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Interview: Enduring Legacies – Falling the Opeongo Road

 

Sebastopol Township began nearly a century and a half ago near Eganville, Ontario. And when its demise looked imminent in the late 1990s, a group of stalwart citizens sprang into action, establishing the Sebastopol Heritage and Historic Society.

Members of the founding group included: Arden Walther, Alice Felhaber, Geraldine Kuehl, Regis Benoit, Lorne Foran, Verner Hass, Anna Mary Kitts and Glenn Kosmack. It was an unlikely mix: a homemaker, a professor, a mechanic, an accountant, a township councilor, a research analyst, a county judge and the operator of the general store. But deep roots in the township and love for the place gave them wings, and they mobilized the group to quick action.

arden walther

That was eight years ago. We wondered what progress the group had made, so AHB tracked down the society’s first president Arden Walther at his home in Ottawa.

Ruth Dempsey: How did the township come to be?

Arden Walther: Sebastopol Township was established in 1859 and continued as a township until it was amalgamated into a larger territory known as the Bonnechere Valley Township January 1, 2001.

The former Sebastopol Township is located in Renfrew County south west of Eganville and south east of Killaloe Township. It’s about 150 kilometers northwest of Ottawa. The Opeongo Road divides the township in an east-west direction. A famous settlement road, the Opeongo allowed early settlers to travel to the lumber camps. The township is marked by the Foymount Mountain range, which runs through its centre.

The first settlers were mainly Irish, lured to the area by the prize of free land. As the Irish moved from the rocky mountain terrain to lower lands more suitable for growing potatoes, German settlers took their places.

At its peak, in the mid 1900s, Sebastopol township boasted two village communities: Cormac and the densely populated Foymount Radar Base. It had five rural schools and four post offices – Clontarf, Cormac, Woermke and Vanbrugh. Four churches served the people of the township: Anglican, Baptist, Catholic and Lutheran.

RD: What did you hope to accomplish by establishing the Sebastopol Heritage and Historic Society?

AW: We chose as our motto: Striving to Link the Generations. In a nutshell, that was our goal. We wanted to act as a hub for people interested in the heritage and history of the township. We planned to collect records and artifacts of the area, and create a location, where they would be accessible to all.

As well, we hoped to encourage members of the community to create family histories and document stories of the early pioneers.

RD: You grew up in the township. Is there a memory that stands out for you?

AW: When I was a child, I set out every morning around 7:30 a.m. during the colder days for S.S. #2 Sebastopol School with my neighbour Ardella Kranz. It was our job to get the fire started in the old box stove. In the cold winter mornings, we carried water for drinking for the day in a honey pail on a short pole between us, and melted snow to wash our hands and clean up our messes. After school, we carried in the wood and kindling for the next morning. The rest of our classmates took turns cleaning up the schoolhouse.

I also remember learning to drive the car on a one lane road, where you had to remember the last possible passing point, a laneway or low ditch. Backing up to that point when you met another vehicle could be a challenge. And of course, the roads became slippery when wet, so you had to change gears at exactly the right time on the mountain hills or you got stuck.

memorial stone

RD: What has the society done to mark the township’s early history?

AW: We started out by placing a memorial-type stone containing basic reference material at each of the small churches. To date, we have placed the memorial stone at St. Clement’s Anglican, St. John’s Lutheran, Sebastopol Baptist and at the site of the early German Methodist Church.

We are working on large upright portfolios, which include poster size sheets that show pictures of the township’s early families, done by family members. These form the basis of a series of CDs. We hope to make available for on-site viewing in the future.

We have two other important projects underway; we are gathering material to highlight Sebastopol’s contribution to the music of the Ottawa Valley, and we are documenting the story of Sebastopol’s war veterans. In addition, we have secured photos of the reeves of the township, and pictures of the various rural schools and churches. We also have an interesting assortment of books and articles and a limited number of heritage artifacts on display.

As well, the society publishes Sebastopol Links several times a year. Edited by Harold Walther, the newsletter carries members’ news and stories and historical sketches from the archives.

RD: The society has introduced a tradition of inviting older residents to become honorary members. Is that right?

AW: Yes. The society recognizes as honorary members at age 85, those born in the community or those who have lived a substantial portion of their lives there. So far, we have recognized 33 members. A member of the society visits prospective members in advance. I have found these visits very gratifying.

One lady told me: "I have lived here all my married life and played at hundreds of wedding receptions and parties. But this is the first time anyone acknowledged my contribution verbally. It means a lot to me."

Another gentleman said: "I can’t believe that I’ve lived through horse and buggy days and remember the first cars, airplanes, telephone, television and now, computers which I’ll never learn to use, but the best time for me is still meeting friends at your picnics, church services and annual dances."

Actually, I have wonderful memories of many of these people. From my childhood Sunday school teacher, Tessie Raddatz, to farmer friends such as Nicholas Kranz, who worked beside me at sawing bees, to fiddle and guitar players like Walter and Edna Felhaber who played the music as I awkwardly learned to dance at Drefke’s Hall, to new friend, Stella Lamable, I met on the occasion of her 100th birthday back in 2002.

Some of these people lived in homes built by the original settlers and could recall a time when the fastest way to communicate with a neighbour was the footpath across the bush lot separating them. They remembered walking miles to the one room school and the neighbour’s first telephone call. Many could recall driving horses in a cutter or buggy as well as the first car trip and the first time they heard an airplane overhead. They also had great stories of groups loading up in the back of the truck to go blueberry picking.

RD: The society sponsors several annual events. What are some of the main ones?

AW: In the spring, we have a maple fest dinner and in August, a picnic with roast pork or beef cooked outdoors. We have had interdenominational worship services that rotate yearly among the churches. And in the fall, we sponsor a dance with band, topped off by a delicious lunch at the end of the evening. We have also sponsored studio tours and a rural ramble day, which celebrates the early settlers.

heritage house opeongo

RD: What do you consider the highlight of the society’s work, to date?

AW: I would have to say the opening of our log house known as the Stopping Place. Finally, following hours of work by committee members, the society has a home. The Stopping Place is open several days a week during July and August.

RD: What is the legacy of the early settlers? Can you sum it for me up in three words?

AW: Certainly, the rural value system of treating your neighbour as you would like to be treated was evident to me during my childhood and served as a model. I was reminded of this at our first interdenominational worship service at Sebastopol Baptist Church, when Father O’Brien recalled how local farmers took in the hay on their farm when his father broke his leg one summer. He suggested that there was no hint of Catholic/Protestant or Irish/German separation as they worked together to help out a neighbouring farmer.

The three words that come to mind are frugality, industriousness and perseverance. As a youngster, I didn’t understand their meaning, but I got the music. Perhaps that’s their legacy – at least for me.