The Municipality of Gordon / Barrie Island was established in 2009 with the amalgamation of the municipalities of Gordon and Barrie Island, but the roots of both places go back over 120 years. Keep reading for the fascinating histories of both these places.
Gordon Township came into existence in 1875, the same year as the survey was done. At that time it included the town of Gore Bay, as it did not become a separate entity until 1890. The first reeve was James M. Fraser. In 1889, Gore Bay became the capital and judicial seat for the Island, and the next year it incorporated into its own entity. Gordon Township then became the entirely rural area that surrounds the town.
When the first rural land clearings and farms were opened up, the first settlers followed the Indian path to the south which went from Gore Bay to the north shore of Lake Wolsey, and from there by boats further afield.
The first permanent rural settler was Willard Hall who settled and cleared his space south of the town, not far from the present site of the cemetery. Land clearing and farms spread rapidly, especially to the west where there’s quite a large expanse of flat, fertile land. By the turn of the century, frame buildings dotted the countryside, and much of the suitable land was settled. Using the bountiful forests that were rapidly being cleared, two saw mills were established – one on Lake Wolsey, the other on the west side of Tobacco Lake. By the late 1890’s these mills were gone, destroyed by fire or closed due to lack of easy timber.
Gordon Township had a post office for a time as well, the last one opened up on Manitoulin Island. It was 1911, and it was called “Foxey”. It was situated in a home near one of the schools on the 7th Line, but no further community buildings were built in that area.
Following WW2, and the inception of cross-Canada air flights, the Federal Dept. of Transport decided they needed to establish an airport on the Manitoulin to provide radio and weather information and an emergency landing centre. Land was purchased or expropriated in Gordon on the open, lightly treed area on the western side of the township next to Bayfield Sound, and construction took place during 1946 – 47. It became an important asset for the area, and a vital cog in the air transportation industry for the next number of years. It remains today a vital active part of the life of Western Manitoulin.
The history of this small turtle-shaped Island named Barrie Island is truly as unique as the Isle itself is.
An early settler from Burpee Township was Steven Morden. In his absence, his neighbours felled a tree on his newly built shanty. He immediately sailed with his family and their possessions to the northern land, that he could see across the channel. The Morden family arrived around 1875.
As land surrounding Gore Bay (on Manitoulin Island) filled up with arriving settlers, they pushed further west. Land searchers discovered a small island nestled in Lake Huron. A narrow channel separated the two lands and it was easy to make the crossing. This was the second immigration pattern that established the arrival of Barrie Island’s new inhabitants. They encouraged friends and family to join them and eventually their community would become woven tightly together through marriage, work and tragedy.
These early settlers had arrived before the land survey. This created its own set of challenges. To work around the dividing line the settlers had carved out, running east and west, J. W. Fitzgerald had to uniquely divide the concessions. The northern concessions were larger and the southern concessions were smaller than he would normally have drafted. Regardless, he was able to complete his work, to satisfy all in 1878. It was Fitzgerald who named Barrie Island to honour a decorated British naval officer, Rear Admiral Sir Robert Barrie.
Initially, the only access to Barrie Island was by boat or by foot. Two men drowned in 1883, while trying to cross the channel and the government decided to build a bridge. This greatly improved quality of life for the settlers living on Barrie Island. Even with bridge access to the mainland, it was rare that residents made the trip to Gore Bay for supplies. They were for the most part very self-sufficient on their small farms. The women sold butter and eggs to the merchants in Gore Bay for credit in the hardware stores.
Many years ago, noted historian,Clara Lane had told me that almost every lot had a home on it. Homes were easily visible to their neighbour. In the earliest days of settlement there were two schools and a church. Later as the community started to migrate away, only one school remained at the main central corner. The Methodist and Presbyterians alternated church services in the school. A church built in 1913 later became a United Church.
For a short time there was a store and a dock on the eastern shore, but moving ice kept taking out the dock. The store burned and was never replaced. Economic opportunity was structured around the logging and timbering activity. T. B. Greenman, was a big operation lumberman. He was instrumental in bringing many people to Barrie Island to work in this business. It was quite common at the turn of the century to see piles of pulp- wood around the Barrie Island shoreline. There was a great demand to cut railway ties at this time and it provided extra income to the settler. They were able to work in the bush in the off farming season. John Jeffkins owned a sawmill, planer and shingle mill.
Shortly after the turn of the century migrations from Barrie Island started. Settlers moved to the United States or to the western provinces of this country. They were looking for more acreage and better land.
With better standard of living in the middle of the 20th century, people began to vacation and holiday. Barrie Island became a recreational spot for its pristine beauty. Hugh Noland built the Barrie Island Cottages. Investors created a subdivision in 1980 on the western most point. Local residents refer to this area as “the head” of the turtle.
In the 21st century the small farms have been replaced with large ones. Cow-calf operations replaced mixed farming enterprises. The grassy limestone-based plains have provided a perfect haven for this form of agriculture for over 130 years.
The early pioneers were hardy hard-working men and women. Surviving families: Lane; Greenman; Jeffkins; Montgomery and Runnalls can claim their roots back to these fine early settlers. New residents, who are largely seasonal, have found that they unite with these families in their love of this small piece of paradise.
History written by Joe Ann Baker Lane Lewis author of the history of Barrie Island, “One Tree on an Island”.