The Whittington schoolhouse, now a private home©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko
Road travel in the mid 19th century - at its very best - was horrible. The roads were rutted and swampy, and horses' feet would frequently become entangled in the dense foliage. Stage coaches could rarely manage more than a few kilometres per day. Accidents were frequent and commonplace. The more heavily travelled routes offered an abundance of inns and taverns where weary and injured travellers could find a hot fire, a good meal, a nice shot of whiskey, and a warm inviting bed before they set off on another difficult day's journey.
During the 1850s and 60s, Amaranth Township in Wellington County offered more than its share of hotels and taverns along the road. At that time Ontario or Upper Canada as it was then called had the rather unsavoury reputation of being known as the most alcoholic region of North America. Amaranth did nothing to dispel that. After all - hooch was selling for around 12 1/2 cents per gallon.
Whittington was one of several popular stopping places that rose to prominence during the late 1850s. The big attraction was the Whittington House, a well-known stopping place and tavern, opened by Richard Bowsfield (also spelled Bousfield) around 1858. The Whittington House was a serious operation for its time, particularly considering the sparsely populated locale. One half of the building was used as a hotel and the other half served as a general store and post office. The hotel was named for Dick Whittington, the 15th Lord Mayor of London, and was adorned with a large sign depicting Dick Whittington and his cat. The post office, named for the hotel, was opened in 1861.
Bowsfield was a busy man. Around 1862 or 63 he entered into partnership with William Lewis, operating a daily stage coach that ran from Brampton all the way up to Owen Sound. The stage had scheduled stops in Orangeville, Shelburne and a number of other places that naturally included Whittington. The gravy train ran for about 10 years until the real trains arrived.
During the village's early days, there was a Doctor Hudson living on lot 16, Concession 1. Whatever happened to the good doctor is unknown but the house was later bought by Alonzo French. French immediately retrofitted the place, adding a barroom on the north side, and a dance hall on top of a shed just to the east of the building. French's Hotel and Dance Hall was a smashing success for a short period of time before mysteriously burning to the ground in 1873. With a rival hotel located directly across the road, there was a lot of nudging, winking and finger pointing, but arson was never proven.
For those who preferred activities of a more sedate nature, an Orange Lodge was located just up the road at Rich Hill. Lodge No. 1099 was built in 1861 on land donated by David Spence. There were stringent conditions attached to its usage. Spence stipulated the building must always be available for use to all Protestant denominations and that it could never be used for dancing. Liquor was strictly forbidden on the premises. Not surprisingly, one of the hall's biggest users was an active Temperance Lodge. In later years the building was used by the Grange and even later by the United Farmers of Ontario.
In 1861 a militia group was set up in Whittington. With the threat of war looming between Great Britain and the United States, this group known as the Amaranth Forest Rangers Rifle Company No. 1, formed a unit and began to commence with target practise. There were no drills or uniforms, or even a war at that point. The group was really nothing more than a glorified rifle club. However after the American Civil War began, 58 battalions were drafted to patrol the US Canada border. The Whittington militia was more than ready to play its part.
On October 5th, 1866 the Whittington Rifle Company became an official militia unit. A rifle range was set up on Lot 15, Concession 2. On Christmas Day 1866, the members donned their military attire, which consisted of dark green serge uniforms and hats with pom-poms on the crown, grabbed their Enfield rifles, and marched in their first parade.
Wellington County was quite enthused about the entire affair. In 1867 the county donated $400 toward the cost of building a drill shed on the southwest corner of Lot 16, Concession 1, with the township coughing up an additional $150. Many of the men likely joined up for the extra money, which amounted to 50 cents a day, with an additional 25 cents from the county while they were in training. Training took place in various parts of the county. Whittington had its turn in 1876.
Unfortunately for the militia group, the newly formed county of Dufferin did not share the same enthusiastic zeal for military training as its predecessor. Dufferin became a full county in 1880 and the council had numerous other financial commitments to contend with. The militia group was not high on their list of priorities and was among the first to get the axe.
On the less seamy side of things, the Whittington Fall Fairs were a popular event that attracted a large number of farm exhibitors. Exhibits included farm animals, dairy products, wagons and sleighs, and handiwork such as beading, crocheting, quilting and dressmaking. Exhibits were set up in the drill hall. Horse races took place along the 15th sideroad. One particularly memorable race ended in a near riot involving both men and women, the latter of whom entered the fray armed with parasols.
The arrival of the Toronto, Grey and Bruce Railway was a big event in the township's history. It appears the railway was thinking of building a station at Whittington, however the owner of Lot 15 on the east half of Concession 3, refused to sell. Had the situation been otherwise, Whittington's history might have been very different. In the end stations were built at Laurel and Fraxa and to the north at Crombie's.
Whittington's first log schoolhouse was built in 1855 at the corner of the 15th sideroad and the second concession, with Mr. Dodds as the first teacher. Initially classes were held in David Spence's barn while the schoolhouse was being completed. Many of the students were not children, but rather youths and young men, leading to a large number of disciplinary problems. The community's solution was to only hire male teachers. In order to attract suitable, long-term prospects, the community offered a "teacherage," as in a home for the teacher and his family.
In 1873 the log school was replaced with a brick schoolhouse. It was located just west of the original building and built on land purchased from Robert Bowsfield. Unfortunately structural problems became apparent shortly after the building was completed. Even though it was reinforced with steel rods, it was deemed structurally unsound and in 1884, replaced with a new structure. The old school was demolished and whatever materials could be salvaged, were used in the new building. Classes moved to the Anglican church while the new school was being completed.
Whittington's Anglican church was built around 1875. Up to that point Anglican services were being held in the Orange Hall. From the number of people attending, it appeared there was sufficient interest in building a church at Whittington. Plans were put in place and two contractors from Laurel were hired. The contract called for half the money to be paid when the building was ready for plastering and the remainder upon completion. Unfortunately the powers at the top badly misjudged the situation. There was little interest or support from the community and the church closed soon afterwards. It is believed the church remained open for less than a year. Unfortunately the congregation was not even able to raise enough money to complete payment to the contractors. For a time Ben McKim operated a store out of the rectory. Later the buildings were sold to a nearby farmer for use on the farm.
The Methodist church (later United) was far more fortunate. In 1857 James Crombie donated a piece of land for a church and cemetery. The original log church, known as the Salem Church, was very tiny, measuring only 6 X 7 metres. There was a second Methodist congregation a bit further north in Rich Hill. The two congregations joined forces and held Sunday school classes in the Whittington schoolhouse under the name of the Whittington Union Sunday School.
The Rich Hill congregation got its start in 1851 following the arrival of David and Jane Spence. Early Primitive Methodist meetings took place in their home and also at the home of John Sawyer. By 1862 the congregation had grown sufficiently large that services were moved to the Orange Hall. In 1873 the two congregations decided to merge and purchased the old log Whittington schoolhouse at a cost of $34. The schoolhouse was used until 1880 when a new frame church was built on the same site.
Besides the hotels, Whittington's businesses included a sawmill, run by James and John Large, a blacksmith, Andrew Keys and a general store run by John Keys. Other storekeepers included Mrs. Bond and Mrs. McGrath. David Spence took over the post office in 1881 and moved it to his home in Rich Hill. In 1886 Andrew Keys became postmaster, followed by William McBride.
The Scott Act which forbade the sale of alcohol in hotels came into effect in the mid 1880s. The hotel, which at the time was being run by Adam McKibbon, shut down shortly after. During the 1890s, it was used as a store. In 1898 a creamery, specializing in butter and cheese was built on the site of the old French's Hotel.
By the early 20th century Whittington had fallen into a steep decline from which it was never able to recover. The creamery was successful for a while but ran into financial trouble. After it closed part of the building was demolished. What remained collapsed in 1913 during a hurricane. The drill hall was relocated to a farm where it was used as a barn for a while. It was demolished in 1912. The post office closed in 1913 after being replaced by rural mail delivery.
A number of Whittington's institutions struggled on for awhile. A Women's Institute that was formed in 1906 lasted until 1930 after membership dropped from a high of 42 to six members. From about 1916-1919 there was a popular orchestra that played at various parties and community events. There was also a drama club. The United Church lasted until 1964 until it too shut its doors, a victim of declining attendance. It was demolished shortly afterwards.
Today all that remains of Whittington is the schoolhouse, now used as a private home, and a sad little cairn on the site where the church once stood. The remainder of the area is primarily used for farming.