Once Upon a Time: Claiming the Poets of Bruce County

Among Bruce County poets two names stand out. I’m not speaking of James Stark of Paisley, or Robert Graham of Lucknow, or Mary Stinson of Ripley, or Pearl McKelvie Paterson Kerr of Chesley, poets all. But rather one woman and one man, whose verse achieved national recognition.

To find “one of the finest Canadian poets of her generation”, go no further than Paisley. That is the accolade bestowed by Parks Canada in declaring Isabella Valancy Crawford (1850–1887) a National Historic Person.

She was born in Dublin on Christmas Day, 1850, and arrived with her family in Paisley in spring 1857. While her father tended to his medical practice—he was the town’s first doctor—young Isabella was home-schooled and revelled in aboriginal legends and tales of frontier life. Later she would compose lines like “The darkness built its wigwam walls Close round the camp.”

By unlucky coincidence, a calamitous drought struck the next year. Crops failed, leading to 1859 being called the Starvation Year. To alleviate distress the township bought corn in the U.S. and distributed it to needy settlers.

Dr. Crawford verged on destitution himself, as his patients had no cash, but paid in eggs or vegetables. He made extra money as Elderslie Township’s second treasurer (after Thomas Orchard). However there was a problem of $500 missing from the treasury and in 1861 the Crawfords moved to the Peterborough area.

After her father died in 1875 Isabella and her mother moved to Toronto where she eked out a living selling poems to Toronto newspapers and short stories to American magazines.

In the Toronto Star a churlish Robert Fulford called her “short, plump and unlovely, and her clothes were usually shabby. She must have made a melancholy figure as she went the rounds of the Toronto newspaper offices, peddling her stories and poems.” You’ll find Fulford’s article in the Historical Society’s 1973 Yearbook.

In 1884 Isabella Crawford printed 1,000 copies of the only collection of her verse to appear in her lifetime: “Old Spookses’ Pass, Malcolm’s Katie and other poems”. She sold 50, the book passing almost unnoticed. Only after her untimely death at age 37 did her collected poems attain full recognition.

Crawford is best remembered for her long narrative poem “Malcolm’s Katie”, a love story set on a frontier area much like Bruce County in the mid-19th century. Her re-creation of backwoods life is deeply imbued with images from her four years in Paisley. Isabella travelled with her father to Ojibway camps in the area, and brought home colourful baskets and beaded moccasins. All about her were settlers felling trees and clearing fields.

As the Paisley plaque says, “A fine knowledge of classical literature, an intense idealism and a gift for startling imagery pervade her poetry.” She is honoured by plaques in Paisley, Peterborough and Toronto (where there is an Isabella Valancy Crawford Park near the CN Tower).

For top male poet of Bruce County, we nominate William Wilfred Campbell (1860-1918), best known for “Indian Summer”, beloved of school children everywhere, which starts “Along the line of smoky hills / The crimson forest stands”.

Born in Kitchener, Campbell was ten when the family came to Wiarton, where his father was the first rector of Trinity Anglican Church. After finishing high school in Owen Sound in 1879, he taught in country schools near Wiarton, at Purple Valley and No. 4 Keppel.

In 1883 Campbell married Mary Louisa DeBelle, a teacher at Wiarton Public School, but kept his wife a secret for two years, until he and Mary had moved to a parish in New Hampshire, perhaps because Campbell wasn’t able to support a wife and she would be barred from teaching if it were known she was married.

Following his father’s lead, he had studied for the ministry in Toronto and Massachusetts. He was ordained a minister of the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1886 and took the position of rector in St. Stephen, N.B.

Perhaps feeling the call of the Bruce again, he accepted the rectorship of Southampton parish in fall 1890. The Campbell family moved into the Anglican rectory at 79 Albert St. N.

Campbell didn’t last long at St. Paul’s Anglican Church. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography explains, “His last charge, in Southampton, Ont., was short and acrimonious; the congregation’s failure to pay him compounded his frustration with clergy life, changing faith and faltering health”. He resigned from the ministry in early 1891, and moved to Ottawa to take a civil service job.

While in New Brunswick Campbell published Lake lyrics and other poems (1889). It contains “Indian Summer” and many odes to the waters about the Bruce Peninsula, like

“By Huron’s Shore”, “August Evening on the Beach, Lake Huron”, “Sunset, Lake Huron” and “August Night on Georgian Bay”.

Like Isabella Valancy Crawford, Parks Canada has declared William Wilfred Campbell a National Historic Person. He has one plaque dedicated to him, in Kitchener. It reads, “the Bruce Peninsula where he spent his early days was the inspiration for his best poetry”.

Wiarton has honoured Campbell with a memorial cairn in Bluewater Park and placed his boyhood home at 266 Mary St. on the Wiarton Heritage Walking Tour.

Do you remember all the lines of Campbell’s famous poem? Here they are:


Along the line of smoky hills
The crimson forest stands,
And all the day the blue-jay calls
Throughout the autumn lands.

Now by the brook the maple leans
With all his glory spread,
And all the sumachs on the hills
Have turned their green to red.

Now by great marshes wrapt in mist,
Or past some river’s mouth,
Throughout the long, still autumn day
Wild birds are flying south.


By Robin Hilborn
Bruce County Historical Society

Don’t miss Judy MacKinnon on August 8, talking about her book “Paisley—A Settler’s Dream”. Two more authors will join her—Bonnie Sitter and Kelly Young—at Local Authors Night (with wine and cheese), Aug. 8, 7 p.m. It’s hosted by both the Historical and Genealogical societies of Bruce County, at the Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre, Southampton.