by Angus Scott

Dunnville's history is one of the people that turned a lonely outpost settlement into one of the early thriving centres of Upper Canada and Ontario. Following the American Revolution, land on either side of the Grand River was opened up to settlement by displaced members of the Six Nations Confederacy. The land was granted to the Iroquois tribes by the British to compensate the Confederacy for land lost in the United States during the revolution.

The Haldimand Deed of 1784, named after Sir Frederick Haldimand the Governor of Quebec, granted the Six Nations people a six mile strip of land on both sides of the river from its mouth to its sources.

While the British originally intended the land to remain in the hands of the Indians, Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant wanted to open it up to settlement in order to create a source of revenue. Brant persuaded the Six Nations to surrender large blocks of land. By 1798 Six Nations had sold, leased or transferred more than 140,800 hectares of property. The first part of what is now known as Dunnville to be settled was Canborough. named after Benjamin Canby. The 19,000 acre property was first leased to Captain John Dochstader in 1784 by Brant. In turn, Dochstader sold most of the land to Canby in 1797-98. Lands in the Sheehan Tract, Dunn, Moulton and Sherbrooke were also turned over for settlement . Many of the early European arrivals were United Empire Loyalists.

While Six Nations may have signed surrender documents for Moulton, Sherbrooke and Canborough, they were apparently never paid for the land. Following the War of 1812, the British established a naval base at the mouth of the Grand River in Port Maitland as a precaution against the possibility of further hostilities with the Americans. A thriving little settlement on either side of the river grew up.

The town area of Dunnville was originally part of Moulton Township and owes its existence to the creation of the Welland Canal. William Hamilton Merritt needed to raise the water levels in his new canal system and sought to construct a feeder canal. In 1825 there were six houses in the Dunnville town area, including the earliest settlement called Anthony's Mills, named after Squire William Anthony who had founded the community in 1821.

Dunnville and Dunn Township are named after John Henry Dunn, the Receiver-General of Upper Canada from 1820 to 1843. A strong supporter of Merritt's canal project, Dunn was also a director and served as president of the Canal Company. Construction of the first Dunnville Dam and feeder canal began in 1827. The canal went from Port Robinson through what is now known as Wainfleet to Dunnville. Further the canal was extended down the Grand River to Broad Creek at what is now known as Stromness.

The initial Dunnville Dam was finished in 1829, in time for the opening of the Welland Canal in November of that year. The project brought labourers to the area, creating a need for farm produce and housing. Oliver Whelps bought three lots from John Henry Boulton, who owned much of Moulton. The land was divided into smaller building lots and laid out in a village. Development of the village was slow, but the formation of the Grand River Navigation Company and the resulting use of the Grand River as a transportation corridor spurred on faster growth. Salmon Minor, a founder of Dunnville's Knox Presbyterian Church, is credited with being Dunnville's first citizen. He built a home facing the Grand River on what is now known as Lock Street West. Dunnville soon became an important trade centre, and by 1859, with a population of more than 1,800 people living within its boundaries, rate payers petitioned the County of Haldimand, which had been formed in 1850, to be separated from Moulton Township and elevated to the status of a village.

The Village of Dunnville came into being on Jan. 1, 1860 with John Jarron as the first reeve. Members of the first council were Matthew gash, John C. Kirkpatrick, Jabez Amsden and J.R. Cotter. By June of 1860 the village council had passed a bylaw to erect wooden sidewalks. And by the turn of the century, Dunnville became one of the earliest communities in Ontario to have electricity, with he first electric arc light installed on the corner by the Queen's Hotel in 1896.

Access to cheap electricity promoted further development of Dunnville and in 1900 with more than 2,000 residents, the village became a town. F.J. Ramsey, a prominent merchant and businessman made the move from last reeve of the village, to first mayor of the new town. The first councilors of this new town were Eldorado Benson, John Brown, George Middaugh, William Nicholson, Wilber Penny, C. Webster Winslow.

Throughout its early years, Dunnville was a provincial leader in the use of innovative technologies. From its early use of electricity, it added waterworks in 1900 and continued to develop its reputation as a boom town. Industry gave birth to Dunnville in the form of the Welland Canal, and by the time the economic importance of the river transportation route had faded, railway lines through town continued to make Dunnville an important centre.

By 1907, Dunnville had four large textile mills. Textiles continued to fuel the town's development for many years. The Camelford family led the way when they opened the Dominion Hammock Manufacturing Company in 1899. By the outbreak of World War One, the company had found an export market in Europe and by 1922 had moved to a new larger factory on Forest Street. The company continued to thrive, changing its name to Dominion Fabrics in 1926 and by 1950 the firm employed over 400 people. Company earnings peaked in the mid-60s, but a decline in sales brought about by a growing import market led to the firm's demise. The Camelfords sold the business to Wabasso Ltd. in 1972 and by 1987 the plant was being closed down.

Another major textile firm in Dunnville was the Monarch Knitting Co. founded in 1903 by partners F.R. Lalor, J.A. Burns and George Orme. The company was llisted on the Toronto Stock Exchange in 1911 and opened other plants in St. Catharines, Buffalo and St. Thomas. It became one of Canada's largest textile producing firms and landed contracts to supply uniforms to National Hockey League teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs. Operations in Dunnville ceased in 1967.

Other manufacturing businesses also bloomed in Dunnville through the first three quarters of the 20th century, including the Lundy Fence Company and the Grand Valley Cannery. Port Maitland also played host to large firms, as well as a vibrant Lake Erie fishing community. Dunnville made major contributions to the Allied war efforts in the First and Second World Wars. Dunnville was home to No. 6 Service Flying Training School, one of 28 training bases located in Canada during the war which served as training facilities for Allied pilots.

Induistry may have given birth to Dunnville but the arts have also played a prominent role in the town's history. Early dramatic and musical companies formed and a new opera House was constructed in the 1890s. Dunnville's scenic beauty continues to inspire artists of all types. Dunnville became home to the first county soldiers' memorial hospital built in Canada. Haldimand War Memorial Hospital was started by Dunnville citizens seeking a way to honour soldiers who had given their lives in the First World War. The idea caught on quickly and property on John Street between Lock and Broad Streets was purchased by businessman and member of Parliament F.R. Lalor and donated to the cause.The hospital opened in 1921 and a hospital auxiliary was formed in 1932.

Dunnville is also home to the first long term care facility in the old County of Haldimand. The House of Refuge was first built in 1910 by the county for people who had no home or family. The facility was expanded in 1959 and in 1961 was renamed Grandview Home for Senior Citizens. The Lodge expanded over the years to the point that it now has 202 beds and has become an important part of the Dunnville community.

Over the decades, Dunnville's municipal status changed with the times. In 1974, the counties of Haldimand and Norfolk were restructured into the Regional Municipality of Haldimand-Norfolk. The Town of Dunnville became one of six lower tier municipalities making up this new region. The town of Dunnville was expanded to include the former Townships of Canborough, Dunn, and Moulton-Sherbrooke.

In its turn, the Town of Dunnville as a separate municipal entity ceased to exist on Jan. 1, 2001 when the Province of Ontario again restructured area municipalities, breaking up the region into two separate, single level counties, Haldimand and Norfolk.

But Dunnville has continued to hold on to its own unique identity, as have the former townships of which it is comprised. The people who have helped create this beautiful community on the banks of the Grand and shores of Lake Erie have left an indelible mark.