Oro's African Heritage

Starting in 1819 the township of Oro issued land grants to veterans of the 1812 war that had fought with Capt. Robert Runchey's Colour Corps. The initial issue of grants was to about twenty-five soldiers from all regiments, with nine actually taking up residents in the newly established settlement. By the early 1830's that number had grown to total approximately forty, and at it's hight numbered approximately one-hundred settlers. The African Methodist Episcopal Church is the last reminder of this settlement. African Methodist Episcopal Church

The Church itself was erected in 1849, after the community had purchased one acre of land for one pound. The church served the communities needs from 1849 right through to the early 1900's, when the black community in Oro seemed to dissolve, and in 1916 the church was declared abandoned.

The wood siding that you see on the Church today is not original. The original building was a square timber structure, the siding was added some time in the 1920's or 1930's, to protect the exterior of the building from further exposure to the elements. There have been three restoration projects for the church since that time. The building was likely saved by the first restoration in 1947. Without this first renovation the church would have undoubtedly succumb to the ravages of the elements and moisture. Again in 1956 Oro Council set aside funds to continue to restore the church. Part of the plan that the Oro Council approved was to start a Historical Society to help with recommendations and preservation of the Church. The final major restoration project was in 1981 after 2 stolen trucks had been used to ram the building.

I would be amiss to talk about the history of this church if I didn't mention the Underground Railroad. Until I started to do the research in to the last remnants of the African settlement in Oro, I was one of the believers that thought this church was the last stop on the Underground Railroad, for slaves fleeing the United States, looking for a free life. According to research that was conducted by Elmvale Lawyer Gary French, most if not all of the settlers were either “freemen” from the northern United States that emigrated to Canada, or Veterans.

There is a stone cairn about twenty feet from the church's southwest corner that has one plaque on each of the four sides. The first of the four plaques is from the County of Simcoe and the Township of Oro in 1947, and list some of the family names that originally worshiped at the church. The County of Simcoe placed the second plaque with a brief overview of the history. The Township of Oro-Medonte place the third plaque in 1999 celebrating the 150th anniversary of the church. The final of the four plaques was placed in 2002 recognizing the church as a national historic site of Canada.

Stephen Leacock's Summer House

In 1928 a new house was built, on the shore lines of Old Brewery Bay and Barnfield Bay, both part of Lake Couchiching.  This new house was to become the summer home of Stephen Leacock and his family. Stephen Leacock House

Stephen Leacock is perhaps one of Canada's most celebrated writers of the 20th Century.  After Leacock's death in 1944, the  Stephen Leacock Memorial Committee was founded in 1946.  One of the committees highest priority's was to establish a medal in Leacock's honour for humorous writing.  The Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal was first awarded to Harry L. Symons for Ojibway Melody in 1947, and continues to be awarded to this day.

In 1957 the City of Orillia purchased the former Leacock property (approximately 9.5 acres) with the intent of turning it into a Museum, which it has been ever since.  The Main Floor of Leacock House features a portfolio of original signed portraits by the master photographer Yosuf Karsh, taken of Stephen Leacock at Old Brewery Bay in 1941, along with personal possessions, and books.  The secondy floor houses the the Art of Writing Galleries, which until 2001 had been guest rooms.

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In 1992 Leacocks summer home became a national historic site, two years later the plaque was unveiled.

No Mud Slinging Here!

Nestled in the trees along the North shore Kempenfelt Bay sits a moderate size church, that has stood since the cornerstone was laid in 1838. It took roughly four years to finish the construction of one of the most unique structures in Simcoe County, before the church was officially opened on February 27, 1842.

Mud Church

What makes this church so interesting is method of construction. St. Thomas' Church is build with mud, also known as “Rammed Earth”. Maybe not mud in the traditional meaning of the word. It's not just dirt and water, it is a mixture of wet clay, and chopped straw. Once mixed together the mud was then packed into forms. After the mixture had a chance to cure, it was covered in a layer of plaster to protect the building for the weather. Church of the Holy Cross (Stateburg, South Carolina) is the only other known example of the cob or “rammed earth” style church that can be found in North America.

The Land for the church was donated by Edward George O'Brien, who had moved from Thornhill to “The Woods” (later to be named Shanty Bay) in 1832. O'Brien's move was prompted by his job as emigrant agent for Oro Township. During his time as emigrant agent for Oro he played a large role in the African Methodist Episcopal Church located about 10km from Shanty Bay, but more on that at a later date.

St. Thomas' is located just south of Ridge Rd. In Shanty Bay is listed as a Historical Site of Ontario. The plaque stand about thirty feet from the South East corner of the church.