Oxford County, est. 800 residents
Beachville, Ontario, was once the heart of the growing community of Oxford County. The area was home to the Anishnabek, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and Ojibway/Chippewa peoples before John Carroll came from New Jersey in 1784, making it one of the area’s earliest settlements. In 1832, Beachville was named to honour Abraham Beach, the owner of the first gristmill and store in the settlement.
Throughout the 1800s, Beachville was a bustling area for businesses, with multiple blacksmiths, mills, factories, hotels, and other small shops available to locals. Both the sawmill and the grist mill were powered by water from the Thames River.
Railways were a vital part of small communities during the 19th and 20th centuries. The Great Western Railway was the first to come through Oxford County and opened in December 1853. It ran for 229 miles between Niagara Falls and Detroit, which brought numerous business and trade through the area. The Grand Trunk Railway also acquired a rail line in 1882 and eventually became the Canadian National Railway (CNR) in 1923. Beachville also contained a stop on a streetcar line between Ingersoll and Woodstock from 1900 to 1925.
The First Union School was built on land donated by Ben Thompson and served pupils from both North Oxford and West Oxford. The school opened in 1885 and closed in 1913. The Beachville Public School opened in 1913 and closed down in 2012. It was merged with other schools to create the Laurie Hawkins Public School in Ingersoll.
Limestone production in Beachville dates back to the 1800s with Oxford County being home to the largest deposits of limestone in North America. After the Ice Age, ice melting formed meltwater streams that eroded valleys and deposited outwash gravel. Large basins were formed that affected the way water flowed downhill. Beachville, being inland, was affected by ice of the Erie lobe flowing from the southeast and by the Huron lobe from the northwest forming the round hills known as drumlins.
Meltwaters flowing between the lobes created the early Thames River valley and eroded the drift down to expose the bedrock. This made Beachville the perfect spot to develop the limestone quarry industry on the floor of the Thames Valley.
Limestone deposits were first discovered in Beachville around 1833 and 1834. John Downing migrated to Beachville from England in 1838. As a quarryman by trade, Downing was instrumental in the early development of the limestone industry in the area, beginning in the 1850s. The Downing operation was a successful family-run business until the mid-1940s.
Throughout the 20th century, the quarries were sold and reorganized into a number of consolidated, large-scale enterprises. The quarries are presently owned by the company Carmeuse.
Baseball: Canada’s Game
Unknown to many, Beachville is the home of the first recorded baseball game in North America. The match took place on June 4, 1838, one year before the famous Cooperstown, New York, game. The game between the Beachville Club and the Zorras was held in a field just behind Enoch Burdick’s shops, (today located near Beachville’s Baptist Church).
This game is important because it’s the earliest, detailed, reputable account of baseball played in North America. On April 26, 1886, Dr. Adam E. Ford, wrote a letter to Sporting Life magazine about the match. Ford’s letter detailed the rules and recalled the names of various players participating in the game.
This version of baseball had been played in the community and other areas before 1838 and included several quirks compared to the game we know and love today. Most notably, five bases were used rather than four and were called “byes” back then. If any catches were made after a single bounce, the batter was out. Also, the Beachville game included overhand pitching, which is also used today. Underhand pitching was the most common style in the United States at the time, making the Beachville game stand out even more.
The Beachville District Museum is the heart and soul of the town’s history. The first story of the beautifully-restored house was built in 1851 by Philander King. The house was purchased by John Downing, one of the founders of the limestone quarries in Beachville, in 1880. In 1902, the second story was added and the property remained in the Downing family until it was sold in 1969. Beachvilime Ltd. retained the house for several decades before eventually selling it to the Beachville District Historical Society for two dollars in 1992.
The museum is filled with a large collection of historical artifacts, with over 6,500 pieces on display in period rooms showing off different parts of the area’s past. A huge grand piano sits in the salon, a summer kitchen features a large cast iron stove and one of the rooms has even been turned into a general store. Two large barns display farm equipment and other agricultural tools.
As an important part of baseball history, the museum houses a selection of baseball equipment from the past. Catcher’s gloves, cedar bats and woollen baseballs are on display, as well as a diorama of what the first recorded baseball game looked like. Other exhibits show off the history of the limestone quarries, as well as mastodon bones, rock fragments and other archaeological finds.
The Royal Canadian Legion Branch 495 in Beachville has offered a place for its members and the community to meet and socialize since 1948. With the help of its volunteers, several events are held for the town to come together, like the Classic Cruise Car Show and Friday Night Suppers.
The Livingway Pentecostal Church was originally the Beachville Methodist church, which was built in 1891 and remains an important part of the community. The beautiful brick building is still there today and is one of the last structures from the 1800s left in Beachville.
The Beachville Cemetery is one of the oldest cemeteries in Oxford County. Its first burial date was in 1817. The original lot (on the west side of the current property) was a land grant to one of the earliest settlers. On August 22, 1854, the Methodists purchased one acre (on the east side) for one shilling. Additional land on the east side was purchased to enlarge the cemetery to its current size of two acres.
The Colombo Club was founded by a group of citizens, led by Danny Muzzin and Francesco Eus. The purpose of the club was to help the Italian community of Oxford County keep their language, history and cultural traditions alive. The current building was constructed in 1978 strictly on private funds and through the efforts of club members, spearheaded by Tom Piraino. For over 50 years, the Colombo Club of Oxford has been the perfect place to host weddings, company parties or banquets.
The Limestone Valley Trail is a collaboration between Carmeuse, the Beachville Museum and the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority. The 1.6-kilometre loop trail was created as a way to help the public better understand the local history of lime production in the area dating back to the 1800s. Kiln artifacts are showcased along the trail, which is a great place for birding, hiking, and mountain biking.
Beachville is a tiny town with a rare past that is unknown to many. Not only is the town important for the role it played in baseball history, but it also boasts an uncommon industry for the area.
A big thank you to Steve and David from the Beachville District Museum for showing me around the property and providing me with more information about the area.