The Fair Valley Cemetery©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko
It was June 1919 in Winnipeg, scene of the largest and bloodiest labour strike in Canadian history. Over 30,000 strikers took part in the six-week long general strike that had started in May and effectively shut down the entire city. Amidst the fires, riots, rock and bottle throwing, funeral preparations for the largest funeral ever seen in Western Canada were taking place. For one day, rioters and police set aside their differences to pay their last respects to the most famous cop this country has ever known, Superintendent, Samuel Benfield Steele, of the Northwest Mounted Police.
Sam Steele, the eldest son of Elmes Steele's second marriage, was born in his parent's home, known as Purbrook. His date of birth has been variously given as ranging from 1847 to 1851, 1848 being considered the most accurate. He spent his childhood at the family home, in what later became the tiny hamlet of Fair Valley. His father, Elmes Steele, came from a military background and Sam followed in his footsteps. Although orphaned while in his teens, Sam was educated at Toronto's Royal Military Academy, and served in various military postings before joining the Northwest Mounted Police in 1873. As a federal police officer, he travelled far and wide and was directly involved in almost all the major events of the time, including the rebellion of 1885, the driving of the last spike and the Kootenay Gold Rush. In 1900 he left for South Africa, where he was responsible for training a group of mounted horsemen known as the Strathcona Horse, following the outbreak of the Boer War. After the war he left for England where he was knighted shortly before his death.
Sam's father, Elmes Yelverton Steele, was a British military officer who arrived in Canada in 1832. Elmes came from a professional and military background and had served over 30 years in the Royal Navy in England. At the age of 51, Captain Steele accepted a 1000-acre land grant for his years of service and set off for Canada with his 15-year old son John, to begin the task of building a new home. His journey was anything but uneventful. The ship in which he was travelling became trapped in ice and was reportedly on the verge of sinking. Captain Steele took over command from the master and reportedly saved the ship. His wife, Elizabeth Coucher, along with the remainder of the family, joined him the following year.
The Steele home was some 80 feet long and overlooked a stream. It was said to be beautifully paneled and contained large French windows and four fireplaces. Elmes named the house Purbrook, after his wife's birthplace. His next task was to donate a parcel of land for a parish church and cemetery. In those early days, Rev. A. Elliott, a travelling missionary, conducted services in the Steele home. Mrs. Steele helped out by teaching Sunday school.
Once the Steele family was comfortably settled, Steele became active in public affairs. In addition to acting as magistrate, he recommended the building of the Trent Valley Canal, advocated for improved roads and bridges, and helped restore pensions to British veterans who had been put under pressure to give them up after moving to Canada. In 1841 he ran for public office in the first parliament of the United Provinces. There was only one polling office, located in Barrie. Voting was open and took place over the course of one week. By all accounts, the election quickly degenerated into a loud, raucous, week long, alcoholic binge. Without funding from established political parties, candidates had to fend for themselves to cover the costs of the campaign and election. Although Elmes won the election, he was ruined financially as a result. He reportedly did very good work for the riding but when his term was over in 1844, he left politics, never to return.
Elizabeth Steele died in 1846. A year or so after Elizabeth's death, Elmes married Anne MacDonald, who came from a military family in Scotland. Together they settled in Purbrook., where they had six children, the oldest one being Sam Steele. Anne died in 1859. Captain Elmes Steele died in 1865 at the age 84, leaving his six young children orphaned.
Elmes' son John, who had travelled to Canada with him in 1832, settled near Purbrook in 1847. By the early 1850s, he had packed his bags and moved to the township of Oro, where he purchased a farm on the east half of Lot 16, Concession 6. Like his father, John Steele also became active in the public service and served as reeve of Oro Township from 1859 - 1876. He also served as warden for Simcoe County in 1875. In addition to his public duties, John operated a small postal hamlet known as Steele for over 20 years. The hamlet of Steele managed to support a sawmill and a few other businesses for a while, but unfortunately nothing remains. Well regarded and highly respected, John passed away in 1909 at the ripe old age of 92.
Although the community of Fair Valley was informally known as Purbrook after the Steele home, it took the name of Fair Valley after the post office opened in 1880. Presumably this was to avoid confusion with another Purbrook in the Parry Sound region that acquired a post office the following year.
Fair Valley was essentially a small rural and farming community. By the mid 1880s, it had a population of about 50. William Wilson served as Justice of Peace and R. C. Hipwell operated the general store. James Robinson, a farmer and pork dealer, was also the postmaster. Mail was picked up and dispatched daily. St. George's Anglican Church was finally built in 1884 on the land donated by Elmes Steele. A school was added in the 1890s.
During the 20th century, Fair Valley gradually went the way of most small farming hamlets. Sam Steele had hoped to buy back the old home at Purbrook but died before he was able to do so. The home was demolished some time after that. The fireplace was saved and forms part of a small memorial cairn and sitting area that contains a reproduction of a sketch of the Steele home. The sketch was done by 13-year old Eleanora Hallen, daughter of the Rev. George Hallen, the first rector of St. George's Church. Eleanora died in 1846 at the tender age of 23 and is buried in St. George's cemetery.
Fair Valley contains a number of historical plaques and stones dedicated to memory of Elmes, John and Sam Steele, three larger-than-life men, whose work and efforts immeasurably changed this country. St. George's Anglican Church, also known as the Fair Valley Church, continues to function and hold regular services. The cemetery on the east side of the church contains the graves of Elmes Steele, his two wives, Elizabeth and Anne, along with a number of other members of the Steele family. Sam is buried in St. John's Cemetery in Winnipeg. The area continues to be used for farming and a bed and breakfast operates out of one of the farmhouses.