by Marjorie Clark
Land agents of the Columbia Company were recruiting settlers in Scotland in 1825. James Stirton, his wife, Janet, and their children, David (9), Elizabeth (7), Christian (5) and John (3) from Dunnichen, Forfarshire, went aboard ship at Aberdeen on Oct. 1, 1825. They sailed for Venezuela, part of the new country of Gran Columbia, which had just emerged from the throes of many years of wars for independence from Spain in 1823. The group of Scots, of which the Stirtons were a part, found it was a lawless state, constantly fighting insurrections, where neither property nor life was safe. Venezuela came close to seceding from Gran Columbia in 1826. Later, in 1831, the nation collapsed under the dictator, Simon Bolivar. As well, the lands, which the Scots were granted, consisted of barren mountains & arid valleys. The Stirton family remained in Gran Columbia for over a year; the other settlers slightly longer. From that time, these settlers were referred to as the “La Guayrans”.
The Stirtons left for North America and landed at New York on Jan. 17, 1827, where they later learned that other La Guaryans had been directed to the Canada Company at Guelph. On Sept. 8, 1827, the Stirton family arrived in Guelph, a clearance in the wilderness, composed of about twenty buildings. Within three days, three members of family developed either ague (malaria) or typhoid fever. Elizabeth was unconscious for days. The La Guaryans were settled on the Elora Road in the Scotch Block, Guelph Township on land assigned by the Canada Company. The Stirton family remained there for six years and then relocated to lot 9, front con 8, Puslinch in 1833. Six more children were born into the family by 1838.
David attended the parish school until he was nine years old, before the family’s departure from Scotland. There was no school in Venezuela and he did a man’s work from the time he was 11, after the family arrived in Canada. Such was his hunger for knowledge that, in the late 1830’s, when in his 20’s, after clearing forests all day, he attended night classes in the first school established in Puslinch, near the present location of Duff’s Church. The early years were a time of continuous construction and by 1834, young David was already a skilled carpenter, who was entrusted to the crucial job of building the corners of log buildings.
In 1841, David bought lot 11, rear con. 4, Puslinch, which was partially cleared, and upon which there was a log shanty and began to farm on his own. In 1842, David married Mary Beattie. She died at only 21 years old, when her second child was born in April 1845. In 1847, he married again to Henrietta McGregor, with whom he had three more children. Both of David’s wives where from his Puslinch neighbourhood. By 1851, he owned a two-story stone house, one of only fifteen in the township. In 1865, he was able to purchase a second Puslinch farm, lot 13, front con. 5.
David was an early member of the Aberfoyle Agricultural Society. He served on a committee to select books for the library of S. S. #12 School, on lot 5, rear con. 4. In 1849, he was a fence-viewer for the township. That same year, he was appointed a Commissioner of the Peace, a position which he held for 30 years. These officials pronounced judgments on local civil cases and referred criminal cases to the police in the nearest town. In 1855, he served on a committee to fence in and beautify the cemetery at Kirkland Chapel, later known as Howitt Memorial Church. He was elected a director of the newly formed Mutual Fire Insurance Company at McMeekin’s Inn in 1859.
He was elected to the first Puslinch Township Council in 1850. He served four years as Councillor, two as Deputy Reeve and three as Reeve. In 1857, he was elected as Reform Party member in the Assembly of the United Upper and Lower Canadas, which met in Toronto. Always popular in Puslinch, in Badenoch they referred to him as “Our Davey”.
As a member of the Assembly, he was appointed to a commission to value land in Peel and Maryborough in 1858. In 1858, he introduced a bill to extend the Canada North Western Railway from Guelph to Lake Huron. He was instrumental in clearing the way, with the Commissioner of Crown Lands, for the building of George McLean’s Aberfoyle Mill in 1861. He was responsible for Arkell receiving a post office in 1863. He served through the years leading to Confederation and was a member of the 1867 Confederation Parliament, remaining an elected member until 1876.
Originally a member of St. Andrew’s Church in Guelph, he was part of the group that founded Knox Presbyterian Church. He was ordained an elder of Chalmers Church in 1870 and served on its Board of Managers for thirty years. From 1861, he worked to establish the Guelph General Hospital, which opened in 1875 and he bequeathed money to it from his estate. He was President of the Guelph Speed Skating Rink Company and of the St. Andrew’s Society.
In April 1872, David Stirton sold his Puslinch farm and took up residence on Edinburgh Rd., on the outskirts of Guelph. In 1876, he became President of the Guelph and Ontario Investment and Savings Society, where he remained until forced to resign due to ill health in 1897. On June 1, 1876, he was appointed Postmaster of Guelph, a position of importance, when letters were the principal form of distance communication. He instituted the first locked mailboxes for customers within the facility and the first street post boxes. Due to declining health since 1897, he retired as Postmaster in June 1904.
About 1884, he moved to a large, stone house, built for him on the Speed River bank on Arthur St. in Guelph. In 1899, Kate Conway recorded David Stirton’s reminiscences as “Pioneer Days in Wellington County”, a series for publication in the Guelph Mercury.
David Stirton died on Aug. 15, 1908. He was 93. Those who eulogized him emphasized his rise from inauspicious beginnings, his dedication to serving his community and his integrity in all things. To read more about him, see Anna Jackson’s book, “David Stirton, M.P.”, a copy of which is available for perusal in the Puslinch Historical Society Archives in the Puslinch Library in Aberfoyle.