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, Alabama, 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.

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More Grey County 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.

Dr. Anna Henry  from Markdale, was a medical trailblazer for women doctors in Canada, who helped lay the groundwork for the establishment for Women's College Hospital.

Egremont Township endured the usual growing pains of a pioneer community, but its early history records times when it was embroiled in a few contentious issues. 

Euphrasia Township in the early years when spelling the name was a problem for those who called it home and those that wanted settle this new Grey County township.

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

Grey County Heritage: A Valuable Resource which is rich and varied, as an important resource for future use for business, political, and many other purposes.

Grey County's Creation in 1852, laid the framework for organizing a county in the last wilderness in the southern region of what would become in the future the province of Ontario.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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 Georgian 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.

Meaford's history is one of hardy and entrepreneurial pioneers carving their lives out of the wilderness of what would become Grey County.

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.

Pioneer Clergyman: John Neelands was the first to minister to the first settlers' spiritual needs riding on horseback through the wilds of early Grey County.

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 Homes in Grey County in the 1840s offered only basic amenities. Homes were basic because clearing the land to earn a living to survive were of paramount importance for those embarking on a new life.

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

A pioneer road surveyor's impact on the local history of Grey and Bruce counties could have been dramatic, if it had not been changed by another surveyor.

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.

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

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.

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.

The Women's Institute is a group of rural women that has made a difference to the quality of both urban and rural life in Grey County and across the country.