross-wise frugality made the contents of the letter difficult to decipher at times. It was only when every possible inch of space had been written upon was the sheet considered completed and was then often folded in the shape of an envelope or inserted into a sizably small envelope. When postage was paid in advance it was noted by the Postmaster of the letter, or otherwise the recipient must pay to take possession.
In “Maitland Hills” or Mount Forest, the original post office was part of the first store which was constructed north of the South Saugeen River. The building constructed of board and frame was built on lot 26 on the south side of Main at Queen Street. The post office opened on June 1, 1853, later than Arthur, October 6, 1847, but earlier than North Arthur (Kenilworth) which opened February 6th, 1857. The Mount Forest post office was managed by the following postmasters J. McDonald 1853-1855, FH McDonald 1855-1859, Dr. Samuel Dunbar 1859-1862, Thos J. Smith 1862-1920 and Miss Mabel Church Smith 1921-1949. Local residents’ letters could be found waiting from Ireland, Scotland and England or more domestic locations such as Toronto or Syndeham. Also could be found copies of newspapers waiting to be read and further re-read before being passed along to others to enjoy. Management of the postal service was taken over by the Canadian Provisional Government in 1851. Mail reached Grey County once or sometimes twice a week. No longer relying on the trusted traveller to deliver mail along the way, now regular couriers were engaged. As roads improved and horse drawn vehicles became more abundant these mail couriers became part of a formal postal system residing in permanent structures many of which today are now heritage buildings.
Landmark heritage buildings are notable permanancies in our local communities. These heritage buildings were and still are vibrant entities within our hometowns. From the uniqueness of the local “barn in town” which finds itself now seemingly stranded, but still standing proud in a residents backyard, as the agricultural land use patterns on which it once resided have since changed to the Edwardian stone community buildings such as the local Mount Forest Post Office Building. Similar to the Carnagie Libraries, these Post Office buildings offer a wealth of history past, while at the same time, providing space for current community services. The Mount Forest Post Office can be seen as such a landmark heritage building. It has a rich history and a binding heritage as we celebrate this summer the 100th anniversary of its construction.
During the summer of 1911, the construction of the Mount Forest Post Office was underway at 102 Main Street. By September the bricks and mortar were setting and the building began serving the community in the spring of 1912 at about the same time as King Gustav V of Sweden commemorated the opening of the Games of the V Olympiad in Stockholm. Once built, the Post Office building itself stood largely unchanged for 45 years, when renovations to the structure were required due to the changing logistics of the mail delivery systems in the nineteen forties and fifties. Mail delivery prior to this change was by ‘mailcar’ brought on our many local railways. This deliver by rail was a process which had not changed since 1919 with the publication of the Canadian Railway Mail Service Departments specifications for “mailcars’. The Mount Forest Post Office remained in operation through minor renovations in 1967 and remained so until its closure and re-location a few years later. In these latter transitional years from 1974 to 1999 the building housed the Police and Municipal Council Chambers.
Since the turn of the last century, the Mount Forest Post Office on Main Street, has been home to the Mount Forest Museum and Archives which is operated by the Mount Forest Heritage Society, a charitable organization since 2004. The Mount Forest Heritage Society and the Museum is partnered with Wellington North Council, the Lions Club and Dufferin County Museum and Archives. Mount Forest Museum and Archives was established by Jean Elizabeth Weber to preserve local history, it was her ideas and concepts that led to the enthusiastic donation of artifacts (approximately 3000 artifacts and counting) and offers of charitable support. A lifetime member of the Presbyterian Church, she was also Councillor for the Town of Mount Forest and long time local librarian at MFDHS. Instrumental in organizing local events including ‘Old Home Week” in 1979 and the “Old Boys and Old Girls Re-union”, Jean was awarded Citizen of the Year in 2003. Jean Elizabeth Weber passed away at the age of 82 years in 2010. She is remembered by the foundation of the Jean Weber Reading Room in the Mount Forest Museum and Archives located in the Old Mount Forest Post Office building on Main Street. A building which is as much a part of our future as it was of our past.
James stood by the galley kitchen window of his east end tenement flat. The window looked slightly to the north. He could just make out the gently rolling crests of the lightly snow covered Campsie Fells. “Cold for September, he thought to himself”. He turned from the window and walked quietly into the lounge and faced the bay window. The big bay window of the lounge faced outward over the street and he could easily make out the activity below. He turned away from the bay window to stand by the coal fire. He reached into the breast pocket of his wool vest and pulled from it his brother’s latest letter.
PKT Letter, postmarked, September 10, 1857.
…”Dear Brother, our harvesting progress has been disappointing this year as the wet summer seemed to continue unabatted. I am told it has been by far the wettest in Canada for some time. Clearing land is far easier done in dry weather, the wood burns off so much better – we have only logged and burnt off 1 acre this summer”…