The Gillies Hill schoolhouse©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko
In the early 1850's, large groups of Scottish settlers began arriving to farm the lushly fertile soils of Bruce County. One of those settlers was a young man in his early 20s named John Gillies, who originated from Kilcalomnell, Argyllshire in Scotland. Gillies, along with two of his brothers, arrived in 1852 and took up lands in Elderslie Township. Within a short period of time, Gillies had cleared his land and established a farm. The remaining members of the Gillies family followed him to Canada three years later.
John Gillies was young and energetic. As one of Elderslie's earliest settlers, he immediately began to leave his mark on the new township. On January 1, 1856, the townships of Arran and Elderslie were officially divided into two separate municipalities. A municipal election, held at Rowe's tavern in Paisley, saw George Williscroft elected as a councillor and Samuel Rowe as the first reeve. John Gillies followed him into office in 1857, serving as reeve while he was still in his twenties, and holding that post until 1873.
Gillies also served as county warden during the years 1863, 1869 and 1870 to 72. In 1872 he was elected as a Liberal M.P. in the North Riding of Bruce and was re-elected by acclamation in 1874. Gillies remained a federal politician until his defeat in 1882. In 1883 he was elected to the provincial legislature, where he remained until 1887. He passed away in December, 1889.
While John Gillies was busy building his political career, a small crossroads hamlet that was to bear his name, began to spring up around the Gillies property.
The first Gillies Hill school, S.S. No.5, was opened in 1857, with Donald Gillies as the first teacher. The original schoolhouse was the usual log building that lasted until 1875. It was then replaced by a frame structure, built at a cost of $735. The little frame schoolhouse saw many improvements over the years. A porch was added in 1888 and in 1910 it was covered with attractive white brick siding.
One pressing matter on the Township Council's agenda was a permanent town hall. The council needed an official home where they could hold meetings and store township papers. In 1873, Gillies Hill was chosen, likely because it was located right in the centre of the township. The new hall was of frame construction and covered in unpainted board and batten. The building faced east and measured 16.5 X 9 metres and 4.5 metres high. The entranceway had two sets of double doors leading into a lobby with two rooms on each side. Heating was provided by a box stove. The Presbyterian congregation used the hall for church services for a number of years and enlarged the drive shed several years later.
The new town hall was opened in 1874, the same year William Stevens opened the post office, which was housed in his small log general store. It also served residents of nearby Cantire, who had no post office of their own, and Carnegie, after their post office closed. Other businesses in Gillies Hill included a blacksmith shop, operated by the McCalders. A cheese factory, and later a creamery, was located on John Blackburn's farm from about 1903 to 1915.
Duncan Marshall was another future politician who began his career at Gillies Hill. A one-time pupil of the school, he returned in 1889 at the age of 17 - this time as a teacher. By 1891 he was working as a county organizer for the Patrons of Industry, one of several farm-based groups that took hold during the latter part of the 19th century. These organizations, fraternal in nature, were founded on the premise that farmers could secure better prices and reach wider markets by buying and selling in bulk under one banner. The Patrons of Industry was more political than most and it was through this work that Marshall presumably got his first taste of politics. Marshall's work with the Patrons took him up to Eastnor Township, where he helped establish the Ferndale Association, which frequently sent delegates to Spry.
Marshall moved on to a career in the newspaper business as both an editor and publisher. Then he moved to Edmonton where he continued his newspaper work until 1909 when he was elected to the Alberta Legislature as a Liberal. He remained active as a farmer in the town of Olds and built a reputation as a superb breeder of shorthorn cattle. Concurrently he served as Minister of Agriculture for 12 years before returning to Ontario, where he was appointed as Commissioner of Agriculture for the Federal Government.
Marshall published a number of authoritative texts on shorthorn cattle breeding in Canada, which led to an honorary Doctorate of Agriculture from the Iowa State College. He re-entered provincial politics, this time in Ontario, and once again took up his old post as Minister of Agriculture for another three years. In 1938 he was appointed to the Senate, where he remained until his death in 1946. Even in his later years, he was highly regarded by the agricultural community.
The Presbyterian congregation was first formed in 1891. Services were held in the town hall until 1909 when a handsome red brick church was built directly across the road at the site of the old store. The store was winched northward and converted to a dwelling. Built at a cost of $2000, the interior had golden oak wainscoting and scroll work along the borders of the plastered walls. Heating was provided from a furnace that was installed in a partial basement. Sunday school classes were started in 1912. The drive shed that had been constructed behind the town hall a number of years earlier, continued to be shared with the town hall. The church saw a number of improvements over the years that included a new organ in 1920 and a complete redecoration in 1922. The church was part of a three-point mission charge along with Salem and Dobbinton.
By 1898 Duncan Graham had taken over as both the storekeeper and postmaster. It appears the Graham store was located in a house just north of the school. Robert Tully, who looked after the post office while Graham was absent, took over as postmaster in 1907. The post office was moved to his new home in 1907 but was closed in 1908 with the arrival of rural mail delivery. The timing couldn't have been better as the Gillies Hill Telephone Company was formed that very same year. Samuel Kerr Ewart, from nearby Carnegie, was president from 1908 to 1943. The company eventually obtained a charter in 1924 and remained in operation until 1965, when it was taken over by Bell Canada, who introduced dial service.
Gillies Hill was home to a number of popular annual events such as the church garden party and the annual school fair. The garden parties, which were typically held by most rural congregations during the summer, were large pot luck community dinners. Each family brought a contribution of food and paid a small admission fee, with the proceeds going back to church after all the expenses were covered. The church garden parties and fowl suppers in Gillies Hill were famous throughout the township.
The rural school fairs were a much bigger event that began in 1913 and were held annually until 1939. The Elderslie Township fair was always held at the Gillies Hill school. A great deal of planning went into this event. Each school in the township was given a small plot of land and a selection of seeds. The principle behind the school fairs was to teach and promote good agricultural practises. Experimentation and creativity were encouraged. Each school was judged on their banner, costumes, marching and overall presentation. The students' produce and flowers were displayed and judged in the town hall with prizes being awarded for the best work.
Gillies Hill, along with many other similar settlements, began to decline after the First World War. As roads improved and the automobile grew in popularity, farmers were able to travel much further to larger communities such as Paisley and Durham. Quite simply, crossroad hamlets like Gillies Hill had outlived their usefulness. Gillies Hill was never large and records from 1874 to 1910 show the average population had stabilized at around 50, but didn't grow beyond that.
The first major closure to hit the small village was the Presbyterian church. When church union took place in 1925, each Presbyterian congregation was required to take a vote. The Gillies Hill congregation voted overwhelmingly to remain Presbyterian and was moved into a new charge along with Salem and Paisley, the Dobbinton congregation having voted to join the United Church. The Gillies Hill congregation was small by comparison with the number of members averaging 35 to 40. Although the congregation was well-served by Reverend A.H. Wilson, who had been minister since 1917, times were changing. The population had been declining for a number of years and dropped even further when many people left during the depression. In 1936 they made the sad decision to close the church.
The town hall closed in 1943, a victim of poor maintenance and advancing age. The building was never a quality structure and had deteriorated to the point where it could no longer be used. The township purchased the now-vacant church and used it for a number of years.
A few modest improvements were made to the school during the 1940s. In 1941 a new shed was constructed. Toilets were installed in 1947 and the playground was enlarged. However declining attendance took its toll and the school was closed in 1951. Arrangements were made for the students to be bused to the school in Lockerby. The church was sold and township meetings moved over to the now-vacant school, which went on for a number of years. Farm-based groups such as the Farm Forums were still active during the 1940s. However by the time the Women's Institute was formed in 1959, the town had pretty much dwindled down to nothing.
For such a small place, Gillies Hill left a surprisingly large legacy on the Canadian political landscape. In addition to serving as the seat of township government for almost 85 years, it produced two career politicians, who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of both Elderslie residents and the agricultural community at large. In 1967 the township erected a cairn on the site of the old town hall, dedicated to the early pioneers. The Bruce County Historical Society followed with a plaque dedicated to Duncan Marshall.
Little remains of Gillies Hill today. The town hall was demolished in 1959. The former store/post office was reportedly moved to Wiarton. The school lasted until around 2002, when it was demolished and replaced with a modern home. The church, which was used as a farm building for many years, still stands, vacant and forlorn. The remainder of the old town site has reverted to farmland.