Leith: Tom Thomson's Birthplace

Leith: Tom Thomson's Birthplace is part of the rich heritage of this community located on the east shore of the bay north of Owen Sound

As a youngster growing up in Owen Sound, I spent a lot of time in the village of Leith.  Everyone associates this community with its most famous son, Tom Thomson, who was born in this area.  However, as a youngster I was more inclined to think of the game of golf when I thought about Leith.  For many years my family were members of the Leith golf course, and consequently, on summer mornings I would ride my bicycle from Owen Sound along the shore road to the Leith golf course.  

It has been more than a quarter of a century since I last rode my bicycle to play golf in Leith. I recently moved to Leith while renovations were being completed on my home on the other side of the bay. One evening, I walked down to the shore and I was surprised to find the banks of the river teeming with fishermen and spectators. Later I walked through the community to the Leith Cemetery. As I walked about reading the inscriptions on the head stones, I recognized many names from the first years of settlement in the area.

Two stones in particular stood out. One designated the final resting place of Alan H. Ross who wrote the wonderful book Reminiscences of North Sydenham. A book which is both entertaining and extremely informative. In fact, some of the information that is used in this article came from that book. Another stone bears the name, Thomas Rutherford. I believe that this is the grave of Thomas Rutherford who arrived with Telfer in October 1840. He is considered to be the first permanent citizen of Owen Sound. He achieved this status when Telfer left the small clearing which would become Owen Sound and Rutherford remained to manage the government storehouse. I have written in previous columns about Rutherford’s exploits that first winter at the mouth of the Sydenham River.

There are many other stones with names which denote the rich history of the region. Next my attention turned to the small church which occupies the same plot of land.  Immediately my imagination went to work. Perhaps it was my earlier visit to the shoreline at the river’s mouth and the historic setting of the church yard that spurred my thoughts to think of an incident which occurred, on a Sunday morning on May 8, 1866 at this very spot.

The Reverend Alexander Hunter was conducting services in the Church when the door to the Church opened and a man quietly entered.  The man was Leslie Dixon, he approached a member of the congregation and quietly whispered a message into his ear. Dixon immediately departed from the Church and the fellow to whom the message had been delivered approached the pulpit. After a quick discussion with the pastor the congregation were let in on the secret.

It was announced that an armada of vessels had been spotted mustering off of Griffiths’ Island. It was thought that these vessels were Fenians on their way to attack Owen Sound! Because the Owen Sound militia had been sent to Sarnia, the Leith militia had to immediately march to Owen Sound to defend the defenseless port.  

The town of Owen Sound must have been a hive of activity that Sunday in May.  Contingency plans had been made for the women and children to take themselves and whatever valuables that they could carry to caves located on the west escarpment. As this exodus must have been going on, the men of the town and the Leith militia made themselves ready to defend the port.

They waited all day and into the night and still the Fenians had not attacked. Finally, a decision was made, and everyone headed for their homes.

Why did the presence of fishermen and spectators along the shoreline at the mouth of the river in Leith remind me of this incident? When the Leith militia marched to Owen Sound to prepare for battle the rest of the community lined the shoreline watching the “enemy” vessels for the rest of the day. Many took picnic lunches and there does not seem to have been any fear that the attackers might turn their interest towards the undefended community of Leith.

What happened to the “Fenian” warships? The next day it was learned that the “armada” had been nothing more than fishermen holding a regatta!

One of the joys of living in the Grey-Bruce region is the number of communities such as Leith which one can visit and explore. The homes, churches and cemeteries have many stories to tell.  All you need is a little time and imagination!

A version of this story first appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times in 1997.

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