Simcoe County history

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

One of the main commercial developments during settlement in Simcoe County — or anywhere in Upper Canada in the 19th century — was the tavern and hotel.

A journey of more than 30 kilometres was rarely finished in one day — sometimes a traveller would be satisfied with travelling a third of that. (OK, “satisfied” might be the wrong word.)

“I can remember when taverns were to be found at almost every corner of the Penetanguishene Road between the town-line at the lower end of Innisfil and the north end of the township. There was one at Croxon’s Corners (Fennell’s Corners), at the town-line; one at Cherry Creek; two at Churchill, on the fourth; one at the fifth; one at the seventh; two at Stroud; one at the twelfth; and one at Painswick, on the thirteenth. These were all along the leading road in the township. Others were scattered here and there, at other corners, off the main highway,” William Allan, one of Churchill’s first residents, said in an article on early pioneers, printed in the Barrie Examiner in 1898.

Churchill was known as Bullies Acre because of the two pubs, which were often the source of hot tempered arguments. The only reason for Churchill’s existence was its location on the side of a long, steep hill and what would amount to a reasonable distance for a break coming from Barrie or Toronto. The local business, Church Hill House tavern, became a landmark. When the owner moved his business, locals kept the sign on one of their roadside properties and, eventually, Churchill stuck.

Allan said the boom in taverns led to an increased amount of drinking.

“The drinking habits of the people were in keeping with the number of taverns from which liquor was supplied. Fighting was a natural consequence of this excessive drinking. Liquor flowed with special freedom during elections, and fists and sticks formed the ultimate argument in the political controversies of the day. Nor were elections the only cause of quarrels. An incident of an international character once occurred at the old Tyrone tavern at the corner of the fifth. An American lumber firm (the Dodge) was engaged in cutting pine from our old place for the mill that was then in operation at Belle Ewart. The firm had a number of Americans in its employment and one night, a fight began at the tavern between the Americans and a number of Canadians. The former soon got the worst of it and were driven for shelter to their camp across the way. A few years ago when Wightman Goodfellow tore down the old tavern, bloodstains, resulting from this and other fighting, could still be seen on the walls.”

“Nor was the consumption of liquor confined to taverns. At almost every store a pail of liquor and a cup stood on the counter and all comers were at liberty to help themselves. No logging-bee could be fielded without an abundant supply of the same sort of refreshment, and after the bee was over, men fought or danced as fancy moved them — provided they were not by that time too drunk to do either,” said Allan.

In the same article, Barrie resident Neil McDougall said customs of the times in the 19th century encouraged a drinking disposition.

“When I was a young man,” said McDougall, “it was considered the proper thing to call one’s companions up for a drink whenever a bar was reached, and there was then a bar at almost every cross-roads. The man who did not take his liquor was looked upon as a milk-sop.”

And passing a bar wasn’t the only cause for celebration. Hard work also called for hard liquor, according to a story on pioneers in Oro Township, published in the Orillia Times.

“There was a recognized rule in connection with early drinking customs,” J.S. McDonald, of Oro Township, noted. “At loggings the rule was a gallon of whiskey for each yoke of oxen at the bee. Of course, the whiskey was not all consumed at the bee. The supply lasted until well into the night, when dancing succeeded the labours of the day. Still, with all the drinking, I do not remember seeing any one very drunk.”

Simcoe County was no more a drunken bedlam than the rest of the province. According to an article in the Liberal, a Richmond Hill newspaper featuring pioneer John Langstaff, in the 1880s there were no fewer than 58 taverns on Yonge Street, or nearly two per mile, from Toronto to Barrie. Eleven of these were inside what, in 1900, were the city limits of Toronto. Around Thornhill and Richmond Hill, the country was cluttered with drinking places, and Bond Lake, Wilcox Lake and the Pinnacle had one each. Their numbers thinned out toward Holland Landing, but at “the Landing” itself, there were three. The greatest development of the Yonge Street tavern trade occurred between 1837 and 1847. Then, with the opening of the Northern Railway and the consequent decrease in road traffic, a decline set in.

One of the best-known Yonge Street taverns from the heyday was Montgomery’s Tavern, where the famous (or infamous) battle took place during the 1837 Rebellion. After the owner, John Montgomery, was pardoned for his part in the rebellion, he established the Franklin House in Toronto and another tavern to the north, near Barrie. He died in Barrie in his 80th year.

The boom in taverns resulted in a boom in distilleries and breweries.

“While the tavern-keepers prospered the distilling interest prospered as well,” said Langstaff, “and at one time I could count the sites of no fewer than nine distilleries between Toronto and Richmond Hill. A distillery was not a very elaborate affair in those days — a roof, a few round logs, and some tubs being about all that was called for in the way of equipment. The most important consideration was a good spring, and a farm that had such was considered a favourable site for a distillery.”

A story on county pioneers in the Barrie Examiner in 1901 noted taverns weren’t the only places for relaxing and having a good time, and alcohol wasn’t always fuel for fun. These pioneers, descendants of Oro pioneers, had settled around 1868 in the area of unbroken bush adjacent to where the Nottawasaga River enters Georgian Bay — among them, the Langmans, Cottons, Andersons, Lockes, Hunters and Camerons. The area would become Crosslands.

“The first threshing-machine in the section was owned by a man named Richard Whittaker, and four oxen provided the power for operating it. When anyone wanted the machine he had to haul it to his own place. Almost every night, after working in the field all day, John, a neighbour, and his men came over to my place for a stag dance in the evening. With an old violin I furnished music for the others. One night, when John was putting in a few extra touches on the dance, there was a sudden crash and the fancy stepper shot through a hole in the floor into the cellar. He had stepped on a knot that extended almost all the way across one board in the floor and this gave way under his weight. But, bless you, that did not stop the dance. With a yell, John jumped out of the cellar and in a moment was at it again, harder than ever.

“No whiskey was ever seen at raising or bee in this section. Twelve years before we came here a temperance lodge had been formed at Colin Gilchrist’s home in Oro. My brother, sister, myself, and others joined that lodge, and we brought our principles with us. To that fact is largely due the prosperity of the settlement.”

There were many similarly dry communities across the county, but they were in the minority. Travel across the roads of the early settlements was slow, dirty, rough and hard. A beer or a whiskey was popular not just for the alcohol, but because the water wasn’t always the safest to drink. Couple that with the rough-and-tumble type it took to start a homestead and it’s not hard to see how taverns in the county were an early business success story.

Tom Villemaire is a former editor of papers in Simcoe County, including the Orillia Packet & Times, Midland Free Press, Barrie Examiner, Innisfil Examiner and Enterprise-Bulletin, and is the author of two history books. He now runs, podcasts and can be reached at