Oxford County, est. 1,100 residents
Otterville, Ontario, is a small community in Oxford County, but don’t let its size fool you. The tiny village has a ton of fascinating local history, including being one of the earliest settled areas in the region and sharing a special connection to the Underground Railroad in Canada.
The area was settled by Paul Averill with his son, Paul Jr., and son-in-law, John Earl. Averill built the first mills in Waterford and sent his son and son-in-law out to find a new mill site in 1806. A year later, they built the first mill in Otterville.
During the war of 1812, General McArthur launched a raiding party as he marched across Upper Canada. A small group burned several mills throughout the area, including the one located in Otterville. They joined back with the main army following the trail to Burford.
Around this time, many Quakers started making the region their home, which would be integral to the diverse growth of the community. Quakers in Canada and the United States played an important role in the Underground Railroad. The group helped bring enslaved African Americans to areas of greater freedom, including Otterville.
The Underground Railroad
Beginning in 1829, Quakers were encouraging newly arrived former slaves, as well as free African American families, to settle in the area and take advantage of the rich, prosperous land for farming. With the help of the community, the American arrivals thrived. They founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1856, serving the area until the late 1880s when the church fell into disrepair and was demolished.
The African Methodist Episcopal Cemetery serves as one of the last reminders of black settlers in the area. It sits in an isolated location surrounded by farmers’ fields and thick trees. Sadly, the corresponding names for each site are long lost as the original headstones were made out of wood, and no records were kept.
The community undertook a restoration of the cemetery in 2007 to demonstrate Otterville’s pride and appreciation for a truly significant era in its history. They added new markers that displayed an image of a candle to show where the original burial places of the 144 Black pioneers were located.
When deciding on a symbol that best represented hope, the South Norwich Historical Society opted for the candle design. Many of the former slaves who settled in Otterville would have made it to Canada by following flickering candle lights in the windows of the Underground Railroad’s “stations,” which were private homes of abolitionists who provided a place to stay.
The cemetery is one of the only preserved black pioneer burial grounds in the entire province. During the town’s 175th anniversary in 1982, a plaque was placed at the cemetery to commemorate the historical black settlement. The African Methodist Episcopal Cemetery is a testament to the perilous journey endured by American slaves who came to Canada.
Otterville’s Industrial Past
Otterville was once known as a milling centre, which is what drew many of the first settlers to the area. The Otterville Mill was built in 1845 by Edward Bullock and was run by water power supplied by a dam on the river.
As one of the oldest continuously operated wheel-powered mills in Ontario, the three-storey frame grist and flour mill was operated by Matthew Maddison with an annual capacity of 20,000 bushels. Although the Otterville Mill ceased commercial use in 1981, it continues to be used on occasion and is now located on the site known as Mill Park.
Otterville was part of the region’s agricultural boom period. In the 1940s, tobacco was introduced to the area. With tobacco came Sav-Oil burner manufacturing, followed by Powell Bulk Curing systems that helped make curing tobacco easier. Today, most farms stick to harvesting cash crops like corn and soybeans, vegetables, ginseng and occasionally tobacco.
The introduction of the rail line brought manufacturing to Otterville. The Otterville Sweeper Company made the first carpet sweepers in North America. Eventually, the Otterville Sweeper Company became the Otterville Manufacturing Company, shifting over to crafting small agricultural equipment, furniture and piano stools. On this site today is the auto part manufacturer Fleetwood.
The Otterville Railway Station Museum is a single-storey wood railway station constructed in 1875 as part of the integral Port Dover Lake Huron railway line. In 1881, the Grand Trunk Railway took control of the line, followed by the Canadian National Railway in 1923. After 60 years of service, the railway line shut down in the 1930s and the building was eventually relocated in 1989 to its current site.
The museum opened in 1991 and showcases the area’s fascinating history through artifacts and pictures. The building was restored by the South Norwich Historical Society to replicate the original train station.
Woodlawn Place was designed and lived in by Thomas Wright in 1861. The octagonal cottage served as a small centre for meetings, community get-togethers and more. The unique architectural build was moved to its current location in 1976 and continues to be used as a meeting centre to this day.
Pine Street Burying Ground and Erbtown Cemetery are both situated near several heritage resources, including the museum and octagonal cottage. Pine Street Burying Ground is located near the site of the original Pine Street Friend’s Meeting House, which was built in 1819. The burying ground is now the resting place of many of the area’s earliest settlers. Erbtown was a community founded by Samuel Erb in 1855. Along with his sons, the family owned and operated saw and woollen mills and donated the land for the Episcopal Methodist Church and Cemetery in 1861.
Otterville Park was established in 1891 by the Otterville Park Company. A footbridge over the river and ten acres of land were added to the park by 1920. In 1924, a local building at the fairground was dismantled, and the materials were used to build a pavilion. This area provided shelter for picnickers and acted as a dance floor and bandstand on other festive occasions.
The park’s entrance is marked by a fine-cut fieldstone wall, with a pillared gateway that includes a bronze plaque honouring the area’s World War I veterans. Another significant feature is an 1807 cannon that was donated by the federal government in 1907 to commemorate Otterville’s Centennial year. The park features a swimming pool, ball diamond, horseshoe pitch, tennis and basketball courts, and a children’s playground surrounded by many tall trees.
Otterville is now a quieter village than during its early years, but it still has an important history that’s worth sharing. With the help of many local volunteers and organizations, Otterville has been able to tell the story of its special past through historical reenactments and preservation efforts.
A big thank you to Gail from the South Norwich Historical Society for allowing me into the Otterville Railway Museum and for providing me with more information about the area.