Wellington County, est. 7,500 residents
Elora, Ontario, is a stunning town known for its spectacular views of the Grand River. Despite being such a small community, the area has become a tourist hotspot for those looking to spend an enjoyable weekend in “Ontario’s most beautiful village.”
The Attawandaron (Neutrals) were the first people living in the area before European settlers arrived in 1817, with Roswell Matthews building the first home.
Captain William Gilkison emigrated to North America in 1796 and served with the British forces in the War of 1812. In 1832, he purchased around 14,000 acres of land east of the Grand River for his proposed settlement. The following year, Gilkison established a sawmill and a general store that would benefit the community greatly.
The name for the original colony was the Irvine Settlement before, in 1833, Gilkison named the community after his brother’s ship, inspired by the Ellora Caves in India.
The early death of Gilkison slowed Elora’s growth until Charles Allan and Andrew Geddes laid out a town site on the west side of the river. Around 1848, lots started being sold, and the settlement eventually became incorporated into a village ten years later.
By the 1850s, Elora became a major agricultural marketplace. Many stores had opened in the downtown area, selling a number of different goods. By 1870, multiple flour and saw mills, two distilleries, a carpet factory, a tannery and two furniture factories were operating to sell goods to the population of 1,500.
The extravagant five-storey grist mill was built in 1832. Throughout its history, the building was used as a sawmill, distillery and flour mill. In the 1970s, it became a hotel called the Elora Mill Inn, which closed in 2010. It reopened as the Elora Mill Hotel and Spa in 2018.
The Elora Quarry
Elora has grown and changed over time, but some of its unique architecture remains the same. Several buildings along Elora’s downtown core are crafted from decades-old limestone. Limestone became a favourite local building material after 1850 because of the abundance in the area and how close it was to the surface.
A number of quarries existed in Elora over the years, with one of the most successful being Elora White Lime Co. The firm was started in 1914 by Thomas Kennedy with the construction of two large kilns. After receiving immediate success, the company continued to grow, adding more kilns, a railroad siding, and a stone crusher. The business was sold to Alabastine Co. in 1916.
It wasn’t until 1930 that everything came crumbling down. The lime in the quarry was reported to be impure following the discovery of black streaks in the limestone. Also, the Great Depression essentially halted the construction industry.
With Elora being one of the Alabastine Co.’s smaller quarries, the firm decided to cease operation in 1932, but left the plant and machinery intact. The commercial production of limestone lasted only 18 years, and the closure of the quarry ended the role of limestone as a local economic resource in Elora.
After Alabastine Co. left the area, the quarry soon became filled with water. This change made it an area of interest for many swimmers. The quarry was transformed into the Elora Quarry Conservation Area in 1976 and has since become a popular site to swim and hike with its turquoise waters and steep limestone cliffs.
A Natural Wonder
It’s incredible to think of the Elora Gorge as anything but a remarkable natural beauty, but it always wasn’t that way. Early pioneers once logged thousands of trees in and around the gorge to be cleared for farmland.
Due to this loss, many within the community started using the area as a dumping ground for all types of refuse. As a result, in 1868, all of the garbage in the gorge caught fire and burned for ten days straight. After this disaster, the locals knew that something had to change.
Fortunately, in the mid-1870s, a group of citizens took action. They started planting trees and cleaning up the area to make it a space everyone could enjoy. One of the community members even initiated a tree-planting project that saw saplings planted around the Elora Public School (now the Elora Centre for the Arts), on residential streets and in the village’s public spaces, with a few still standing today.
Today, the Elora Gorge is a natural wonder that people travel far and wide to visit. Not only can you take in the gorge from above, but you can also take a stairway into the gorge during the summer months. Down by the river, you can easily spot the famous David Street Bridge, first built in 1868 and reconstructed in 2002, and take in the staggering 22-metre-high cliffs. Many spend the day hiking, canoeing, swimming, fishing, ziplining, and tubing around the area.
The Elora Gorge Conservation Area has a number of riverside trails and scenic overlooks that provide hikers with stunning views of the Grand River. It’s also a great area to camp, canoe and fish in the summer.
The Wellington County Museum and Archives is located in Canada’s oldest remaining rural House of Industry and Refuge. It was built in 1877 as a “Poor House,” otherwise known as a place of refuge for the poor, homeless and impoverished people in Wellington County. The building operated as a Poor House and Industrial Farm until 1947 when it turned into a County Home for the Aged. The Wellington County Museum and Archives opened in 1974 and was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1995.
Cordial Clove Books Inc. is a queer-owned bookstore that was opened in January 2021 by mother-daughter duo Kim and Gabby Silva. The bookstore, located in a one-hundred-plus-year-old building, offers 20,000 used titles, along with stationery products and fun gift items, ensuring there’s something there for everyone.
The Shepherd’s Pub is an Elora staple, serving up tasty British pub food and local brews. The restaurant moved to its current location in the summer of 2018 but continues to have a cozy atmosphere with pub favourites that everyone will enjoy.
Elora is a bustling town that thrives on its gorgeous sites and welcoming atmosphere. I’m very excited that this wonderful community will be my home for the foreseeable future.
A big thank you to Gabby and Kim from Cordial Clove Books for providing me with more information about their business.