Author Larry Cotton is intrigued by the untold history of small towns. When he looks at 100-year-old buildings he says he wonders at who visited these places and what their lives were like.
In particular Cotton is interested in a window of time when Ontario’s rural villages were at their wildest – from about 1825 to 1910 – a time of heavy alcohol use in incredibly difficult circumstances.
He’s named a series of books after this period called Whiskey and Wickedness and has recently published a volume that includes Haliburton County.
“When the first settlers arrived in the town of Haliburton around 1860-1861 one of the local trappers remarked that Haliburton [County area] was only suited for damned fools and bears” he says.
“That was of course when the Canada Land and Emigration Company acquired the 10 townships … from the provincial government for settlement purposes. That was [nearly] half a million acres. They acquired it for 50 cents an acre including the waterfront but excluding any swamp. It shows you that land was not placed in high value at that time.”
Many settlers came from more urban areas he says and were not prepared for what would be required of them.
“They weren’t lumbermen and they weren’t farmers. A number of them were small tradesmen or totally unskilled. That was a very very difficult transition for them to make” he says.
During that time the tavern played an important role in society more broadly.
Pubs were places new immigrants would recognize from home and were frequently the only neutral spaces you could meet with your neighbours and commiserate about the difficulty of your new life.
Meanwhile shantymen would be coming in and out of these towns.
The escapades make for some interesting tales in Cotton’s book Whiskey and Wickedness: Kawartha and Haliburton Districts.
Cotton says he finds the stories by reading through old newspapers of the time and examining other official documents.
“I found there’s stories in early newspapers and criminal court records coroner’s inquests diaries things like that. They had stories about ghosts they had stories about murders fights and colourful individuals that were attached to these places” he says.
Though time consuming he says the stories are worth it.
“It’s a long process. It’s not that it’s not enjoyable to read these newspapers but I can sit for three days and only get one story” he says.
Stories include murders street brawls drownings and attacks. And there are plenty of examples from Minden Haliburton Kinmount and beyond.
He tells the story of a shootout on the street outside the Dominion Hotel in Minden in the 1870s.
“The two hotel owners went out on the street and they’d been arguing and of course they’d been drinking and they had a shootout. The hotel owner from Gooderham was shot in the stomach and as he lay on his back on Bobcaygeon Road he was bleeding profusely he tells his onlookers to get him into this carriage because he didn’t want to die in a terrible place like Minden” he says.
It was commonplace for people to carry guns with them Cotton says crediting the American civil war for introducing the idea that sidearms were a good idea.
“For instance if you went into the barroom in the Dominion Hotel in the 1870s … the bartender would collect your bullets out of your gun and give them back to you when you left. The fact you can walk into the restaurant barroom today in the Minden hotel and it’s the same building. It’s changed a lot. This is what flashes through my mind when I walk into a place like that.”
The book including the Haliburton Highlands is volume three of the Trent Severn Waterway Series examining the histories of the settlements along that specific watercourse.
On Saturday April 7 at 2 p.m. Larry Cotton will be at the Haliburton Highlands Museum to give a talk about his book. Copies will be available and admission is by donation.
To find out more about Cotton and his books visit his website: www.whiskeyandwickedness.ca .