Photo and story by Geoff Dale
Zorra Township, Ontario – A committee of about a dozen individuals working on a comprehensive local history book is proving youth doesn’t have a monopoly on boundless energy.
Since 2003, the group – with members ranging in age from 60 up to 90 – has been tirelessly researching, compiling and writing a book on the former North Oxford Township, one of three predominantly rural Southwestern Ontario townships that were amalgamated into Zorra Township in 1975.
Two other committees are tackling the larger townships of West Zorra and East Nissouri. The pie-shaped North Oxford was the smallest of the three territories.
Former Zorra Township Mayor (1995-2000) Jim Muterer admits the work has worn them out at times, adding, “People in this committee have put an awful lot of time into this project and we’re hoping it will be finished later this year.
“We’re looking at the area before it was properly colonized right through to 1975 and a little beyond that, which will carry us into the era of Zorra. After about seven years of really hard work, we often say we might have done this is a little differently had we known but that’s just hindsight.”
Al Baigent, who at times has appeared to be living in the local registry office pouring over land dealings and mountains of statistical data and historic agreements, is well acquainted with the kind of work required to put a book together.
Also in his 70s, he has obtained useful first-hand knowledge proofing and editing his wife Beryl’s written material over the years. An internationally recognized poet, she is the author of more than a dozen books and shows no signs of slowing down in the near future.
“What I really found astonishing in some of my research for this book was the amount of land dealings, the speculation by owners who actually never lived in the area,” he says. “It took an awful of careful sorting through facts but I can say, as we near the finish line, I was never really bored.”
Alice Hutchison says she was surprised to discover just how self-sufficient and developed many of the township’s smaller communities like Beachville were years ago.
“You would expect this of the larger centres like Woodstock and Ingersoll but then you look at the small villages,” she says. “There you find they had sawmill businesses, their own orchestras and even hockey teams.”
Her husband Doug, pointing out the work was often tiring but nonetheless satisfying, agrees the discovery of the importance of the less populated communities was an eye-opener.
“You wouldn’t think a place like Beachville would have been as far ahead as it was during those early years of settlement,” he says.
Secretary Anne Coordes, lauded by her colleagues as the one who has kept matters under control for the past seven years, says it was hard to imagine that places like Rayside were so well developed.
“Hotels and post offices were found in places you would hardly expect them to be,” she adds.
For both Pauline and Peg Hanlon, this was the first time they had worked on such a project, agreeing it was both an educational and entertaining way to learn about the region’s past.
It’s been a first for the youngest of the committee members Jim Stephenson, while colleague Carl Chamber understood there would be considerable work ahead, already having worked on the history of his family.
John Knox, a former Zorra Township councillor, came up with the idea for the history, meeting with Jim Muterer one June morning in 2003 at exactly 10:30 a.m. Once the concept was nailed down, the township granted seed funding of $2,000-$3,000 with a $30,000 Trillium Foundation grant split evenly between the three committees.
In addition to a few personal donations, Muterer readily admits more fund-raising efforts are essential to cover the continuing costs and the printing.
“You know I sometimes think is was easier being the mayor, well at least that job required less research,” says the former mayor, now in his late 70s. “It’s amazing just how much research Al has done since we got started.
“I remember when I first spoke to John, I said I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to see the end of this. But this is an incredibly dedicated group and seeing what they’ve accomplished has been encouraging.”
Muterer marvels over the discovery of the township’s only known public hanging of an individual he describes as “reportedly one bad dude”. Knox says he’s glad he convinced his friend to take on the project.
“I learned a great deal about the natives in the area, the Neutrals,” he says. “You know, their movements, settlements and how they were treated. It’s been a fascinating journey of discovery for me.”
His colleagues call Charlie Reeves, who turns 90 this year, “a vast resource of information”; half jokingly suggesting he has lived through much of the history he is currently researching.
Prior to his current commitment to the North Oxford Township book, he is well known throughout the region for his work on the history of Beachville, the 1967 Centennial Project team and a variety of CDs and history documents he is associated with.
“I find it amazing just how much you can learn through this kind of research,” he says. “I was particularly interested in the growth of livestock over a period of 200 years or more in and around the township.
“You look at the prices and the situations with regards to the markets both then and now, like the changing price of lime from the quarries in this area. As for the Great Depression, you could say I do vividly recall that period in time. It’s a great pleasure working on this book – a lot of work but a lot of fun as well.”
Coordes says he has the “mind of a 20-year-old, very active in the Beachville Museum, wrote a book about a local cement plant that was proposed for the area and supplies an infinite amount of information to this project.”
The project is expected to finish later this year, with publication anticipated in 2012.