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Warkworth: the very old and very new

By Charles Beale, For Northumberland Today

An anonymous poem, "A peaceful village surrounded by hills, where cedar and pine trees grow, the fragrance of lilacs greet the spring, in autumn, maples steal the show" is included in Reflections of Percy Township by author George M. Grant and the Warkworth - Percy Historical Society that was published for the millennium.

Many know Warkworth for the medium-security federal penitentiary east of the village that was built in 1965 and opened by prime minister Lester Pearson and well-known local MP Pauline Jewett. Warkworth is also celebrated for its Maple Syrup and Lilac Festivals, Art in the Park, the longstanding Agricultural Fair and August's Long Lunch and the Perfect Pie Contest, among other events that keep this Northumberland County location humming.

Warkworth is steeped in history, but is also a very progressive. It's a hip enclave of 800 people that forms the southern point of a triangle of destinations in Trent Hills, including the village of Hastings and the town of Campbellford.

Like many areas in Ontario, Percy Township was the site of a Native community over 700 years ago; this one Iroquoian. There followed successive generations of English, Irish and Scottish who left the UK for Canada in the 1820s. Some arrived by ship at Montreal and on to Cobourg, dispersing through Northumberland County to places like Warkworth where a land grant or the purchase of land would settle families in farming and lumbering.

Sitting as Percy Township does, high in the Trent Hills, some stands of lumber from the very tall white pines would make their way beginning in the 1850s on rafts from Percy Boom down to the Trent River at Trenton and beyond to be used as masts for England's warships. Benjamin Franklin Ewing, Census Enumerator for Upper Canada in 1851 echoed this in his report. By 1950, chain saws would replace cross-cut saws and the grand forests of the eastern white pine were depleted. The lore of the shantymen became forever a part of Ontario history. In the interim, nearby Warkworth benefited from two saw mills and the spin-off businesses from this lucrative natural resource.

"Out of the way" has often been used to describe Warkworth's location, for it is not on the main Trent River system like Hastings and Campbellford, nor Campbellford's connection to Rice Lake at Percy Boom, but there is the water at Meyersburg that feeds Mill Creek and Mill Pond as it winds its way into Warkworth. Most of the time Mill Creek is no trickle. In fact, in 1928, it would flood Main Street.

It's not on any rail line, either, although the locals have always dreamed about a rail connection. The best that could be achieved was a whistle stop at Godolphin nine kilometres to the west.

Its isolation would suggest a backwater, but Warkworth is anything but and has never been. By 1851,in quick succession and in addition to the sawmills, there were fours stocked stores, one tannery, four blacksmiths shops, two wagon makers, four shoemakers shops, two taverns, a town hall, grist mill, carding mill, Roman Catholic Chapel and one for 'other denominations.' In 1850, the Percy Township Agricultural Society established a Fall Fair that continues to this day and in some of the originals buildings. The first Town Hall was erected in 1852 and the first school opened in 1858. About the same time regular mail was delivered by stagecoach to an interim post office. In 1892 Warkworth had its own Journal newspaper and the editor would own the first car in the village - a brand new Ford. A gas station soon followed, dispensing gas from steel barrels. By 1893, a Mechanics Institute came into being - "A voluntary association of working men seeking self-improvement through education". This would be the precursor to the first library in Warkworth. And so on it has gone.

Commerce continued to flourish in the late 1890s with Boyce's Bee Hive General Store, Sayle's Drug Store, Charlie Osborne's Confectionary and at one time Mrs. Allens's Store that also sold cookies and candy and maybe antiques, Bounds Confectionary and Ice Cream Parlour, Greenly's Pool Hall next to Joe Greenley's Barber Shop, Thompson's Bakery, Churchley's Jewellery Store, Billy Smooker's Cobbler Shop, a furniture store and undertakers run by Ben Buchanan, a garage, telephone office, apartments, a lawn bowling club near the creek and C. O. Dudley & Sons big white mill building. Piano lessons were offered and by 1889 Warkworth had a brass band that lasted into the 1950s and marched with the long standing militia. Even in those days, stores remained open for business several evenings and there was angle parking on the wide Main Street.

What's of equal interest is Warkworth's architectural styles that vary much more than you'd find in most villages - from clapboard and early brick cottages to Victorian and Queen Anne styles and all that is in between. In 1831 Clarence Boyce, a bachelor, built a three-storey Gothic home of nearby Meyersburg limestone. In 1822, the first Orange Lodge Hall was built of clapboard, which later burned down but was quickly rebuilt. In 1866 a fine Stagecoach Inn was erected on Main Street, receiving both passengers and the mail from 'away'. There are brick homes with juliet balconies, another stately home has Greek-inspired doric columns and there a number of properties with mansard roofs and dormers covered in diamond-point patterning - one even sports gargoyles at either end. One fine brick home boasts lighter brick qoins featured on its corners and fleur-de-lis adornments. As you walk along Main Street and look up, you'll see brick banding and Italianate detailing. At 30 Centre St. there is an impressive corbelled chimney. Warkworth village sports prairie style along with arts and crafts and there's fretwork galore, stained glass and leaded windows - the simple and the refined all thrown together in one unusual place.

And it's thriving. Trendy eateries include Our Lucky Stars Bistro on Main Street and the flourishing Garden of Eat'in on nearby Old Hastings Road. At local legend Jeannine's Backtalk Cafe, I was told that to this day they only takes cash but will allow you go to the ATM at the local Royal Bank and bring back the tab. Additionally there is Main street's On the Side Catering & Food Shop. Warkworth also has Legion Branch 380 and an 18-hole golf course and restaurant. Unique places like the Cheeky Bee, Tremendous, Metaphorhome, Camp Ho-Ba-Chee and the now famous Sprucewood shortbread cookie company inhabit these beautiful old spaces.

Race car driver Derek Lynch of CASCAR and NASCAR fame is from here and actor and Genie Award winner Tom McCamus, well known for his work at Stratford and Shaw and the likes of The Sweet Hereafter now calls Warkworth home.

History has treated the village well. Generation after generation have kept this village alive. The friendly welcome alone will melt the snow on Wartman's Hill, once a tobogganers' paradise.

(Thanks to George Grant and the Warkworth-Percy Historical Society, local merchants and friendly folks.)

Charles Beale is a former educator, historian, freelance writer and author of Manly E. MacDonald - Interpreter of Old Ontario. For more information on Beale visit or on twitter at OntarioCanuck.

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