The restored general store©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko
Napier was first settled around 1830 by a disbanded group of British military officers who were veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. At the time the British military's practise was to reward combat veterans and retired officers with land grants, in part as payment for service and as a means of reintegrating back into civilian life. By 1838 the new settlers were well established and had already opened a school, church and military academy, which proved to be a major attraction. Early settlers included a Captain Beer, Edward Blake, Samuel Preston and Sergeant Major John Arthurs.
Sergeant Major John Arthurs, who had received a medical discharge in 1833, was one of those fortunate recipients of a land grant. After arriving in Napier, Major Arthurs maintained his military ties and joined up with the Middlesex County militia where he was promoted to Colonel. He later went on to become active in a variety of business ventures.
By the early 1850s, a second round wave of settlers had arrived in Napier. Colonel Arthurs realized the potential of the surrounding walnut timberlands and entered into a partnership with James Keefer to establish saw and grist mills on Bear Creek. They also opened a store and post office in 1851 with Keefer serving as the village's first postmaster. They later sold the mills to John Sutherland who expanded the operation by adding a woollen mill.
By 1857 Napier was a small but enterprising community boasting a population of around 150. The village included three stores, one owned by Col. Arthurs, another by Edward Goldrick and the third by Munro and Binkham. George Emerick kept an inn and James Ball, a saloon. There were three blacksmiths, Abram Frelick, Charles Knapton and Donald McKellar, a shoemaker, Thomas Boyd and a carpenter, David Bowers. In addition to the Sutherland mills, Henry Sifton added a steam driven saw and grist mill operation. Post office records from 1852 to 1859 are incomplete but unofficial records show John Munroe was postmaster from 1854 to 1859, followed by W.F. Bullen Jr. In 1862 Colonel Arthurs took over as postmaster and ran the post office for the next 20 years until his death at the age of 86. His son Alex continued running it for a few years afterwards.
During the 1860s and 70s Napier continued to thrive and grow. A Methodist church was established in 1862 with Reverend James Thornton as the first pastor. By 1869 Napier claimed a population of 175. By 1871 it had jumped to 230 as Napier quickly developed into a small manufacturing centre. William Orange and later Dunlop and Richardson took over the Sifton mills. The Sutherland mills were taken over by Mrs. C. and William Sutherland after John Sutherland was tragically killed in a horse accident in 1872. John Burwell opened a pump factory and Thomas Mackay, a brickmaking operation. The village was busy enough to support three stores, two inns, three shoemakers and blacksmiths, along with carpenters, millwrights and a cigar maker, Thomas Jackson. Edward Goldrick and later Alex Arthurs served as township clerks. Alex Arthurs was also a commissioner, insurance agent and issuer of marriage licenses. His father's post office remained very busy with both daily mail deliveries and a money order office. A Masonic Lodge was opened in 1875. By 1877 John Hutton had opened a cheese factory. In 1878 a new brick Methodist church was built at a cost of $1,800.
Napier's industries kept humming throughout the 1880s. Dunlop and Richardson added a cheese box factory to their busy sawmill operation. Francis Morcorn took over the pump factory. George Richardson and Moses Cophill opened cheese factories. The village continued to support three stores, two hotels, along with blacksmiths, carpenters and shoemakers. Dr. Alexander Nixon had been the Napier's mainstay physician since the 1860s but he was always assisted by at least one other doctor, who was likely in training. A Presbyterian church had been added by 1884. It seemed impossible to believe that in a few short years everything would come crashing to an end.
Napier, like many other similar communities, was an unfortunate casualty of the rapid progression of rail transit. After being ignored by the railways, its industries were unable to compete and gradually they shut down. By the 1890s, Napier was clearly on the decline. The Sutherland mills were shut down by 1892 and by 1895 the pump factory was gone. Napier's population dropped to about 100, less than half of what it had been during the heady days of the 1870s. The Dunlop mill and cheese box factory continued operating through the early part of the 20th century, as did one of the cheese factories, the hotel and a few other small businesses. The post office was closed in 1915 and Napier was relegated to the status of a quiet backwater community.
Napier is not totally abandoned and its small group of residents are working hard to restore the few remaining buildings from Napier's boom days. The schoolhouse has now been put to other uses. The general store continued operating as late as the 1960s. During the late 1990s, the general store was standing on blocks, waiting to be moved and restored. Sadly the Arthurs cottage, built by John Arthurs' grandson, was beyond saving. The property has since been sold and the building demolished.