Up the Gatineau! Online Articles
The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 27.
Poltimore: A View from the Outside
by Janet McDiarmid
Poltimore is a picturesque village situated in a valley between the Gatineau and Lièvre Rivers, 32 km. north of Gatineau, Quebec and 8 km. north of St. Pierre de Wakefield on Route 307. A winding, undulating stretch of road rolls briefly to it before proceeding north to its terminal, Val des Bois. At Poltimore, the highway meets the Chemin du Pont, along which white-painted wooden-frame houses border the street that marks the heart of this community. The Chemin du Pont lives up to its name 11 km. to the east, where it crosses a bridge over the Lièvre River to Notre Dame de la Salette, on the other side. The now-paved route between the two towns was once a dirt trail used by the original settlers, many of whom came north from Buckingham and crossed at Notre Dame de la Salette, wending their way west from the river.
Although Poltimore today boasts four churches, one school, a general store, a bar-restaurant, a gas station and a convenience store, it is in many ways a village frozen in time. A provincial agricultural zoning law designed to conserve farmland prevents expansion in the Poltimore area by forbidding the surrounding farmers from severing their property, while neighbouring areas in Denholm, Bowman and much of the southerly part of Val des Monts, presumably with poorer soil, are not similarly affected. Poltimore is also somewhat isolated by its location. While it is situated on a north-south road, two other north-south routes in the region are more important-the 309 from Buckingham to Mont Laurier and the 5 and 105 from Hull to Maniwaki and Grand Remous. Villages along these other main routes within commuting distance to Ottawa, Hull and Gatineau are booming. While Poltimore is constrained from expanding, many of its residents are able to continue to enjoy its relative calm in the middle of this storm by becoming commuters too, travelling to jobs in Ottawa, less than 60 kilometres away, or Gatineau, half that distance. Despite its relative calm, however, Poltimore is also a vibrant community, intensely proud of its roots.
A sense of ancestral pride is evident when Rupert and Betty Last, Cindy McClelland and Faye McGarry talk about Poltimore. Rupert Last, whose roots go back to the area's earliest settlers, wrote a history entitled Know Thy Neighbour.1 He was compelled to write this account, he says, before it was lost. And Cindy McClelland, though a self-professed "outsider" who grew up in nearby Val des Bois, says she was enticed to learn more of the heritage of her husband's family, the Bonsalls and the McClellands. Over the years, she has collected many documents and letters dating back to the nineteenth century. Faye McGarry, a cousin of Rupert Last, lives on a farm bought by her husband Raymond's great-great grandfather, James McGarry, in the mid-1800s. She has the original deed, showing that James bought the 200-acre farm for $200. Faye and Raymond live in the farmhouse, which was built in 1864.
The story of Poltimore begins in 1841 with the incorporation of the Township of Portland. This township, 100 square miles in size, spanned the Lièvre River immediately north of Templeton. It was flanked on the east and west by Derry and Wakefield, while to the north was Bowman. It was largely uninhabited but had already been surveyed into 200-acre lots.
Rupert Last records in his book that the first settlers who came to Portland in the mid-nineteenth century were of French and British Isles stock. They arrived in Poltimore by different routes, but the most common was by boat along the Lièvre River. He described how they landed on the east side of the Lièvre at Notre Dame de la Salette and those wanting to proceed toward Poltimore crossed the river at this point. Here a rope extended across the river and an old scow was pulled by hand along the rope to transport passengers to the other side. Moving west, the immigrants travelled by horseback, foot and wagon. Know Thy Neighbour repeats a wonderful description written by J. C. Borth, when he was visiting Lutheran pastor (1881-1890), about his first trip to High Falls by way of the Lièvre River:
Access was had under great hardships, take my first trip to High Falls for instance. A three mile walk to the Ottawa station, railway to Buckingham Junction, then an hours ride on an old stage to Buckingham. Here overnight. Saturday morning a long ride in a small Indian Birch canoe, on each end a faithful member paddling, I, sitting in the middle from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. On the way up the Lièvre River, there were two rapids which had to be circumvented with canoe and baggage on rough shores. When we left the river we ... continued on foot another stretch... reaching our destination at 10 p.m. returning Monday morning the same way.2
The 1851 census recorded 102 residents, which comprised 12 young farming families all living in log houses.3 Ten years later, Portland's population had increased to 429, but in 1881 its territory was divided along the Lièvre River into East and West Portland, and West Portland, where Poltimore is located, had become a sparsely populated farming community of 300 persons.4 They still lived in log houses, but West Portland now included two post offices and one store.5 The Bonsalls owned the store and ran the post office from the same building. The second post office, called Holland Mills, was located about 6 km. east of Poltimore, on Chemin du Pont. It closed in 1958.
Local lore claims that the Bonsall family adopted the postal address from the birthplace of Mrs. Bonsall, but Cindy McClelland says that records show Bessie Pegg Bonsall was born in Derbyshire, England. She speculates, however, that as a young woman Mrs. Bonsall may have holidayed with her family at the village of Poltimore, Devon, not far from the channel city of Exeter. The English Poltimore is a very old hamlet that was listed in the Domesday census initiated by William the Conqueror in 1085, when it comprised "112 sheep, 20 cattle and thatched cottages."
The Bonsalls' reason for choosing the postal address "Poltimore" is therefore unknown, but by the time they sold their store and post office in 1948 the name represented the village surrounding the post office. Even so, outsiders did not necessarily see it this way. Quebec's Commission de Toponymie has not listed Poltimore as a village, but only as a post office found in Portland West.6
People were first drawn to Portland to farm, and the area soon developed a logging industry. Logging offered seasonal work, with camps being built for winter cutting, after which the logs were transported to the river where the raftsmen guided them down it. Later, in 1881, a phosphate mine at opened at High Rock, and drew workers to the area. Many farmers took on extra jobs. They were "willing to put in their spare time in winter in mining, even if it yielded only 50 cents a day."7 The phosphate mining industry, important in the Lièvre valley at the time, had a short life. The mineral was in good supply and cheaply transported by water down the Lièvre to the Ottawa and the St. Lawrence rivers. But stagnation of European markets and other, cheaper sources of supply had "almost obliterated" Canadian phosphate mining by 1895.8
This relatively self-sufficient little community received a settlement boost in the 1930s when an influx of German, Polish and Norwegian settlers came to the Poltimore area from Bowman, the township immediately north of Portland. This occurred after a dam was built at High Falls on the Lièvre River, flooding their original farming settlement when it created the reservoir known as Lescalier. The diverse ethnicity of the area has subsequently melded through intermarriage.
Since the 1950s a new economic picture emerged as the area around Poltimore has evolved into cottage country, giving a boost to local business. McClelland's store is the hub of that business universe. In 1948 John Blythe McClelland bought the store from the Bonsall family, who had owned and operated the store on the present site since 1913 (their store had several previous locations). The Bonsall house can still be seen in the side view as part of the present store, which gradually grew to encompass it. In fact, the Bonsall connection has never really been severed-the Bonsalls and McClellands were united by marriage in 1916 when Harriet Bonsall married Samuel Duncan McClelland from Cantley.
Two of the original attractions, farming and logging, have kept a number of the early settlers' descendants living in the area. Faye and Raymond McGarry would certainly not trade their dairy farm for any other lifestyle, despite the hard work and some uncertain times. For Faye McGarry, it is the peace and space of rural life in Poltimore that she holds dear, and that she hopes will continue.
Archibald Lampman, one of Canada's most illustrious nineteenth century poets, was attracted to this region by his love of the outdoors.9 Here is one of two poems he wrote about the Lièvre:
A Dawn on the Lièvre
Up the dark-valleyed river stroke by stroke
We drove the water from the rustling blade;
And when the night was almost gone we made
The oxbow bend; and there the dawn awoke;
Full on the shrouded night-charged river broke
The sun, down the long mountain valley rolled
A sudden swinging avalanche of gold,
Through mists that sprang and reeled aside like smoke.
And Lo! Before us, toward the east upborne,
Brow beyond brow, drawn deep with shade and shine
Packed with curled forest, bunched and topped with pine,
The mount; upon whose golden sunward side
Still threaded with the melting mist, the morn
Sat like glowing conqueror satisfied.
Today, Poltimore retains the essence of the tranquillity found in Lampman's poem. Those now living in the area, from the descendants of the early settlers to those who arrived later or have cottages there, hold dear the beauty of this place.
|1.||Rupert Last, Know Thy Neighbour, (A. F. Perrin, 1988).|
|2.||Know Thy Neighbour, 9.|
|3.||Census Report of the Canadas, 1851-2 (Quebec: John Lovell, 1853).|
|4.||Census of Canada, 1860-61 (Quebec: S.B. Foote, 1863); Census of Canada, 1881 (Ottawa: MacLean, Rogers & Co.,1882).|
|5.||Information from 1881 census.|
|6.||Commission de Toponymie du Québec, Noms et Lieux du Québec, Deuxième édition., (Sainte-Foy, Québec: Les Publications du Québec, 1996.|
|7.||The Journal of the General Mining Association of the Province of Quebec, 1891-1895<,em>, 26.|
|8.||Journal of Mining, 150-1.|
|9.||Lampman, the son of a minister of the same name, was born in 1861 in southern Ontario. After graduating from the University of Toronto, he taught briefly and then took a job in the civil service in Ottawa, where he lived until his death in 1899.|