Our Unlikely Name
In a region where the early settlers’ Irish and Scottish origins are prominent in the names of the communities they founded — Lanark, Corkery, Glen Isle, Scotch Corners, Tatlock and the like — it seems more than a little odd that our town should be named for a now-forgotten Mexican general.
Almonte went through a number of name changes in the early days, from Shepherd’s Falls to Shipman’s Mills, Ramsayville, Victoriaville, and by about 1855, Waterford; but the federal post office pointed out there was already a Waterford in the west of the province, and told townsfolk the name would have to change yet again.
At the time relations between Canada and the United States were at a low ebb, especially here in Ontario. The province’s first major wave of settlers, after all, had been Loyalists, Americans whose sympathies for England prompted them to flee northward during and after the Revolution; and the suspicion lingered in many Canadian minds that the US still intended a settling of accounts.
American invasions of Canada around 1812 didn’t help matters, nor did US military incursions into Mexico during the 1840s. Which is where General Juan Almonte enters the picture. The border skirmishes between Mexcio and America during this time were seen by Mexcians as a naked and unprovoked land-grab, and by worried Canadians as a cautionary tale — proof that the American republic was ready and willing to use force against its neighbours to achieve its territorial aims.
General Juan Almonte
General Almonte was primarily a diplomat, and was in fact Mexico’s ambassador to the United States when open warfare erupted between the two countries. He was hastily recalled to Mexico, and served with distinction in the field against the invading US forces.
He was taken prisoner, later released, and died in 1869, lauded by the English press at the time as “a kindly and accomplished gentleman.” So in the political climate of the day, the loyal British citizens of our town apparently felt General Almonte was an admirable public figure, and agreed upon the new name of Almonte — which we pronounce “AL-mont” rather than the Spanish “al-MON-tay.” And thus it remains 150 years later.
There is an interesting book about General Almonte in print, written by area historian Frank Cosentino.
The first European settler here was a David Shepherd, who in 1819 obtained a Crown grant of land in the area of present-day Almonte, where he began construction of a grist mill and sawmill. But fire destroyed the sawmill the following year, and Shepherd gave up the venture.
The Crown regranted the land to Daniel Shipman, who with several other settlers quickly developed the grist and sawmills, and in the next few years a blacksmith’s shop, school, hotel, distilllery and other ventures.
By 1870 Almonte was an incorporated village, and boasted 30 stores and nearly 40 other businesses. Chief among these were the textile mills that brought Almonte its reputation as “The Manchester of North America”.
Glory Days: When Wool was King
One need only stroll past some of the massive mill-owners’ mansions here to gain a sense of just how lucrative and important the textiles industry became in the latter part of the 19th century.
It was the rapid expansion of the national rail system, coupled with the emergence of an industrialized middle-class with cash to spend and a growing appetite for consumer goods, that spurred the spectacular growth of Almonte’s textile industry. Suddenly there was a ready-made national market for fine woolen goods, one that was almost instantly accessible, or at least by the standards of an earlier day.
By the turn of the century there were seven woolen mills operating at full bore in Almonte; and for decades to come they would guarantee job security and modest prosperity for the town’s people. Mill-work became a family way of life, passed on through the generations.
But by the 1950s competition from foreign producers had shut the flow of textiles from Almonte down to a trickle, and the mills in time closed or were converted to other uses. The last to go was Rosamond #1, which shut its doors for good in the early 1980s. It is now a very attractive condominium project, incidentally, with a splendid view of the river.
The eventual demise of the woolen trade was gradual enough a process that Almonte was able to weather it well. Displaced millhands found other work, either here or in nearby communities, and the town’s prosperous, close-knit (so to speak) and cheerful character survived intact.
Though there is no industry here any longer, life remains comfortable, safe and eminently pleasant; in fact, Almonte has become something of a Mecca for disillusioned city-dwellers longing for a quieter, more decent quality of life.