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The County Atlas Revisited

author: Tom Cruickshank

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They are now past their 135th birthdays, but county atlases aren’t exactly out of date. These big books with the detailed maps and fanciful illustrations still have a lot to say about life in the country in our neck of the woods.

Sometime in 1877, the H. Belden & Co. of Toronto was knocking on doors throughout Northumberland, Hastings and Prince Edward in search of subscribers to a new publishing venture. Belden was about to print two more of its very successful county atlases: one for Hastings and Prince Edward and another for Northumberland and its neighbour to the west, Durham. Designed as oversized commemorative books chronicling local history and geography, they were part of a craze for souvenir atlases that swept through Ontario and the rest of rural eastern North America in the fourth quarter of the 19th century. When the fad finally faded in the early 20th, Belden and others had produced 42 atlases in Canada and some 500 more in the U.S. Brimming with timely history, glowing biography and plenty of decidedly local cartography, they were a phenomenon that captured the rural Victorian imagination. They also captured the countryside at a pivotal time in its history. Indeed, country Canada was about to change forever and today, we are lucky to have the atlases as a first-hand record of rural life at its peak.

Whether they depicted Ohio or Ontario, all the atlases adopted a certain formula and Belden’s The Illustrated Historical Atlas of the Counties of Hastings and Prince Edward and The Illustrated Historical Atlas of the Counties of Northumberland and Durham were no exceptions. At the heart of each book is a collection of maps that show all the local towns and townships in painstaking detail, including every road, river and railway. Out in the rural concessions, the information is even more exhaustive, naming every man who owns every farm lot and the number of acres in his possession. Each farmhouse is marked with a little black square; churches, schoolhouses, mills and cemeteries are also labelled. Such minutiae made a great keepsake for rural dwellers, much like a high-school yearbook. And the information is surprisingly accurate: This writer, who used the atlas as a guidebook when working on an exhaustive study of heritage buildings in Prince Edward, rarely found a discrepancy between the names on the maps and the names in official land registry documents.

Indeed, it is as a research tool that the atlases are revered today. Genealogists love them and even the average person who rarely thinks about history has been known to pore over the maps, study the pattern of roads and farms and pick out familiar landmarks. But if there is one thing for which the atlases are best remembered, it is their house portraits. These stilted, even awkward, illustrations, some as big as a full page, show various rural residences and local businesses in the best possible light: no manure piles here; no rundown sheds; no decaying log cabins. In fact, these sketches often take poetic licence, recording manicured gardens and extensive flower beds that perhaps never existed; neat rows of fences that would have been impossible to maintain; acres of orchards whose extent could easily have been exaggerated. But then again, these weren’t random views. They were commissioned and paid for by the subscribers and in fact, were the lifeblood that made the atlas a viable business venture. No wonder Belden’s artists did their best to do their subjects proud.

For some subscribers, the house portraits were a means of advertising. For others, they were pure vanity. To today’s eye, the simplicity of the sketches lends them a certain folk-art charm, but they are just as important as documentation. Indeed, despite certain aggrandizements and the awkward poses, they are a valuable architectural record, especially now that so many houses were demolished or altered in the meantime.

Likewise, the atlas presents a summary of the history of each township and chronicles the people who settled there. For the most part, the prose is positively fawning, gushing with praise for the foresight of local politicians and the noble legacy of the founding families. In a long-winded and flattering bio of Walter Ross, a wealthy Picton dry-goods merchant, the atlas opines, “He commenced a business for himself, which has gradually increased till it is now of an extent seldom seen in Provincial towns, while his store has few equals even in the large cities for size, convenience, neatness and completeness in every detail, the various departments being all arranged in the most attractive and inviting manner; and everything about the establishment wears an air of ‘business’ only requiring a glance to satisfy the observer that the man is master of his profession.” What the text fails to mention is that Ross’ financial empire was on shaky ground and that later in 1878, the very year the atlas was published, he lost everything, including his Main Street mansion, in bankruptcy.

It was no coincidence that the atlases arrived in the 1870s. The time seemed right for reflection: Canada had only recently been confederated and it was still within living memory that the verdant agricultural countryside was still primeval forest. Most of the H. Belden & Co. atlases were published in 1878, which was the peak year. Belden published its last Ontario atlas in 1881 while south of the border, the final American rural atlas appeared in 1906. The dates are significant, because the flight to the cities had already begun and pretty soon, the countryside would never be the same. By 1911, more Canadians lived in urban areas than on farms and many of the families who were documented on the atlas maps had already moved on. Likewise, the houses they left behind, so painstakingly rendered in atlas illustrations, often fell into decline or disappeared altogether. Looking back, the atlas couldn’t have come at a better time, for there is no other record that so graphically tells the story of country life in the Victorian era.

An entire page of the Northumberland atlas is devoted to an aerial view of the milling complex at Canton, just above Port Hope on the Ganaraska River. It’s a bucolic scene – a water-powered mill adjacent to a pond, with several houses nestled on the hill above, one of which Will Ryan is quite familiar with. He lives in one of the houses pictured in the view: an 1830s gem called Durham House. “As drawn in 1878, my house is partly hidden by a grove of trees,” he observes. “It still is.” Will often refers to the atlas for tips on garden aesthetics with a Victorian flair. “It’s a very useful piece of reference material.”

Gardens are prominent in front of a second house – a showplace in Gothic style – that is pictured across the road in the same view. And although the atlas is often accused of aggrandizing its subjects with gardens that never existed, Will says there is reason to believe this illustration is accurate. “The atlas shows a large formal, semi-circular garden in front of the house. And you can still see remnants of it today along the driveway.”

At the time the atlas was published in 1878, the mill at Canton was still under the ownership of the Salter family. Patriarch Peter Salter lived in the older Durham House while the newer Gothic house was built for his son George, on the occasion of his marriage in 1861. George sold everything in 1879, only a year after the atlas first appeared. But what is probably most significant is that the illustration is a record of the original mill – shown as an ambitious three-storey building in frame – which burned in 1899.

A new mill was immediately built on the site and by the 1970s, the Canton mill was one of the last two still in operation in Hope Township. Now used as office space, it also feeds the grid with its own hydro-electricity. Of the three main buildings shown in the atlas view, only the mill is visible from the road today.

“Indeed,” says Will, “the extent to which trees and vegetation have reclaimed former fields and other cleared land is probably the single most dramatic comparison between the atlas view and today’s.”


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carl wiens

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meghan sheffield

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Meghan is a Cobourg writer, web producer and social media manager....

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