An Unlikely Hero
From Grey County (Part 1)

An Unlikely Hero From Grey County found his way from the farming community of Flesherton to missionary work in the Ottawa Valley, and beyond.

This past week I attended the annual conference of the Canadian Methodist Historical Society in Markdale Ontario. 

When I arrived at the Annesley United Church on Monday morning, I was surprised to see only one car in the parking lot. 

What was remarkable about this vehicle was its licence plate.  It was from Alabama! 

I wondered why anyone would drive all the way from the deep south of the United States to attend a historical conference which was, essentially, focused on the Grey-Bruce region. 

My question was soon answered. As I entered the church, a man walked towards me and, in a deep southern drawl, introduced himself as Gene Howard. 

After a short conversation, he told me he was at the conference to speak about a book he had written, and to show a movie produced by Alabama public television. The focus of the book and movie was an early settler from Flesherton Ontario. 

In the 1840s, John and Jane Luke brought their young family from Ireland to escape the potato famine there. Among their brood was their son, William. 

After attending a one-room school near Flesherton, it was decided that William should attend school in Owen Sound. His family did not have a lot of cash, so they augmented his tuition and boarding expenses with fresh produce from their farm. 

On his return from school in Owen Sound, William continued to read voraciously. 

As he was strongly tied to the local Methodist Church, he began to act as a youth leader in the local Flesherton church. His growing devotion to Methodism led him to seek a career as a Methodist minister. 

William, at age 23, returned to Owen Sound in 1855 to study under an elder of the Methodist church there. Soon, he accepted a small pastorate in Proton Mission, then Elora, and later Wallace. In 1858 he received his commission as a minister at the 35th annual conference of the Methodist Church in Montreal. 

In the same year, William married Fanny Ann Irwin, the daughter of a prominent Markdale family. While preaching in Wallace, he learned to speak German fluently. Because of his successes, the Methodist Church felt William was the ideal candidate to start charges in the largely German and Lutheran Ottawa Valley community of Eganville. 

The young couple eagerly accepted this challenge and headed east to begin their new work. Little did they realize what was in store for them. 

The citizens of Eganville did not exactly welcome the young couple from Grey County with open arms. 'The Lutherans did not want another church challenging them for parishioners. 

The Lukes were under constant scrutiny and a "relentless barrage of antagonisms". However, William continued undaunted to try to build his congregation. 

Within a year of his arrival, serious trouble arose for William. A German family charged William Luke with adultery. The district officials of the Methodist Church reacted by suspending William from his charge. 

Over the next few years, succeeding conferences of the Methodist Church upheld the suspension. No conclusive evidence survives which either vindicates or convicts Luke. Nor are there any surviving records which show the reason for the Methodists' harsh actions to what may have been "trumped-up" charges. 

William Luke and his family returned to the Markdale area where he answered a new calling. In the area were many black families who had arrived here to escape slavery in the southern United States. Luke threw himself wholeheartedly into teaching these new citizens of Grey County and, I'm sure, providing some ministerial leadership. 

Why was Gene Howard, an Alabama historian, interested in a defrocked Methodist minister from Grey County? 

Luke's interest in the plight of former slaves led him to look elsewhere to establish a career and build a new life for his family, which now included six children. 

Next week's column will detail what turned out to be the final chapter in the life of William Luke. 

Note: I would like to thank Gene Howard of Jacksonville, Ala., for making his research notes available to me for this column.

A version of this article first appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times on June 22, 1996.

History Pages

12-year-old Walks to Owen Sound in 1851 from the journal of a teenage boy's experience travelling with his brother in the untamed Upper Canadian wilderness.

1st Grey County Building in 1852 was only built after many hurdles were overcame.

Land Auction in Amabel Township provided the opportunity for settlers to purchase land and begin a new life in Bruce County in the 1850s.

Georgian Bay's 1st pioneer settler arrived on the western shoreline long before any other settler reached the area.

An Unlikely Hero From Grey County (Part 1) found his way from the farming community of Flesherton to missionary work in the Ottawa Valley, and beyond.

An Unlikely Hero Vs. The KKK (Part 2) Our hero from Grey County took his missionary zeal south of the border and ultimately crossed paths with the infamous KKK!

Barn Raising: A Pioneer Economic and Social Necessity as it provided settlers with an opportunity not only to build a barn, but also build a community.

"Barring Out": A Pioneer School Tradition was a custom which the settlers brought to the new world from England, or Scotland.

Baseball History in Southwestern Ontario is rich, and surprisingly longer than one might expect, actually setting historical precedents!

British Peerage a Source for Township Names. It is interesting to check the origin of the names bestowed on pioneer places such as towns, townships and counties.

Census Takers in 1891 Canada faced difficult obstacles to gather the necessary information but the results were revealing then, and today.

Ceylon Ontario: How it Got its Name: It is always interesting how a community got its name, but I doubt any place received its name from a more unique source!

Chatsworth Ontario: First Settlers took advantage of fulfilling the needs of pioneer travellers and built a thriving community in the Upper Canadian wilderness.

Chesley Ontario Welcomes the Krug Brothers who were not only successful, but made significant contributions to the social fabric of their adopted home town.

Krug Impact on Chesley Ontario was immense not only in terms of the community's social fabric but with regards to community's economic growth.

Clearing Trees a Daunting Task for Settlers as they worked to fulfill their obligations for their land grant.

Billy Crawford: Pioneering Spirit Personified. If you take the time to consider the people you have met during your life you too may know or have known, someone with pioneering spirit just like Billy Crawford.

Bruce Road 3: A Colonization Road  linked prospective settlers to undeveloped Crown Lands and a new life.

Dornoch: or is it Smithville? Originally it was Smithville, then it became Dornoch. But, surprise it is still, in reality Smithville!

First Pioneer in Durham: Archibald Hunter established his family, and a hotel, in what would become the centre of the town of Durham.

Durham Ontario Influenced by the Saugeen River. This river provided a means to create new industries, but especially in the spring it can also pose a menace to the community.

Frozen Rivers & Lakes can be Hazardous: Icy waterways offer many benefits such as ice fishing, but beware weak, or thin ice is not easily detected and can spell disaster.

Grey County Bylaws to the 1890s reveal a lot about the financing of local government, especially education in the early days of the region.

John Muir, the legendary naturalist, who promoted the idea of protected nature spaces, spent time in Ontario and I went to help find evidence of his stay in the Owen Sound area.

The Glorious Twelfth: A Tradition from Across the Pond which served to both unite and divide pioneer communities.

A Heroic Woman From Grey County who made great changes as a doctor in China in the 1890s and early 1900s.

Jesse James: In Grey County? An interesting question. Did the notorious gangster hide out in Proton Township? We will never know. But it is fun to speculate!

Kilsyth's Train Engine was one for the history books. It brought an evening of joy followed by disappointing news soon after.

Kincardine Ontario's First Settlers using a bit of savvy and some luck created a future form themselves and their families on the Lake Huron shoreline.

The Knight's of Meaford have long history in that Grey County community. Their business forged by early settlers employed many locals and supported the economy.

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.

The Leith Golf Course has provided many families with great memories. The history of this golf course starts, and ends, with the generosity of one family.

Agnes Macphail was a political trailblazer in a part of Ontario that one could hardly expect such radical action for the era in a rural region.

Markdale Ontario: The Beginning: originally known as Glenelg East, but the coming of the railway and the name of owner of the land for the station led to a change of identity.

Maple Syrup: A Pioneer Necessity and a trading commodity for indigenous peoples is now a Sunday morning breakfast treat with pancakes!

Meaford Ontario, first called Peggy's Landing located on the shores of Georgian Bay has a rich history.

Meaford vs Purdytown. Conflict over the name of a new community was not unusual in early Grey County but electing a school trustee was the "hot button" issue in this rivalry.

Mildmay Ontario overcame competition from other communities to claim its spot in Carrick Township on an important settlement route to the Lake Huron shoreline.

Paris Ontario: Who Knew this community had such a unique origin and how the local citizens used that history to protect the environment of their region?

Pioneer Doctor: Dr. James Smith, a local boy who became a doctor and served his community for his entire life was a testament to Grey County community spirit.

Pioneer Healthcare in Grey and Bruce counties was not administered by doctors, nurses, or pharmacists, no it was the responsibility of the women of the community.

Pioneer ingenuity created many labour-saving devices and methods and quite often helped to create a sense of community.

Pioneer Christmas: A Family Tradition as told to me by may grandparents who experienced Christmas as children in the 1880s and 1890s.

Pioneer Settlement in Arran Township was encouraged through the offer of inexpensive land for sale, but the offer of free land was another enticement offered elsewhere.

Pioneer Settlement Plans for Grey County began almost two decades before the rest of Grey County was available for settlement.

Pioneer Diaries Provide Interesting Information about many topics, but sometimes information about the weather can be quite surprising!

Pioneer Teachers in Grey and Bruce Counties had a long and arduous task, not to mentions strict and confining job requirements for very little salary.

Plowing Match in Grey County in 1933 the first International Plowing Match held in Grey and Bruce counties and it's success led to more such events in Grey.

Port Elgin Ontario Started with a Storm. A ship forced to seek refuge from Lake Huron's stormy wrath signalled to one man the idea of starting a new community.

Settling Osprey Township: Parts of Osprey were considered too rugged to settle, but today they are prime real estate because of the great view!

Southampton Ontario Suffered a Major Fire in 1886: The havoc was created by a furious high wind storm that spread the flames over much of the town.

Swamp College: Proton Township: this colourfully named institution of education in Grey County has provided many stories to the heritage of the region.

Sydenham Township's First Council undertook the often difficult task of creating a new municipal infrastructure.

Tara Ontario mill was founded in 1851 by John and James Tobey. In later years, under different ownership, the Tara mill would be the site of important innovations. 

"Thank You to a Veteran" - should be something everyone of us should think, and especially say, every day!

The Impact of Snow is not what is Used to be! As snow removal equipment has improved the impact of snow on our lives has reduced significantly from previous eras.

Unique Characters: Nathaniel Herriman lived in Grey County and owned an inn to provide food and and accommodation to early travellers. Each day he performed a unique practice.

Unique Maps: Quilts Guided the Underground Railroad to enable runaway slaves to escape to Canada and freedom from the shackles that enslaved them.

Walkerton Ontario: The Beginning of this Bruce County town is the result of the drive and determination of one man, Joseph Walker.

From Lochnaw to Manitoulin - A Review this book details through a soldier's diary a trip from Penetanguishene to Manitoulin Island in 1839.

History Pages introduces the readers to interesting people, places, and events that I have researched and written about in my writing career that spans more than three decades.

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