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200 Years of Galt: People and Places


Local History

  • William Dickson
    William Dickson
  • Kirkmichael, Galt home of William Dickson, Image from Pinterest.
    Kirkmichael, Galt home of William Dickson, Image from Pinterest.
  • Absalom Shade
    Absalom Shade
  • Shade was a supporter of Trinity Anglican Church. Image from Cambridge, Ontario's Anglican Churches.
    Shade was a supporter of Trinity Anglican Church. Image from Cambridge, Ontario's Anglican Churches.
  • Adam Ainslie
    Adam Ainslie
  • James Young
    James Young
  • Thornhill, Residence of Hon. James Young, Image from Picturesque and Industrial Galt.
    Thornhill, Residence of Hon. James Young, Image from Picturesque and Industrial Galt.
  • William Tassie
    William Tassie
  • Galt Collegiate Institute
    Galt Collegiate Institute
  • John Goldie
    John Goldie
  • The Main Machine Shops, Image from Picturesque and Industrial Galt.
    The Main Machine Shops, Image from Picturesque and Industrial Galt.
  • Hugh McCulloch
    Hugh McCulloch
  • Adam Warnock
    Adam Warnock
  • Tiger Brand Knitting Factory, c. 1950
    Tiger Brand Knitting Factory, c. 1950
  • Robert Kerr, Image courtesy of the Giant Screen Cinema Association website.
    Robert Kerr, Image courtesy of the Giant Screen Cinema Association website.
  • Galt City Hall in 1965 after renovations on the west side.
    Galt City Hall in 1965 after renovations on the west side.

Linda, Queen's Square | November 1, 2016

The makers and shakers of Galt are an interesting collection of people.  They are risk takers or people who were forced to take risks (being a younger son in a large family in rural Scotland could induce some risk-taking activity).  Connections also make a difference.  William Dickson got off to a flying start with his already established cousins, and the young, energetic Absalom Shade became one of the wealthiest people in Galt as a result of being Dickson’s right hand man.   If you look at the street names in the Galt section of Cambridge today you will see the names of local luminaries who were involved in the development of the community over the decades - Dickson, Shade, Ainslie, Goldie, Elliott, Warnock, Lutz, Kerr - to name a few!

Alison Jackson The information for these profiles of notable Galtonians was gathered by Alison Jackson, winner of the June Callwood Outstanding Achievement Award for Volunteerism, and was first presented at the 2016 Grand River Heritage Working Group Workshop under the title “Notable people in the development of Dumfries Township.”

Alison Jackson, photo by Ray Martin, courtesy of the Cambridge Times.
All other images courtesy of the Cambridge Archives unless otherwise noted.


William Dickson

William Dickson, the founder of Galt, was one of 10 children and one of 3 brothers who came to Canada to seek their fortunes.  Arriving in Upper Canada, Dickson was employed by his cousin, Robert Hamilton, a member of the Family Compact who made money through the fur trade and supplying the military.

Dickson invested in land with the money he made managing Hamilton’s store and mills, often with Hamilton and another cousin, Thomas Clark.  It took time, but Dickson negotiated to be both buyer and seller in Grand River land owned by the Six Nations.  In 1793 Dickson and his cousins asked Lieutenant Governor Simcoe to allow such a sale. Simcoe was opposed.  Two years later, Dickson became the agent for an American group who wanted to purchase tracts of land from the Six Nations, and after 1798 he often acted as land agent for the Six Nations.  

In 1811, Dickson bought 94,000 acres, known as Block 1, in partnership with Thomas Clark.  At the time Dickson’s full partnership in the deal was concealed, but in 1816, Clark formally transferred this land to William Dickson for about $1 an acre.   Block 1 became known as Dumfries Township, named after Dickson’s home in Scotland.  The settlement where Mill Creek joins the Grand River was first called Shade's Mills.  The village was renamed Galt in 1827 in honour of John Galt, the Scottish author and Secretary of the Canada Company which was opening up lands along the Huron Tract and what is now Guelph.  Dickson sent an agent to Scotland to find settlers for his land, and is said to have treated the immigrants paternally, providing livestock, implements and provisions. He returned to Niagara in 1837, leaving the administration of his lands to his son, William Junior.

Absalom Shade

Absalom Shade was a young Pennsylvanian, shrewd, wide awake and money-making!  He had come to Dickson’s attention after he lost a contract to build a court house and jail in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  Shade agreed to build a sawmill and a gristmill in the new community and to act as Dickson’s agent in the township.  The grist mill, known as Dumfries Mill, (the bus terminal on Ainslie Street is near the site today) was completed and operational by 1819.  These mills and Mr. Shade’s house and store were among the first buildings in the new settlement.  In 1819, Shade also completed a bridge over the Grand River (now Main Street Bridge) to connect the settlers on both sides of the river.

Tradition has it that Shade arrived in Dumfries Township with $100 and his carpenter’s tools but that he soon amassed a large fortune.  The key to his success was the monopoly he enjoyed over a wide spectrum of business activities.  Cash was scarce, and with Dickson’s financial backing, Shade built up a large credit business at his store where he charged a markup of 50 -100% on credit sales.  Shade was the first Post Master and retained that position for 25 years.

When John Galt visited the community in 1827, Shade, being the shrewd businessman, bid for and received several large contracts to supply lumber, flour and pork and other provisions to John Galt and the Canada Company which was then building roads through the Huron Tract.  He also supplied men to build the road from Galt to the new community of Guelph (Highway 24).  As his fortunes grew and his business interests broadened, he became associated with the founding of the Gore Bank, local railways and the Berlin and Stratford Gravel Road Company.

With his monopoly of Galt’s mercantile trade secure, Shade turned over the management of his enterprises to his relatives and then devoted his energies to public office.  Always a strong Tory in politics, Shade served two terms in the House of Assembly.  During the 1837 rebellion, he helped organize a detachment of the militia and was the local Justice of the Peace who examined suspected rebels.  In the local political scene, Absalom Shade held almost every nominated and elected municipal office over a 30 year period.  After elective municipal government was established in 1841, Shade was elected as the second reeve of the newly incorporated village of Galt in 1852.

These two men, William Dickson and Absalom Shade, were the driving force in the development of Galt and Dumfries Township, which in a short period of time had been converted from a wilderness into one of most flourishing and prosperous parts of the Province.

Other Notable People

Ainslie Brothers, Adam and James

Adam Ainslie

Adam Ainslie, the older Scottish brother, was a lawyer who arrived in Galt in 1834.  He held many influential positions: he was reeve in 1854, he was the first manager of the Galt Branch of the Commercial Bank and was Captain of the local militia during the 1837 Rebellion.  For twelve years, he served as Chairman of the Board of Commissioners of the Dundas and Waterloo Macadamized Road, now Highway 8.  He later moved north to the Owen Sound area.  His autobiography, “On Life’s Stage,” is available at Idea Exchange.

James Ainslie

James, the younger Ainslie brother, founded the Galt Reporter in 1846 in partnership with Peter Jaffray.  However he and Jaffray didn’t see ‘eye to eye’ politically and James Ainslie left the partnership three years later and formed a rival weekly called the Dumfries Reformer.  The Reformer began publishing in 1850 and James Ainslie remained involved with his paper until 1853 when he sold it to James Young.

It’s hard to know which Ainslie brother Ainslie Street was named after – maybe both.

James Young

James Young was born in Galt in 1835, the son of John Young, innkeeper and first landlord of the King’s Arms Hotel, later the Queen’s Arms Hotel, in Queen’s Square.

In Young’s day, journalism was seen as a stepping stone to political office, and James started early.  At the age of 14, he joined the Galt Reporter and four years later purchased the Dumfries Reformer from James Ainslie which he operated for 10 years. At the age of 23, he was elected to Galt town council and in 1867 he won a seat as a Liberal in the first parliament of the new Canadian Confederation.  He was re-elected twice more and was instrumental in the adoption of the legislation that established the federal Government Bureau of Statistics (Statistics Canada).   From 1879-1886, he was the MPP for North Brant.

James Young always believed in the power of the written and spoken word to persuade and influence.  He made speeches regularly on the progress and success of Canadian Confederation and strongly “opposing any form of annexation and advocating Canadian Nationality as the ultimate destiny of the Dominion and the best antidote to Americanizing tendencies”

Young also held other local positions: he was President of the Mechanics’ Institute, Chairman of Galt Collegiate Institute, and President of the Galt Hospital Trust promoting and erecting Galt’s first hospital.  Young’s history of early Galt and Dumfries Township remains one of the major sources of information about the early development of our community.  The book is still available at Idea Exchange, and a plaque celebrating his life stands at the west end of the Main Street Bridge in the grounds of Central Presbyterian Church.

William Tassie

Born in Dublin, Ireland, Tassie arrived in Galt in 1853 to take over as headmaster of the Galt Grammar School that had been formed the year before.  Its mission was to prepare students for “exhibitions in Upper Canada College and for scholarships in Trinity College and the University.” The school had begun with 12 students and was housed in the upper floor of the Old Township Hall, but in 1854 moved to a new stone building overlooking the Grand River on Water Street.  The school soon developed a reputation for excellence and students were coming from other areas of the province, Canada and USA.  Many of his students went on to hold prominent positions in education, religion, politics and law.

In 1872, the Galt Grammar School was top of the list of six schools in Ontario to be known as “Collegiate Institutes”.  But that caused a problem for Mr. Tassie as he then had to admit girls and he was opposed to co-education.  He got round that little loophole by opening a separate division of the school in the old Wesleyan Chapel (the building still on Ainslie Street, across from Wesley Church).  However, there was another problem - his teaching methods!  He ruled by the rod!  He required his student to commit to memory the information they were taught and to repeat it verbatim!  He fell afoul of the Department of Education’s policies and this was reflected in the annual examinations and his student enrolment dropped which diminished his reputation as an educator and he left Galt in 1881.

John Goldie Junior

John Goldie Junior was born in Scotland in 1822, the second son of a famous botanist.  John had apprenticed in Scotland as a millwright and learned to be a pattern maker in Montreal.  When he returned to his family at Greenfield, near Ayr, he set up a small machine shop in his father’s flour mill.  He also worked as a millwright for James Crombie’s Dumfries foundry in Galt.

In 1859, he bought Crombie’s Foundry in partnership with Hugh McCulloch, thus laying the foundation for Goldie-McCulloch Co. Ltd, one of the largest and most successful engineering establishments in Canada.  In 1923, the company was bought by Babcock and Wilcox and currently operates on Coronation Boulevard as BWXT Canada Ltd.  The original foundry buildings on Water Street south are now known as Southworks retail outlets.

Adam Warnock

Adam Warnock was born in 1828 in Neilston, near Glasgow, Scotland and came to Canada with his family in 1833.  The family moved to Galt in 1835, where Adam met and married Jacob Hespeler’s sister, Stephanie.

In 1881 Warnock partnered with seven other men to form the Galt Knitting Company where he was President for 20 years.  They manufactured shirts and drawers on a moderately large scale by Canadian standards. The company became known as Tiger Brand Knitting Company, manufacturing a wide range of sportswear.  Until it was sold in 2005, it was still being operated by the Warnock family.

Robert Kerr

Born Galt in 1929, Robert Kerr became the youngest mayor in the history of Galt at age 35 and served for four terms.  During his tenure as Mayor, he oversaw the reorganization of the newly amalgamated City of Cambridge and was among those who championed the preservation of the Old City Hall.

Along with two school friends from Galt Collegiate Institute (GCI), Graeme Ferguson and Bill Shaw, Kerr invented the IMAX movie system. Their invention was the technical wizardry behind 3D adventure films such as Avatar, The Polar Express and space documentaries like Hubble 3D.  Kerr was the businessman and chairman who drove the financial side of IMAX from 1967 to 1994.

"There are so many individuals from Galt who have contributed to its development over the last 200 years. I think the original founders would be amazed today at how their little settlement in the wilderness has turned out."
- Alison Jackson, February 2016