A History of Rochester Township Part 1

I have started to transcribe Madeline’s A History of Rochester Township 1853-1978. It will appear in installments, lightly edited. I am also typing out a copy verbatim which I will make available to historical societies, the (now) Town of Lakeshore of which Rochester Township is now part.

In the preface to the booklet, she thanks Frank Trepanier (keeper of the community’s historical memory for many years). Also Father Joseph Emery of the St. Joachim Parish who wrote of his parish in French; Father Lanoue; Father Gordon Doe of Woodslee; Mr. Earl Taylor of Belle River who gave her both the civic history and the church history for Belle River; Mr. Clarence Dewhirst and Mrs. Carrie Taylor who told her many things of the South Woodslee area; Dr. Neil Morrison, who wrote the Garden Gateway of Canada.

And here it starts:

Compared with present standards, life in Rochester Township one hundred and twenty five years ago was full of hardships. The land was being cleared of forests and used to build log homes for the settlers. Oxen were used for farm work. Travel was difficult and restricted.

The Township of Rochester was formed by the government in 1790. The main roads were marked in 1824. A surveyor named Burwell divided the township into concessions and lots, then located the roads.

The first Rochester council met in February 1853 at the home of John Mullins on the 2nd concession with W.F. Wilson as Reeve.

The first settlements in the interior of Essex County flanked Talbot Street and the Middle Road. These two roads meet at Maidstone with Talbot Street running in a northwesterly direction towards Sandwich. It was first surveyed in 1804, but it was not until 1826 that it was opened all the way to Sandwich. Each person who obtained a grant of land along it was required to chop and log a sixty foot width of road along his farm. Years later, when modern highway construction was in progress, workmen recovered hundred of well preserved oak logs from the road bed where the early settlers had placed them.

Among those who took up land along Talbot Road were many Irish Catholics. The Middle Road running easy and west (Highway 98 and later County Road 46) was surveyed by Colonel Burwell in 1828. But it was only a trail of blazed trees until well after the 1837-38 Rebellion. Practically all the settlers along the Middle Road from Maidstone to Woodslee where it corssed the Belle River were Irish Catholics. The earliest of these was James O’Connor, who came in 1828. A short time later the Kavanaugh family arrived. By 1838 the Scullys, O’Callaghans, Costigans and the Morans had settled there. Then in the early forties came the Monaghans, Gallagher, Conway, Farrell, Sheehan, Hardigan, Geehan, Rushton, Slattery, Murray and many other families.

The first settlers in Rochester were French residents who came east from the Sandwich Settlement, when the construction of the Great Western Railroad in 1852 changed the farming, fishing and trapping community to a more industrial centre. At the same time the steam saw and grist mill previously operated by the Ouellette family were joined by a store under the guidance and a second mercantile enterprise established by P. Doumouchelle in Belle River. Growth of the settlement was slow. In the early days there was no Belle River village. It was all known as Rochester between 1828 and 1857, before a prominent citizen and politician at that time, Robert Chisholm, had the village named after himself. The name Chisholm was used until 1874 when the village was incorporated as Belle River. it is believed to have been named by a group of early 17th Century French explorers who took shelter at the river’s mouth during a storm and who thought the area was very beautiful.

Further east, along the shore of the lake, the names Hogan, Strong, Knapp, Moran and Ouellette appear. Along the western border fronting the Belle River, William Murray was the first to locate, taking up Lot 7, Concession 1 in 1834. The Middle Road had already received some settlers by this time, Bolwell, located on Lot 2 North, and Michael Cotter on Lot 4. Three German brothers, Conrad, Adam and Christian Simon followed them and formed the vanguard of what was subsequently known as The German Settlement (later Ruscomb), lying toward the eat and centre of the township. Others among the German pioneers were Adam Knister and 4 children who came to America in 1834; Henry Hedrick in 1835; George Geisel who came to Ontario in 1824, the Fenners who came later (between 1840 and 1850); Friedrich Dornte and his wife Amelia in 1847. (They later took the Canadian name of Dornton). Mr. Dornton planted all the early orchards and his wife was the only doctor here for years.

The interior between the lake and the Middle Road was not settled until the leading highways had been flanked with selected locations. In 1848, John and Michael Byrne, Patrick Tracey and Patrick Strong settled on the Third Line while Edward Mullins and Richard Walker and sons receive the credit for being the first to brave the hardships of the Second Line.

Next installment: Woodslee


Posted on November 28, 2011, in A History of Rochester Township 1853-1978 and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Robert Jaimes Girard

    John Mullins is my maternal grandmother’s grandfather. Her mother was Bridget Mullins and her Edward Tracey. The Tracey Homestead is owned by a first cousin to my mother
    Sheila Byrne. Patrick Tracey is my grandmother’s paternal grandfather. My mother’s maiden name is Byrne and her father was James Edward Byrne, his father was Anthony Byrne and his father’s father was John Byrne. My uncle Jim lives on the corner of the 3rd line and the Byrnedale side rd. This house was purchased by grandfather in the early 1920’s from his Uncle William Byrne. His father Anthony Byrne lived in the adjacent farm.
    Robert Byrne, their brother bought the Tracey farm off of Patrick Tracey’s grandson Edward when he died in 1920.

  2. Robert Jaimes Girard

    I am trying to find out more about John Byrne (born in Ireland) my gr.gr. granfather and his parents. I know he was born in 1805 and married to Mary Houlihan. His brother was Michael Byrne and his wife Mary Strong. All Born in Ireland. I also would like to find out more information on Patrick Tracey. I have been searching St. John’s Cemetary in Woodslee for a headstone. Patick Tracey’s headstone is at St. Simon and Jude Belle River.
    for John Byrne and haven’t been successful. I found Michael’s and his wife’s headstone.
    There are so many Byrne families burried there and it is hard to know where to start. If you have any information please contact me at the e-maild address below. Respectfully yours …Robert James Girard

    • Hi RJG – I only have the family tree of the Byrnes, dating back to 1912 (Joseph Byrne’s marriage to Rose Chittle). My grandmother’s booklet about Rochester township, and it has a few entries about the Byrnes. Under the paragraph about Byrnedale, it says that the first Byrne was Michael Byrne, who came from Ireland, married Helen Strong and had four children, the youngest of whom was named John (didn’t say if any of the kids were born in Ireland). I’m just about finished transcribing the Rochester booklet .. once I get the typos fixed, I can send it to you so you can see what’s in it. Send your email address to me at vlfenner@gmail.com — my aunt may have a more extensive Byrne family tree in one of the other books that I haven’t seen yet … I’ll check with her.

  3. PS — one of the branches of the Mullins family lived right beside the tracks, opposite side from Grandma and Grandpa Fenner. And I always knew where the Traceys lived .. didn’t know any Traceys because we went to school at Dr. Millen in Woodslee and then to Essex High School. You were all on the Belle River High school side of the road, non? And I worked with Claire Byrne at CBC back in the 1970s.

  4. I would be interested in the Rochester booklet, if you have it transcribed. I am the great great great grandaughter of Adam Simon and would be interested in any additional information you have about the Simons. I spent this afternoon checking out the tombstones at the farm in Ruscom.
    Thank you for any info you can provide me with,

    • Hi Kristy. I can send it to you, no problem. And I do have info on the Simon family. Adam’s farm was right next to the Fenner farm and I am still in touch with Kimberley Simon, a best friend from way way back and descended from Adam. She grew up on the farm. I have a family tree for all the branches of the Simon family from their arrival in Canada (I think they arrived in the 1840s, have to double check the date) right up until the 70s.

    • PS … I thought it was Conrad Simon who donated the land for the cemetery, and Adam lived at the crossroads in Ruscomb (which wasn’t a crossroads then … Just the Middle Road). I’ll look it up and jog my memory … There were 3 Simon brothers who came over from Germany, non?

  5. Yes there were 3 brothers, Conrad, Adam, and Christian. I do have a lot of their descendants, but I’m missing a lot of information. I would love to see anything you have. If you’d prefer you can email me at ece__101@hotmail.com
    Thanks again,

  6. Haunted Coconut

    Victoria, I cannot thank you enough for all of the info you have provided here. I, too, am a descendant of Adam Simon (through his daughter Mary [Simon] Allison). Might you be so very kind as to maybe send me the family tree (and maybe also the Rochester booklet)?? I would be ever so grateful, as I have very little on this branch of the family. Thank you, thank you!!!! krschumm@gmail.com

  7. Hi Victoria, I am interested in finding out more information about Lot 7, Conc 1 in 1834 that you mention. There is a project that I am involved with to preserve an old log cabin that still stands there. You can share your information publicly here, or write me at: suzanne.allison1@yahoo.ca Here is our facebook page https://www.facebook.com/belleriverlogcabin/

  8. The last remaining brother of my mother’s died on March 21st this year. He was 88 and died in Woodslee nursing home. His daughter now owns the old farmhouse thst John Byrne my gr. gr.Grandfather built in the 1850s. It is on the corner of the Byrnedale side rd and the 3rd Concession or Now as it is called Lakeshore 123. The house has been updated over the years by my uncle and aunt and sits on a landscaped 2 acres of land with the farmland behind thebhouse. His daughter Lyn Byrne built a brand new home next to it. I asked her what she plans on doing with the house and she was not sure. My gr. Grandfather Anthony Byrne was born in the log house that was originally there in 1845. He went on to build his own home farther up the rd in 1878. That house was razed in 1980. My mom and all her sister and brother were born in the old farm house of my uncle Jims. A little more background on that, John Byrne was the post master for Byrnedale and when he died in 1890 his son William took over until his death in 1921. My grandfather James Edward Byrne bought the farm off his uncle’s estate at that time and got married to my grandmother Edith Tracey. His brother Robert Byrne bought the Tracey farm at the same time in 1920. Robert Byrne’s daughter Sheila who is 91 still owns that farm today and lives in Michigan. My uncle Jimmy bought the Byrne farm off of my grandfather in 1960. Now for the first time in the history of Byrnedale another name other than Byrne may live in that house. My cousin Lyn told me that both farms will always remain in the Byrne family because the descendants of Michael Byrne live across the street.

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