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July 18, 2023

Omemee from the Southeast

By Guy Scott

Emily Township was the first township in Victoria County that was opened for settlement. After the War of 1812 and the corresponding Napoleonic Wars in Europe ended in 1815, a new age in history dawned for both the Old World (Europe) and the New World (North America). Economic dislocations and population growth led to huge population shifts. Millions of rural residents were displaced as the Agricultural Revolution led to fewer farm workers. The surplus population had two choices: seek work in growing industrial cities or emigrate. The latter choice had huge implications for Canada, as millions left overcrowded Europe for economic opportunity in North America.

In 1821, a party of 400 Protestant Irish from Fermanagh County in Ireland migrated en mass and took up land in the newly opened Cavan Township. This planned settlement spilled over into the southern concessions of the newly surveyed Emily Township. The Cottingham family pushed further north and set up a grist and sawmill at the future site of Omemee village. The site was an obvious one for a pioneer village: a waterfall on the Pigeon River with access to Pigeon Lake and the Trent Waterway. The mill was in operation by 1825 and was a boon to the local farmers who didn’t have to travel all the way to Port Hope or Millbrook or Peterborough. Around the mill a village grew up with the standard stores, blacksmiths and (of course) taverns.

The founder of Omemee was William Cottingham. When the hamlet was granted a post office in 1835, the name Williamstown was adopted. In the 1840s, the name was changed to Metcalfe. But both names were used elsewhere in Ontario, and in 1857 the village was re-christened as Omemee. The name was adopted from the Omemee family of Mississaugas who lived in the area. The arrival of the Port Hope, Lindsay and Beaverton Railway gave further impetus to the village. In a fit of spite, the Railway company built a station outside the village as revenge for the ‘small’ bonus paid the railway by Emily Township. Until the 1860s, Omemee rivalled Lindsay as the largest town in Victoria County.

By the late 1800s, Omemee had reached its zenith of economic prosperity. The industrial complex included a grist mill, 2 sawmills, a tannery, a foundry, a shingle mill and a cloth mill. There were three churches, four hotels, numerous stores as well as a public and a high school. The village also had a newspaper (Watchman Warder) which served its 1,000 or so residents. The village also served as the shopping centre for a rich agricultural hinterland. Over the years, the industrial section of Omemee declined, until by the 1950s, only the Regal Stationary Company remained. Today, even it is gone. Omemee is the service centre for the surrounding area. Cottages now line the banks of Pigeon Lake and retirement subdivisions have sprang up all over the region.

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