History of Embro


.....as written by Mrs. Robert John Sutherland (nee Mayme McCaul)

The history of any community is to a large extent a history of its people. So, I could not do better than begin this history of Embro with a quotation from Mrs. F. D. Hemans “Not as the conqueror comes, they, the true hearted came; not with the roll of stirring drums, and the trumpet that sings of fame; not as the flying come, in silence and in fear; they shook the depths of the desert’s gloom with their hymns of lofty cheer.” Thus, she referred to the pioneers.

Amongst the earliest settlers of Zorra, of which Embro is the chief village, was a colony from the New England States of United Empire Loyalist stock who made their way into Canada after the American Revolution. They settled only the fourth concession which runs north and south through the village. In religion they were Methodists and Baptists and had established church services, Sunday and day schools under the leadership of the Rev. Robert Corson and the Rev. Darius Cross. This was six years before the coming of any Presbyterian minister and ten years before the arrival of the Rev. Donald McKenzie, the first pastor of a Scotch congregation.

Embro is said to be the Gaelic form of Edinburgh. The first lot sold in Embro was the north half of Lot 12 on the 4th concession on January 13, 1832 at $2.00 per acre. This is part of Embro now. The first buildings were two distilleries owned by McDonald and Crittenden. The Township of West Zorra was first surveyed in 1820 and Embro became a separate municipality in 1858.

Sutherland’s Directory has this to say of Embro. “Embro is pleasantly situated on a branch of the river Thames. The site of the village could not be more desirable, having unsurpassed natural hydraulic power for mill and manufacturing purposed and being on a rising eminence and surrounded with a fertile and beautiful section of country.” At first the village stores were situated north of the present village near the North Embro Mills. However, a flax mill owned by John Honeyman was begun on the site of which now stands the ruins of an evaporator, north-west of the Town Hall. The Laycock oatmeal mills, later owned by R. R. Ross were built to the east of the village where the river crosses Commissioner Street and by whose ruins in the river a swimming pool was made in recent years, in about 1936. This was destroyed by spring floods after only two years’ use.

So business life moved further south. Another flour and grist mill was built south of the village where the river crosses the 4th line, called Scotia Mills. This mill was owned by Mr. J. M. Ross, father of D. R. and Columbus Ross. He later bought the Laycock Mills and carried on an extensive business. Also in the east end of the village was a carding and cloth factory owned by John McDonald. The following businesses flourished at that time: watchmaker and jeweler, boots and shoes, 8 blacksmiths, wagon and carriage makers, tinsmith, carpenters, potash manufacturer, 4 general stores, 2 cabinet makers, undertaker, 3 doctors and a pump manufacturer. In 1875 Embro had two newspapers, the “Planet” conducted by Mr. Dawson and the “Review” by Mr. Hay. Later in 1880, the “Embro Courier” (under the management of Mr. Stewart, then later Mr. Alger and Mr. McKinnon) grew up. It was discontinued in August 1934.

The Wesleyan Methodists were the first religious body to enter Embro, meeting in the old Temperance Hall on the corner of Commissioner and Argyle Streets. Mr. Nasmyth who emigrated from Scotland in 1832, settled in Embro and formed a Methodist class and held meetings at his own house. He later assisted Captain W. McKay in drilling the Zorra volunteers during the Mackenzie Rebellion.

The Old Log Church situated on the 7th line, east of Embro, built in 1832, less than three years after the arrival of the first shipload of settlers from Sutherlandshire, Scotland ministered to the Scotch Presbyterians under the Rev. Donald McKenzie. At that time the religious centre extending almost twenty-[five square miles. The frame church known as the Auld Kirk was erected in 1836 on the south side of Memorial Park. In communion season, when large crowds gathered, the people went to Dent’s woods on the slope of the hill on D. A. McKay’s farm. In 1863 the present Knox United Church was built, the site being donated by Donald Matheson. The Rev. Donald McKenzie was the minister for thirty-seven years, at first residing on Gleness Farm (where Mr. Peter smith until recently resided), later moving into the Manse bought in Embro.

The Baptists worshipped in a church built in 1862, just west of Knox United Church and were ministered to by the Rev. Mr. Beardsall. This building was used later as a town hall until the present one was built in 1893. Then it was torn down and additional horse sheds built. Now these are gone and a lovely tennis court has been made there.

A Methodist church was built in 1854 and served the community until 1875, when it was sold. It can still be seen standing as a barn at the Albion Hotel. The Methodists built another church in Embro in 1874 and sold it in 1925, when it was made over into a fine modern continuation school and the congregation joined the Knox United congregation before church union.

Ebenezer Congregation Church was formed after a visit in 1869 – 1870 of Evangelists Russell and Carrol to Knox Church, when differences of opinion became pronounced and many withdrew from the church, worshipping for over four years in the Auld Kirk. But, in 1877 Ebenezer Congregational Church was built directly opposite on the south side of St. Andrew’s Street. This church went into union in 1925 as did Knox Church. The continuing Presbyterians started worshipping in the town hall and did so for about two years until the beautiful residence of D. R. Ross was bought and converted into a commodious manse and church.

Embro has long been the centre of the West Zorra Agricultural Fair. At first, in 1853, the fair was held on the vacant lots on Elgin Street between Commissioner and John Streets. The officers of the first Agricultural Society were President Edward Huggins; Secretary John Fraser; Treasurer D. A. McPherson. In 1885 the agricultural grounds comprising several acres donated by Donald Matheson were opened. Later the Crystal Palace, used as a rink in winter, was donated by George Matheson, Sarnia, and shipped here and rebuilt. This rink has since been enlarged and a large grandstand has been built. On these grounds, or Matheson Park as it has been named, the famous Caledonian Games are held each year as they have been since 1937. They were not held in 1942 owing to the war.

The first Highland Society of Embro was organized in March 1856 for the purpose of preserving the language, martial spirit, dress, music, literature, antiquities and games of the ancient Caledonians. Then, as now, great crowds gathered to see the games, the dancing and to hear the music. In those days, John Tait, tinsmith of Embro was one of the best Highland dancers. George Forbes, Angus Kerr, William McLeod and Donald Bain McKay were some of the greatest athletes. On July 1st, 1937 it was estimated that 4,000 people gathered in Embro at Matheson Park and witnessed a program of 120 talented pipers and dancers and five pipe bands massed as one, athletic events of all kinds, and tug-of-war. This final contest revived memories of the famous tug-of-war contest in 1893 at Chicago World’s Fair when the men from Zorra won the championship of America from teams representing Canada, United states, Great Britain, Belgium, France and Germany. This team was comprised of five members and two officers: James Sutherland, M.P., President; E. L. Sutherland, Captain; Robert McIntosh, anchorman; William Munroe; Ira Hummason, Robert McLeod and Alex Clark. They received a cup valued at $200 and a cairn is built to their memory at the entrance to the North Embro Cemetery.

This first school on the site of the present public school was of logs and was the scene of Zorra’s polling booth in 1844. In 1858 the village of Embro became a separate municipality and the first Council meeting was held on November 8th. The members were: Councillors Robert Mann, John Short, John McDonald, Donald Matheson; Reeve John Dent; Clerk John Fraser; Treasurer D. R. McPherson.

In 1860 a company of volunteers was organized in West Zorra and Embro under the name of Embro and West Zorra Highland Rifle Company. It numbered 55 privates. In 1863 this company entered the 22nd Battalion Oxford Rifles No. 2 Company with Captain Loveys and Lieutenant McIntosh as officers. In 1866, when the Fenians were about to cross into Canada, those volunteers were called out under Captain Duncan. They were stationed at Sandwich for frontier service until June, when they returned home. It was at this time that the famous remark was made: “They may tak Montreal and they may tak Toronto, they may tak Woodstock but they’ll na’ tak Zorra.”

The post office was at one time across the street from the Royal Bank building. Later when Mr. Donald Matheson build the present bank building, one-half housed the post office and the other half was used by Mr. Matheson’s son, a lawyer. Mr. Matheson was Post Master in 1875 and his daughter, Miss Mary Matheson was later.

At this time, as Embro had no train connections, Mr. W. S. Vanattar drove to and from Zorra Station, on the C.P.R. mainline, with mail and passengers. In 1905 a company known as the St. Marys and Western Ontario Railway was incorporated for the purpose of building and operating a road from Ingersoll to St. Marys, running through Zorra Junction, Embro, Bennington, Lakeside and St. Marys. The officers of the Company were President James Chalmers, Vice-President D. R. Ross, Secretary and Solicitor J. W. Graham, Treasurer, H. L. Rice, Board of Directors – E. L. Sutherland, T. C. Robson, David Bonis, F. E. Butcher, and Archie Baird. The temporary Board entered into an agreement with the C.P.R., relative to the construction and operation of the road between Embro and St. Marys. A bonus was received from different municipalities to be served by the railroad. Embro’s share was $5,000. The road was completed in 1909, the year of Embro Old Boys’ Reunion.

Mr. E. J. Cody became Post Master when the post office was moved to his own store where Clarence Campbell and the Bell Telephone office are now. About 1920, upon Mr. Cody’s death, J. R. Mooney was appointed Post Master. He built the fine brick building, being residence and post office combined. About 1924 the Toronto City Dairy built a modern plant near the C.P.R. station and for a number of years a great quantity of milk from the surrounding district was shipped. There were two trains a day, north and south, which have now been reduced to one train a day. The City Dairy closed in 1939.

The Embro Public Library first started as a Mechanics Institute in 1882 in a small brick building near where Mrs. J. G. McIntosh’s store is. Later the library was moved to a building on the site of the present post office. In one side of the building Mr. Rutherford mended shoes, and Captain Gordon kept the library on the other side. Later the library was moved across the street to where the printing office now is and Mr. Cody looked after it. Many used to gather there to play checkers. The first supporters were R. R. Ross, G. A. Munro, John Ross (Ensign), Major Wm. Loveys, George Gordon, Hugh Ross (teacher), E. J. Cody, Dr. Jameson and Miss Mary Matheson. In 1895 it became a Public Library and two years later when R. A. Duncan was Reeve of Embro the town hall was built and the library found a permanent resting place. Mr. Duncan, son of Dr. Duncan, and an efficient druggist, was located at that time across the street from the town hall and looked after the library. Ross Campbell and Miss Rutherford were at one time librarians. Mrs. Grace McNeil was librarian for twenty-five years, till her death in 1940. The town hall will seat 400 in the auditorium on the second floor.

Embro has a beautiful memorial park on the grounds where the Auld Kirk stood and is kept in fine condition by the Women’s Institute. This organization came into being in January 1908, when the Farmers’ Institute which had been flourishing for a number of years called a special meeting to which the ladies of the community were invited to hear speaker, Dr. Bacchus of Aylmer. It was her objective to form a Women’s Institute, which she did with the following officers: President Mrs. E. J. Cody; Vice-President Mrs. J. E. McKay; Secretary-Treasurer Mrs. G. A. Sutherland; Directors Mrs. Columbus Ross, Mrs. James Brand and Mrs. W. G. Dawes. In 1919 a fitting war memorial for West Zorra and Embro was erected on the grounds of the Memorial Park. A silent reminder of loyalty, heroism and sacrifice.

Dr. Adams came to Embro when a very young man after the American Civil War. He was the doctor for a radius of thirty or forty miles. At the time of the small-pox plague, he buried the dead in addition to all of his other duties. He kept a drug store in his office and the building which was his home and office stood between the bake-shop and bank.

On the north-east corner below Embro stood a warehouse owned by Mr. Archibald where grain was bought and sold, and operated by Douglas McMurphy. This building has since been removed.

In 1860 – 1861 the following business were operating in Embro: E. J. Cody, general Store; John Honeyman, flax mill; Samuel Henderson, veterinary; Reuben Tait, pumpmaker; George Matheson, meat market; N. Vanslyke, Temperance House proprietor. Population was 551.

In 1889 a private bank was established in Embro, owned and managed by Colonel James Munro, also Lieutenant Colonel of the 22nd Battalion of the Oxford Rifles. In 1901 Mr. Munro installed an electric light plant in Boxall’s mill run by water power. This served the village for lights until hydro took its place in 1914. In 1908 he managed Famers’ Bank which later had to close its doors. In 1906 a branch of the Traders Bank was established. This was later taken over by the Royal Bank.

In 1909 G. H. Boxall had the North Embro roller mills; William Hamilton, Scotia flour mills; Thomas Porter, druggist; W. J. Dillans, dry goods, groceries and millinery; E. J. Cody, general merchant, clerk and treasurer of Embro (1879-1922); J. Fairbairn, groceries; W. J. Geddes, hardware; Hector Sutherland, furniture and undertaker; W. H. Beaver, merchant tailor; T. Holihan, dry goods and groceries; C. H. Munro, dry goods and groceries; Mr. Slater, boots and shoes; A. M. Riddell, meat market; William Karn, barber; D. M. Sutherland and J. W. Gordon, harness shop; Graham McKay, Andrew McDonald and George Creighton, blacksmiths; McLellan and Son, jewelers; T. Filmore, baker; two hotels – Albion (William Cherry) and Commercial (Mr. McInnes). There were three doctors – Dr. Adams, Dr. Green and Dr. Sutherland who about this time sold out to Dr. Montgomery who served the community faithfully till his death in 1937.


....writings from Embro Centennial and Zorra Old Boys and Girls Reunion 1858-1958


The Village of Embro became a separate municipality by an Act of Parliament in the year 1858. The village is situated on a branch of the River Thames and comprises the east halves of Lots number eleven and twelve in the fourth concession, and the west halves of Lots eleven and twelve in the fifth concession.

The site of the village could not be more desirable, having unsurpassed natural hydraulic power for mill and manufacturing purposed, and being on a rising eminence is surrounded with a fertile and beautiful section of country. In 1866-67 there were some handsome stone and brick buildings. The two largest being the Canada Presbyterian church erected of brick in 1861, at a cost of about $10,000, and the Albion Hotel, also of brick, three stories in height, in connection with which was a hall where the courts and all public meetings were held.

The Village of Embro was incorporated by an Act of the Dominion Government, assent being granted July 24th, 1858.

The incorporated village included the following in the Township of West Zorra: E ½ Lot 11, Conc. 4; Lot 12, Conc. 4; Lot 13, Conc. 4; E ½ Lot 14, Conc. 4; and Lots 11, 12, 13, and 14 in Conc. 5. Authority – Dominion Statutes, Chapter 45 – 22nd Victoria.

The meeting of the first Council was held on November 8, 1858 in the commodious hall, in connection with the Albion Hotel. The members of the first Council were: John Dent, reeve; Robert S. Mann, John Shortt, John McDonald, Donald Matheson, Councillors; John Fraser, clerk; D. R. McPherson, Treasurer. Councils of that time had the power to elect their Reeve from among themselves. The first minutes show that it was moved by Robert Mann, seconded by John Shortt, and resolved that John Dent be Reeve.

The first cash book records the following data: The first credit entry is December 31, 1858, and is cash from W. J. Adams, Tavern Inspector, for license, $10.00. The second credit entry is from Wm. Midgeley, Collector of Taxes, $140.00. The debit side records John Fraser receiving $10.00 for his services as Clark, and D. R. McPherson, Treasurer, $2.00.


The first lot sold in Embro was the north half of lot 12 on the 4th concession on January 13, 1832, at $2 per acre. This is part of Embro now. The first buildings were two distilleries owned by McDonald and Crittenden.

The original cash book of the Village of Embro gives us many interesting facts of early municipal life.

For the year 1859, the amount of money received was $723.21 ½ ; the amount spent was $716.03 ½; leaving a balance of $7.18. Revenue, in addition to the taxes collected, was obtained in various ways. Tavern licenses of $10 each were collected by tavern inspectors. Shop licenses were also collected by an inspector. Mr. John Forrest, whose large store was north of where the Town Hall now stands, paid a shop license of $25.00 in 1860. Non-resident taxes were collected from people owning land in the Village and living in the Township.

Also for several years cash was received from the Receiver General from the Upper Canada Municipalities Fund, being monies arising from the sale of Clergy Reserves. In 1869, $175.24 net was received, after paying bank charges and postage of .54 cents. Appropriations were received from the County Treasurer for County roads and bridges. In 1860 this amount was $26.00. A Poundkeeper was appointed each year to look after stray animals. Pound fines were turned in each year in amounts ranging from $1.50 to $2.50. Nearly everyone had a cow which pastured on the streets. Later a villager received a small remuneration for tending the village cows on nearby roadsides, and bringing them back home in the evening. Cash was received each year from the Chief Superintendent of Schools, as per Government grant for school purposes. In 1860 this amount was $63.00.

Auditors, Mr. Mann and Mr. Thorne received $1.50 each for auditing the village books in 1859. Tax Collector Mr. Midgeley was paid $6.00, and Road Overseer Mr. Alex Gunn received $7.00. Mr. Fraser, the Clerk received $7.50 each quarter. Mr. Fraser also was paid $5.00 as Assessor. On May 16, 1860 Mr. Smiley the Provincial Land Surveyor was paid $45.00 for drawing two maps of the Village. The Agricultural Society was given $5.00 to advertise their Annual Fall Cattle Sale, and $10.00 for premiums for their Spring Seed Fair. The printing and advertising for the year was $7.00 with an additional item of $1.50 for printing bills re mad dogs.

In 1859 lumber was supplied to the Corporation amounting to $45.16. Statute labour on roads and bridges, and the laying of a plank sidewalk on Huron St. from Commissioner to St. Andrews St., also the purchase of five candles for the use of the council rooms, were other expenses of the year. At that time money was very scarce, and loans and debentures were difficult to procure. Interest paid was usually 9%. A few instances of 8 ½% being charged were noted. While the currency used seemed to be dollars and cents, there are several records of ½ cents received or paid out, and it is thought that this was the transition period from L. s and d. which was used in transactions of early years.

In 1862 Robert Adam was paid $1.75 for 42 lbs. of nails, and for using said nails in fastening the planks in the village sidewalks. In 1867 Rodrick McDonald was paid $23.00 for furnishing material and laying sidewalk on the east side of Huron St., by order of John Duncan, Overseer. In 1869 spring floods caused extra work in the municipality. Donald Ferguson was paid .75 cents for helping remove flood wood at Laycock’s Mill. Donald Tait was also paid .75 cents for putting in new drain boxes at Mrs. Gordon’s residence. John Farnsworth was paid $3.00 for putting props under the bridge at Laycock’s Mill.

In 1871 municipal receipts were $1,023.21 ½. The balance at the end of the year was $84.33 ½. In 1873 a tool house was built at the Cemetery; a new culvert was put in at the foot of Kincardine St. and George Ross received $10.50 for his work in making the road from North Embro to the East Line. On June 1, 1875 John McKay was paid $50.00 for planting shade trees on the streets of Embro (the original cheque is pasted in this first cash book of the Village). At this time municipal taxes collected were $1,624.58, with an additional $47.00 in Poll Tax.

In 1880 $127.00 was received for County rates. Tom Holahan and G. Gordon presented the auditor’s report that year with Corporation receipts of $3,427.80 and a credit balance of $874.85. On May 13, 1881 James L. Murray, Contractor received $449.00 for building a bridge at Shaws. J. W. Burton received $50 for bell ringing. Mr. Burton lived in the brick cottage across from the Presbyterian Church and was the church caretaker. He was noted for his agility, and stories are told of how he walked along the gallery railing, to light the church candles. On October 16, 1885 the Park grounds were purchased from the Matheson Estate for $500.00 and A. B. McKay received $2.00 for two oak sticks for Park gate posts. The salary of the Clerk and Treasurer in this year was $65.00. On April 24, 1886 a grant of $20.00 was made to the Mechanic’s Institute. (A more complete story of this will be found with the history of the Library.) Also in this year $56 was received from the sale of band instruments. No information is available about the band. The Court Room at this time was rented from D. Beagley. On August 11, 1888 Walter Hazelwood received $10 for 8 days spreading gravel. James Boles and I. H. Thorne laid sidewalks on Huron St. A half dozen chairs were purchased from Hector Sutherland, furniture dealer, for the use of the Council. Plank was purchased from R. Bickerton & Co. to the amount of $181.17.

In 1890 a survey was made on the McLeod hill, and two culverts and side drains were put in. Also, a gravel contract was let. Two hundred cedar posts were bought for village use. Robert Couke drew 62 cords of gravel on Huron St. and John McKay cut the thistles. In 1892 a new sidewalk was put in on Kincardine St. and plans to build a Town Hall were discussed.


1893 was a big year for Embro. In 1892 a lot had been purchased from Walter Ross for $250, on which to build the new Hall. Directly to the north of it was the general store of George Forrest which had been burned down in 1877. The south wall of the store was used for the north wall of the Hall. R. A. Duncan was Reeve of the Village and was an ardent supporter of the project.

Youngs and Cawsey had the building contract; Andrew Bain the stone mason work; Andrew Chapin supplied the stone; the names of John E. (Checky) McDonald, Malcolm McNeil, Andrew Karn and Thomas Masters are some of the men who did the teaming.

The new Hall was a large red brick building, with auditorium, gallery and stage on the second floor, with a seating capacity of 400. On the ground floor were a Council Room where Division Court was to be held also, and space for the Library. A Goal was built in the basement. The same year 402 chairs were bought from Hector Sutherland, Undertaker and Furniture Dealer for $153 and two years later these were bolted together in groups, for easier stacking when dancing was in progress.

In 1897 a half dozen spittoons were bought for the Hall for $4.25. In 1907 a piano was purchased from Mrs. G.W.A. Ross.

In 1913 a furnace was installed and in 1915 the Hall was wired at a cost of $117.50. From the earliest days at various times, Literary Societies used the auditorium for plays and concerts. Before the Hall was built, as early as February 10, 1868, the Young Men’s Literary Society, and Singing School, obtained permission to use the school. They provided their own fire and light and guaranteed no damage would be done to the school building.

As early as 1859, Singing Schools were held in the Village. Records show a request from Wm. S. Martin, R. Murray, E. Leslie and George Adam for use of the school on Thursday of each week for singing classes.

In later years, plays were put on for community purposes, and we note many familiar names taking part in these early plays. A dramatization of Queen Esther was a masterpiece. The Women’s Institute and later the Bennington Junior Farmers and church Y. P. Societies staged many successful dramas and comedies. In 1940 a curtain track was installed, and stage curtain purchased by the Women’s Institute. The Junior Farmers supplied the side and back curtains for the stage.

In 1933 a new birch floor was laid in the auditorium by James D. Hossack at the cost of $190. In 1943 new steps and railing were built at the south door. In 1947 the interior was painted at a cost of $1,000.

The village water was piped into the Hall in 1950 and in 1957 washrooms were installed. The Women’s Institute have held their regular meetings in the Council Chamber for several years and have purchased drapes for the windows and a picture of the Queen. In 1957 the Health Unit set up their Clinic in the Council Chamber and the large east cloakroom was redecorated and converted into a very comfortable Council room.

The Township Council, which previous to 1957 held their meetings in Fred Day’s Hall, now meet in Embro Town Hall Chambers.





             2014.........................approx. 750

In 1975 the Village of Embro amalgamated along with the Township of West Zorra, the Township of East Nissouri and the Township of North Oxford to become the Township of Zorra.