Sign commemorating the Centre Bruce Church.©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko
Gresham was a small, scattered settlement located in Bruce County. First settled around 1855, it was not a planned community concentrated around one or two lots or crossroads. Rather it was spread along several concession roads for a distance of several kilometres with farms interspersed between various institutions and businesses. A post office, located in Edward James Brown's home on Lot 23, Concession 9 was opened in 1861.
The majority of settlers were Scottish Presbyterians who spoke Gaelic as their native tongue. Religion played a large part in their lives and being able to worship in Gaelic meant a great deal to them. Beginning in 1862, religious services were held in various settlers' homes. They shared a minister with the North Bruce Presbyterian Church, also Gaelic-speaking, located in Queen Hill up on Concession 14.
A school section, SS No. 9, was established some time in the 1850s with a log schoolhouse already in place. In 1861 Alexander McLean built a new frame school on Concession 6 at a cost of $120. The school was heated by a box stove and included a well that was cleaned annually at a cost of 75 cents.
In 1862 John McEwen was hired to teach for $18 per month, with the stipulation that his salary was "payable when the taxes were collected." There is no word on how poor McEwen would have survived if the ratepayers were tardy with their required reimbursements. Presumably he would have been fed by one or more sympathetic villagers. The school closed in 1867 for a month due to illness, likely of a contagious nature. Not ones to shirk their duties, the board required that classes be held on Saturdays to make up for lost time. Students from Willow Creek Creek, located on Concession 5 also attended this school.
By 1869 a number of businesses were already in place. The settlement included a carpenter, John Austin, and a shingle maker, J. Bowen. Richard Mills owned a blacksmith shop and James Pace, a wagon making shop. Mills later served as postmaster from 1885 to 91. Improved land was selling for $12 per acre with bush land going for half the price.
In 1870 the residents decided it was time to have a real church of their own. The first church was a log building built on land purchased from John Craig on Lot 20, Concession 8. In 1874 the congregation petitioned to be in the same charge as Underwood so each could have their services in English and Gaelic. This was not a wealthy congregation but the members managed to dig deep into their pockets to cover a portion of the minister's salary plus the cost of building a manse in Underwood. Members also helped out with donations of firewood and other necessities, and until 1900 paid the cost of renting their seats. By a pre-arranged agreement, likely determined by the size of the congregation, the new Central Bruce Church paid one third of the expenses with Underwood paying the remainder. Around 1875 a new brick church was constructed across the road on Lot 21.
The Grange was one of several farm-based movements that took hold during the 1880s. 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. A large Grange Hall was built on Lot 20, Concession 7 in Gresham sometime before 1880. In later years the mail was delivered to the Grange Hall where people could pick it up.
Gresham's sawmill by far was the most successful of the community's industries. Before 1880 there were two sawmills. One was located on Lot 21, Concession 8, just south of the church. A second steam powered sawmill, operated by George McKay, was located further north on Concession 11. By the mid 1880s James Matheson was running the mill on Concession 8. Tragically, a worker named William Smith was killed in an accident at Matheson's mill in 1888.
The Matheson mill did brisk business during the 1880s and 90. Later on Matheson relocated the mill further north on Concession 12. Other mill owners during the 1880s included G. & B. Rutherford, who it appears took over the McKay mill around 1885. Gresham also boasted a cheese factory, run by William Murray. By 1888 T.L. Steel had opened a general store on Lot 21, Concession 9 and a second blacksmith shop owned by Isaac Orford,
By the 1890s Gresham had grown into a thriving settlement. The population jumped from 60 to 120 in a mere 10 years. In 1893 the old frame school was replaced with a new brick building. Other business owners included Richard Mills, the blacksmith and former postmaster, who had taken over the wagon shop, James Kellar who ran the general store and Alex McWhinney who opened a barber shop. The community also included an auctioneer, R.H. Curry, a weaver, and a "music director and painter," William Mills.
In the late 1890s James Matheson sold the mill to James Cottrill, an experienced sawyer and millwright. Cottrill operated the mill for many years before dismantling and moving it to Port Elgin where it found new use in a brush factory. In 1913 the post office was closed with the arrival of rural mail delivery.
Although Gresham sustained a number of successful businesses throughout its early years, the church remained the focal point of this small community. Fundraising events began in earnest during the latter part of the 19th century. These included soirees (tea-meetings) and garden parties. The first of the garden parties was a combined effort of the Central Bruce and Underwood congregations held at the manse in Underwood. A set of dishes was jointly purchased by both congregations for use at these parties and a custodian was hired to care for them at a cost of 25 cents a year.
The garden parties began around 1900 and quickly grew into a popular annual event. In the early days before electricity, night-time illumination was provided by pine stumps set alight to give off a bright, cheery glow. Both communities took part in the food preparation. Families contributed individually or worked together in bees, preparing a massive number of sandwiches the night before the party. The parties were held at the Fullerton, Brown, J. McWhinney or Alex McWhinney homes. In the early days admission was 15 cents. By the 1930s the admission fee had grown to 50 cents. The parties were discontinued in 1942. Other fundraising events included the Christmas concert which carried a 15 cent admission charge for adults.
Sunday school was an important part of church life in Gresham. The church offered a Sunday school lending-library and also held a Sunday school picnic. There was both a Women's Missionary Society and a Mission Band. In 1925 the congregation voted in favour of church union and became known as the Central Bruce United Church. The church was renovated and redecorated in 1928.
The school saw many improvements over the years. A new well was drilled in 1912. Until 1915, the school was home to the annual school fair. During the 1930s music classes were introduced as part of the curriculum. To that end, in 1935 the school purchased an organ and a record player. Later on they added a radio. In 1946 a new water pressure system was installed and hydro was added. The school continued to operate until 1966 when it was closed due to centralization of the school system. The furnishings and building were sold by auction. The school still stands and is now a private home.
By the 1950s the population was dispersing and church membership was on the decline. The trend proved to be irreversible and by the mid 1960s the congregation made the painful decision to close the church. The final service was held on May 23, 1965. The building was dismantled some time after that. All that's left of this once vibrant institution is a small sign on the former church lot. Virtually northing remains of Gresham's early industries or institutions and the area has reverted back to farmland.