Our History, Environment
Uncovering Your Roots
Curated by Barry Marshall
Storyteller: Kae Elgie
November 3, 2021
What started out as a promise to help her aging mother finish her family history turned out to be a project of epic proportions for Kae Elgie. This Land: the story of two hundred acres in Kent County, Ontario, the story of the Elgie farm, is more than a family history; it is an epic story about the legacy, connections, and relations between the various people who, since the last Ice Age, have lived on the same 200 acres of Kent County land on which Kae grew up.
Kae’s mother had begun a book about the Elgie farm and family in the 1980s, before the internet existed. She stayed up late to make phone calls to relatives, sent letters, and spoke to family and friends to gradually piece together the Elgie family history. In the late 1990s, Kae, her son and husband volunteered to help, but it wasn't until 2012, when she retired from her job as a librarian, that Kae really got down to serious work on the book.
Almost immediately, the project got more complicated. On her first research trip from her home in Waterloo back to the Dawn Mills farm where her brothers and mother still lived, Kae's brother Earl surprised her with a box of 85 deeds he had found tucked in the basement wall of the oldest house on the farm. Kae spent the summer transcribing the handwritten documents. She discovered the 200 acres where she grew up were not the same 200 hundred acres her great-great-grandfather George Elgie had bought in 1870! It was much more complicated: mysterious land swaps, some not-quite-legal deals, and careful, thoughtful assembly of many small pieces of land as they became available. The very first owner of the land probably never even set foot on it, and sold it for a pittance in Pickering, hundreds of kilometres away, to pay off a debt. The third owner was none other than Captain William Taylor, the founder of Dawn Mills and a bustling grist mill that teemed with farmers from across the United States border in its 1830s heyday. Kae and her husband Phil Elsworthy spent hours and hours at the Kent County Archives, Land Registry office and Chatham-Kent Public Library piecing all these stories together.
On a research trip the following year there was another surprise. "Did I ever show you all the arrowheads my brother Bill and I found on the farm?" asked Earl. A few months later, cousin Darcy Fallon and fellow avocational archaeologist Stanley Wortner identified them as Paleo-Indian, Archaic and late Woodland period artifacts, 3000-10,000 years old. Months of studying archaeological texts, drawing on archaeological and Indigenous scholarship, helped Kae imagine the many civilizations which preceded European settlers' relatively short time on the two hundred acres known to Kae as "Fairview Farm".
"Not everyone has the chance to find the story of where they grew up, especially to be able to trace your roots back to the Ice Age," said Kae. "We Fairview Farm Elgies are so lucky."
What really struck Kae was the different ways people used, and regarded, land over the millennia. For the Paleo-Indians who dropped a couple of spear points somewhere on the farm 10,000 years ago, it was merely land to be crossed in pursuit of mastodons and caribou. For the Algonquian-speaking Ojibwa who lived there when William Taylor arrived around 1830, it was territory carefully shared out for hunting areas, maple syrup camps and fishing camps. Captain Taylor bought up hundreds of acres of land as a legacy to pass on to his children, but never actually farmed or even cleared an acre of it himself. Kae's great-great-grandfather George Elgie was primarily a farmer, but he also dabbled in using land as an investment to be resold at a higher price. Although George's oldest son William was a nominal farmer, his primary interest in owning land was to use it as collateral to buy new threshing machines for his growing grain harvesting business. “For my dad, land was seen as a productive resource," Kae said. "I know that for my brothers, it is land to pass on to other generations, and land for the birds and the animals to survive and grow upon."
While Kae’s parents loved the land, they treated it as a resource to be mined, but Kae thinks that could have been due to their financial struggles. When her father was asked by her brothers to install a tiling system into the fields, her dad "just freaked out from the thought of going into that much debt. And my brother said, 'Well yeah but what else could he have done? He never had two nickels to rub together.'"
Kae feels fortunate that she and her five siblings (and their children and grandchildren) can do more than just drive by the "home place" where the family began. "We can actually gather in the maple sugar bush where my dad Ken, my grandfather Earl, my great-great-grandfather George and generations of Ojibwa before us all had family gatherings during maple syrup boiling time. We are so lucky. "
“I guess that's partly why I wanted to write the book, to see how this came to be."
Writing the book deepened Kae’s own connection to the land, and her rural roots. “I interviewed my family so much and learned so much more about farming. I'm so proud of my brothers for the soil and environmental conservation work they have done on the farm, and I'm so happy my nephews Colin (who also has a story on PARO) and Grant are interested in carrying this on."
The book launch, on August 17, 2019 at the former Dawn Mills United Church, was a great opportunity to reunite the many current and former neighbours, first, second and third cousins, siblings, nieces and nephews Kae had interviewed for the book. A bus tour to the site of Captain Taylor's grist mill, the maple sugar bush, and other locations helped bring the story of This Land alive for the attendees.
Kae’s efforts are already being applauded by historians. This Land will undoubtedly be a vital resource for historians researching the area, and an irreplaceable treasure for the Elgie family for generations to come.