Beginnings long ago…
The story of Champlain Township begins with a prehistoric glacier and a sea that covered an area called the St. Lawrence Lowlands. Archaeologists later named this mass of water the Champlain Sea. The top of Vankleeck’s Hill, according to geologists, was the first land mass to appear in this region about 11,000 years ago as the sea receded. There was a time when ancestral beluga whales swam around the edges of what became Vankleeck’s Hill. The glacier and subsequent sea created a loam soil favourable to agriculture. Also left was clay base, and large quantities of stones that provide drainage together with back-breaking work each spring.
Simeon Van Kleeck and his wife Cecilia Jaycox arrived in Nova Scotia from the former British Province of New York in 1783. Simeon, of Dutch descent, was a demobilized officer who had supported the British crown during the American Revolution. His wife Cecilia had witnessed her brother’s capture and execution for his British allegiance.
As a United Empire Loyalist, Simeon was to receive land in payment for his services, and he applied for his grant several times. The legend is that while he waited for a decision, he sighted high ground on a plane of flat land south of the Ottawa River. Simeon and his son Simeon Jr. settled c.1797 on Concession IV, Lots 7,8, and 9, Hawkesbury Township. Today this is the location of Vankleek Hill.
Rivers and crossroads are early places of community settlement. L’Orignal has its roots in the seigneurial system and the fur trade route of the Ottawa River. The historic river village began as a port that served voyageurs, steamboats; and now pleasure craft. It is the seat for the United Counties of Prescott-Russell, and home to the oldest Jail and Court House in Ontario. The village has several Ontario Monuments Board designations for its history and notable heritage architecture.
Vankleek Hill prosperity began with the VanKleeck’s family inn that served travellers going to and from the Ottawa River port of L’Orignal to southern ports on the St. Lawrence River. Soon tradesmen and merchants were established at the four corners where today Highway 34 intersects with Main Street (County Road 10).
Gingerbread Capital of Ontario …
Vankleek Hill was named Ontario’s Gingerbread Capital in 2003. Gingerbread is the woodwork that adds architectural detail to building exteriors and interiors. The porches, windows, gables, and rooflines of over 250 homes in Vankleek Hill contain Victorian era decorative gingerbread elements. Builders ordered millwork through catalogues. By the 1890s, the new Vankleek Hill Manufacturing Company on Mill Street created and sold decorative shingles, latticework, verge boards, columns, spindles and brackets.
The backdrop for the gingerbread is red brick, a hallmark of Vankleek Hill Victorian and Edwardian period buildings. The local rich clay deposits were kilned to a distinctive soft red brick by at least three local brick factories active here in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Champlain Township today…
Since 1998 Vankleek Hill is one of four municipalities that make up the Township of Champlain that includes L’Orignal, and the townships of Longueuil and West Hawkesbury. These four communities were first historically linked through family and social ties, farming and commerce; and today with a new common municipal government.
Each of the four municipalities brings its own rich history of founding and development. L’Orignal (“Point à L’Orignal”) and Longueuil (Baron de Longueuil Seigneury) have fur trade and French seigneurial roots on the Ottawa River. This was quickly followed by a combined Loyalist and American presence. The steady influx of a stable French culture from the 1820s grew to become the majority cultural presence in the 20th century not only for L’Orignal, but for Prescott County.
Vankleek Hill provided West Hawkesbury with a commercial and social centre in the 1800s. Trades, shops, mills, railroads, library, schools and churches all serviced the agricultural community. To illustrate the vibrancy, Vankleek Hill has been home to a weekly newspaper, The Review, since 1893. From Vankleek Hill, the first francophone Member of Parliament for Prescott-Russell was elected in the 1870s: Major Felix Routhier.
Agriculture in West Hawkesbury and Longueuil townships is the living envelope for this four-member municipal community with dairy and mixed crop farms. The historic Higginson Round Barn on Highway 34 exemplifies the rich farm lands that have encouraged new Canadians to arrive from Switzerland, Holland, and other countries.
Sites to see
Heritage stonework is the calling card of L’Orignal with fine examples in the early fur trade building of Duldregan Hall, the jail and court buildings, hotel, and there are other historic buildings such as the rare Regency Cottage. The public wharf and beach are favourite spots from which to view the Lower Laurentians and enjoy sunsets. Both L’Orignal and Vankleek Hill offer tennis and public parks.
In Vankleek Hill two trompe-l’oeil murals at the corner of Home Avenue and Main Street East, and on the north side of the historic Methot building on High Street depict early Vankleek Hill storefronts, trades, community life, and the annual Vankleek Hill Agricultural Society Fair. A third mural at the corner of Main Street East and Highway 34 celebrates activities, landscapes, buildings that came to life in this agricultural community. There is a tribute to the military aid received during the 1998 Ice Storm.
All three murals depict true-life Vankleek Hill people, and were created by regional artists Elizabeth Skelly and Odile Têtu.
A ‘secret’ mural of Magical Beasts is located on a wall east of the Firehall and was created by local artist Susan Jephcott with her friends.
The Vankleek Hill & District Historical Society threads the telling of our local history through the buildings and their architecture. Home Avenue, contains the remains of the significant Higginson Tower, originally a windmill built in c.1832, that sits next to the once Higginson home c.1850.
Next door is St. John Anglican Church celebrating 150 years. Derby Street brings the charming and colourful log home constructed c.1828 by Stephen Cafs, a United Empire Loyalist. Main Street East contains the Georgian stone home built c.1828 by blacksmith Julius Blaisdell, and several Victorian red brick homes that housed physicians such as 127, and 151 Main Street East. Look across the street from the red brick of 151 to find the mirror image in painted pine.
Written by Michelle Landriault
Used by permission
For more information visit the Historical Museum and Visitor Information Centre:
95 Main Street East, Vankleek Hill
The restored museum, once a general store, is open to visitors 7 days per week from June to August and weekends September and October. Just inside the front door you will find a weath of information about places to stay, local restaurants, historic sites, recreational activities and local festivals.
Vankleek Hill and District Historical Society: Looking for your roots? Want to find out about the history of Vankleek Hill? Researching a name from your family tree?
The Vankleek Hill and District Historical Society has volunteers who can help you.
The historical society is a registered Canadian charity, and is affiliated with the Ontario Historical Society.The Society has created a museum, archives, and visitor centre to provide a centre of learning that draws on research, collections, and exhibitions. Ongoing local history preservation projects include oral histories, indexing cemeteries, walking tours.
The McCuaig, Cheney General Store (c.1834) provides a strong footing – in its architecture and early use as a general store – to further the objective of the historical society to foster interest in and preservation of community history. This heritage building was purchased by the Historical Society, and title turned over to Champlain Township for public safekeeping. The Historical Society restored the building for use as a community museum, archive, and visitor centre. Particular care was taken to restore the front verandah which used to showcase the goods for sale inside the general store.
Visit our Museum and Visitor Information Centre, at 95 Main Street East. The museum is managed by our active Vankleek Hill Historical Society. You can also find a wealth of tourist information inside the museum, where the Vankleek Hill Business and Merchant Association takes care of a tourist info centre.
To find out more about the Vankleek Hill and District Historical Society, visit: www.vankleek.ca
Another great resource for historical research: Check out through The Review Archives and reconnect to your roots!
La Tour Higginson Tower 5843 Highway 34 (next door to St. John’s Anglican Church), in Vankleek Hill. Watch for signs on Highway 34 and on Home Avenue in Vankleek Hill to indicate open hours. Visit the restored Higginson Tower. Climb to the top and enjoy a spectacular view for miles around! This former wind-powered grist mill was converted to an observatory around 1900. A committee restored this unique structure in 2006 and 2007. Free admission, but donations welcome. Audio interpretive guide (French or English). History books for sale. Enjoy a rest on a bench on the landscaped site. Just a few steps from Arbor Gallery. Bus tour or group tour organizers can e-mail Louise at: [email protected]
Maison Macdonell-Williamson House
National Historic Site Historique National
25, chemin des Outaouais Road
Chute à Blondeau ON
129 rue Main St. E.
Hawkesbury ON K6A 1A1
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