Elgin County, est. 736 residents
Vienna, Ontario is often referred to as a “blink of a town.” This tiny village nestled in the heart of Southwestern Ontario seems like every other, but digging deeper and this small town has its own past that’s just as unique and rich as the rest of our country.
The Village of Vienna was established in 1829 with a request from Jesse Smith and Captain Samuel Edison. The lots were divided up, and the area was named Shrewsbury, after John Talbot, the first Earl of Shrewsbury. The name of the town was later changed to Vienna by Captain Edison, who was a local hero that fought in the War of 1812 for the 1st Middlesex Militia — as a way to honour his ancestors in Austria.
Over the next 40 years, Vienna would experience a major boom period, becoming Bayham’s largest centre and one of Upper Canada’s most prosperous areas. The lumber trade grew in size and transformed into the primary industry supporting the village, bringing around 1,200 to 3,000 inhabitants during its peak. The Otter Creek was very important during this growth, as the wide creek was ideal to ship the large amount of pine, maple and oak trees downstream to Lake Erie.
The reduction of the lumber trade, severe fires and flooding put an end to Vienna’s expansion. During this booming period, Vienna had multiple hotels, general stores, mills, shoe shops, churches, an elementary school and a high school, a library, a lodge, and much more available to the townspeople.
The Edison Connection
The famous inventor Thomas Edison is also connected to the area. His grandfather lived along Otter Creek and Thomas would visit him during the summers. Built in 1816, the original Edison homestead is long gone from its place along Otter Creek. Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, was a very close friend to Thomas Edison. After Edison’s death in 1931, he purchased the original family homestead and moved it from Vienna to Greenfield Village, Michigan, the site of the Henry Ford Museum.
This process involved disassembling the house, shipping it to Michigan and reassembling it on its new plot of land. Ford also had the bushes and some of the ground from around the homestead shipped to the building’s new location. Allegedly, he even came to Vienna in 1933 to do an inspection on the property before it was taken apart and stayed at the Vienna Hotel. On September 17, 1961, a historical plaque was unveiled to commemorate the Edison homestead.
The United Empire Loyalist’s Burial Ground, now known as the Edison Pioneer Cemetery, is where several members of the Edison family are buried. Captain Samuel Edison donated the land used for the Edison Pioneer Cemetery and it was restored by the Municipality of Bayham in 1965.
The Bayham Historical Society operates the Edison, Vienna and Area Museum. The original Edison Museum opened in the late 1980s inside the house donated by the Howard family, which was built in 1853. The site of the museum sat upon land that was once owned by the Edison family. Nora Edison Coombe, a first cousin of Thomas Edison’s and the last remaining descendent with the Edison name to live in Vienna, donated most of the museum’s pieces.
William Gheysen and the Vienna Lions recently re-purchased the Vienna Community Centre after a lengthy battle with the municipality, which planned on selling the community centre. The Vienna Community Centre was built in 1964 by the Vienna Lions.
Currently, the Vienna Home Center, Valley Variety, and the Vienna Laundromat are amongst the only remaining businesses left in the area. My grandmother lives in Vienna and I have fond memories of her and my grandfather letting us stop at Valley Variety to pick out a treat after a long day at the beach in Port Burwell.
I have many fond memories spending time with my grandparents and family in Vienna. It’s always been a special place in my heart and it isn’t just a stop for gas before heading off to Port Burwell to go to the beach. Each small town has their own unique history, which I’m hoping to continue to highlight with Small Town Canada. Next stop… Newfoundland!
Special thank you to my father for providing me with a few books on the history of Vienna, my grandmother and great uncle for providing me with documents from their personal collections, and the Bayham Historical Society for providing me with additional documents and photos of Vienna and the Edison family.