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The Forks of the Thames River is a mystical, cool place that plays quite a role in the history of London. Today it’s the home of both a revamped, cutting-edge splash pad for the kids as well as the site of Labatt Park, the oldest continuously operated baseball grounds on this fragile little planet of ours. Before all of this, though, it was also a great spot to stop for a rest and to eat some lunch, as John Graves Simcoe, Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, found in 1793. While lingering over some food, he became enamoured with the area and decided that it would make an excellent place to found a capital for Upper Canada. The actual village that would grow to become the City of London, though, wasn’t established until 1826, and by that time everyone had officially acknowledged that York (now Toronto) was the capital of Upper Canada as it would also go on to be the capital of the Province of Ontario. There was still room for their to be an administrative capital, since the western half of the province was at the time being administered from the little village of Vittoria, a tiny spot near what is now Port Dover, just north of Turkey Point. Then, as now, Vittoria was just too far from where the real settlement action was taking place, to the north between Lakes Erie and Huron. So it was that an undeveloped expanse of Crown Land, set aside by Simcoe all those years ago, became the administrative capital of Southwestern Ontario immediately upon it’s founding.

View of the Thames, 1840 (Painting attributed to John Hamilton)

History You Can See And Touch

The story of this founding, and of the growth of the city and the regions surrounding it, can seem rather hard to imagine in terms of our modern existence. The idea of coming from across the world to a new place in order to wrestle enough food to survive from the ground has only metaphorical comparisons with the modern way of moving to new cities to take advantage of particular markets for your skills. While it’s probably impossible to ever truly know what being a pioneer in Southwestern Ontario was actually like, there is a way to get a good visual, interactive idea of what pioneers had to go through on a day by day basis. The Fanshawe Pioneer Village allows visitors a chance to see and touch the experience of being a pioneer in the early days of Southwestern Ontario, in order to get an idea of what life was like at various times in the London area beginning in 1820. For those curious about how they might have fared as a early settler of the London region, it’s the best place to get in some research and first-hand experience.

Fanshawe Pioneer Village is located on the shores of Fanshawe Lake, straight down Fanshawe Park Road East at the edge of the Fanshawe Ridge neighbourhood. Fanshawe Ridge is an up-and-coming northeast London neighbourhood centered around the intersection of Highbury Avenue and Fanshawe Park Road. Being at the edge of the city has it’s advantages here; Fanshawe Ridge is a neighbourhood where green space is still abundantly available and the buildup of high-density commercial property is still at a minimum. It offers all of the perks of living right next door to the country while also being just a hop, skip, and a jump away from all of the amenities and excitements of city living. At the end of the neighbourhood is the ultimate in green space within the city of London – the Fanshawe Conservation Area – and in that lush, gorgeous spot is the Fanshawe Pioneer Village.

The idea of building a pioneer village museum for the London area first came about in 1955 in the offices of the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority. The open air museum was officially opened in 1959 with the help of Dr. Wilfrid Jury, the Director of the University of Western Ontario’s Museum of Indian Archaeology and Pioneer Life. Starting off on a small parcel of land, the space for the Fanshawe Pioneer Village was expanded to 2.2 acres in 1961 and again to 22 acres by 1963. The museum now takes up a total of 46 acres. Dr. Jury was the owner and exhibitor of a large collection of artifacts from the pioneer days of Southwestern Ontario; originally this exhibition was stored at Middlesex College at the University of Western Ontario but it was transferred to Fanshawe Pioneer Village in 1978. This was not a small collection, keep in mind; the Fanshawe Pioneer Village is now home to over 25,000 artifacts from the early days of the London area. These include furniture, art, clothing, farm tools, vehicles, and documents. It’s a large collection of things and it forms the backbone of the Fanshawe Pioneer Village experience.

Fanshawe Pioneer Village logo

Pioneer Days

That Fanshawe Pioneer Village experience is divided into four “clusters” in order to separate the history of the growth of London and area into four distinct times. The first of these is the early days of pioneer settlement in Southwestern Ontario, known here as the Fanshawe Settlement 1820-1850. These were the days when Governor Simcoe’s right-hand man, Colonel Thomas Talbot, ruled the granting of land to settlers with an iron fist and would not grant you land if you were an American Revolutionary, someone whose political tastes ran toward democracy, or didn’t offer Colonel Talbot what he deemed as a sufficient amount of respect. Londoners dwelling in the neighbourhood of Byron likely remember him best for Colonel Talbot Road, also known as Highway 4 both before and after the neighbourhood. Others may remember him for the partially instigating role his control of settlement lands played in the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837.

Fanshawe Pioneer Village’s first cluster shows what life was like for Colonel Talbot’s early settlers, back when he was still doling out the land. The cluster consists of three buildings: the log school, modeled after schools from the 1830s; the Elgie log house, which is representative of the homes the settlers of the 1820s put up upon receiving their lands; and the Colbert Log Barn, an imposing structure built out of rock elm logs. The cluster is meant to show the beginning of the settlement of the London region and the growth of farming pioneers into villages and towns before the beginning of industrialism in Ontario and the migration of rural workers to the cities. This is shown through several themes. The first of these is the change in land usage: settlers would come to a place full of trees, with wild fruit-bearing plants growing here and there through the forests and along the river. In order to fulfill the conditions that were put on them when they were granted land by the British Crown, settlers needed to clear their land of trees and open the earth up to take the seeds needed for crop growth. The regimented land grants given out by Colonel Talbot required the settler to build and occupy a house of a specific size within three years of taking ownership of the land; 5 acres of land needed to be cleared of trees and fenced off, and the area in front of the allotment needed to be cleared of trees and readied for road construction.

The need to cut down large numbers of trees was the impetus behind building these early sorts of dwellings out of logs. The Colbert Log Barn shows the sort of impressive, useful architecture that could be wrought from these logs, but there were always more trees than could be used as building materials. In the end, after exhausting all other uses for them, settlers would burn the remainder; it’s said that the smoke from the fires in Southwestern Ontario at the time could be seen from as far away as Chicago. The log house on display in the Fanshawe Settlement cluster is closer to how pioneers would have built their houses near the end of the early settlement period, however. In the early part of the 19th Century, the housing would have been more in line with the thatched-roof “Irish cottages” that many settlers left behind in the old world.

A Growing Community

The second cluster concerns the period from 1850 to 1880 when communities grew into municipalities; this period is known at Fanshawe Pioneer Village as Fanshawe Corners. The Fanshawe Corners cluster traces the path of London history as hardy individual pioneers worked together with others to build mutually useful infrastructure, and to build businesses that would suit the needs of this blossoming community. The growth of the railway and the telegraph also contributed to the growth of community, both regionally and nationally. To this end, Fanshawe Pioneer Village displays five buildings from this period: the blacksmith shop, the Corbett Tavern, the Lochaber Church, the Mount Moriah Lodge, and the Purple Hill Lodge. The blacksmith shop is one of the first four buildings established upon the village’s opening in 1959, which makes sense when you consider that one of the first things a growing farm community needs is someone who knows their way around the forge. The shop is modeled after the shop of William H Weir, who lived just outside of the 1850-1880 range but whose work won awards throughout local fairs; this work is among the artifacts you can view during a tour of the museum. The Corbett Tavern was originally built in 1843 by farmer and entrepreneur John Corbett; the tavern structure had been used by the Corbett family for a long time after it ceased being a tavern and it was moved to the village in 2008. The Lochaber church is the structure built in 1884 for the Rev. Lachlin MacPherson’s Free Presbyterian Church, a splinter Presbyterian sect of some historical note. The Lodges are examples of purpose-built halls for both the Masonic Lodge and the lodge of the Orange Order; the building currently being used as an example of an early Masonic Lodge hall started off life as Pond Mills SS #7, a one-room schoolhouse first built in 1825.

A group of Fanshawe Pioneer Village employees in costume

The Second Generation

The third cluster examines the period from 1880 until 1910, known as “Fanshawe Township.” This period saw the hardship of being a farmer rewarded with ever-increasing farm production, leading to self-sufficiency, exports, increased income, and the growth in communities that resulted from that. Three buildings showcase this period of growth: two farmsteads and the Fanshawe School. The first farm, labeled the “Caverhill Farmstead”, represents a family of first-generation settlers who have been established on the land for quite a long time; the old log house that was used when the family first settled has been converted into a barn and the family now lives in a much more contemporary frame house. The second farm, labeled the “Jury Farmstead”, shows a second-generation family of settlers in a typical late 19th Century farmhouse. The building is named as such because it is actually the childhood home of Dr. Wilfrid Jury, built by his father in 1888 to celebrate marriage to his mother. The Fanshawe School, meanwhile, shows the type of one-room schoolhouse that was built to serve the needs of that second generation of settlers, whose schooling involved formalized curriculums and attendance mandated by law in the Province of Ontario. The building itself was originally located at the corner of Highbury and Fanshawe Park Road before being moved to the Fanshawe Pioneer Village in 1992.

The Modern Age

The fourth cluster examines the rapid period of change in 1910-1920, through and after the First World War. This cluster, the “Town of Fanshawe”, shows the way that the community changed as the modern world began encroaching on them through war, plague, modern technology, and changing social norms. To this end, the Town of Fanshawe cluster showcase businesses like Alder’s Weaving Shed, the Denfield General Store, the Harmer Sawmill, and the London Pioneer Brewery, a business whose genesis dates all the way back to 1828. Included in this cluster is an approximated reconstruction of what the original printing press for the London Free Press looked like; it has to be an educated guess at best, since the actual original press was firebombed by unknown individuals unhappy with the newspaper’s politics at the time.

Aerial view of Fanshawe Pioneer Village

The history of London is a fascinating piece in the overall mosaic that is the history of Ontario, and the history of Canada as a whole. If you’re interested in seeing what life was like during the early period of Southwestern Ontario’s settlement, or if you’re interested in seeing how those early pioneer farms grew into communities, towns, and cities, then the Fanshawe Pioneer Village is exactly what you’re looking for. The collection of early settler artifacts is amazing and the staff on hand is really up on their historical knowledge.