A look back on Griffith and Matawatchan
By Bill Graham, Editor: The Madawaska Highlander
This is the story of two townships, which have been closely linked for many years. Before the political organization of this part of Eastern Ontario there were many small settlements, which were isolated communities of people trying to eke out a living from a stony landscape.
The first settlers in the area were shanty men. They were the loggers who worked the Madawaska River and decided to settle their families along the river. Settlement was located mainly near the river and they were predominately French from what was then Lower Canada (Quebec). Around 1850 there were already some settlers-MacDonalds, Wilsons and McLellans -in what is now the Village of Matawatchan.
Early Matawatchan in Winter
In the 1850s a number of events conspired to open up the area to settlers. In 1852 the government passed the Public Lands Act, which made it lawful to give genuine agricultural settlers free grants of land along public roads in newly surveyed townships. It is interesting to note that while the Crown gave the land, it retained the rights to the pine trees. To administer these grants Mr. T.P. French was appointed Crown Land Agent in 1852. He dispensed his largess from Mount St. Patrick and was said to be overly generous in his description of the land being granted. This might explain why family names that existed in a community in one census year no longer exist in that community in the next census year, ten years later. Many were probably disillusioned by their granted land and moved on. Happening at this same time was the development of settlement roads, which were critically important for bringing settlers into the area.
Griffith Township was the first to be politically organized. In 1858, Griffith Township was established as a township and joined Grattan, Algoma and Sebastopol as a united township. Around the same time (1866) Renfrew County split from the United Counties of Lanark and Renfrew to become a county on its own. The township of Griffith at that time had three communities: Griffith, Balvenie and Khartum. Griffith is named for Sir Thomas Griffith who served in the Crimea War, including the Battle of Balaclava. Many of the first officials (especially Post Masters) in the area were ex-military officers who had received land grants from the Crown in recognition of their military service. This probably explains the unlikely names given to some of the villages and postal stations; including Balaclava and Khartum.
It is an interesting footnote that Crown Land Agent T.P. French became the first reeve of Griffith Township in the mid-1860s.
It is unclear when Griffith Township separated from Grattan, Algoma and Sebastopol to become a township on its own, but we do know that in 1871 the Township of Matawatchan, which was a union of several sparsely populated settlements, joined Griffith as a united township.
The Township of Matawatchan had two communities; the Village of Matawatchan and Camel Chute. Camel Chute was originally named Campbell Chute after a local logger, but when surveyors arrived and asked residents the name of the place the local brogue was misheard as Camel. Matawatchan is an Indian name (probably Algonquin) and in some records it's spelled as 'Mataouschie'. Some believe it means "running through rushes", but Indian Affairs says it means "first settlement." Some current long-time residents think the name should be translated as "hidden village." It suggests that there may have been an Aboriginal settlement here before the Europeans arrived.
While Griffith was primarily Irish and French in the early days, the population of the geographic township of Matawatchan was primarily Scots and French. Local memory says that the first settler in the Village of Matawatchan was a MacDonald, but soon after there were Wilsons, MacPhersons, McLellans, Hutsons and many others. Many of the French families are still here but their names have become anglicized over the years. The LeClaire family were very early settlers and they are still prominent in the area.
With the shanty men and the early farmers a population developed and with it a small service industry to serve that population. There were blacksmiths, cheese makers, store owners, carpenters and even two dress makers and a weaver are identified in the 1891 Census for the Village of Matawatchan. It was a local economy where, for example, any milk remaining after a settler's cow had provided milk and butter for the family would be turned over to a local cheese maker who would provide cheese for a little cash back to the family. It was very much a barter economy. This type of transaction happened for many commodities and it happened throughout Renfrew County.
The Townships of Griffith and Matawatchan were very isolated for much of their history. It was not until the mid-1930s that there was a modern road to Dacre through to Renfrew with the building of Highway 41. It was not until then that a concrete bridge over the Madawaska replaced one made of wood. Before then most of Matawatchan's supplies came from Perth via the Lanark and Calabogie Roads. Supplies for Griffith probably came via Denbigh and the Addington Road. Depending on the merchant involved both communities may have been supplied by both these routes. Who now can say?
Traveling beyond their immediate community happened seldom for residents. Local Matawatchan residents Annie Thomson and Olive Parks (nee Thompson), who are sisters now in their 90s; report that they first visited Renfrew for the Renfrew Fair, when they were in their teens. It was a two-day trip by wagon with a night spent at a 'stopping place' in Dacre. Former Griffith residents Eric and Irene Boeltge reported that: "Travelling by rough wagon roads was quite difficult in earlier times and it usually took two days to travel to Eganville, which we travel today in not much less than an hour! At Tooey's Lake, there was a large stove and always wood, where a traveler could stop to have their lunch. Coming back from Eganville in the evening, travelers sometimes stopped about three miles this side of Eganville and stayed the night. In the morning they could resume their journey and arrive back in Griffith in the afternoon."
Often residents would travel with the mail, which would arrive about once weekly. It was an antiquated form of hitch hiking. Mail was often the only form of communication outside of the immediate community. Post Office locations and postmasters were significant in these times.
Many of the historical highlights of this area are connected to communication with the outside world. According to Alvie Strong the first telephone arrived in Matawatchan in the 1920s though not everyone had one. Calls could only be made in Matawatchan or as far as Griffith, according to Bill Thomson, but you had to shout. In addition, in those days you had to buy your own telephone and supply some telephone poles. The first car arrived in the 1920s but it was years before it was a common means of transportation. The arrival of Highway 41 in the mid-1930s was significant for this area and finally in the mid-1950s hydro arrived here.
Today residents have communications and access to the world outside the community, but it is still an isolated area. However, today that might be more a blessing than a curse.