The Glengarry News - Glengarry Supplement

Seeds of the Fair were planted during War of 1812

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The story of the first days of the Williamsto­wn Fair is intensely rich in human drama. It unfolds at one of the most important moments in Canada’s history and is peopled by determined early settlers, among them, brave Highlander soldiers who endured appalling hardships to build a community at a time when the prospect of war was constantly on the horizon.

Canada’s oldest continuous­ly held fair celebrated its 200th birthday in 2011 and 2012, which coincided with the bicentenni­al of the War of 1812. It is a testament to the optimism of Glengarria­ns that the Fair should have been establishe­d not only as they were raising regiments to repel an American invasion, but at a time when all of Europe was embroiled in what amounted to a world war.

But then Glengarry itself was born in troublesom­e times.

Kidnapping­s, flights from bands of marauding rebels, daring raids to save stranded family members, confiscate­d farmsteads and homes left behind, and valiant regiments who fought to preserve British North America – this was the crisis of the American revolution that led to the first settlement of Glengarry.

The first settlers to Glengarry were United Empire Loyalists, 546 Highlander­s and Palatines, soldiers from disbanded Loyalist regiments and their families, and farmers who arrived in 1784 after being forced to flee New York State with little more than the clothes on their backs. What they saw from their crowded bateaux before stepping on land was a rocky shore, and behind it a mighty wall of dark forest.

They weren’t the first Scottish settlers in the region. In 1763, an earlier settlement of disbanded Highlander soldiers from General James Wolfe’s army received land grants west of Glengarry near Cornwall. But the Loyalists were the first in Glengarry, led here by Sir John Johnson (1742-1830), who before the revolution had been one of the wealthiest landowners in British North America owning vast estates in the Mohawk Valley of New York. Sir John fled early in the conflict in May 1776, his estate at Johnstown, New York, confiscate­d, and his wife, Lady Polly Watts Johnson, seven months pregnant at the time, held hostage by the insurgents until she managed to escape.

Sir John raised two battalions for the King’s Royal Regiment of New York (the Royal Yorkers) and, like the Scarlet Pimpernel, organized many successful raids to bring out his friends, neighbours and former tenants who were forced to flee the vengeful Americans.

After the war, disbanded Royal Yorkers and troops from other regiments, including the 84th (Royal Highland Emigrant Regiment), were among the soldiers allotted land on the north bank of the St. Lawrence.

In 1786, more settlers arrived in Glengarry, including a migration of about 500 Highlander­s, displaced crofters principall­y from Knoydart, Glengarry, Scotland, who had been evicted from their homes during the Highland Clearances. Under the leadership of Rev. Alexander MacDonell (Scotus), who brought five ships from Scotland, these Gaelic-speaking and Roman Catholic emigrants were the founders of St. Raphael’s.

Glengarry’s first settlers were already experience­d frontiersm­en. Before the revolution­ary war shattered the lives of the New York Loyalists, most of them had carved out farms from the dense forest in the Mohawk Valley. Similarly, the Knoydart emigrants were no strangers to hardship. These newcomers were a hard and self-reliant people lured by the promise of legal possession of their own land in Canada and the chance to join their Highland kin in a Gaelicspea­king community.

Within three decades, the Glengarry settlers had cleared homesteads from the dense forests and cruel swamps of what was described on maps until 1773 as “The Great Wilderness.”

The new Williamsto­wn, named for Sir John’s father, Sir William Johnson, was soon a

bustling centre where Sir John built what is believed to be the first mill in Ontario.

Working bees, barn raisings, neighbours gathering to help each other out, and the strong family ties typical of Scots, soon built a community so well establishe­d that by 1808 a patent was granted to the township of Charlotten­burgh for the thencalled Glengarry Agricultur­al Society to hold a fair. In 1907, the final name for the society was settled on, the St. Lawrence Valley Agricultur­al Society, the sponsors of the Fair today.

The first fairs were held in the streets of Williamsto­wn and fair days were no doubt the most festive of the entire year. It was a time for the isolated settlers to gather, socialize, and show and barter their wares. It’s easy to imagine gleeful children running between the booths, barking dogs, the fiddles and bagpipes, and no small amount of gossip.

The earliest days of the Williamsto­wn Fair are closely linked to Upper Canada’s first regular Military Regiment, the Glengarry Fencibles, raised in 1811-12 largely from the Highland settlers in the region who distinguis­hed themselves during the War of 1812.

Early Williamsto­wn was in effect a military settlement settled by war-hardened veterans who could defend Upper Canada in the event of future attacks from the south.

Today, the cap badge of the Fencibles is part of the modern uniform of the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlander­s.

In 1814, Sir John Johnson presented 12 acres to create a fairground for the people of the district and this land is the site of the present day Williamsto­wn Fairground­s and the Loyalist and Nor’Westers Museum, formerly the village’s public school.

 ??  ?? CELEBRITIE­S: The Williamsto­wn Fair has had several famous visitors over the years. For example, in 1966 Miss Dominion of Canada, Diane Coulter of Wheatley, Ontario, participat­ed in the opening parade at Canada's oldest fair. TV personalit­y Laurier LaPierre officially opened the exhibition that year.
CELEBRITIE­S: The Williamsto­wn Fair has had several famous visitors over the years. For example, in 1966 Miss Dominion of Canada, Diane Coulter of Wheatley, Ontario, participat­ed in the opening parade at Canada's oldest fair. TV personalit­y Laurier LaPierre officially opened the exhibition that year.
 ??  ?? MARCHING BACK INTO HISTORY: In 2011, the Williamsto­wn Fairground­s and the grounds of the historic Sir John Johnson Manor House sounded with fife and drums, the cracks of muskets and the boom of cannons during Glengarry’s Military Heritage weekend. Among the re-enactors were the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles, the county’s first regular Military Regiment, which like the Fair, traces its origins to the 1811 era. To celebrate the dual anniversar­y and the bicentenni­al of the War of 1812, over 100 re-enactors duplicated the lives of men in training and in battle, their families and period craftspeop­le providing spectators with a taste of how Upper Canada’s early settlers lived as war raged around them. The village was originally a community of veterans who stood ready to defend their homes against any possible invasion by the Yankees.
MARCHING BACK INTO HISTORY: In 2011, the Williamsto­wn Fairground­s and the grounds of the historic Sir John Johnson Manor House sounded with fife and drums, the cracks of muskets and the boom of cannons during Glengarry’s Military Heritage weekend. Among the re-enactors were the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles, the county’s first regular Military Regiment, which like the Fair, traces its origins to the 1811 era. To celebrate the dual anniversar­y and the bicentenni­al of the War of 1812, over 100 re-enactors duplicated the lives of men in training and in battle, their families and period craftspeop­le providing spectators with a taste of how Upper Canada’s early settlers lived as war raged around them. The village was originally a community of veterans who stood ready to defend their homes against any possible invasion by the Yankees.

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