Storyteller Seamus Gunn shares history of Essex with EDHS students

by Sylene Argent

As Heritage Week was celebrated throughout the province last week, the Town of Essex hosted a few events that shined a light on Essex’s history, or its residents that use their talents and time to preserve and promote local heritage.

  Last Wednesday morning, storyteller Doug Robinson, who takes on the persona of Seamus Gunn, a character he created that explains historical events as if he was there, shared the story of early exploration of the area that would become Windsor-Essex County.

  The historical storytelling included the challenges and success of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de LaSalle, who, when at Niagara Falls, wanted to know what was beyond. This interest led to him getting permission to explore further, and he made his way down to what would become the Windsor-Essex area, he said.

  In 1679, he had the nearly 50-foot vessel, “The Griffin” built in the Niagara area, and sailed it towards a new land. As Gunn, Robinson told the story of how the ship was nearly destroyed before it was able to launch. Shipmates had to jump into the water to retether lines, fighting against a strong current that led down to the falls.

  Through his explorations, LaSalle, Robinson explained, named Lake St. Clair after the patron Saint of good weather. Eventually, he would learn his ship was wrecked near Port Huron, and spent a month and a half walking from Michigan to the shores of Lake St. Clair, where he and his crew made a simple raft, and headed back to the Niagara River.

  Gunn moved forward in time to speak of the new settlements of Gosfield Township and Colchester in 1789. As there was no open land, settlers burned down trees so they would be able to farm. Robinson spoke of letters sent from Chicago at that time that described a strange orange glow, not knowing its origin.

  He spoke of the land grants Colonel Thomas Talbot had to lay roadway. He also mentioned Alexander Cameron, who came from Toronto to open a law office in Windsor. He had interest in Essex.

  His wife’s name was Medora, but she wanted nothing to do with Essex County. He said he would name this new town after her, but that still did not intrigue her. In the 1850s, Cameron was buying land. The law, Robinson explained, noted a man could not hold more than 200 acres. Cameron and a partner held over 1500 acres, which happened to be a prime location for the incoming railroad.  

  Arthur Rankin served in parliament for Essex, but it was later discovered he was taking bribes from both train companies. He was kicked out of parliament, but was eventually re-elected.

  At the age of twelve, John Milne left his parents’ home. He got a job as a message boy in Woodstock to pay his own way and educated himself. At 18, be earned his teaching certificate. Ten years later, due to health issues from being indoors, he had to make a career change.

  Leaving his life as a teacher behind, he then worked at the oil fields in Pennsylvania, where he quickly became a clerk. He bought interest in a cargo ship, but it was ruined in a storm. He lost everything, Robinson said. He then got a job with the Canadian Southern Railway, which brought him to Essex County. Within two years, he invested his money to create a sawmill in Essex to make things farmers needed. By 1875, Robinson said, he was employing around 100 men.

  By 1884, the Village of Essex was founded, Robinson noted. A few years later, Milne became the first Mayor of Essex. He dug wells and put in wooden sidewalks for resident convenience.   

  Robinson said he was delighted with how engaged the students were as he took them on a historical journey.

Robinson said he has found that in communities that are big enough to have all amenities, but are still small, residents are engaged about their town’s history and cultural threads.


Creative writing students earn Youth Community Heritage Preservation Awards

  On Wednesday, February 19, before storyteller Seamus Gunn spoke about the history of Essex with EDHS students, Mayor Larry Snively presented Youth Community Heritage Preservation Awards to two Essex District High School students.

  Last semester, Ms. Maurina’s grade 12 English Writer’s Craft class headed down to the Essex Railway Station, where the students used the historic building to fuel their writing abilities, while getting in touch with local history, to create a creative writing piece.

  After assessing each of the creative works, the Youth Heritage Preservation Awards were presented to Kara Almasi, for her poem “Out with the Old, in with the New” and Abby Caldwell, for her poem “And It Came to Pass.”

  Almasi said she wrote her poem about the pictures she saw on the wall at the Essex Railway Station and how things have changed over the years. She said one could have grown up in Essex as things were evolving, and feel like a stranger to their hometown if they were not ready for those changes.

  Caldwell wrote of the 1907 Essex Explosion. She wrote her poem as time was leading up to the explosion from a clock’s perspective.

© 2020 The Essex Free Press ltd.

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