Old saw from the mill©Copyright: Edgar Pommainville
During the 1870's and 1880's numerous French Canadians left the crowded province of Quebec to find new grounds in Prescott and Russell Counties. By the late 1880s the villages of Casselman and Limoges were established. In between them another small settlement was beginning to take form as well. It became known as Gagnon.
In 1889 two men, Morris Shaver and Peter Kelty, each established sawmills within sight of one another. Shaver also built a hotel on the same land, located alongside the 3rd concession line.
The sawmills became prosperous and were dispatching the wood products to the large centres by means of the railway passing between both of them nearby Gagnon's main intersection, the 3rd concession line, and the Gagnon Side road. The sawmills took advantage of the Canada Atlantic Railway (CAR later CN) which had been built in 1882. The large quantity of wood being put on freight floats soon necessitated the building of a loading ramp named McCauley Siding. A few years later, the railroad set a flagpole from which the train, without stopping, was picking the hooked outgoing mailbag. With the incoming and outgoing mail and the establishment of a post oOffice, the place became known as Gagnon, in the name of the first postmaster.
The residents of Gagnon applied for and received the rights to form their school board and erect a schoolhouse. In 1893 the Roman Catholic Separate School Board No. 4 was established for the education of the children of the typically large French Canadian families. The school, which at times contained up to 60 pupils per year, remained operational until its closure in 1965, after which time children were bused to the village of Limoges.
In 1903 Calixte Chevigny established the village's first general store, situated right at the crossing. In 1906 a post office was opened in the store with Odilon Gagnon serving as postmaster until 1921. Arthur Charbonneau established a butcher shop in 1909 that was well patronized by local residents.
Then, the mills began to falter, for want of lumber mainly due to the great fire of 1897 that devastated all of the wooded area. The two mills and the hotel closed one after the other. The land where Peter Kelty's mill rested was sold in 1914 while Shaver's land accommodating the hotel and the mill was sold in 1920. Both men had passed away by that time.
Although lumbering came to an end, the French Canadians were no longer dependant on the lumber trades, having established prosperous farms. The area along with most of Prescott and Russell became well established in dairy production. In 1922, Remi Huneault built a cheese factory situated between the school and the general store and Moïse Laflèche became the owner in 1928. The enterprise, while well serving local farmers, encountered financial difficulties caused by the Great Depression. It was eventually taken over by the creditor, a family of cheese makers known as V. Dionne & Fils (& Sons) who continued to operate it until 1948 when it was sold to local shareholders. The cheese was sold locally and the excess exported to larger cities. During the war, part of it was requisitioned for the allied soldiers abroad.
The general store also changed ownership over the years. In 1921 it was sold to Emile Millette and then to Alex Pommainville in 1923. Fire destroyed the building in the spring of 1928. Simeon Gagnon re-established the business in his nearby homestead, along with the postmaster's wicket. The store didn't last very long and closed in 1931 because of another fire.
Gagnon's industrial decline was prolonged, rather than sudden. Although the 1920's to 1960's were prosperous years for Gagnon, they were based mainly on agriculture. When the Great Depression hit in the 1930's, some gave up farming and left the area entirely. Many of the remaining farmers purchased the abandoned farms to enlarge their own plots and some of the less fertile farmlands were sold to the newly formed Larose Forest. A period of rural depopulation followed until a new country style period attracted residents that decided to establish themselves on smaller lots. Over time fields grew over and today young wooded lots are creeping around where industrial Gagnon used to sit and where numerous homesteads stood scattered about nearby the crossing.
Today many newer homes have been built further east and west of the center of the village of Gagnon. The intersection at the crossing has since been realigned. Pommainville Road, which used to be over a mile long, was cut in half when Highway 417 was built and is now a 500 ft long grass laneway ending in a young forest. The once prosperous Gagnon was annexed to Limoges within the municipality of Cambridge, and now the new amalgamated Nation municipality that encompasses a large area of Eastern Ontario.
Gagnon faded away with the closing in succession of the mills, the butcher shop, the hotel, the general store, the post office, the cheese factory and the school. The area is today populated with over 100 houses built along Route 300 crossing Gagnon, a number of small businesses and farmland. In 2002, former residents erected an historic site on the land of the then general store. It honours the remembrance of this Gagnon Village that generated so much employment and economic growth in the early twentieth century. From exit 79 of highway 417, visitors are to go north some 500 hundred feet before turning east and some three kilometres on Route 300. After the historic site was erected, former residents began holding an annual picnic on the second Sunday of every June. In 2004, under the leadership of Denis Gagnon, 37 former residents contributed to the publishing of a 200 page book authoring some 90 anecdotes and life episodes at Gagnon.
Although the official name vanished, the heart of the community remains. A new era for Gagnon is now emerging.
Many thanks to Edgar Pommainville and Denis Gagnon for providing the photographs and additional information on Gagnon.