“My Kona, Your Kona, Arkona”
by Dr. Greg Stott
While human habitation in and around the Arkona area stems back thousands of years, the ﬁrst documented settler of European background is Asa Townsend (c.1775–alive 1851) who settled in what is now Bosanquet Township sometime in the early 1820s. Townsend, his wife (whose name is not recorded) and at least one son lived in comparative isolation on the banks of the Ausable River where they apparently worked at extracting salt. The Townsends were joined in about 1833 by Henry Utter (1809–1898) who settled on Lot 25, Con. 6 NER, Warwick. Utter was shortly joined by Lezar and John Smith and it was from this family that he met and married his wife Harriet Smith (1816–1882).
The extended Smith family was soon joined by at least two branches of the Eastman family, who came into the area in the late 1830s and early 1840s. As a result the small community that developed around the junction of what is now referred to as the Townsend Line and Arkona Rd. was known alternately as Smithfield and Eastman’s Corners, although when the post office was officially opened in 1851 it was called “Bosanquet,” after the township in which most of the growing village was situated.
The Utter family had established a mill by 1837 and are credited with establishing the first store in the community.1 In November 1851 the London Free Press explained that “[a] post oﬃce has lately been opened, and a village called Smith[ﬁeld laid] out in the South East corner [of the] township at the place formerly [known] as the Eastman settlement.” The article noted that the village was located on a high elevation; “the soil is a sandy loam [making] the place dry and well adapted [to] building a Town.” Approximately one mile from the village was the Ausable River, whose rapids aﬀorded abundant waterpower which already sported mills. Along the Ausable were the beginnings of another planned village called Rockville (eventually called Rock Glen). Several new stores, a post oﬃce, a Temperance Hall, and a Baptist Meeting House all existed in the village, while the Episcopal Methodists were planning to build a church, and “the Wesleyan Methodists have regular meetings.” Silas McKay’s cabinet shop would open in early 1852, while Alexander Davidson (1826–1899) kept a free public school. Martin Smith had a tannery, and a man whose ﬁrst name was Michael was building a tailor shop. Nial Eastman (1802–1872) was the proprietor of “an excellent house [of ] entertainment on Temperance principles” while Mr. McMillan operated a blacksmith shop about a mile from the village’s centre.2
At the time that the first postmaster, Joseph Hilborn, resigned in 1856 there was a great deal of excitement about the prospects of attracting a railway. Villagers began to call for a new and distinctive name, and it seems likely that Hilborn’s replacement, Levi Schooley, was responsible for selecting the name of Arkona, for a rugged cape on the northern tip of the Baltic island of Rugen. Despite the vested enthusiasm of the population, the railway would fail to materialize, although the excitement of the 1850s would return again in the 1870s and even early 1880s.3 As late as 1910 there was apparently speculation that a railway would yet arrive in the village, but as one villager wrote, while many “think [it] is sure to come… [we] will see when it gets here.”4 In 1876, at the height of a renewed conviction that the railway would soon arrive at Arkona, the ratepayers of the community petitioned Lambton County Council, and were ultimately granted the right to organize as an independent village taking in parts of Lots 5 and 6 of Bosanquet’s south boundary and the northern parts of Warwick’s Lots 24 and 25, Con. 6 NER. With an estimated population of approximately 700, the village’s population fell just below that required — but not strictly enforced — by provincial statues.5
The village became an important service centre for northeastern Warwick and southeastern Bosanquet. The failure to attract a railway certainly impeded the village’s growth, but it managed to survive and ﬂourish. While communities like Widder to the north and Katesville in neighbouring Middlesex County virtually disappeared as businesses and homeowners ﬂocked to the nearby railway towns of Thedford and Strathroy, Arkona was suﬃciently distant from Forest, Thedford and Watford to survive, and even ﬂourish. The community suﬀered a serious ﬁre in 1876 but that was dwarfed by the disastrous ﬁre of July, 1884 which left much of the village’s business area in ashes, causing some $40,000 in damage.6
Probably the most notable activity associated with Arkona in the ﬁrst third of the twentieth century occurred outside the village’s boundaries to the north, at Rock Glen, with the erection of the Rock Glen Power Company dam and power house on the Ausable River in 1907. A major setback came in 1908 when spring freshets overwhelmed the dam and swept away much of the powerhouse. However, the reorganized company rebuilt and hydro service — mainly for lighting — was resumed. Rock Glen, always a major picnicking ground for villagers, became even more popular because of the large powerhouse pond. However, as the demand for hydro increased, the company was no longer able to provide an adequate supply and ultimately the company ceased operation in 1926. The dam, viewed by some as an encumbrance, was dynamited by the Canadian Army in April 1933.7
Arkona continued to be an important service centre for the local farming district, and by 1916 boasted numerous industries common to many small towns across southern Ontario. These included a woollen mill, an apple evaporator, several hardware establishments, two comparatively large general merchant stores run by the Brown and Fuller families, tailors, and a host of other services and businesses.8
The introduction of the automobile slowly transformed the village. Although it would remain a commercial and social hub, the ability of people to travel long distances weaned them from a dependence on Arkona’s businesses. As a result, the last thirty years has seen a drastic reduction in the number of Arkona businesses. Arkona once had two hardware stores, a bank, a de- partment store, two grocery stores, two gas stations, a feed mill, bakery, drug store, and numerous other commercial operations. By the year 2008, Arkona, like most rural communities facing declining commercial activity, lost many of the “traditional” businesses that were once a necessary component of a rural village Even the long- standing emphasis on fruit growing in the surrounding orchards is undergoing major shifts.
The importance of tourism, based upon Rock Glen Conservation Area and those seeking fossils, keep the village on the map. The village has also remained an important social hub, with community organizations such as the Lion’s Club, Lioness Club, the Masonic Lodge, and of course its churches. While in the early 1970s the village had ﬁve congregations, the closure of the Anglican and Pentecostal churches left the Baptist, Plymouth Brethren and United Churches as the vital spiritual and social institutions within the village. However, changing social realities and priorities led to the decision to close Arkona United Church in January, 2008.
The social and economic landscape of Arkona has undergone many profound changes and adaptations throughout the past 170 years. While institutions and longstanding traditions have undergone substantial changes, the village’s population has remained markedly constant since the 1880s and, while the fabric of the community has altered, new residential development seems to ensure that Arkona, ever evolving, will continue well into the twenty-ﬁrst century
Meadows family, 1905 Arkona: Merle, Nell, Jo (Selena), Sarah, Jean, Andrew. courtesy J Runnalls
4. Myrtle Dunham, letter of Dec. 3, 1911, Arkona, Ont., to Loftus Lloyd Dunham, Courtenay, B. C. Courtesy of Millicent Kean. Myrtle and Lloyd’s brother Colonel Cecil Dunham (1875–1962) lived south of Arkona in Warwick Twp. Their grandparents Elijah Dunham (1810–1893) and Anna Maria Briggs (1813–1899) lived in Watford.