The Baptist church©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko
Williscroft was an early farming and mill hamlet that was first settled in the late 1840s and early 1850s. The village was named after George Williscroft, an early settler from Ireland and prominent member of the community.
Settlers such as George Williscroft were more than ready and eager to take control of and manage their own affairs. These were hardworking and intelligent people who knew what they wanted and didn't need anyone telling them what to do. January 1, 1856 marked the date when Arran and Elderslie were divided into separate townships. A municipal election was held at Rowe's tavern in Paisley, where George Williscroft was elected as a councillor. The new council lost no time getting down to business. The first meeting was held on January 22, 1856, also in Rowe's Tavern. The tavern proved to be a convenient meeting place as Samuel Rowe had just been elected as the first reeve. Rowe was followed in office by John Gillies, from Gillies Hill.
Less than two weeks after the first township council meeting, a post office was opened in Paisley. This was quickly followed by the Williscroft post office which was opened in George Williscroft's home on March 1st, 1856. Williscroft served as postmaster for 24 years, bringing the mail in from Paisley twice weekly on horseback. His son, George Jr., served in the unenviable position of Elderslie's first tax collector.
Williscroft's first school, S.S. No. 8, was opened in 1858. The original schoolhouse was a log building, built of hewn hemlock and sitting on a cedar foundation. The land was donated by George Thomas with Oliver Poole as the first teacher. After enrolment hit a record high of 103 in 1870, it was quite clear that the little log building was no longer adequate. It was replaced in 1875 with a much larger structure.
By 1865, Jehoiaida Shipman had opened a sawmill and was working as a lumber dealer. Other residents included blacksmith, Francis Richardson, two coopers, George and Stephen Morden, a mason, Donald McNeil and a pump manufacturer, William Rusk, who originated from Bowmanville. William Rusk's pumps were in high demand and Rusk later set up a manufacturing facility in Paisley. Rusk was also an elder in the Salem Presbyterian Church. George Williscroft's brother, James, worked as a carpenter and operated a door and sash-building business with his son. One of his contracts included construction of the new Methodist church in Mount Hope Ontario in 1871-72. Jane Williscroft supplemented the family income with her millinery skills.
Around 1870 George Field bought the Shipman sawmill and in 1872, added a second storey grist mill. As a miller, George Field was about a hundred years ahead of his time in both his thoughts and approach. His flour mill was in direct competition with the Lockerby mill that was producing finely ground white flour, which was highly prized at the time. Field refused to succumb to pressure, claiming the white flour lacked many important and vital nutrients. His mill continued to produce darker flour as well as animal feed.
The Baptist congregation in Williscroft was first formed in 1868, following a meeting with Reverend Donald MacNeill, the minister in Paisley. Early gospel meetings were held in the mill yard during the summer and in S.S. No. 9, the Snell school, located just east of Williscroft, during the winter. Eventually a frame board and batten church was built in 1875 on land donated by George Field. As well as donating the property, Field cut all the lumber in his own mill yard and helped with the construction. Other volunteer labourers included George Williscroft, Donald Mann, Dougall MacAlpine, James Hunter, Fred Hagerman, Ebenezer and William Harris and George Field.
The new church was 32 X 24 feet and located on the south side of the road, near the mill yard, facing the north. The building had three windows on each side, with additional interior lighting coming from coal oil lamps sitting in brackets at each window. Heating was provided by a stove located near the entranceway. A frame drive shed was built on the west side of the church and an organ was added in 1903. The church was officially consecrated on April 24th 1877, and named the 12th Concession of Elderslie Baptist Church. Early ministers included Reverend J. Gardner and Reverend John Huff. John Rusk Jr. a relative of William Rusk, who farmed on Lot 6 on the 10th line, just south of the town site, donated an acre of land for a multi-denominational cemetery. This was used by many members of the Williscroft church.
In 1880 George Williscroft sold his farm and headed west. George Field took over the post office, moving it to his home across the road. W. Robb worked as a courier from 1880 to 1882, bringing in the mail from Paisley. In December 1882, George Field took over the courier duties as well. Ironically in 1888, Thomas Crawford, who had purchased the original Williscroft farm and home, took over the post office from Field and moved the office right back to its original location. In 1884, James Isard along with John McKellar established a cheese factory, the first of two in Elderslie Township, the other being located in Cantire. Then in 1888, William McFadden opened a new blacksmith shop, later adding both woodworking and carriage shops.
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 just west of the town site on Lot 6, Concession 13. In addition to serving the farmers, it was also used as a community and social centre, and for a community Sunday school. A Good Templars Lodge was chartered in 1890 but there are no records of any activity from this group.
Rural storekeeping in the late 19th century was very different from today. Many transactions, particularly with farmers, were handled on the barter system. During the summer, storekeepers would operate what was often called the 'egg-wagon', where eggs, butter and other produce were picked up for resale in exchange for delivery of groceries, dry goods and other small items. Although the exact date is unknown, Williscroft's first store was reportedly opened between 1887 and 1890. R.M. Clements operated the store from 1892 to 97. Then Joseph Collard, a blacksmith from nearby Arkwright, took over both the store and post office following the death of Thomas Crawford. Other storekeepers included John McFadden, Robert Soules, Henry Woods, James S. Brunt and Louis Palmer.
By the mid 1890s, Williscroft had grown into a small but prosperous little hamlet with a population of around 130. The cheese factory, which by then was known as the Elderslie Cheese Co. Ltd., went on to win many awards in competitions held at the Chicago World's Fair, Chicago World's Fair, the Pan-American Exposition, the Canadian National Exhibition, and the New York World's Fair. James Isard was the supervisor and also head cheese-maker from 1890 until 1906, when the factory closed. William Dudgeon bought the Field mill and added steam power. In 1908 he moved the mill to his farm, where it was destroyed by a fire in 1916.
With the arrival of the 20th century, Williscroft got a major facelift. First came the Orange Lodge, LOL 208, which was moved from nearby Ebenezer. They purchased the old Grange Hall and moved it south to Concession 12, where it remained in use until 1930, when the lodge moved back to Ebenezer. Then in 1906 the old frame schoolhouse was torn down and replaced with a new brick school. Two years later the old frame Baptist church was replaced with a new yellow brick building, located directly across the road. Now known as the Williscroft Baptist Church, the building was constructed at a cost of $1600. The interior of the building had wainscoting that rose up to the windows, with plaster and wallpaper above. The old church was purchased by one of the local farmers and used as a farm building until around 1970, when it was demolished.
Telephones arrived by around 1912, the same year the post office closed. Williscroft residents had more than ample choice as the area was served by three different companies; Bell Canada (later taken over by BMTS), the Arran No. 1 Telephone Company, and the Dobbinton Telephone Company, run by a group of farmers. Residents couldn't get enough of the new-fangled device. Earl Rushton had three, one from each company. Two were installed in the store. Crank phones remained in use until 1963 when both the Arran and Dobbinton companies were absorbed by Bell Canada who introduced dial service.
Although Williscroft managed to survive through much of the early 20th century, it was clearly starting to slip. Changes in agricultural practises, such as the trend to much larger farms, along with improved road travel each played a part in leading to its downfall. The farm clubs remained busy for many years as did the church, which played a vital role in the community for many years. Some of the more memorable church activities included the summer garden parties, the annual oyster suppers and dramatic productions, put on by the youth group. The church was redecorated twice, first in 1928 and then again in 1949. The school also saw a number of improvements, such as enlargement of the grounds, and the installation of running water.
By the 1950s Williscroft's population had declined to the point where even basic services were no longer sustainable. The school finally closed in 1958, after enrolment dropped to a total of eight pupils. The church struggled on for a couple of years longer. By 1959 church membership had declined to seven families and the members made the painful, but inevitable, decision to close the church. The final service was held on May 29, 1960.
During the 1960s Williscroft gave birth to one very strange and short-lived industry. In 1966, two men arrived from the United States with chicken wire and dead meat. Using the meat as bait, they spent two weeks trapping turtles in the Snake River. It seems these particular turtles were highly prized in the gourmet food industry. With their catch intact, the scavengers loaded the turtles on to trucks, transported them to the U.S., where they were sold live. It seems they were very thorough. Turtles are no longer found in the Snake River.
Today Williscroft is a mere shadow of its former self. In 1987 the Williscroft Women's Institute dedicated a small cairn to this once busy hamlet. The Williscroft schoolhouse has been renovated and turned into a private home. The Baptist church still stands; derelict and forlorn. The blacksmith shop is still standing beside the church. The community lies in the middle of a busy farming centre and continues to support a small rural population. One bright spot has been the Women's Institute. It was active from 1902 to 1920 and then revived in 1949. It remains active this day.