Side entrance to the Community Hall©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko
At one time it was easy to find Burnley. All you had to do was turn on to Community Hall Drive and follow the wonderfully weathered wooden sign that signalled your arrival. That sign, along with all other vestiges of Burnley, have slowly trickled away over the last 10 years, as Burnley gradually fades into memory.
Burnley was a small milling town that got its start during the 1850s following the arrival of a wealthy Englishman named Richard H. Grimshaw. With an ample supply of waterpower from the nearby Burnley Creek, Grimshaw lost no time in establishing a small milling community consisting of saw, grist and shingle mills, asheries, a store and tavern. In 1860, after another settler named R.R. Pringle subdivided his property into lots creating a town plan, the settlement acquired a name of sorts - Grimshawe Mills. The community officially became known as Burnley in 1864 after Grimshaw opened the post office.
By 1871 the mills were flourishing and Burnley was booming. Burnley saw its best days ever as the population jumped from a few dozen to around 250. The mills, which at the time were operated by Doyle & Hutchinson, Willett Platt and John Staples offered more than enough work to keep five sawyers, eight carpenters and a cabinetmaker busy from morning to nightfall. In the evening the workers could quench their thirst at one of the two taverns, owned by Frederick Hutchinson and Robert Hill. The village also boasted three blacksmiths, a wagon maker, and a watchmaker, Francis Pyman. In 1871 William Lawler took over the store, ashery and post office. Lawler remained a mainstay of the community for many years.
Burnley was a bit of an anomaly, being a staunchly Catholic community in the midst of a Protestant stronghold. Grimshaw, himself a Roman Catholic, had gone to considerable effort to attract other Roman Catholics, mainly Irish, to the community. Eventually a new brick church was built in 1882 on land deeded to the Catholic Church by James Grosjean, who owned land just east of the village on Concession 9. A rectory was added in 1887, the same year Burnley officially became a parish. Father James Sweeney served as the first pastor and remained there for a number of years. One important addition was the construction of a new separate school, taught by nuns.
By the 1880s the mills were still going strong, however things had cooled down considerably. Records show Burnley's population dropped to about 83. The population wavered between 50 and 100 for the remainder of the century. George Clark, who lived on Lot 6 directly west of the village, owned a flour mill. Just south of the village on Concession 8, J. Thurston operated a steam saw. One of the busiest mills in the area was owned by E.P. Macklin. The Macklin sawmill was located six lots west of the village, on Burnley Creek between Concessions 8 and 9. The Deviney's, who owned property adjacent to the Macklins, reportedly operated a mill during the latter part of the century.
The 1880s also saw the opening of Alexander McDonald's new cheese factory. John Donohue, who arrived in Burnley around 1873, owned the hotel and tavern. Other residents included Patrick Donohue, a wagon maker, Edward Farlow, a blacksmith and a shoemaker named Peter Gerald. Mail was now being delivered daily by stage to William Lawler's store.
William Lawler's store remained the heartbeat of the community. The store was described as being long and narrow with a large potbellied store and benches. The post office wicket was at the back. In addition to selling groceries and providing telephone service, Lawler also sold farm supplies and equipment. The store was much more than a place where locals could pick up their groceries and mail. As in most small towns, it was also a gathering place where people could relax on the benches near the old stove and share stories with their neighbours. William Lawler operated the store and served as postmaster until his death in 1913. Later owners and postmasters included Rose Annie Lawler (later Roddy), Patrick Smith, John Noonan and George Tucker. For a while the store sold gasoline from a large cylindrical hand pump near the northeast corner of the building.
Burnley began to decline during the early part of the 20th century, largely due to agricultural changes in the surrounding area. The separate school closed around 1908 and was amalgamated with the public school, S.S. #21. Materials from the old school were later used in 1917 to construct a church shed, capable of holding 20 teams. Although church membership was on the decline, the church nevertheless constructed a new parish hall in 1921, known as St. Peter's Hall. The hall was used for entertainment and a variety of church activities. A community hall was built in 1920.
Burnley's slow descent continued over the next few decades. Following E.P. Macklin's death, the mill passed on his daughter Elma Slade. The mill continued to operate for many years. Elma and her husband Fred even added a grist mill in 1927 but in 1940 the entire operation was shut down and sold to Fred Ferguson. The mill was rebuilt and reopened in 1951. One of the few bright spots was the ongoing success of the cheese factory. The old factory was replaced with a new plant in 1939, described as one of the most modern in Ontario, with output of up to 23 100-pound cylinders per day. The old factory building was sold and converted into a dwelling.
Unfortunately, despite a couple of positive signs, nothing could change Burnley's obvious signs of stagnation and abandonment. By 1940 there were a mere nine buildings left in the hamlet. The community hall was shut down and sold. The post office continued to operate until 1946 and the church held its last services in 1948. The church building and rectory were demolished in 1953 and the headstones from the cemetery relocated to Warkworth.
By the 1960s, the end was clearly in sight. The store closed in the 1960s. The school lasted until 1967. The store remained standing until 1980 when it was consumed by fire. Burnley's last two vestiges of existence, the wooden road sign and the old community hall, located on Community Hall Drive, barely made it to the 21st century.
Peering through the windows of the former community hall, it was easy to picture times past when a community meeting or social event might have had the hall hopping. By the late 1990s, like Burnley itself, the hall was a shell of what it once was, having been reclaimed by tall grasses and encroaching trees. The hall was finally demolished in 2002. The wooden road sign was removed shortly after. Even 'Community Hall Drive', didn't survive the carnage. The road was renamed after the building came down. Today all that survives of old Burnley is the former cheese factory, which is still used as a private home.