The Homestead – a John Dunn story

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A stone cairn stands close to the heart of the town of Almonte. Erected on the lawn in front of the complex housing the Community Centre, the Arena and the Curling Club, a bronze plaque on the cairn states that the surrounding acres make up GEMMILL PARK, and that the whole acreage was donated to the Town of Almonte by Winifred Knight Dunlop Gemmill, spinster.

The original 100 acres formed a grant from the crown to Miss Gemmill’s grandfather, John Gemmill, one of the Lanark Society Settlers who fled Scotland after the collapse of Britain’s economy following the Napoleonic wars, and came to a New World called British North America. The Atlantic crossing, ordinarily seven to eight weeks in sailing vessels, brought the emigrants to a landing at Quebec and thence to Montreal by one of Mr. Molson’s steamers, and then up the St. Lawrence to Prescott. There they changed from journeying by waterway to journeying overland towards Perth, and thence further overland to a settlers’ depot beside a small river in the wilderness which they promptly christened New Lanark on the Clyde.

From New Lanark two routes were available to settlers going out to choose suitable locations for homes and 100-acre farms in the wilderness. Both were water routes, called respectively the Clyde and the Mississippi.

Four John Gemmills were listed amongst the emigrants who came over on the “David of London”. John Gemmill from the parish of Dunlop in Ayrshire came down the Mississippi as far as the 62 foot fall in the river. There he found calm water in a bay at the foot of the falls, and it made a most pleasant view from the high ground overlooking the bay. John Gemmill chose that as his lot and set to work to clear the forest to make land. One-third of his land only could be cropped. The remainder would have to be left for it was dense bush, ravines, and hillsides. A creek ran diagonally through the bush towards the bay. Immediately below the high ground with the view over the bay was a sharp ravine, and at its lower end shelving rock where a spring of the finest crystal clear water spurted from the ground in a constant stream.

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In the custom of the Gael, and particularly the emigrant Gael, John Gemmill immediately christened this location THE HOMESTEAD, and resolved to make his home on high ground, from where he could look out over the calm waters of the bay which the few local people had quickly become accustomed to calling “Gemmill’s Bay”..

Some years later that first home gave way to another, a large structure of brick and stonel which was fitted out on the inside with great amounts of white marble facing on its numerous fireplaces. The residence was distinguished in two other ways as well: a full two-storey residence, it had extremely steep gables rising to an almost razor-back ridgeboard, and it was surrounded by magnificent maple trees that provided shade from summer’s heat.

John Gemmill had come from the parish of Dunlop in Ayrshire, and, when his first-born, a son arrived at THE HOMESTEAD in Almonte in 1833, when the village was known by the name Ramsayville, the child at baptism was given two names, James, after the ancient line of kings of Scotland, and Dunlop, after his father’s native parish. James Dunlop Gemmill grew up to be a remarkable figure of a man. He stood six feet and two inches in height. Was of a powerful build, a striking appearance, and scholarly in outlook.

In an age when education was for the privileged few only, James Dunlop Gemmill, a scion of an ancient Scottish family, was true to his Scottish love of learning and religion.. His earliest education came in Ramsay at the school conducted by Mr. Gillan, later at the French college at Pointe aux Trembles, P.Q., and still later at the Royal Military College at Kingston, where he was awarded the first-class certificate. RMC training also qualified him to hold the Queen’s commission as an subaltern in the Volunteers.

Shortly after Confederation in the summer of 1867, when the security of the new Dominion of Canada was under threat of invasion from the United States by bands of the Fenian brotherhood,, the local company of the 42nd battalion of Volunteers was commanded by Captain James Dunlop Gemmill. Under his command, company cadre included Peter McDougall, ensign, James Rosamond, lieutenant, Donald McEwen, Hugh Lockhart, Paul Russell, Duncan McGregor, and Hugh Cram, sergeants, Gavin Russell, John Brown and James Stevenson, corporals.

Subsequently Captain Gemmill was promoted to Major, and finally to command the entire 42nd Regiment of Volunteers in the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

Lt. Col. J. D. Gemmill

In 1877 James Dunlop Gemmill married Katherine Murdoch Knight, daughter of George Knight of Glasgow, who was Manager of the Ayrshire Railway and Secretary of the Clyde Trust. Their family comprised three children, two daughters and one son. The son, Eric Ferguson Gemmill, died in infancy in 1892 at Bournemouth, England where the Gemmills resided for many years after leaving Almonte.

Mrs. Gemmill died in Rome in 1908 and was buried in the Protestant cemetery at the foot of the Aurelian Walls.

In 1911 the colonel and two girls returned to visit Canada and the United States, and it was there that the younger girl, Edith, died.

The colonel and his daughter Winifred returned to England, and to relieve the pain of grief, undertook to travel through Egypt, and back to Europe through Austria. They were in Austria at the outbreak of war in the first days of August, 1914, and escaped fortuitously through to France, and back to England.

Born in 1833 when Almonte was a village of sorts, and carried the name “Ramsayville”, he inherited through the Gemmill connection considerable interest in the Hudson’s Bay Company, a number of other commercial and industrial enterprises, and property in the New World called Ramsay, Huntley, and later still, Manitoba.

In 1854 a bombshell struck the small village, then known as Waterford, around the falls of the Mississippi. Postal authorities had decreed that the name the villagers had chosen, Waterford, would no longer do: it had been taken up by another community in the west (of Toronto), and the villagers would have to find another to take the place of Waterford.

On a very hot day in June of that same year, John Haskins, who had a sawmill below the bay, and who was also slidemaster, operating the sluice to permit white pine and white oak logs from Upper Lanark to pass over the falls down through a chute to the calm water of the bay, found himself leaning on a pike pole when James Gemmill came along. Conversation ensued, and news of the postal authority’s ultimatum was immediately dissected. Mr. Haskins suggested the name Gemmill for the name of the village, as an alternative to Waterford.

Mr. Gemmill demurred, and in turn offered another name for consideration. “What about this fellow, Almonte?”, said he, using the name of the Mexican ambassador to the United States who had fought so admirably as the underdog for the rights of Mexico in the division of the spoils of the old Spanish Empire in North America. Almonte’s anti-republican sentiments, softened often by admirable comments from him concerning the wisdom of kingship, had found favour on the banks of the Canadian Mississippi.

The name, Almonte, went forward to the county council, found acceptance, and came into use in 1855.

Business interests and commercial enterprise took the Gemmill family to Britain to live in closer proximity to the imperial theme and swelling undulations of Empire than the Spring Bush offered in Almonte. Nevertheless for over forty years the colonel maintained his subscription to the Almonte “Gazette” where he followed the incidents and events of the town assiduously. A continuing feature of Lt. Colonel James Dunlop Gemmill’s generosity in respect of his home town stands midway up – or down – Bay Hill. Tthe Reformed Presbyterian church is erected there on land from The Homestead, a donation to the congregation from the colonel.

When the colonel died in London in 1927 at age 96, Winifred had her father’s remains brought back to the town which owed its name to a suggestion from its oldest native son. The funeral took place from THE HOMESTEAD to the Auld Kirk cemetery, where it was laid to rest in the family lair immediately at the back of the stone structure, the Auld Kirk. There James Dunlop Gemmill rests surrounded by many other emigrant Gaels.

In 1943 when the “blitz” was raging in the night skies over London, Winifred, last of the Gemmill family, died. Throughout her life she had been engaged with a society in London whose aims and objects she heartily approved of, namely, the Society for the Promotion of the Humane Slaughtering of Animals.

In her will she made a bequest of the Gemmill properties in and near Almonte. THE HOMESTEAD property, was directed as a gift to the people of Almonte for their recreation and enjoyment. The text of the pertinent paragraph in the will states:

I devise and bequeath all my real and personal estate situate and being within the

jurisdiction of the Canadian Courts and ……… and also the residue of my English estate as aforesaid to my Canadian Trustees upon trust for the Almonte, Ontario Town Council to be applied by the said Town Council in the following manner:

(a) as to my freehold property in Almonte consisting of a house and lands commonly

known as the Homestead Property, consisting of ninety-eight acres or thereabouts, being part of Lot 15 in the ninth concession of the Township of Ramsay, Ontario, now within

the limits of the Town of Almonte to construct, establish and maintain a Public Park

or Recreation Ground.

(b) (re other properties in Almonte, Huntley, Manitoba and Northern Ontario) “for the purpose of establishing on these properties a Slaughter House or Slaughter Houses in which there shall be carried out the humane slaughtering of animals, and with the object of carrying on and promoting and furthering in Canada the work of the Council of Justice to Animals and Humane Slaughter Association of London, England…”

The town council, looking on all this, thought that Ontario had made great leaps forward in the twentieth century since Laurier’s promise at the turn of the century that the forthcoming years would belong to Canada, and that the regulations governing slaughterhouses were more than adequate.

A private member’s bill found its way into the legislature of Ontario, was there dissected and found readily acceptable to the assembled legislators of that jurisdiction. The slaughter-house condition of the bequest to the town of Almonte was declared unnecessary. HOMESTEAD thus became Gemmill Park, untrammelled..

Thus runneth the kingdom of the Gael in the town of Almonte in North Lanark..

John Dunn

15 Feb 01.