A History Mystery - Glimpses of the Past with Karen Webster
What started as a simple road trip and lunch out for six cousins (myself included) to celebrate the completion of a family history book became a hunt for the answer to a mystery. This mystery led to uncovering some of the history of Huron County, as well as revealing a connection to a time of growth in Canada’s story.
A few years ago, those cousins visited the home of their great-great-grandparents in West Wawanosh Township. The log house that was constructed in the 1840s still existed at that time, surrounded by several additions over the years. The other home toured that day was in Goderich and it had housed the large family of the brother of our patriarch. As well as being the home of the family of James Watson, it also housed their bakery. This business ran until 1896 when ill health forced James to retire.
The present-day homeowner graciously showed us the basement where the original bake oven could still be seen, though unused for several decades. One cousin noted a pile of boxes and old suitcases in one corner of the basement. The homeowner stated that those items were there when they arrived and, since the basement was not in use, her family had never disposed of the accumulation. Could there be any traces of our long-ago relatives hidden there? One adventurous soul opened an old suitcase and found a framed map and a wooden case that contained a large medal.
In Latin, the medal, from the University of Toronto (UofT), was inscribed to Robert Smith in 1861. An enquiry to UofT yielded the following information: Robert Smith, born in England, graduated from UofT with a Bachelor of Law in Upper Canada that same year. He practised law in Stratford for a number of years and was married to Charlotte and the father of three.
Well, what does that have to do with our Goderich relatives? Further reading of the UofT reply stated that Robert’s first wife died in 1875 and that he remarried in 1876 to Robina Lizars.
Wait! Lizars? Here comes a connection to Huron County. Robina was daughter of Daniel Home and Esther Lizars. The Lizars family, headed by Daniel Lizars Sr., was attracted to the area by the Canada Company, a monopoly that set out the framework for the settlement of much of Huron County. Daniel Lizars Sr. purchased a 700-acre tract with cash. This land was called “Meadowland” and was the subject of the little sketched map found in the suitcase. The large home there was the social centre for the entitled families in Colborne who became known as the Colborne Clique. Daniel Sr. wrote to a relative that he had also brought with him enough cash to sustain his large household for two years. This was quite a contrast to the majority of the earliest settlers who had to eke out a living for several hard years.
The shine of the Canada Company soon faded when promised improvements, especially of roads, were not forthcoming. By 1841, the election of a representative for the area, after the death of the former representative, Captain Robert Dunlop, almost became a battlefield. The Canada Company’s man was challenged by one supported by the Colborne Clique. In those days, there were no secret ballots. One had to be a man and the owner of property to earn a vote. Many felt that the Canada Company did not recognize many landowners who should have had a vote.
Daniel Home Lizars, son of Daniel Sr., left Colborne Township and headed to Stratford, where he was employed as the county judge. His daughter, Robina, was born in Stratford in 1852. She grew up to be a noted musician and able organist who also taught music. In 1896, Robina, and her sister Kathleen, penned the “story of the settlement of the Huron Tract and a view of the social life of the period 1825-1850” called In the Days of the Canada Company.
Robina married Robert Smith in 1876 and they had a family of two sons, Robert Home and Bruce.
In 1883, Robert Smith was appointed as a Justice on the Queen’s Bench in Manitoba. By this time, the western province was a mere 13 years old and in need of judges. Robina, also known as Ruby, remained in Stratford with their two children and the three children of Robert’s first marriage, to continue the children’s education. The workload for Robert was heavy and he became ill, succumbing to tuberculosis in Winnipeg in January of 1885.
Back to the mystery medal. One of the two young sons of Robert Smith was Home Smith, who also became a lawyer. Home made his name as a financier and real estate magnate who was instrumental in the development of the Old Mill area in Toronto. He died in 1935 in Toronto having no descendants.
And, although Robina Lizars Smith never resided in Goderich, her younger son, Bruce Smith, a manager of the Royal Trust Company, did. Several older Goderich residents remember him as living on St. George’s Crescent. He died, also childless, in 1954. His widow was Rosia Elizabeth “May” Mayberry. After Bruce’s death, she rented an apartment in the large house, formerly the Watson bakery, on Montreal Street, where many decades later, the lonely suitcase and mystery medal were discovered.
Numerous attempts were made to connect with descendants of the children of Robert Smith’s first marriage, but no living relatives of the Stratford lawyer were found. As a result, the medal and a brief history of the Smith family were donated to the Stratford Perth Museum.
What started out as a pleasant gathering of cousins turned into an interesting hunt for the answer to the riddle of the medal.