The Speedside United Church©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko
The end of the Napoleonic wars brought a huge influx of Scottish settlers to North American soils. Scotland had been hit very hard and many felt they could improve their lot by immigrating to North America.
The Armstrong family left Scotland in 1819, settling first in Ovid, New York. In 1822, brothers Thomas and William (Srs.) packed their bags and headed northward to Eramosa Township. They were soon followed by a third brother, George Sr., who along with his wife Jane Smith and their young family, settled on lands located on the second line and began farming. As the families matured, their sons became active in politics and township affairs.
Thomas' son, William S., inadvertently became involved in politics at a very early stage. In 1837, at the tender age of 20, he and six other prominent residents of Eramosa township, were accused of being collaborators in the 1837 Mackenzie rebellion. The other so-called 'conspirators' included James Benham, a township official and father of local councillor J.W. Benham, James Peters, a township clerk, James Parkinson, son of a local Justice of Peace and township treasurer and John Butchard, who later served as a township commissioner. All were accused of trying to blow up the nearby town of Guelph.
The charges were worded as follows: "That not having the fear of God in their hearts, but being moved and induced by the instigation of the Devil, they did traitorously compass, imagine and intend to bring and put our said lady the Queen to death; and that they did, as false traitors, endeavour to induce and persuade, with force and arms, other subject to levy war against our Sovereign Lady the Queen; that they did meet on the 8th day of December, 1837, in the Township of Eramosa, District of Gore, and with other false traitors, did conspire, consult and agree among themselves, unlawfully and wickedly, to fulfil and bring to effect their said traitorous compassing, imaginings and intentions."
While laughable by today's standards, this was very serious stuff. The men had essentially been charged with treason and if found guilty, the penalty was death by hanging. The seven men, whose ages ranged from 20 to 49, were jailed for six weeks, in an unheated building, under conditions that were described as "truly appalling." They each threw $10.00 into a hat to cover the $70.00 cost of hiring a lawyer for their defence. The trial began on March 8th, 1838 and luckily all the men were found not guilty. William's subsequent forays into politics were of a decidedly more conservative nature. From 1843 - 1846, he served as District Council representative, following Thomas Armstrong, who served as the first District Council representative in 1842.
In 1845, both John S. (George's son) and George Armstrong helped with the formation and construction of the Speedside Church, a Congregational Church, that joined with the United Church in 1925. John, who also sat on the building committee, donated an acre of cleared land on the corner of lot 26 for the church, the pastor's house and a barn. The handsome limestone building was opened around 1850, with Rev. R. J. Williams serving as the first pastor. Later improvements included a new chapel in 1859, a church shed in 1869 and a new parsonage in 1873. The construction debts were completely settled in 1868 from a legacy left by Mrs. William Armstrong. A Presbyterian church, (later the First United Church), and now known as the Barrie Hill United Church, was built around the same period, a little further south, on Lot 21.
In 1856, John, and his wife Mary Scott, began construction of a new dam and mill. The project was a tough one. On more than one occasion, they were washed out and close to financial ruin. Doggedly they kept at it until the mill was finally completed. Their efforts were well worth the sweat and labour. The mill was regarded as first class and became an instant success. A tiny community, known as Unionville, grew up around the mill. An inn was built across the road from the mill so farmers would have a place to stay while awaiting milling of their flour or feed.
In 1863, George Armstrong was instrumental in bringing about the construction of the area's first schoolhouse. S.S. #4 Eramosa was located on Concession 1, across the road from the Speedside Church. Originally known as S.S.#3, the school was renamed following reorganization of the school sections. S. S. #3 was located nearby, on Concession 2, Lot 20.
In 1876, 20 years after the mill was opened, John's son, Robert, established a post office and renamed the small hamlet Armstrong Mills, in honour of his father whose memory was still highly regarded in the region. John's nephews, Thomas and Edward, looked after the mill and two other nephews, Charles and Edward, served as postmasters from 1903 to 1909, even though the Armstrongs sold the mill in 1903. The post office lasted until the arrival of rural mail delivery in 1913.
The mill went through various changes of ownership over the years. In 1931 then owner George Parkinson removed the top 1 1/2 stories due to structural damage from the ongoing vibrations of machinery and equipment. A dam burst in 1950 finally put an end to all milling operations.
In the late 1960s the derelict mill was purchased by a young, and relatively unknown artist named Ken Danby. Danby, later renowned for his iconic realistic paintings of landscapes and sports figures, almost certainly saved the mill from the impending crash of the wrecker's ball. He then embarked on a lifelong project of restoring the mill, featuring the building and landscape in many of his paintings and illustrations. Following his death in 2007, the property was put up for sale.
In addition to the mill, other early vestiges include the school, now in use as a private residence, and the Speedside United Church, which continues to serve local residents.