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Ballycroy

History

Town site photo

The general store

©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko

Ballycroy got its start in the 1820s with the arrival of a large group of settlers from Ireland. One of these new arrivals was an enterprising young man named William Beatty. Impressed with the waterpower on the Humber River, and encouraged by the government's willingness to fund construction of a millpond, he decided to open chopping mill. The Beatty mill turned out to be a big success and shortly thereafter William's two brothers, Samuel and Henry, arrived to join him in the business.

Over time the Beatty brothers expanded their mills into a busy and prosperous operation. Upon completion, they owned a sawmill, shingle factory and, reportedly, a flour mill. Although the original mill burnt down in 1850, it was rebuilt in 1861 and, ironically, became a supplier to the Hamilton & North Western Railway (H & NW later CN), the railway that bypassed Ballycroy in favour of Palgrave. The mills operated until well into the 1930s.

Following the success of the mills, other businesses began to move in and by the early 1870s Ballycroy was a booming, if somewhat alcoholic, community of around 200 residents. Its offerings included two general stores, a law office, a millinery shop, post office, doctor, veterinarian, two churches and blacksmith.

Another of Ballycroy's early settlers was Daniel Small. Small first arrived in Ballycroy around 1828, where he built a home to raise his young family. His son Peter, born in 1835, figured prominently in Ballycroy's history until he left in the 1870s, following a series of tragic and unexplained incidents. Another son Patrick became active in township affairs and served as a member of the district council. Daniel Small remained in Ballycroy until his death in 1890.

In addition to usual small town merchants and tradespeople, Ballycroy was also home to four tavern/hotels and a liquor store. This did seem rather excessive, considering there were only 11 taverns and two liquor stores in the entire township. Ballycroy was also a busy stopping place of sorts and it's possible that many of these taverns doubled as inns.

An Episcopal Methodist church was constructed during the early 1840s. It didn't last long. In 1846 it was converted to an Orange Lodge, known as Silver Creek, which was anything but a big hit in this predominantly Irish Catholic community. The Orange Lodge quickly degenerated into a catalyst for a legendary series of brawls, some of which were said to last for days, undoubtedly fuelled by business at the taverns.

The Fehely Hotel/bar was the most notorious of the four hotels. Alternately run by brothers John and Thomas Fehely, both staunch Catholics, it was more of a flop house than a than a hotel. The second floor consisted of one long room where patrons, after passing out in the bar below, could sleep off the mind-numbing effects of Fehely's hooch. Typical of construction during the period, the building had no foundation and was insulated with wood shavings.

The freezing cold winter temperatures and almost total lack of insulation might, to some degree, explain the excessive inebriation of Fehely's clientel. The Fehelys and their patrons would lie in wait on the nights when the Orange Lodge meetings took place. The Orangemen would meet at McClelland's store across the street and depart in a group. Any stragglers walking past Fehely's bar alone were left to fend for themselves in less than tranquil company.

Peter Small set up Ballycroy's first post office in 1856 at the age of 21. In 1862, local merchant John McClelland took over the post office when Small expanded into other areas of business and politics. Small appears to have been a very astute businessman who was slowly building a little empire in Ballycroy. By the early 1870's he owned a hotel, a millinery shop, general store and a small racetrack. From 1867 to 1875 he served as reeve of Adjala. Following McClelland's death in 1872, Small once again served as postmaster, this time until 1876.

Small's hotel eventually grew to become the toast of the town. Renowned for its excellent food and fine liquor, His famous 'January Ball' annually attracted visitors from as far away as Toronto. The racetrack operated quarterly on the first Tuesday of January, April, July and October and included betting, trading and sales.

Tragedy struck on April 29, 1875, when Small's hotel caught on fire and burned to the ground. Small, who along with his family, was living in the hotel at the time, managed to toss his wife and seven children out the window, thereby ensuring their survival. Small's three milliners, Bridget Burke, Mary Ann Fanning and Margaret Daley, who also lived in the hotel, were not so lucky. The three young women were trapped in the flames and all lost their lives. Arson was suspected, particularly when it was revealed that Small held a total of $21,000 in mortgages on the hotel, a veritable fortune in the days when the average rural dwelling cost about $1000. Whether it was arson due to Small's political and business dealings or simply a case of sheer bad luck will never be known.

There's a certain amount of credence to the arson theory when two months later, in what could best be described as an eerie coincidence, the outbuilding in which Small and his family were living after the hotel fire also went up in flames. Again, everyone managed to escape although many of their possessions were lost. The Small family remained in Ballycroy until 1879 and then packed their bags for good and moved to Toronto. For a time Small operated Small's Hotel in Toronto and later went on to become a Divisional Court bailiff. The loss of Small's business empire was a huge financial setback to the community as a whole.

The Ryan and Richard Beamish hotels were far more sedate. The Adjala Council, which did not have a permanent meeting hall, would meet regularly at Beamish's hotel. In 1878, following an incendiary fire that was quickly extinguished, Richard Beamish panicked and sold the business to Thomas Bird. Bird remodelled the hotel and began promoting the business to commercial travellers. Ryan's hotel also changed hands and was sold to James Gormican. William Cook, a tailor who had been doing business in parts unknown, returned to Ballycroy, set up shop in the old millinery and began offering made to order suits in the latest 'New York Fashions'.

Far more successful than the unlucky Peter Small was John McClelland who operated the general store across from Small's hotel. Although McClelland was a devout Protestant living in the heart of an Irish Catholic stronghold, he seemed to get along well with everyone and ran a successful business. His large home, which was attached to the store, also doubled as a hotel. A meeting hall, located on the second storey above the store, was used for a variety of social functions. John was only 50 when he died, leaving his young wife to run the business and raise their two sons.

McClelland's oldest son, Robert, eventually took over the store and took in a partner, I.E. Cobean. McClelland and Cobean operated on the 'cash system', offering a discount of 10% to all individuals paying cash on sales over $3. This was a novel approach in the days when many businesses functioned on the barter system and it seems to have worked. The partners were able to offer higher prices to the local farmers as well as expand their business and open a second, identical store in nearby Palgrave. McClelland moved to Palgrave to run the new store and Cobean remained in Ballycroy. The Ballycroy store was later sold to the Hamilton family who continued to run it for many years.

The 1875 fire that had destroyed Small's hotel and a number of other buildings took much of the heart out of Ballycroy. In 1877 the H. & N.W. Railway chose Palgrave over Ballycroy thereby forcing many of Ballycroy's businesses to relocate. The temperance movement, that took hold in the late 19th century, finished most of the hotel business. The final blow came when the roads were realigned, bypassing Ballycroy completely. The Orange Hall was declared dormant in 1943 and the post office closed in 1951.

A handful of residents continue to live in Ballycroy. The once bustling community has been reduced to a narrow, winding laneway lined with several tastefully restored Victorian homes. A walk up Ballycroy's main road is much like taking a walk back to an earlier piece of time. It's quite remarkable that such a quiet, serene place could continue to exist just a stone's throw from a major metropolitan city.

Many thanks to the Ballcroy Area Rural Conservation Alliance (BARCA) for the additional background information.