History of Deseronto

Deseronto’s history as a settlement can be traced back to the period just after the American War of Independence when the British Government obtained grants of lands on the north side of Lake Ontario from the Mississauga people. These lands were then granted to Loyalists who had fought for the British and had been compelled to leave their homes in America. A large tract of land on the Bay of Quinte was awarded to a group of twenty Mohawk families led by Captain John Deserontyon (c.1740-1811). Deserontyon had a farm at the eastern edge of this land: the area now occupied by the Town of Deseronto.

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Deserontyon’s daughter married a Scottish fur trader and their son, John Culbertson, inherited Deserontyon’s property. Culbertson improved the lands and built a wharf on the waterfront. In 1836 he applied to the Crown for the right to own these lands and was granted them in 1837. The village that grew up around the waterfront became known as Culbertson’s Wharf.

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A portion of the village was purchased from Culbertson by Hugo Burghardt Rathbun (1812-1886), Thomas Y. Howe and L. E. Carpenter in 1848 and formed the site of the area’s first sawmill, which became a centre for transport and processing of lumber from trees that were cut from a wide area and transported down the Napanee, Salmon, Moira and Trent rivers. Rathbun continued the business by himself from 1855 until 1863, when the Rathbun Company’s management was taken over by his son, Edward Wilkes Rathbun (1842-1903), who significantly expanded the company’s operations. Mill Point, as it was then known, became incorporated as a village in 1871. The map below shows the mill, wharf and post office of the village as they were in 1875.

In 1881 the village was renamed Deseronto in honour of Captain John Deserontyon. In April of that year, an American journal, The Lumber World, noted that:

“Were Deseronto, and its location, in the United States, it would achieve fame as a summer resort: as it is, it has become a hive of industry, and it is questionable whether we in this country have any place of like size to compare with it.”

 Advertisement for ‘The Mountebank’ at Naylor’s Theatre, published in  The Tribune , November 7, 1901

Advertisement for ‘The Mountebank’ at Naylor’s Theatre, published in The Tribune, November 7, 1901

Deseronto was incorporated as a Town in 1889. By the 1890s it was home to 4,000 people, many of whom worked in the Rathbun Company’s concerns, which included a sash and door factory, shipyard, railway car works, terra cotta factory, flour mill, gas works and chemical works. The plan below shows the industrial sites in the area around Mill Street at this period, criss-crossed with the railway lines that shipped goods out of the town.

Main Street and St. George Streets were thriving shopping centres in the late nineteenth century, boasting bakeries, drugstores, hardware stores and busy hotels. A number of churches were built in the town during this period. Naylor’s theatre put on a wide range of plays, musical performances and other events and could hold an audience of up to 550 people. The theatre still exists and a programme is currently under way to renovate the property.

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One of the most famous Mohawks associated with Deseronto was Dr Oronhyatekha (1841-1907), originally from the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford. He trained as a physician and was educated at Oxford for a while. He became involved in the Independent Order of Foresters and successfully transformed the finances of the organisation. Oronhyatekha had a house in Tyendinaga and built properties on Forester’s Island, opposite Deseronto, erecting his elaborate summer residence, a hotel and pleasure grounds there. This picture below shows the orphanage on the Island that Oronhyatekha constructed for the Order, which operated from 1906 to 1907. There is no trace today of any of these buildings on the island.

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The First World War brought the Royal Flying Corps to Deseronto, with two training camps close to the town: Camp Mohawk was on the site of the current Tyendinaga (Mohawk) Airport, while Camp Rathbun was to the northeast of the town. Young pilots from all over the British Empire came here to learn how to fly between 1917 and 1918. There were a number of accidents: this photograph shows the local doctor, E. D. Vandervoort, at the site of one of these crashes. The graves of the pilots killed in training can be found in Deseronto Cemetery.

As timber stocks became depleted, the economic base for the town’s industries was eroded to the point where it was no longer viable for the Rathbun Company to continue its operations. It surrendered its charter in 1923. The population of the town fell from 3,500 in 1924 to 1,300 ten years later.

 Employees of Metcalfe Foods, 1938

Employees of Metcalfe Foods, 1938

Other industries arrived during and following the end of the Rathbun era including The Dominion Match Company (which was later sold to the E.B. Eddy Co.); Redi Heat Electrical Appliance Co.; Deseronto Electronics Ltd.; Ideal Venders and  Canada Optical.  The Clapperton Glass factory manufactured cut-glass items in Deseronto between 1916 and 1931.  Ellwood Metcalfe established his first canning factory at the age of 24 and the firm was a major employer in the town for many years, both before and after the Second World War. The photo below shows some of the employees of the firm in a picture taken on August 18, 1938.  One of the largest current employers in the town is Canada Cordage Inc.  Many of the other business in Deseronto are focused on the town’s tourist industry, as it now aims to be the “summer resort” that The Lumber Worldwriter envisioned in its industrial heyday.

Deseronto’s Loyalist, Mohawk, and industrial heritage have contributed significantly to its history, and continue to influence the town.  Our heritage is celebrated through the preservation and commemoration of historic buildings, events, sites and documents and through activities to enhance awareness and appreciation of our past.

Are you looking for additional information regarding Deseronto’s unique history? If so, contact Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County http://cabhc.ca/.