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The Galt Old Post Office – A History of its Postmasters 1885-1936


History + Heritage

  • An exterior shot of the Old Post Office location of Idea Exchange

Christine, Old Post Office | February 17, 2022

Have you ever looked at an old building and wondered about its history? If its walls could talk, what stories would they tell? Do you find yourself looking through its windows and wondered who might have looked out of them 100 years ago?

In 2011 I moved to Cambridge and shortly thereafter I discovered the (then) abandoned Old Post Office. Its stone walls and padlocked rod iron gate were enough to pique my curiosity. My eyes wandered up to the silent clock tower and thoughts of what it must have sounded like 100 years ago sprung to mind. Would it ever ring out again?

As luck would have it, a few years later I would find myself working within its auspicious walls. The questions I had the few years earlier still haunt me. As I ascend the heritage staircase, I think of ladies at the dawning of a new century, holding up the hems of their long dresses as they climbed the same wooden steps that now take us to the children’s Discovery Centre. Imagine, workers in the basement, sorting through mail, and packages brought in by horse-drawn cart at the back doors. I can almost hear the sound of feet as they scurry by on the plank sidewalk just beyond the windows. There are so many untold stories about this grand granite and limestone building. From the watchful eyes of the Postmasters who stoically observed their charges, to the caretaker Thomas Barrett and his family who lived in the third-floor attic.

In a time when we seem to get more email than hand delivered mail, it’s important to remember that just a few short years ago there was no such thing as digital mail. Mail delivery in Canada can trace its roots back to the French regime (1535-1763), when messages were carried by canoe between settlements. The first official Canadian post office was opened in Halifax in 1755, and regular mail service to Upper Canadian settlements was established in 1800. Being a postmaster was not a position to take lightly, as he was viewed as a representative of the government and provided advice and assistance to the community.

North Dumfries was a wilderness when Absalom Shade made the township his home. Born in Pennsylvania in 1793, Absalom emigrated to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada.  In 1816 he was hired by William Dickson to manage and superintend land Dickson owned in Dumfries Township. Shade quickly became a very successful businessman and built a large general store in 1824, which he called the Red Store. It was located at the corner of Water and Main Streets in downtown Galt where the CIBC now stands. Shade was appointed as the first Postmaster in Galt in 1825 (other sources state 1827), a position he retained for 25 years.[1] It is reported that he operated the first post office out of the back of his Red Store. His salary is reported as being £38 8s 5d[2], or about $190.00/year.  In 1832 Shade built a second store across the street and named it the White Store[3].

Alongside his stores, Shade operated a mill and a distillery. He helped establish the Grand River Navigation Company to help transport goods along the (Grand) river. He was instrumental in the development of roads and railroads in the area, assisted to establish the Gore Bank of Hamilton and took part in the building of Galt’s Trinity Church in 1844 (still in use today). Ever the businessman Absalom saw the potential to reach customers on the west side of the Grand and in 1819 built the first ever bridge to span the river. Today we call it the Main Street Bridge.  Mr. Shade was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada (1831-1841) and for over 30 years held virtually every nominated and elected office until 1852.

Absalom Shade had 13 siblings and 3 half siblings. He was married twice but had no children. Upon his death on March 15, 1862, his estate was worth between $250,000.00 and $300,000.00 (approximately $8-9,000,000.00 today). As a sign of respect all places of businesses were closed the day of Mr. Shades burial.

In 1834 the population of Galt was 250, and by the middle 1800’s Galt had become quite an active community. With its thriving manufacturing businesses, and many Scottish born residents, Galt became known as “The Manchester of Canada”. John Davidson was one of Galt’s prominent citizens, brother-in-law to Absalom Shade[4],  and was Galt’s second Postmaster from 1863-1877[5].

Davidson was born in Aberdeen, Scotland on September 20, 1805 and emigrated to Canada with his family in 1834. He remained on his parents’ farm in the Township of Woolwich on a parcel of land that became the Village of Winterbourne. He stayed there until about 1840 when he moved to the Village of Galt where sometime thereafter, he opened a small store on Main Street. Historical Reminisces of Galt state that Mr. Davidson ran the Post Office out of his store.

Mr. Davidson bought a parcel of land from the Hon. Robert Dickson and enlisted John Dalgleish to build a stone house for him at 63 Grand Ave. N. (The home is still standing and was converted to St. Paul’s Lutheran Parish Hall in 1960.) In 1867 John Davidson purchased a piece of land on Water St. N. where the Galt Post Office would later be built.

John Davidson was Captain of the 9th Company of the 1st Battalion of the Waterloo Militia. In his lifetime Mr. Davidson wore many hats:

1846: Manager of the Gore Bank of Hamilton

1852: Merchant in Galt; became a Trustee for Galt Grammar School (GCI)

1854: Reeve of Galt

1863-1864: Mayor of Galt

1862-1877: Galt Postmaster

1863-1869: served as Director of Gore Mutual Fire Insurance Co.

Mr. Davidson was married twice and fathered 11 children. His second wife was Jane Tassie, sister of William Tassie, Headmaster of Galt Collegiate Institute. John Davidson died on November 30, 1877 at his home called Craigie Lea[6] and is buried in Trinity Anglican Cemetery, Cambridge, Ontario.

A name that might be more familiar to us is that of William Quarrie. He was the third Postmaster in Galt, but 1st Postmaster to the stone building that still stands today and is now home to Canada’s 1st and only bookless library, known as Idea Exchange Old Post Office. William was born in 1819 in Berwickshire, Scotland. Like John Davidson, he too emigrated to Canada in 1834. Upon the death of his brother John, William took possession of the family farm, located in Dundas, and ran it for a year. Realizing that farming was not suited to him he left the farm and moved to Preston (about 1845) where he opened a business as a harness maker.[7] After about a year and a half he decided that the village of Galt would be more lucrative for his business. In July 1846 William Quarrie opened his Harness Shop on the south side of Main Street, beside the Central Hotel. History states that “Quarries Shop” was known as the headquarters for celebrities of the day to gather and swap stories. William married Catharine Turnbull in 1845 and together they had six children.

Quarrie was appointed as the Postmaster of the Galt Post Office in 1877 and held the position until 1887 (the official date is January 10, 1878 – August 18,1887)5. One of his sons, George, is listed as the Assistant Postmaster in 1901. William Quarrie died on August 18, 1887 and is buried in Mount View Cemetery, Cambridge, Ontario.

Thomas Cowan was born on August 14, 1835 near Galt on his parent’s farm named “Clochmohr” [8](named after a Scottish hill.) Thomas was educated in Galt and taught school for several years.[9] When he was young Mr. Cowan was a travelling salesman, who after travelling extensively, became a successful man who later owned the Galt Foundry and Machine Works (located on Water St).

After the death of post master William Quarrie Mr. Cowan wrote to Sir John A. MacDonald asking to be considered for the role of the new Postmaster.

“The Galt Foundry Engine & Machine Works, Galt, Ontario Canada,

23, Aug, 1887

My Dear Sir John, I am very sorry to tell you that by the death of Mr. Quarrie there is a vacancy in the Galt P.O. Who is to be the Post Master is the question – among the applicants there I none who had really earned it – I am also sorry to tell you that I am (undeciphered) by personal and political friends to apply for it for myself and when I say that I cannot quit politics and retire from active service, the answer is “the Govt and the cause are safe for four years” and it is suggested that I could enter the field if required at a funeral election. I am sorry to trouble you with this affair but felt that I could best lay the case before you, before giving any answer. “ [10]

Thomas Cowan became the Galt Postmaster and held the prestigious position from October 1, 1887 until his death in 1898. The Jubilee Souvenir of Galt 1897 described Cowan as a postmaster and a typical Canadian.[11] “As a public man, few have enjoyed greater esteem than Thomas Cowan. And now in his declining years he enjoys the quite life of postmaster of Galt, his native town, and is deserving of the emoluments.” [12]  Thomas Cowan died on October 14, 1898.

By 1899 Galt had become home to Waterloo County’s first hospital, and Mr. Cowan had been  replaced by Mr. William Sutherland Turnbull. Born November 18, 1862, Mr. Turnbull was a lawyer before becoming Galt’s 4th Postmaster (March 1, 1899-1919). Mr. Turnbull was pleased to accept the position which gave him an annual salary of $1,800.00 per year. Some notable events happened during his tenure; in 1907 the boiler in the basement exploded and the caretaker, Thomas Barrett was badly injured, electrical lights were installed in 1911, and on August 12, 1912 twice a day home mail delivery was implemented into the community by the Post Office (postal service was cut to once a day in 1951). It was also during his tenure that the rumour of an illicit love affair between himself and a postal employee named Emily supposedly took place. William Turnbull died at the age of 57 on April 26, 1919.

In 1919 the Preston Springs Hotel (known then as the Hotel Del Monte) had been operating for almost 40 years, the T. Eaton Co. Ltd.  is just one of many companies that offers ‘mail order’ homes, and the world is in the midst of a global pandemic. 1919 is also the year when Major John Alexander McIntosh became the new Postmaster of the Galt Post Office, and also the last to see oversee operations out of the granite and limestone building that was to become a historical landmark. Born December 10, 1885, McIntosh was a soldier and an alderman. In 1914 when Britain entered the First World War, Canada (as a British colony) automatically became in involved. Cowan was employed as an accountant at the time and enlisted with the 18th Battalion C.E.F with the rank of lieutenant.  He went on to become a Major and second in command. He earned the Distinguished Service Order[13] and two Mention of Dispatches[14]. Major McIntosh was wounded on the field in October 1916 and again on August 27th, 1918. On July 21st, 1919, following the first World War, and the death of William Turnbull, Major McIntosh took on the role of Postmaster at the age of 34.

McIntosh[15] was involved in the creation of the Highland Light Infantry of Canada in 1937 and was to become its’ commanding officer during World War 2. He commanded 1,100 men and developed them in to becoming one of Canada’s finest Battalions in battle. On June 12, 1940 Peter William Mullin was placed in charge of the Post Office when McIntosh returned to (military) active duty. Col. McIntosh resumed his position as Postmaster upon his return in 1944.

As Galt grew so did the need for a larger post office. In 1936 a new larger building opened at the corner of Dickson and Water Streets, with McIntosh retaining his role of Postmaster until 1951. Mr. Mullin took over as the Galt Postmaster in 1951. Colonel McIntosh died on September 7, 1970.

If you look around Cambridge, you may notice a few familiar names that are associated with the Old Post Office.

  • Shade Street (Galt) is named after Absalom Shade and one of the homes he lived in still stands today and is located on Beverly Street (Galt).
  • Davidson Street (Galt) is named after John Davidson, with another one of the homes he lived in still standing and a private residence on Maple Ridge Rd. (Galt).
  • In honour of McIntosh’s military service, the Galt Armoury at 1 Valour Place was named the Col. J.A. McIntosh, DSO Armoury Cambridge.
  • Quarrie House (54 Grand Ave) was once the home of William Quarrie. It is now a residence for university students.

Interested in learning more about the history of Cambridge? Idea Exchange has many books available to borrow.

Microfiche film is available for in-library browsing as well as historical periodicals which can be read borrowed or viewed online without the use of a library membership.

A digital copy of a Historical Galt Walking Tour can be viewed, downloaded and printed for a self-guided tour of the many places mentioned in this article.

Be sure to stop into the Idea Exchange Old Post Office at 12 Water St. South to view a collection of the historical documents we have on hand or try to solve the Old Post Office Historical Scavenger Hunt.

Idea Exchange is always seeking historical information, stories and artifacts pertaining to the Galt Old Post Office. Perhaps you have ties to the post office through family and friends or have an interesting story you’d like to share.  Whatever it is, we’d love to hear from you. 

[1] A Part of Our Past, Essays on the History of Cambridge. Jim Quantrell, City of Cambridge Archives, 2015

[2] Under British rule, Canada used British currency, pounds, shillings, denarius (pennies).

[3] Built in 1824 the Red Store was a credit/barter store in which farmers could trade produce or items they needed.

The mark up at the Red Store was 50-100%. In 1832 Shade built the White Store where he sold goods for cash at a lower cost. Cambridge Mosaic – An Inquiry into Who’s Who in the History of Cambridge, Jim Quantrell 1998

[4] John David’s sister, Isabella Jemima Davidson, married Absalom Shade. John Davidson and his wife, Jane Tassie, went on to name one of their boys Absalom Shade Davidson. 

[6] Also knows as the “Old Cowan House” (about 1834) https://ideaexchange.org/life/landmark/b1014471 Both Postmasters Davidson and Cowan lived in this residence.

[7] The 1871 Census of Canada has William Quarrie listed as 51 years old and a Saddler by trade. (Ancestry.ca)

[8] The farm was located on (what was known as) the Front Hespeler Road. The property was sold gradually; as a site for the Public Utilities Commission reservoir, followed by St. Benedict High School. The City of Galt purchased the remaining acreage for the future development including the John Galt Shopping Plaza, known today as The Cambridge Mall.   

[9] Clearview School SS 19 located at approximately Pinebush Rd. and Conestoga Blvd, Cambridge Ontario https://generations.regionofwaterloo.ca/showmedia.php?mediaID=6619&media....

[13] A military award for Officers only; the order was established for rewarding individual instances of commendable or distinguished service in   war; usually for a high degree of gallantry just short of deserving the Victoria Cross.

[14] Awarded during the Second World War for valiant conduct, devotion to duty or other distinguished service.