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Signposts - In search of Ameliasburgh

Photography by Lindi Pierce

Few hamlets can lay claim to being immortalized by one of Canada’s literary legends. But Ameliasburgh, Prince Edward County can. Al Purdy wrote much of his best poetry in the spot where he, wife Eurithe, and son Jim lived in a homebuilt A-frame on the shore of Roblin Lake. Purdy’s In Search of Owen Roblin recounts the area’s rich history.  Poet Purdy and pioneer Roblin rest in the hamlet’s picturesque Grove Cemetery beside the millpond.

Ameliasburg (or Ameliasburgh, depending on the direction from which you enter) is an unpretentious spot strung out along County Road 19. Fields and bush border residential lots. Gravel lanes wriggle back through red cedars to Roblin Lake. No gentrification here; the rural aesthetic prevails. Properties run into each other, with only a stand of trees or a bit of wire fence marking boundaries. There’s space. Room for a woodpile. A couple of garden sheds. A project stash.

Many homes date from the late 1800s. Some have been updated with modern siding, hinting coyly at their age by their simple farmhouse forms. They coexist with several generations of suburban bungalows, and the winterized cottages and summer retreats circling the lake.

Ameliasburgh has a fascinating history, much of it invisible. As Way’s Mills, it took shape below the escarpment in the 1830s. A decade later, at the top of the hill, as Roblin’s Mills, it became an industrial giant (for its time), home of the Sprague carriageworks, a bank, blacksmith shops, and essential services, and Owen Roblin’s 1842 stone mill. By the 1960s, the mill was in ruins: it was salvaged and rebuilt as the centrepiece of Toronto’s Black Creek Pioneer Village. A tiny sign at the top of the limestone bluff bears silent witness to the loss.

Ameliasburgh is a bedroom community, the street oddly empty at midday. Someone once observed a place cannot be a community without ‘un commerce.’ Sadly, despite signage from an 1890s mercantile, and a more recently closed postal outlet, there are now no businesses in the hamlet. Places lose heart when they lose their post office. Few are sufficiently hardy to socialize around the community mail box in a northwest wind.

The peace is deceptive though. Ameliasburgh is a history hot-spot. The very active 7th Town Historical Society is based at the Marilyn Adams Genealogical Research Centre, a mecca for family history quests. The Quinte Educational Museum and Archives preserves and shares local school history. The Ameliasburgh Historical Museum, a recreated pioneer village complete with Purdy’s ‘wilderness Gothic’ church, hosts a wide range of summer events. Several new ‘sticky plaques’ in front of historic sites invite smart phone users to link up for videos and additional information.

Despite Ameliasburgh’s quiet demeanour, there are signs of active community life: an elementary school, activity notices at the historic town hall, a car club, campground and beach, an annual fair, a library in a cozy restored 1848 stone schoolhouse.

Add to that, the fact it’s the home of a former Olympic rower, and it becomes clear Ameliasburgh is a hamlet that punches above its weight.