A unique find behind the wallpaper

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The North Grenville Historical Society Archives has received an acquisition with real historical interest. Andrew Thriscutt discovered an old newspaper when renovating his home. “When we were renovating our house in the early 1990s, most of the house had lath and plaster walls. In the upstairs rooms, when pulling the paper off the walls, we found a front page for the ‘Kemptville Progressionist’.”

What makes this unusual is that this is only the second copy of the Progressionist known to still exist today. The Kemptville Progressionist, published by R.W. Kelly from his offices on Clothier street, on the corner of Sanders, was the very first newspaper published in North Grenville. Kelly ran his paper from 1855 until he moved to take over a newspaper in Brockville in 1860.

The issue Andrew discovered is dated October 20, 1858, although the year looks like 1838. The paper is in very bad condition, and will need a lot of work to stabilize it and protect it for the future. Fortunately, the NGHS Director of Archives, Amanda Gould, is a professional paper conservator with the Canadian Museum of History, so the paper is in good hands.

The newspaper is not the only artifact Andrew found while renovating his home. “Our house was Phineas Pelton’s original house which we bought in a pretty run-down state. In the course of renovations, we found lots of fun stuff…old letters from former residents, bottles and a pair of reading glasses. We have a wonderful beehive oven in the basement which we’ve opened up.”

There is, as always, a great deal to be learned from reading through old newspapers, and they are a wonderful source for the social history of a community at a certain point in time. One of the items in the Progressionist was a notice advertising the sale of a hotel in Burritt’s Rapids. It is dated May 1, 1858, and is signed by Thomas Johnston, whose hotel he describes as “That well Established House”, and it came “together with all the Out Buildings, Public Hall, etc.”. A floor plan of the hotel which is held in the National Map Collection at Library and Archives Canada shows the “Public Hall” was a ballroom located on the upstairs floor.

The Johnston Hotel, Burritt’s Rapids, c. 1900

The stables attached to the hotel could hold ten horses, and Johnston pointed out to potential buyers that such a “Valuable Property and Stand for Business in a flourishing section of the Country are not usually or as easily to be obtained”. The location of the hotel, “contiguous to the Canal Locks and on the Main Road from Kemptville to Mirickville, Smith’s Falls, Perth, etc.”, made it an attractive investment.

The Kemptville Progressionist, 1858

Thomas was born in Ireland where he married his wife, Elizabeth, before emigrating to Newfoundland, where his son James was born in 1838. His attempt to sell the hotel was successful and the new owner was William Reid. A fascinating footnote to this story was covered in an article in my book “Stories from the South Branch”. Johnston’s Hotel had been divided into two private homes by the 1920’s, with one side being occupied by William Henry Percival, a retired farmer, and his wife, the other side being the home of Frank Joseph Auger, a barber, and married with four young children under six. On Sunday, February 12, 1928, the two men confronted each other over, believe it or not, an open gate. Percival was fed up with Auger leaving the gate open. The confrontation escalated until Percival went into the house, and came back brandishing a revolver. The men grappled with the gun, which went off, hitting Auger in the temple. He died two days later, on February 14. Percival, immediately after the shooting, went to Kemptville where he turned himself in to Constable Gordon Ault, claiming to have killed his neighbour in self-defense. The inquest into Auger’s death was held in the Kemptville Town Hall, today the location of the archives where the newspaper will be held.

Another interesting historical link is found in an item advertising land for sale in South Gower. 175 acres was available on a Lot in the Fifth Concession, just north of the junction with Whitney Road on South Gower Drive. The land contained a “Good dwelling house, barn, and out buildings, two Capital wells of Water, and an excellent Orchard of bearing Fruit Trees, Kitchen Garden, etc.” It was described as being “well situated for a Hotel or Merchant’s Store, being on the Main Road between Prescott and the City of Ottawa, and only four miles distant from the R. R. Depot, Kemptville”. The seller was John Byce, and the notice was dated August 29, 1855. Apparently, the land had not yet sold three years later. Some intriguing notions come to mind: Burritt’s Rapids and South Gower Drive were both on main roads in 1858, busy enough to warrant opening hotels for passing travellers. Why then were they for sale? Perhaps because the railway had arrived through Kemptville in 1854, and canals and roads were no longer the way people went from town to town? Was this John Byce the same John Byce who sold his land in Oxoford-on-Rideau to Asa Clothier, who then founded the village that became Kemptville? So many insights, information, and speculation, all from one tattered and torn newspaper that had been hidden behind wallpaper for so many decades. Many thanks to Andrew Thriscutt for preserving such a piece of our shared story.

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