Party Like It’s 1867
By Kate Butler
Published July 4, 2017
150 years ago this week, our community would have been abuzz – our country had just marked Confederation!
Though the idea of Confederation had been floated as early as the 1830s, the Charlottetown Conference of 1864 had brought it to the forefront of everyone’s mind, as people began to realize it might actually become a reality.
For residents of Haliburton County, there must have been a great sense of the unknown. Canada was preparing to become a bit more independent from Britain, the nation which for many was still seen as home.
It had, of course, already been a year of excitement in Dysart with the incorporation of the Municipality and the first council meeting being held on Jan. 7. As we mark our community’s sesquicentennial this year, it’s interesting to contemplate what that first meeting would have looked like.
We know that four councillors and a reeve sat around a table that day at the Haliburton schoolhouse which sat up on a hill above St. George’s Anglican Church. These men had to begin with passing the most fundamental of the municipality’s bylaws – Bylaw No. 1 was actually to simply establish that there would be a council at all! From there, the council had to start thinking about budgets. Their first budget included $506.10 for municipal purposes and $215 for local schools.
The first reeve of the municipality was John Lucas who had arrived in the community with his wife Eliza amongst the first settlers in 1864. They had quickly become prominent members of the community. During his time as a sea captain Lucas had travelled widely and had even taken part in the California and Australia gold rushes. Upon arriving in Haliburton, Lucas quickly became a partner in the first sawmill in the area, while his wife Eliza was well known for her practical skills as a nurse.
Though the Lucas family remained prominent in Haliburton for generations, sitting at the helm of the Grand Central Hotel, the captain’s political career was short-lived. In 1868, Alexander MacDonald became reeve of Dysart, a position he would hold through three consecutive elections. MacDonald was known as an astute politician who cared deeply about the community. He was one of the leading voices in trying to bring the railway to Haliburton in the early days of talk about the matter, when it was thought that it might come here by way of Peterborough, rather than Lindsay.
The first clerk of Dysart, J.R. Erskine, was paid a salary of $40 per year. Erskine had for many years been a blacksmith and the sound of the hammer and anvil from his shop was said to be heard all around the village. Erskine later became a councillor and in the early 20th century was actually reeve for three years. Interestingly, later in life, Erskine married Eliza Lucas, the widow of the first reeve of the municipality.
These gentlemen who helped to lay the groundwork for our community were of course building on the work of the Canadian Land and Emigration Company which lured settlers here from both England and other parts of North America. Sometimes people think that the company deceived the early settlers by saying that the land was suitable for farming when really it wasn’t. The reality was that they had received a range of reports from surveyors and they also offered amenities that settlers in other areas hadn’t been guaranteed, such as the establishment or a church, a post office and a mill.
That said, there was still much to be done in the early days of Dysart. Councillors spent much time discussing roads, as the first roads into Haliburton Village had only been constructed two years prior. Other topics would have included business, the establishment and growth of local institutions and the needs of local community members.
Looking back, it’s astonishing to think how far this community has come in a mere century and a half. It’s vital to remember and celebrate the contributions of our early settlers and what better way to do that than with a party! Many of you joined us for the celebrations on Jan. 7 to mark the actual date of the sesquicentennial, but on July 7, 8 and 9 we’ll be celebrating again in Head Lake Park, because, really, who doesn’t enjoy a summer party in beautiful Haliburton County?