In May 1814, Amelia Ryerse received unwanted fireside guests when American soldiers arrived with orders to burn. As her mother pleaded with the commanding officer to spare their home, an officer wordlessly gathered coals from the hearth. Every building was set ablaze – except for the homestead....
A land of opportunity
People and animals alike have prized Norfolk County’s sandy shores and lush Carolinian forest for centuries. Long Point, a spit of land that stretches deep into Lake Erie, is a major stop for migrating birds and a world biosphere reserve. Until the Iroquois Wars in the mid-seventeen century the county was home to several Attawondaron First Nations settlements. It is therefore no surprise that when the British began settling Upper Canada in the late 1700s, John Graves Simcoe, the colony’s first Lieutenant-Governor, identified Lake Erie’s shores as a priority.
Simcoe appealed to United Empire Loyalists in New Brunswick to relocate to Norfolk. Free property was the enticement — 200 acres each, as long as they cleared land and helped build roads. Simcoe fostered local militias and envisioned Long Point as a fortified military post in case war broke out.
Among the pioneers were Aaron Culver and his wife, who in 1795 settled in the interior at a location that eventually became Simcoe, the county’s main urban centre. John Backus, a Quaker from England, was another. He built a gristmill north of Long Point in 1793.
When war erupted in 1812, Norfolk militiamen defended the colony on land and water. Back at home safety concerns escalated. In 1814, eight American warships carrying 800 men and artillery arrived at the mouth of the Lynn River, and burned the mills and homes in the hamlet of Dover Mills. Marauders ravaged many other mills and buildings along the lake shore before their retreat to American territory but, curiously, Backus Mills was spared. Today, it is Ontario’s oldest running gristmill.
After the war, Norfolk became a centre of export for agricultural goods and lumber. There was great demand for Norfolk’s pine, used for shipbuilding.
Railroads began to arrive by the 1850s bringing more changes and technology.
Stripped of the forest cover that held its sandy soils in place, the county deteriorated into a dustbowl by the 1880s. So, in 1909, Ontario established the St. Williams Forestry Station, Canada’s first forestry station. Over the next four years the station produced one million seedlings to reduce erosion.
By the mid 1900s, Norfolk’s tobacco production was in full swing, attracting another wave of European immigration. Today, niche crops such as lavender, ginseng and peanuts have replaced much of the tobacco acreage. The county is also a becoming a hub for grape and wine production.
There are many local museums and historic sites to celebrate Norfolk’s rich and eventful heritage. Some preserve local architecture. Others offer opportunities to experience the artifacts and activities of days gone by, both on and off the shores of this picturesque county. While here, enjoy the coast’s white sandy beaches and sparkling waters that are ideal for boating. Take in its relaxed atmosphere, antique stores, local dining fare and singular attractions like Port Dover’s Friday the 13th motorcycle celebrations.