It’s very likely that if you don’t live in Prince Edward County (and/or are not obsessed with local history) you haven’t heard of Demorestville. It’s a little town – almost a ghost town – in the northwestern part of the County that hasn’t seen much excitement in, oh, a hundred and fifty years or so. But once upon a time, things were different. Demorestville was at one point one of the biggest towns in Upper Canada, rivalling Picton, Belleville, Toronto, and Kingston for size and primacy. Then, around the middle of the nineteenth century, it began to slowly but surely decline. Why did this happen?
As I’ve discovered, the answers are murky. The most clear-cut is that, harbourless and not on the railroad, the town simply declined as time went on. However, some cite other reasons: the death of Guillaume Demorest, the town’s founder, and a mysterious fire that apparently occurred around the turn of the twentieth century – though no records exist of it. Then, there’s the legacy you can see in the stretch of road snaking around the left side of the village, called Gomorrah Road…
Forgotten as it is today, Demorestville has one of the more interesting histories of Ontario’s tiny towns. Let’s dive into it.
Guillaume Demorest was born in 1769 in Duchess County, New York. He was from a French Huguenot family which had come to the Dutch colony of New Netherland via the Old World Netherlands, where they had originally fled to escape persecution. As a boy during the American Revolution he joined the commissary of the British army and later came to Canada in 1790. By 1794 he was in Sophiasburg (the township where Demorestville is located), and by 1800 he had built a grist mill on a stream flowing from nearby Fish Lake. As usually happened in Loyalist days, a community built up around the mill. (I have to add the description of Fish Lake from the 1878 historical atlas of Hastings and Prince Edward Counties: “Its name was derived from the immense quantities and superior quality of those species of the finny tribe which filled its waters in the early days of settlement.” The finny tribe, ha…)
Next, a general store and tavern were established by Samuel Munro in 1822, and over the next two decades, Demorestville became the second-largest town in the County after Picton. By the late 1820s, the Munro general store had a clientele of nearly 2,000 people. According to J.E.R. Munro, who wrote a history of Demorestville in 1971,
At its peak it had a grist mill, a saw mill, a woollen mill, a linseed oil plant, a cooperage, an ashery, a lumber yard, a tannery, three taverns, three general stores, a harness shop, three shoemakers’ shops, two milliners, a furniture maker’s shop, several carpenters, three blacksmith shops, three itinerant tailors, dressmakers, a livery, two sporadic attempts at a newspaper, a resident doctor and dispensary, two churches . . . a township fair, a ladies’ band, a baseball team, horses entered in the circuit races, shipping operations in the great lakes, ship building in Munro’s lumber yards, wholesale distributing with England and the United States, and allied activities too numerous to record.
Munro gives 1860 as Demorestville’s peak year, and as his work seems fairly reliable to me, I think we can discount the vague statement Brenda Hudson makes in the book Pride of Place: that the town began to decline after Guillaume Demorest died in 1848. (A quick word on him – he had a successful life as a Justice of the Peace and militia officer, resembling Gananoque founder Joel Stone. He was not, as some accounts say, related to “Madame Demorest,” a nineteenth-century New York tastemaker and apparent inventor of tissue paper clothing patterns. She was born Ellen Curtis. However it’s possible he was somehow related to her husband, William Jennings Demorest.)
I wonder, though, about the language used in the 1878 Illustrated Historical Atlas of the Counties of Hastings and Prince Edward. The compiler writes,
The village was once the chief place of the county, aside from Picton, but does not appear to be in as flourishing a condition now as formerly.
I suppose you could write that way about a distance of eighteen years (since 1860) but the phrasing feels a bit historical. I also find it odd that Munro states shipping and shipbuilding went on in Demorestville, but then goes on to say the town declined because it was four miles from a harbour, “and this was too far from the lake shipping which was becoming important.” But hadn’t they been doing shipping and shipbuilding out of Demorestville at least up till 1860? What happened to this industry, then? Too much competition from more important towns? Although I’m not denying being landlocked hastened Demorestville’s decline, I would guess that the lack of a railroad connection (the Grand Trunk Railway came through in the 1850s) made more of an impact. Not being on the railroad resulted in the decline of many an Ontario town, like for example Newburgh. (Demorestville had also once been on the Kingston-York road, before a bridge was built over the Trent River in 1834.)
As time went on the town also likely lost its, ahem, salty reputation. Especially in the early days, this was something it was well-known for. For example, the Bartons were one of the first families to settle in the Demorestville area in the early nineteenth century. Margaret Barton, daughter of the original settlers, reported before her death in 1920:
The first I remember of Demorestville is that it was a very drunken place. A great deal of drinking was carried out everywhere. At every bee they had whiskey. Right down here [near her residence] . . . there was a distillery.
It was a common thing to see a farmer drive up to the distillery and get drunk. It seemed to be a very thriving place notwithstanding its drunkenness. Its drunkenness is what caused someone to give it the name of Sodom.
Very few accounts (most of them published in the 1960s and 70s) mention the fact that Demorestville was well-known for being the local “Sodom.” However, Gomorrah Road off Highway 14 still recalls this past, even if the local historians of fifty years ago chose to ignore it.
Lastly, there’s the mystery of the alleged fire that destroyed Demorestville. This is actually what first drew me to the town’s history – it seemed so spooky, for a once-thriving town to be consumed by a fire, leaving ruins that no one cared to return to. Wikipedia mentions it, as does this site, although it’s hard to say which page got its information from which. However, there is no record of such a fire occurring.
Interestingly, a woman called Amy Vader, a historical resident of the town, did report that “[t]he whole village burned at one time.” But in Capon and Haylock’s More Stories of Prince Edward County, where I got that quote from, they state that no records exist giving the date of the fire. It seems highly unlikely that local newspapers wouldn’t have reported on a devastating fire, but then where did this story arise from, and what event was Amy Vader referring to? (This highlights a problem of doing local history research – the lack of reliable sources and bibliographies – but that’s another story.) Or, perhaps there are newspaper reports, but no one has done the research to find them. Perhaps the fire didn’t even happen at the turn of the century, as there appears to be zero evidence to back that date up; maybe it was much earlier. None of the other histories of Demorestville I’ve read mention a fire – but then they also don’t mention the town’s “Sodom” phase.
This one really is a mystery, and one that I’ll keep my eye out for. In the meantime I’d love to get out to Demorestville one day, and take a look at what remains of this little town whose death knell sounded well over a century ago, and yet refuses to die.
The nice people at the Prince Edward County Archives sent me a package of materials on Demorestville, most of which seem to be photocopies of a scrapbook of newspaper clippings from the 1960s. They didn’t send me any information on this scrapbook, but if you’re interested I’d be happy to drop them a line and ask.
Capon, Alan Roy and Margaret E. Haylock. More Stories of Prince Edward County. Belleville, ON: Mika Publishing, 1982.
Hudson, Brenda M. Pride of Place: a Story of the Settlement of Prince Edward County. Belleville, ON: Mika Publishing, 1982.
Illustrated Historical Atlas of the Counties of Hastings and Prince Edward. Toronto: H. Belden and Co., 1878.