From Vision to Village
From Market Hill (Mono Mills) to reach what became Horning’s Mills, they built primitive pathways through forty kilometres of virgin forest, slogged around swamps and across streams, and forced their way up almost insurmountable hills.
There was a time in Upper Canada when the road north ended at Mono Mills and most people felt that going past there into the bush would be like falling off the edge of the earth. Not Lewis Horning. In 1830 he went over the edge to build a village.
He didn’t have to do it. In 1830, when the Crown sold him 2,500 acres here in the hills, Lewis Horning was already 55 years old and comfortably settled in Hamilton where he had a store, two mills and 200 acres of productive land, not to mention a wife and fourteen children. But a surveyor’s report about the headwaters of the Pine River excited him, and once he visited the area and saw the potential of this untouched wilderness, the pull was just too strong. In the wilds of what would one day be Melancthon Township (but not until 1853), he determined to build a complete town, a, self-sustaining pioneer community.
The distinction between visionary and dreamer is a fuzzy one, but Lewis Horning was no back-to-nature romantic. He was an educated, thoughtful, energetic and resourceful planner. And no softie. He was barely a teenager when he left Pennsylvania with his parents and several siblings (one a year old baby) and walked to Upper Canada. Lewis thus knew the realities of pioneering but he loved the bush, loved trapping, hunting and fishing, and where better to indulge that passion than in land that had never known a plough or an axe or a saw.
The Vision Realized
He must have been powerfully persuasive for when Lewis trekked out to establish Horning’s Mills, it was at the head of one of the largest settler groups these hills had yet seen, a group that included such skilled men as a carpenter, millwright, blacksmith, teamster and the like. There is no certain record whether wives were included in that first trip, although it is probable. Nor is there any account of what Lewis Horning’s own wife, Eleanor, thought of the venture, although she must have been a true “whither thou goest” mate, for in 1833, while the walls of Horning’s Mills were still rising, she presented Lewis with Rachel, his fifteenth child. (Eleanor Bates was Lewis second wife; Rachel was her sixth child. Lewis’ first wife, Mary Gage, had borne nine before she died in 1817.)
From Hamilton, Lewis and his crew used oxen to haul equipment and supplies over the barely passable roads to Market Hill (Mono Mills), the jump-off point for the wilderness. From there, to reach what in a very short time became Horning’s Mills, they built a pathway through forty kilometres of virgin forest, slogged around swamps and across streams, and forced their way up mighty hills that would one day be treasured for their beauty, but were almost insurmountable for Lewis and company. In addition to supplies and livestock, they were hauling the wherewithal for a saw mill, a grist mill, and tools to build a dam. It took more than one trip.
Horning obviously surrounded himself with people of his own powerful stripe. In an historical sketch, his son Robert wrote that by the end of 1830 the intrepid crew had cleared enough land to plant wheat, turnips and potatoes. They had begun two mills, built a dam, raised a communal dwelling known as a base lodge, and built log cabins. Lewis moved his family into one of the cabins just as winter came. By 1833 he had built his family a frame house, and by 1835 the mills were fully up and running. Gradually more settlers began to appear and it looked like Horning’s Mills was going to change perceptions about falling off the edge of the earth.
An example to follow
Lewis’ parents, Peter and Isabella, left Pennsylvania for Upper Canada in 1788 when Lewis was 13 years old. Peter built a boat and a wagon and used both to cross two states to reach Lake Ontario at Oswego. Here they followed the shoreline – Isabella and three children within hailing distance in the boat as Peter and Lewis drove the wagon and led a cow on shore. When a storm wrecked the boat, the family camped for weeks while Peter walked to Niagara for help. A government schooner brought them to Hamilton where in just a few years they became one of the most prosperous families in the community.
A Shadow Passes Over
Sadly, Lewis himself never fully enjoyed the fruits of his vision. In July 1832, before the basic infrastructure of the settlement was complete, a terrible incident cast a shadow over Horning’s Mills and burrowed into its founder’s soul. While Lewis was away on a trip back to Hamilton, four children disappeared. Three of them, two girls and a boy were the children of Vanmear, the blacksmith. The fourth was Lewis’ favourite son, nine-year-old Lewis Jr.
Immediately, the building of Horning’s Mills took second place as every available hand turned to the search. At first, everyone believed the children were lost in the bush. Lewis had offered a dollar reward to anyone who could find a missing calf and it was thought the children may have been trying to earn the reward and lost their way. A second fear was that they had fallen prey to bears. Neither explanation made sense because two of the Vanmear children were bush-savvy teenagers, and before long everyone became convinced the children had been kidnapped. Without skipping a beat, that idea cast suspicion on the local native people.
The vision fades
Relations between the natives and the settlers had never been ideal. Although there was some interaction, each group remained aloof and wary of the other. When the search turned up no physical clues, the children were assumed to be victims of what Lewis Horning’s grandson, writing years later (in 1910) called “the treacherous aborigine.”
Because the children were never found (not quite; see sidebar) whatever truly happened that day in July 1832 is unknown, but Lewis Horning, from that point on, was diminished, his grand vision faded. Eleanor became deeply depressed. And the rapid rate of development in Horning’s Mills began to slow. Rumours circulated that Lewis was actually discouraging new settlers from buying land. In 1838, he left the village and moved back to Hamilton, and in 1844 he sold outright the 2,500 acres for which he had once conceived such a bright future.
Although it is a tiny, purely residential community today, Horning’s Mills did indeed become a village and commercial centre in the decades following Lewis’s great venture. (The population peaked in the 1870s at about 350.) Whether his spiritual force would have brought about a greater future for the village had it not been broken by the children’s disappearance is hard to say. However, one thing is certain: he had the vision to see a future in these hills and the courage to pursue it. The building of Horning’s Mills pierced a psychological barrier in Upper Canada and opened new possibilities for a growing country. Lewis Horning deserves to be called a Canadian hero.
The Children’s Fate
The conviction that natives were guilty of kidnapping the children remained so strong that for years even the vaguest clues were interpreted to support that view. In response to rumours that the two Vanmear girls were on Manitoulin Island, Lewis’s son, Peter, went there in disguise (it failed), but to no avail. In 1834, Oliver Vanmear, the youngest of the four turned up in Toronto Township. Regrettably, Oliver had a mental disability (the details in Robert Horning’s sketch strongly suggest a form of autism) and although almost everyone inferred from what little he could explain that natives were indeed guilty, there was never any real proof. Neither the Horning nor Vanmear families ever saw the other children again.
When Lewis Horning died in 1857 at the age of 77 his will was opened and found to have a clause leaving money for Lewis Jr. if he was ever found.
Author’s Note: the version of this column, written in 2011, had several errors, owing to uncertainty in the research source material. These have been corrected in the version that appears here, thanks to newly available and more accurate sources). Specifically Lewis Horning was 55, not 63 when he founded Horning’s Mills, and his parents, who were born in Pennsylvania, not Germany, brought Lewis and sibling to Upper Canada in 1788 when Lewis was 13. Further clarification of Lewis Horning’s marital status is included in this version.
I apologize for these errors and take full responsibility. Ken Weber