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August 27, 2023

Downtown Lakefield, Looking North

By Guy Scott

Geography made sure Lakefield became a village site early in its history. The village grew up at the point where Lake Katchewanooka tumbled over a waterfall and the Otonabee River began a gradual series of rapids; falling over 160 feet over the nine miles to Peterborough. The townsite was an obvious mill site as well as a crossing spot on the Kawartha Lakes.

The true founder of the village was a famous literary figure from Canadian history: Colonel Samuel Strickland. Strickland came from a well-to-do English family. Of the 7 Strickland children in his family, 5 were well-known for their literary exploits. This included 2 sisters: Catharine Parr Trailll and Susanna Moodie, who like their brother, published numerous books about settlement and pioneer life in our area. Strickland arrived at the falls in Lakefield to homestead in 1831. Despite being raised a gentleman of the manor, he literally chopped his farm out of the forest. His glowing reports of the area lead to his two sisters settling at Lakefield in the 1830s. Lakefield was originally called Nelson’s Falls after the first settlers in the area, John Nelson. The next name used was Herriot’s Falls, after a miller in town called Herriot. By 1851, the settlement was called Selby. A few years later, the name was changed to Lakefield. The first post office was called north Douro, and the name Lakefield was not official until 1875.

The village of Lakefield always had an industrial component. Obviously it contained saw and grist mills fed by the waterpower of the Otonabee River. But it also boasted a large cement factory operated by the Canada Cement Company and exploiting the nearby limestone and marl deposits. The factory chimney was a long-time landmark even after the plant closed. Lakefield Arms made firearms. In 1850, Thomas Gordon started the famous Lakefield Canoe company, which along with its Peterborough (and Minden) counterparts, made the Peterborough area the Canoe Capital of Canada.

Until the Lakefield to Peterborough section of the Trent Canal was opened in 1904, Lakefield was a port for steamboat travel on the middle section of the Trent Canal. Steamboats travelled from Lakefield to Rosedale for many years until the entire canal was completed. The railway from Peterborough was extended to Lakefield in 1875 to supply its burgeoning industrial base, but extended no further north due to the rugged nature of local geography—the Kawartha Lakes were in the way!

The Strickland Family were founders of Christ Church of North Douro as early as 1853. The beautiful little church was soon outgrown and a larger church was built of local limestone beside it. Both churches still exist today in downtown Lakefield.

The Strickland family dominated the early history of Lakefield. Samuel Strickland, after conquering the careers of farmers and businessman, turned in the 1850s to the lucrative career of operating a private school. He used his connections back in England to attract young men of noble background to his Farm School (operated from his house, Reydon Hall) in Lakefield. Here he taught the young gentlemen the peculiarities of pioneer farming in Upper Canada. There were always a dozen or so young gentlemen frequenting the school. One of the student projects was a newspaper that became the Katchewanoooka Herald. As a whole, most of the gentlemen students did not find farming in the colony to their liking, but most stayed on in Upper Canada and contributed to other professions.

Sometime after Strickland’s death (1867), another private school called the Grove was started up just north of the village (1879). This private school evolved into the present Lakefield College School and has had many well-known alumni, including Prince Andrew. The present-day school has 370 students in grades 8-12, including 240 boarding students. The Grove keeps alive Lakefield’s proud tradition of learning and literature.

Lakefield and area have always been home to many in the artistic community. Besides the famous Strickland Family, Margaret Lawrence and Paul Nicholas Mason have dwelt in the village. Musicians who love the area include the Leahy Family and Ronnie Hawkins. Several movies were filmed in the vicinity. In 2010, Lakefield became the home of the Ontario Speed Skating Oval, a training site for competitive speed skaters.

Today, Lakefield has a population of 2,500. It is a major port on the Trent Canal, but is likely more famous as a retirement community. Its tranquil scenery and small town charm are its appeal.

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