The ruins of St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko
Vesta was one of the many small farming and milling hamlets that dotted Bruce County during the mid to late 19th century. The community was first settled in 1856 and originally called Springvale. It sprang to life following the arrival of the Cannon family from Leeds County in 1859. The Cannons immediately made their mark and assumed prominent positions in both the tiny new settlement and township. Vesta crossed the town line and was located in both Brant and Elderslie Townships.
In 1860 Robert Cannon opened a store and post office on the Brant side, where he served as postmaster until 1896. His younger brother Benjamin, born in 1846, served as reeve of the township of Brant during part of 1879. He later served as township warden (also in Brant) in 1901. By 1869 W.A. Stevens, who also held the title of Deputy Postmaster, was running the store. The village also included a carpenter, Thomas Blakeway.
St. Michael's was an early Roman Catholic Church, built in 1864 on the Brant side. This must have been a great relief to the small group of Roman Catholics, many of whom had moved northwest from Simcoe County. Before the church was built, religious services were handled by saddlebag priests, who arrived irregularly on horseback from the missions in Owen Sound and Riversdale. Hugh Ferguson, a settler who originated from Ireland, donated two lots for the construction of a little log church and cemetery. The church was used by the community until 1883, when it was replaced by a handsome brick structure.
The Methodists were also in the process of organizing a church. In 1864 the New Connexion Methodists formed a mission that became known as Cannon's mission. This led to the construction of a frame church, located on Benjamin Cannon's property, again on the Brant Township side. An Anglican church was built in 1892.
Dorinda Fortune along with her four sons and daughter arrived in Vesta from Scotland in 1854. They had a Crown deed for 100 acres of farm land on the Elderslie side with a spring-fed stream that offered an excellent source of water power. Two of the Fortune sons, Robert and John, formed a partnership to harness the water power and erect a sawmill. The Fortune family also became active in township affairs with both William and John serving as councillors.
Once the sawmill opened, Vesta sprang to life. Warren McGill opened a carriage shop on the Brant side, across from the store, and David Reid, opened a cooperage. William Blakeway was the village smitty and Thomas Sheehan looked after the general store. The hamlet also included a tavern, built on the Elderslie side, to avoid Brant Township's licensing fees.
An early log school was located just east of the village right on the town line. It was later replaced with a larger two-room brick schoolhouse that had separate entrances for the boys and girls, according to the strange Victorian customs of the times. The new school was located about two kilometres south of the town site in Brant Township.
By 1895 it was decided to replace the old frame Methodist church with a much better structure. A new white brick church was built on the Elderslie side with the entrance facing south, directly across from the old church. The church yard was enclosed by a fence with a large gate on the west leading to a drive shed. It sported all the latest conveniences including ornate oil lamps for lighting and a small basement with a wood-burning furnace. The interior was blue and the windows were a combination of frosted and stained glass. The land for both the church and cemetery was donated by Thomas Fortune.
The old church remained in use for a number of years. In 1896, it became the temporary home of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Fortune, whose house had been destroyed by fire. Over the years it continued to be used for various community and church events, such as garden parties and suppers. Later on it was converted to an Orange Lodge.
For many years Vesta was a popular gathering place for local farmers. In addition to the tavern, which was understandably a major lure, farmers could also purchase cigars at Isaac Bailey's barbershop. John McCrorie, a son-in-law of John Fortune took over the blacksmith shop during the 1890s. Other store owners included J.J. Marshall, Mrs. Aiken and John Connolly. Daniel Ryan was also operating a butcher shop.
Vesta's population never grew beyond much past 100 and began to slip downward after the mill closed in the early 1900s. Improved transportation and the trend towards larger farms are largely cited as the main reasons. In 1909 it was still supporting both a grocery and general store, but the post office closed that same year.
The Methodist church closed in 1916, a victim of declining attendance. Little bits and pieces of it found their way to various other churches throughout the county. The pulpit ended up at the Centenary Methodist Church in Arran and the pews went to a Presbyterian church in Ayton. In 1939 the building was given to the Chesley High School Board for the cost of demolition and removal. Although ownership of the property was supposed to revert back to the Fortunes after the church closed, instead Clifford Fortune gave the property to the United Church in Chesley.
Other than the Vesta cemetery, little remains of the early town site. The Methodist cemetery was used until 1928 and now falls under jurisdiction of the township as an abandoned cemetery. Some of the stones were moved to Chesley while the remainder have been preserved at Vesta. Both the Orange Hall and the blacksmith shop were demolished. The store was used as an apiary for a number of years but later burned down. The schoolhouse still stands and is now used as a seasonal private dwelling. Following a fire in 1967, students were transferred to the school in Scone which had recently been closed due to centralization of the school system.
St. Michaels Church on the Brant side survived much longer. It was used until 1952, and then periodically for special services after that. The building survived until the early 1990s, when much of it was destroyed by fire, suspected to be of incendiary origin. The foundations, bell tower and a historical plaque still stand. The cemetery, grounds and ruins continue to be maintained by descendants of the Ferguson family, who still hold strong roots in the area. The remainder of Vesta has now reverted to farmland.