A Reflection of the first 150 years

Walking in the footsteps of Archibald Hunter

By Bill Trbovich

What does it say about a community when its former residents come back home, en masse, every ten years to celebrate their roots? Quite a lot really! It speaks of pride, memories, history, friendships, a sense of belonging and so much more. Family reunions are commonplace throughout Canada, but Old Home Weekends where families from an entire community gather is something else altogether and people in Durham have been doing this every decade since 1935.

Courtesy of Durham Public Library

Former residents bring their children and often their extended families for a trek to their hometown to meet old friends and make new ones and have a good time. The Durham Old Home Weekend 2022 is something extra special because the community will celebrate its 150th birthday.

Most will drive to get back home, others will fly and then drive but getting to Durham wasn’t always that easy. In 1842, Durham was nothing more than a mark on a surveyor’s map north of Fergus and if you wanted to get there you had to walk….with all of your worldly belongings in a cart towed by a pair of Oxen! The road here, if you want to call it that, was often made with logs over boggy ground; a corduroy road by another name. If you wanted to smooth a rather bumpy ride, you cut down pine boughs and threw them over the logs. Once you made it to modern day Mount Forest you were confronted with by what is known as the Long Swamp. You couldn’t cross it; you had to find drier ground to go around it. You unhitched your oxen team, unloaded your cart, dismantled the cart and carried it around the swamp, reassembled the cart, reloaded your belongings and proceeded north.

Photo of Archibald Hunter
Grey Roots Archival Collection

This was the journey taken by one Archibald Hunter, an Empire Loyalist, who came north to take advantage of the free land grants on the Garafraxa Road between Fergus and Sydenham, now modern day Owen Sound. When he crossed the Saugeen River, he camped at an abandoned First Nation wigwam –near the site of the current Anglican Church. The next morning he claimed that land to farm and made another claim across the road for his son. The date was May 1, 1842. The first building erected in Durham was a log cabin built by Archibald Hunter in what was to become Glenelg Township, north of the Durham Road.

He spent the winter in that cabin and the following year, went to the United States, retrieved his family and returned to Durham and immediately began clearing land for farming. Hunter was a clever man and seized upon the economic opportunity his new location presented him. As settlers began to take advantage of the free land grants along the Garafraxa Road to Sydenham (now Owen Sound), they had to pass Hunter’s front door. Hunter opened his door to the travelling public since there were no ale houses or inns between Mount Forest and Sydenham. So the founder of Durham was also the town’s first Inn Keeper.

Eventually people got tired of walking to get where they wanted to go and Hunter opened a stage line in 1851 providing coach service from Owen Sound to Hamilton. Other stage lines soon followed and by 1860 there was service from Collingwood through Durham to Walkerton and Owen Sound to Fergus through Durham. Durham was quickly becoming a transportation hub.

On December 16, 1880, the first railway freight train arrived in Durham, followed by passenger service in 1881 making access to Durham easier and opening up more opportunities for growth and prosperity. There’s much more to tell, but that will be told in future articles!