by Neil Carleton
Although the view along the Mississippi River at Almonte was considerably different in the mid 1800s, at least two local landmarks survived the remarkable changes in our community over the past century and a half. One is the Menzies house, and the other is the magnificent burr oak on the property that grows near the river’s edge.
Millennia before settlers from Scotland and Ireland arrived in the early 1800s, the area we know today as Almonte was part of a territory inhabited by native peoples. The archaeological evidence includes projectile points found downstream over the years, below the lower falls.
In 2000, during renovations for business and residential space, a stone axe head was recovered from a crack in the bedrock beneath the Thoburn Mill building. This unique archaeological artifact dates from the Archaic period, as recent as 2900 years ago. During this time period, native peoples who lived in the region experienced significant changes in the environment. The first was a transition from primarily coniferous forests to mixed coniferous and deciduous forests. Later on, the predominant forest cover changed to primarily deciduous forests.
European settlers were attracted by the water falls as a source of power to operate a mill. David Shepherd was the first to arrive when he was granted 200 acres by the Crown in 1819. By 1850, our town was the home of seven busy woolen mills. By 1870 it could boast 30 stores and 40 other businesses. At this time, Almonte was one of the principal wool manufacturing towns in the Ottawa Valley.
The name changed too from Shepherd’s Falls to Shipman’s Mills, to Ramsayville then to Waterford. In 1855, when the newly created Canadian post office pointed out there was already a Waterford in Ontario, another name was needed. The proposed change to Almonte, named after a Mexican general and diplomat, was accepted by the Combined Countries of Lanark and Renfrew in June 1855. It wasn’t until 1859 that the post office recorded the new name.
Over this period of rapid expansion, the natural landscape along the river was changed in major ways. As the forest was cleared farther and farther back from the river banks, for lumber and fuel, streets were established and mills, stores, and homes were built.
Some trees were spared and continued to grow. Their seeds were dispersed by wind, or birds and squirrels, to become new seedlings. One acorn sprouted on fertile ground a short stone’s throw from the river. In this month’s column, I’d like to introduce you to that oak tree which stands tall today near Menzie house. In the mid 1800s, it was well on it’s way to a long life as a river sentinel.
Menzies house at 80 Queen Street is well known today as the ‘Menzies House 1850 Bed and Breakfast’, operated by Pat and Frank Vetter. It’s a designated Ontario Heritage 1850 house of Anglo-Norman design, with a long verandah entranceway and dormers, features which are found in Quebec.
Built over a stone house, the large white frame house was a merchant’s store with a blacksmith’s shop at the end of the property. John Menzies, the merchant, became the registrar of North Lanark County.
This remarkable pre1880 photo, courtesy of Michael Dunn, is a view of Menzies house across the Mississippi River from Shipman’s lumber yard. The mill was on the site of the present old Almonte town hall. Construction of this municipal architectural gem started in 1880. This photographic treasure dates from sometime after the completion of Menzies house in 1850, and before the 1880 start of the town hall.
To the right of Menzies house in this shot is Almonte’s first bridge, a wooden structure that allowed wagon, horse, and pedestrian traffic across the river in all seasons. Among the many other features of interest in this photo is the silhouette of a young tree, in front of the white building to the left of Menzies house. Growing close to the water, it’s the same river sentinel that grows on the property today about a century and a half later.
It’s certainly a beauty to behold and can be admired each season from any viewing spot along the bridge, or from across the river by the old Almonte town hall. In spring and summer it’s been a shelter and nesting site for many birds. During the fall and winter, when the leaves are off, I’ve seen a big hawk perched in silhouette on a bare branch keenly watching the rock pigeons flying over the river and around downtown buildings.
This magnificent burr oak is one of the largest trees in our community. It has a trunk circumference of 3.63 m (11’11”), a trunk diameter of 1.6 m (5’3”), and a canopy of 10.67 m (35’). The largest burr oak found in Ontario was located in 1984 at Burfort Township in Brant County with a trunk diameter of 2.12 m (6’11”).
Burr oaks can grow up to 30 m (about 100’) tall. As one of the most massive oaks, with a trunk diameter up to 3 m (nearly 10’), they’re also one of the slowest growing oaks. A tree with a height of 6 m (close to 20’) would be in the 20 year old range. Burr oaks commonly live 200 to 300 years, with some reaching the mature age of 400. The tree near Menzies house has not yet reached its prime.
Thank you to Pat and Frank Vetter for nominating this remarkable shady character.
Do you have a favourite tree? Readers are invited to submit their nominations for an honor roll of trees in our area that could be featured in future articles. You can contact me at 613-256-2018, <[email protected] >, or Neil Carleton, P.O. Box 1644, Almonte, Ontario, K0A 1A0. I look forward to hearing from you.
My volunteer columns started in March 2010, as print features, to support the tree planting and tree awareness initiatives of the Mississippi Mills Beautification Committee. The contact for the Tree Working Group is Ron Ayling, 613-256-4617. In Carleton Place, the contact for the Urban Forest / River Corridor Advisory Committee is Jim McCready, 613-257-5853. If you’d like to help, please call and say Neil sent you.
Until the next column, you’ll find me looking for and hanging out with local shady characters.