The perfect block to start your tour of Oxford Country Barn Quilts is called the Right Hand of Friendship and you will find the people of this predominately rural county welcoming. The rich soil and rolling hills of the area attracted pioneer settlement as early as 1789, with the majority of...
Stories of settlement and rural prosperity
Oxford County’s diverse communities owe their start to Upper Canada’s first Lieutenant-Governor, John Graves Simcoe. Appointed in 1792, Simcoe believed that if war broke out with the United States the security of his colony lay in developing a transportation route and settlement in the southwestern interior. To this end he granted townships to land agents, many United Empire Loyalists, and required them to recruit settlers.
The county was established in 1800. That year Woodstock — today the county’s main urban centre — received its first settler, Zacharias Burtch, a United Empire Loyalist from New York. Over the next few decades, former British navy and army officers who acquired their holdings through government grants would populate the city and its surroundings.
Meanwhile, southwest of Woodstock, the Upper Canadian government sold blocks of land to raise money to build a road along the shore of Lake Ontario. In 1809 one of the block owners sold 15,000 acres to Peter Lossing and Peter Delong, Quakers from New York State. These acres became the home of the Norwich Quaker settlement.
The settlement soon became a catalyst for others. One of these was Otterville, a haven for free blacks and escaped slaves from the United States who arrived via the Underground Railroad. Black communities often occurred near Quaker settlements because Quakers strongly opposed slavery. Many of Otterville’s residents returned to the United States after it abolished slavery.
It was also with Peter Lossing’s help that industrialist George Tillson bought 600 acres west of Norwich in 1824.
Tillson arrived in Upper Canada from New York State four years earlier with business partner Joseph Van Norman to launch an iron furnace in Norfolk County. Tillson struck out on his own, and along with establishing a forge on his new property he acquired more land and established a settlement that was eventually named Tillsonburg.
He was among a wave of U.S. settlers who were attracted to the county’s fertile land. British settlement promotions also brought Scottish, German and Dutch settlers to the county’s northern region.
After World War II, the sandy soils in southern Oxford became a popular destination for Dutch emigrants. There, they and other farmers grew tobacco, a major crop until recently. Amish emigrating from the United States around the same time made their homes in that area too.
Food production has always been key to Oxford’s economy. James Harris established Canada’s first commercial cheese venture in Ingersoll in 1840. At its peak the county had 98 cheese factories. Tillsonburg’s first mayor, E.D. Tillson, operated a pan-dried oatmeal factory.
Today, there is still plenty of agricultural activity in the county’s rolling hills and valleys, ranging from dairy production to niche field crops such as ginseng and peanuts.
Experience it firsthand along with unique tastes fresh from the farm gate at destinations like Birtch Farms winery and orchards, Jakeman’s Maple farm, local farmers’ markets and Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese. There is plenty of opportunity to explore the county’s diverse heritage and fine examples of period architecture at many local museums and through annual events such as Doors Open Oxford.
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