Lanark County, est. 6,469 residents
Perth, Ontario, is a gorgeous town known for its origins in military history. The Omàmìwininì (Algonquin) Peoples had made the area their home before European settlers arrived in the early 1800s.
The Perth Military Settlement was founded in 1816. Following the War of 1812, the British government crafted a plan to be prepared for another American attack if it were to come. They also wanted to do something about the number of unemployed soldiers who had been discharged after the war. Having a loyal population established inland away from the St. Lawrence River was essential if an American threat were to ever arise.
As the military regime was ending, an emigration program was launched that offered land and support to families from Scotland and discharged soldiers who were willing to take up a new life in Upper Canada. After a few years, thousands of immigrant families from Scotland, Ireland and the United States settled in the Perth region. Families also came from Switzerland, Belgium, Germany and Poland. Many immigrants chose Canada for their home because it offered them a brighter future than what could have come from staying in Europe at the time.
Due to the large number of Scottish immigrants that made Perth their new home, the town was named after the city of Perth in Scotland. The river on which the town stands also took its name after the Scottish River Tay.
Settling in Perth
Making the area north of the Rideau system a good home proved to be filled with challenges for the immigrants. The first years living in the region were rough, with cold temperatures and “no summer” for settlers to get used to their new life. Fortunately, the families were able to pull through with assistance from the British Government and the Omàmìwininì Nation, who helped them survive in the rugged environment.
After the initial challenges, Perth began to come alive. Many of the Scottish immigrants who had moved to the town were stonemasons. Several stone buildings remain today, including one of the very first stone houses in Perth, which was erected in 1820 for Lieutenant John McKay.
For many years, Perth was the military, judicial, political and social capital of the entire Ottawa Valley. That changed in 1826 when the construction of the Rideau Canal began, and the development of the lumber industry moved further north and west along the Ottawa River.
The Tay Canal
When construction of the Rideau Canal began, many Perth businessmen hoped the Tay River would be included. When that wasn’t the case, it was decided that a company needed to be created to build the Tay Canal. The area felt it needed a shipping canal to help with the increase of local mining and manufactured goods coming from Perth. On March 16, 1831, legislation to form the Tay Navigation Company was passed, and construction of the canal got underway.
The first Tay Canal was not successful when it was completed in 1834. It contained five locks, six dams (with timber slides), two swing bridges and several embankments, but the pioneer effort was underfinanced, and ultimately, the wooden structures fell into disrepair. Although rail was a successful way to move goods and people to and from Perth, not being part of the canal system hurt the region’s growth.
It wasn’t until the mid-1880s that the second Tay Canal would be built. In 1883, a Government of Canada Order-in-Council authorized a contract with A.H. Manning & Macdonald Company for the construction of the Tay Canal, with excavation starting in 1885. While most of the canal was completed in 1887, the final excavation required navigation depth and an expansion of the basin in Perth, which was finished in 1891.
Today, the Tay Canal is operated by Parks Canada as part of their Rideau Canal operations and provides a connection between the town of Perth and the Rideau Canal.
Archibald Campbell, a local geologist and mineral collector, opened the original Perth Museum on the top floor of the Carnegie Library in 1925. When the Matheson House was slated for demolition, the Town of Perth purchased the home and relocated the museum as a Centennial project in 1967.
The Matheson House was built in 1840 for the Honourable Roderick Matheson, a wealthy merchant and a senator in Canada’s first parliament after Confederation. The home has four period rooms, including the parlour, dining room, drawing room and kitchen that have been carefully restored to reflect what the home would’ve looked like for the Matheson family, who owned the house for 90 years. The top floor of the stone building also contains more local history and honours Campbell and Dr. James Wilson with a display that celebrates the geological diversity of Lanark County.
The Perth Wildlife Reserve is a stunning natural space with a variety of diverse plant and wildlife species. This 257-hectare reserve was first established in 1972 to provide a sanctuary for migratory birds and various types of habitats for wildlife. Many deer, ducks, Canada geese, rabbits, bluebirds and wild turkeys make the conservation area their home. Located on the Tay Marsh, the watery environment is wonderful for quiet observations and an easy hike.
The Perth Flea Market is home to a number of eclectic antique items with something for everyone. The business was opened in 1985 by Eva Sullivan when she purchased a car repair shop and converted it into an antique store. Today, three of Eva’s six children manage the business day-to-day. If you’re looking for a unique home decor piece to make a room pop, The Perth Flea Market is the perfect place for you.
Hourglass is a cozy coffeehouse that serves up hot brews and cafe staples. David Bridle and his family opened the business in 2023 after moving to Perth from the United Kingdom. The group wanted to create an inviting place for people to come and engage with each other and have been successful in achieving their goal, with many local groups using the coffeehouse for their endeavours.
The coffee shop is located in a two-story brick building that was erected between 1905 and 1910, where 500 pairs of shoes were produced daily. Originally owned by the Winn Shoe Company, U.S.A., in 1912, the company was reorganized by F.W. Hall and C.J. Sewell and transformed into the Perth Shoe Company. The company saw a dramatic increase in activity and production during World War I when it sold 10,000 pairs of army boots to the Canadian military. The Brown Shoe Company acquired the Perth Shoe Company in 1960 and utilized the old building until 1982 as a storage centre to accommodate the growing demands of the company.
Perth is a delightful community filled with many wonderful boutiques, delicious restaurants and unique antique shops that can easily fill an afternoon. Many of the area’s businesses operate out of 100-year-old stone buildings with historical significance that decorate the town beautifully.
A big thank you to Karen Fox from Perth Tourism for her recommendations, the Perth & District Historical Society and Perth Remembered for their resources and information about the area and David from the Hourglass and Sue from The Perth Antique Market for providing me with more information about their businesses.