November 1, 2023
Cambray from the Air, October 2023
By Guy Scott
Cambray is a hamlet in the south west corner of Fenelon Township. It lies at a crossroads where the main pioneer road from Woodville to Lindsay met the Victoria Colonization Road that ran from near Oakwood north and ended past Victoria Road. Actually, the Victoria Road was one concession west of Cambray along the Mariposa-Fenelon boundary, but the village site for Cambray was moved slightly to the east to take advantage of a mill site on McLaren’s Creek. The Creek flowed from Goose Lake just north of Cambray to Sturgeon Lake and was named after Angus McLaren, the first settler in the area. The creek is rather small, but it did produce adequate flows in the spring season for the operation of a grist and saw mill.
The Cambray area contains some excellent farmland and was well known to the Natives long before settlement. Archeologists have uncovered at least 4 major native villages around Goose Lake which relied on the Three Sisters Culture (corn-beans-squash) that they cultivated in the area. The Natives were long gone by European Settlement (circa 1830s) due to the Iroquois-Huron wars of the 1600s. Settlers pushed into the Cambray area mostly from Eldon Township and were part of the wave of Scottish immigration that settled said township.
Cambray received a post office in 1853. Fenelon Township had been named for Abbe Fenelon, an early French missionary-explorer who was active in the mid 1600s, along the Great Lakes. Legend has it Abbe Fenelon was the first European to visit Niagara Falls. The Fenelon family had been church officials in Cambrai, France and hence the name (if somewhat Anglicized). The village population peaked about 1900 at 300 people and has declined since that date.
Cambray was a typical pioneer hamlet: a grist mill (hugely valuable to the local farmers), saw mill (which closed with the exhaustion of local timber supplies), blacksmith, general stores, and other agricultural service industries such as harness makers, wood worker, wagon maker, cheese factory and tannery. It also featured several shoemakers, a tailor, drugstore, a doctor and of course several hotels for the comfort of travellers and to slake the thirst of locals. There were also the obligatory churches, a large multi-room school, skating rink and sports field. Alcohol sales from the 4 hotels in the village became a local issue, and after incorporation as a police village in 1895, one of the first acts was a prohibition on alcohol sales. That finished the hotel business! With the improvement of roads, the 3 general stores in Cambray eventually went out of business, but the buildings remain. In fact, all the business sector has virtually disappeared as commerce gravitated to Lindsay or Fenelon Falls.
Many of the old buildings in the area were built from brick made at a local brick yard. Cambray was also the site of an oil rush in 1865. The Cambray Oil Company was formed to drill for oil at the old community hall. A well was drilled to 350’ when it was proclaimed oil was found. Local rumours circulated the well was seeded and the whole enterprise came to nothing. Cambray was also home to the last local independent phone company in our area. In the first decades of the 20th Century, many local communities set up their own independent phone companies. At the height of the local company craze, there were 1,100 such local telephone companies in Ontario, 56 in Victoria County and 16 in Fenelon Township! Cambray village was one of the first in the area in 1908. Over the years it absorbed some smaller outfits such as Eden, Hartley, Islay, Long Point, North Cambray, Palestine, Shamrock, Victoria Corners and Pleasant Valley Telephone Companies. Yes, those communities did have their own private telephone companies, which speaks volumes for the desire for a telephone in every community. Some of these companies had as few as one subscriber! In the 1960s, Bell Telephone began to buy up all the local lines (including Kinmount). In 1979, the Cambray Telephone Company was bought out by Amtelecom and the last 700 independent users joined a conglomerate. It was the end of an era.
Today, Cambray is a sleepy little hamlet with a modern community centre, ball field, residential houses grouped around the crossroads and still tumbling waters of McLaren’s Creek.