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"The Old Back Pond" The History of the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area by Don Wright
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“THE OLD BACK POND”

The History of the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area

Don Wright, February, 2005


INTRODUCTION

EARLY HISTORY
1. Mills 2. Peat 3. Agriculture 4. Market Garden 5. Railway

THE FARM

ALBERT DEBRUGE

MAC JOHNSON WILDLIFE AREA DEVELOPMENT
1. Dam 2. Mac Johnson 3. Campground Area and Nature Centre 4. Pond
5. Pen/Compound 6. Trails 7. Education 8. Friends of MJWA

REFERENCES


INTRODUCTION

To the North of Brockville lies an area of swamp, bush, lake and field known by the local people as “The Back Pond”. On the South side (Brockville side) the appearance is one of an abandoned farmland. On the North side the area is active with people hiking, picnicking, skating or skiing in the Winter, walking their dogs or participating in the education program run in the Nature Centre.

This area includes over 1300 acres of which 2/3 is covered by water and marsh. It is a Class 1 provincially significant wetland with a high diversity of plant and wildlife and is a major controlling factor in maintaining the water levels of the Buell's Creek system.

There have been interesting periods in the history of this area which have surfaced as we researched the old stories, news items, land records and through conversations with family members who have lived on that land.


EARLY HISTORY

MILLS
In the late 1700's and early 1800's, there were approx. 8 Grist & Sawmills spread along Buell's Creek following the establishment of William Buell's business at the mouth of the creek in 1784. Buell's activities opened up the area for further settlement which led to the development of Brockville.

There were mill ponds located along Buell's Creek and the marsh at the headwaters of the creek was dammed to supply water for the mills. This resulted in high water levels in the marsh and the main reservoir was named the “Mill Pond” in old maps of the area.

Operation of these mills ceased in the late 1800's.

PEAT
In the early 1900's the marsh was drained and the extraction of Peat started as a commercial operation by the Mallory family. This was officially known as “The Peat Works”. The plans were to build a narrow gauge rail line and make use of cable cars to transfer the raw peat into the processing plant which was located close to the CPR main line. This would replace the horse and dump cart system then in use.

A couple of tons of the manufactured product were distributed around as samples and although slightly smaller,the pieces resembled the present day hockey puck in shape and color. As a fuel it burned with intense heat,without odour and almost no residue or ash.

Unfortunately the price of coal was less than peat and the peat works ran into financial difficulty. After a few short years the project was abandoned and the machinery was removed after rusting for a few more years.

AGRICULTURE
As the marsh was already drained for the attempted peat extraction,further drainage was attempted to enable the area to be used for agriculture purposes. It was discovered however, that much of the marsh was unsuitable for grazing due to the land's lack of solidity. According to local accounts the land remained very wet and mucky after draining and heavy objects would sink into the mud as if it were quicksand. Many horses and cows were reported lost in this manner. The Cataraqui Region Conservation Report(1968) states the area was “found to be a floating bog” as far back as 1958. This “floating bog” interpretation,if correct, would explain this phenomenon.

MARKET GARDEN
After a lapse of a few years a Market Gardener (Cowan) started a business on the South side of the pond on a small section of land and shipped their produce by train to Southern Ontario. As the shipping time was too long for the produce to arrive in good condition,the business failed.

From the late 1920's until approximately 1933 another Market Garden owned by Colonel Mac McKay,who was Editor of the Kingston Whig Standard, operated out of a modern sized house with a 40ft x 60ft greenhouse extending East of the house.

The greenhouse was heated by a hot water boiler which also heated the house and was only operated during the Spring from February to May.

Most of the produce was sold locally,but the outside crops were at a great disadvantage because of the muck and bog-like conditions. Such innovative attempts as; small snowshoes for the horses' feet and using 45 gallon drums cut in two for the front steel wheels of the old front wheel drive Ford tractor to prevent the front from sinking did not solve the mucky problem.

The front wheel drive Ford tractor was purchased from the Brockville Golf Club and was similar to a model T Ford car,but with wide front wheels of steel.The tractor was steered by the rear wheels.

Part of the remains of the cement floor of this greenhouse can be seen adjacent to the North side of the South parking lot.

RAILWAY
Sometime between 1878 and the turn of the century,construction of a railway by the Brockville & Ottawa Railway Company (B & O) was started through the middle area of what is now the MJWA property. The B & O railway was purchased by the Canada Central Railway Company and construction was not completed. We don't believe that any rails were ever laid because the railway bed ended at the marsh and a member of one of the families who lived in the farm located adjacent to this proposed railway indicated that there were never any rails laid in the early 1900's.

Another theory is that the CPR had constructed the railway bed for their line to Smith's Falls and Ottawa but changed the location to a route farther East.

This is the straight section of our hiking trail #2,and located approx. 10 minutes West from the parking lot on the North side of the reservoir.


THE FARM

In 1907 Maxwell Greer bought land for a farm of 125-140 acres on the North side of the Marsh area.

A farm house with stone basement topped by a squared log structure covered with stucco was built. Including a large barn,wells and driveshed,the site is located West of the old railway bed and approximately halfway between Debruge road and the Marsh.

The remains of the house basement which is fenced with cedar rails, the North wall and part of the West wall of the barn,the well and part of a wall of the driveshed are quite visible.

The entrance to the farm was from Dubruge and McLarry Rds.(not named at that time). The front door faced South but was not used and the other entrance faced East towards the drive shed.

One of Maxwell Greer's 4 children,Mr. Ralph Greer from B.C.,who is the only surviving member and turned 90 in October 2004,visited us in 2002 and supplied us with pictures of the original farm and most of the family. Maxwell Greer sold 30 acres of the farm to Albert George Dubruge, which was located East of the Greer farm in 1914.

In 1919 Maxwell Greer sold the farm to Laurence Joyce and wife Rose, who had 4 sons-Michael Desmond,John Hamilton,Laurence D.,and Arthur.

During the period that the Joyces and Debruges were neighbors, there was a notable incident where the pigs from the Joyce farm spooked Mrs.Debruge's horses as she was riding by. Albert Debruge hauled one of Arthur Joyce's horses out of the barn and shot it for which he was sentenced to 7 years in prison.

One of Laurence Joyce's sons – John Hamilton –lived on the farm with his family until the late 1920's.When Albert Debruge got out of prison early on parole, the Joyces abandoned the farm because they were afraid that Albert would return.

The house burned down prior to 1930. The farm reverted back to Maxwell Greer in1932,but he was unable to sell the farm because everyone was afraid of Albert Debruge. Maxwell Greer gave the farm to Albert Debruge in 1942 on the condition that he pay the back taxes but he didn't and the municipality assumed the title. One of his John Hamilton's sons,Arthur, and one daughter still came in recent years to look at the farm.


ALBERT DEBRUGE

Albert Debruge built his farmhouse just East of the present office and workshop buildings of the MJWA after purchasing 30 acres from Maxwell Greer and the rest of his farm from the Brockville Peat & Power Co.Ltd. in 1914.

Albert Debruge wasn't popular with his fishing buddies and built his own private fishing pond beside McLarry Rd. and South of the Greer farm in 1916. There is a stone with the date Oct.10th,1916 located under the end of the boardwalk over what we call the Beaver Pond that feeds the main reservoir.

The 270 ft.long boardwalk was rebuilt in October 1998 with a grant from the Canada Trust-Friends Of The Environment Foundation and the labour supplied by the MNR.,CRCA and the Friends of MJWA group.

Albert's daughter Lillian and family lived on the Debruge farm after Albert was gone. Her husband grew onions and shared labour with Ralph Greer who grew potatoes in 1934.

The Debruge home was torn down in 1981 but the location was still evident until a few years ago by the row of large maple trees and planted shrubs.


MAC JOHNSON WILDLIFE AREA DEVELOPMENT

In 1946 the Conservation Authorities Act of Ontario was passed,creating conservation and resource management authority to deal with flooding problems and poor land use practices.

At the request of many member municipalities the Cataraqui Region Conservation Authority was formed in December 1964.

The Buell's Creek Reservoir,named because it was the headwater of Buell's Creek was one of the first areas of the CRCA. The lands around the Buell's Creek were bought from a variety of vendors including; the Mallory estate,Wood estate, H.Wordon,Wright family,Brown family,Fitzpatrick family,Warren family, McLarry family,DeBruge family,Stewart family,Elizabethtown township,Smith family, Reynolds family,V.L.A.,Campbell family and the City of Brockville.

The conservation area created was now named the Buell's Creek Conservation Area.

The CRCA built the boardroom and office and attached residence for the superintendent at the Buell's Creek Conservation Area. The office area didn't develop as planned as the Kingston area developed a centralized administration area.

DAM
Mayor John Broome and Mr.Sandy Runciman of the Recorder & Times newspaper lobbied to have a control dam built to control the flows of Buell's creek and reduce the flooding problems that frequently occurred in Brockville. The Dam was built on what is now known as Centennial Rd in 1966 and named the Broome-Runciman Dam to recognize their efforts. This dam created a large shallow pond known locally as “The Back Pond”.

The Broome-Runciman Dam was re-dedicated in a ceremony involving the two sons of the original gentlemen,John Broome Jr. and Bob Runciman, on June 23 ,2001.

MAC JOHNSON
From 1969 to 1980, one of the City of Brockville representatives on the CRCA Board was Mac Johnson. He worked tirelessly to develop the property and encourage the use of the area for environmental education of Brockville and area youth. In 1987 the Buell's Creek Conservation Area was renamed the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area to recognize the efforts and achievements of Mac Johnson.

CAMPGROUND AREA and NATURE CENTRE
A local camping group,”The Eager Beavers”used the area known as the campground from 1978 until the late 1980's. During that time the Activity Centre,now known as the Nature Centre was constructed with labour supplied by the Eager Beavers Camping group and material supplied by the CRCA. This club supported the development of the recreation area and collected the fees for the CRCA for the organized camping area.

They even tried making a swimming area by installing a liner in the small Pond,and bringing in sand,but it wasn't successful. When the CRCA closed all public camping areas in their recreation areas the campground facilities fell into disuse and began to deteriorate.

In 1995 the washroom facilities in the camping area were rebuilt and an area including the campground of approximately 4 acres was turned over to the local district Girl Guides of Canada for their use and upkeep on a yearly lease basis starting in 1996.

POND
Approximately 2/3 of the over 1300 acres is covered by water and swamp. The main pond is shallow with a mucky and unstable bottom. There are several species of fish and permits have been sold to a local commercial fisherman on several occasions with the last one in 1996. During the period of mid-April to mid-May,1996,the fish removed included 410 lbs. of dressed Bullheads and 30 lbs. of Suckers. The fish caught in the nets but returned to the pond included; 200 lbs. of small Bullheads,121 lbs.of Sunfish,87 Pike, 47 Suckers,and no Bass.

PEN/COMPOUND
During the 1970's a pen for geese was constructed East of the main parking lot and a program to develop the population of the Canada Goose was undertaken. The population increased dramatically but the main drawback was that they were becoming too accustomed to their protected way of life and didn't leave for the South as hoped. This program had to be abandoned.

In 1999 the pen and compound facilities were refurbished for the introduction of Trumpeter Swans as part of the Trumpeter Swan Restoration Program based in Aurora.Two clipped swans were introduced to the area in may 2000 and during the following year,there were 11 more introduced to the area that were not clipped. The local population of Trumpeter Swans grew to at least 25 by 2005.

TRAILS
In the Fall of 1994 the trail system underwent a major rebuild. The old wooden boardwalks and bridges were removed and replaced by steel culverts and gravel. The trails were widened and grassed in 1995.

The trail system was reviewed with some revisions and beginning in 1998 resting benches were installed on the North side trails at approximately 15 minute walking intervals,and trail #1 was upgraded to a handicap access trail. In 1999 trail location maps indicating”You are Here” on the maps were installed at most trail junctions.

EDUCATION
In the Fall of 1995,approval was given for a qualified outdoor teacher,Shelley Gallagher, to start a pilot program on outdoor education with the local schools. This program has grown and become “Environmental Connections” which is supported through the facilities provided by the CRCA.

FRIENDS OF MJWA
In 1994 after a series of drastic government funding cutbacks to conservation authorities which resulted in decreased attention and maintenance of the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area,(as well as all other conservation areas), a special subcommittee of the CRCA board dedicated to the MJWA, was formed. Their main focus was to rejuvenate and develop the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area to bring the people out to enjoy Nature.

In 1996 it appeared timely to form a group of local volunteers to assist in the development and promotion of the MJWA . With the assistance of the local Lands Stewardship Council of the MNR, the group known as the “Friends Of Mac Johnson Wildlife Area” was formed.

The “Friends of MJWA” group works with the conservation authority on development projects and host skating refreshments by the skating rink on the January & February weekends. We also have special events to promote the area during the year.


REFERENCES

Mr. W.T.Bath – April 1998 . . . . . . . . . . Former employee of Market Garden 1927-1933

Mr.Ralph A.Greer – June,2002 . . . . . . . . Former resident of the historical Farm

Mr. Arthur Joyce – June,1999 . . . . . . . . . Former resident family of historical Farm

The United Counties “Packet” article – January 26,1966

Registry Office/Township Records for Elizabethtown – June,2002

Resource Inventory and Anaysis of Buell's Creek Conservation Area – 1982 (Janice Robinson,Jane Delange,Stephen Kenney)

Website of CRCA-Conservation Lands – February,2005

Eager Beavers Camping Group – correspondence February,1996

Records of D.R.Wright – member of CRCA Board 1988 to 2000,Chair of Subcommittee For MJWA 1995-96,member of Friends of Mac Johnson Wildlife Area since 1996

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