‘Voices from Lambton’s Past’: Arkona history a keen part of our area’s lore

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Did you know that there is a connection between the Village of Arkona and the title song for a popular hit movie of 1945 and between Arkona and the early career of a well known band leader? More about that below.

Arkona was incorporated as a village on June 10th of 1876.

Let’s listen in to an old-timer at the time of Arkona’s cemtennial in June of 1976.

Village of Arkona

Now, the first settler in the Arkona area was Asa Townsend in 1821. At the time, there were no other settlers for a radius of ten miles. By 1857, according to the Toronto Leader of July 21st, the village was ‘an ambitious, enterprising, law-abiding, anti?litigious little village rejoicing in the somewhat extraordinary name of Arkona, and having 350 inhabitants.’ 

By 1875 the population had risen to almost 800, quite enough to justify incorporation into the status of a self?governing municipality. The peak population was probably reached shortly afterwards when this autonomous and self-reliant community reached 900 souls. 

By then, Arkona had 20 manufacturing concerns, several stores, four churches and three hotels. There was a flax mill, flour mills, saw mills, a tannery, a woollen mill and a copper shop. The Great Western Railway was originally surveyed to pass through Arkona.

But for a tragic accident, the line would undoubtedly have followed the course planned by the railway’s chief surveyor who was charged with the responsibility of pushing the line through to the west to Sarnia. The stakes were in place, the course settled when the surveyor was called to Niagara Falls, where he met with an accident and died. His successor picked up the unfinished task, reviewed the proposed route, and decided that the railway should instead run north?west of Widdcr, a decision which spelled the end of Widder and the birth of Thedford. It also dashed Arkona's dream of greatness, and resulted in the eventual reduction of the village to its present status as a quiet residential community of slightly less than 500 people.

One of Arkona’s early doctors became the Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta?  This was Robert G. Brett who came to Arkona in the mid 1870's and established a successful practice in the village and the surrounding countryside. A public-spirited man, he was soon elected to the Council and served as reeve in 1881. During that period in Canadian history, Dr. Brett followed the cry to ‘Go west, young man’ and went to Alberta, where he served in the Legislature of the province on its entrance to Confederation in 1905; became a leader in the drive to create parks and conservation areas; and was instrumental in the creation of Banff National Park. 

In recognition of his services to Alberta and to Canada, Dr. Robert Brett was made the King's representative in his home province, possibly owing his success to his time in Arkona where he had first learned the art of government.

The name Arkona stems from a medieval German stronghold located on a peninsula jutting into the Baltic Sea?  The new name that replaced ‘Eastman's Corners’ appeared first in the Canada Directory in 1857.  Until then the Post Office address of the village was Bosanquet. 

The TORONTO LEADER of July 21st, 1857, carried an item which verifies the adoption of the new name: ‘The survey passes through that ambitious and somewhat enterprising and law?abiding little village  of  Bosanquet,  now  rejoicing  in  the somewhat extraordinary name of Arkona, which, by the way, is said to contain 360 inhabitants.’

Now, for those of you interested in music, did you know that the village of Arkona supported  and nurtured a brass hand for many years?

Minutes of the Masonic Lodge for 1876 record that on June 24th of that year the members of the Lodge marched to Rock Glen to the music of the Arkona Brass Band.  This organization continued to play, with minor interruptions, until well into the next century. Its financial support seems to have come from the Village Council, as evidenced by an entry in the Council Minutes of January 9th, 1892 which stated  ‘That the Arkona Brass Band be instructed to buy headlights, music?holders and a reed for each clarinet sufficient for the force (and no more), the cost not to exceed $5.00.’

Every Saturday night during the summer, the band played with considerable skill and sufficiently loudly to be heard as far away as three miles.  ‘Saturday Night’ was a weekly event, a gala occasion, when, to the strains of martial and stirring band music, the villagers and their country cousins did their shopping, exchanged innocent gossip, permitted themselves the luxury of a ten?cent sundae, and strolled the tree?lined streets.

Arkona was entertained by a 16 year old soloist during the 1920's.

This was before the miracle of radio, a time when communities depended on their own talent and resourcefulness to provide entertainment and amusement for themselves and for their neighbours.  Charles J. Ready, a local druggist, was instrumental in bringing a young man to the village to supplement local musicians and dancers. This young man and his associates entertained with dance and song and the young man, who was named Guy Lombardo, later become internationally known as the leader of a great dance band, which many will remember as Guy Lombardo and his ‘Royal Canadians’.

About the same time, in 1924, Anita Carson-Dowding and her daughter Betty moved from London to make their home here. She was a musician of great natural ability and experience in violin and piano. The impact of this very talented and gracious lady upon the cultural and musical life of the community can never be fully evaluated. 

She was telling me recently that she had found an autographed copy of an original musical composition in her attic. It reminded her of her days playing music for the Commonwealth soldiers in England during World War One. It was in 1916 near Sussex, England. She had been playing piano and violin for the Eastbourne Symphony Orchestra. One day, while she was sitting in her hotel reading, the thumping of music being played on a piano was annoying her. She asked the two men in uniform to stop banging on the piano.  They apologized and said that they were trying to fix up a part of a song they were composing which was to be played that afternoon by the same Eastbourne Symphony Orchestra that she played for.

She asked the two soldiers to play it again, she listened, she made some comments and then she helped the two soldiers to make some changes in the music. That same afternoon, Mrs. Anita Carson?Dowding played violin as a part of the symphony that first performed a new tune that had been composed by the two soldiers, Emmet Adams and Douglas Furber.

The new song was pronounced as a success and by 1917 became a big hit.  Soon after, Emmet Adams sent an autographed copy to Mrs. Anita Carson?Dowding, who brought it home to Canada, the same copy she re-discovered in her attic. This song became the title song for a movie in 1945, starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman, a classic film shown each Christmas which we all know as “The Bells of St Mary’s.”

HISTORICAL NOTES from the author: 

Mrs. Anita Carson?Dowding died in January of 1983, remaining almost to the last mentally alert and very devoted to music, the interest dearest to her heart!  The copy mentioned above was actually re-discovered by Carson-Dowding during the early 1980’s, shortly before her death.

‘The Bells of St. Mary's’ music was written by A. Emmett Adams, the lyrics by Douglas Furber, following a visit to St. Mary's Church, Southampton, England. The song was published in 1917.

The song was revived, in 1945 in the Hollywood musical of the same name, by Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman. Due to the inclusion in the 1945 film of a scene featuring a Christmas pageant, both the film and the song have come to be associated with the Yuletide season although the latter has no direct lyrical connection with the holiday, referring to the "red leaves" of autumn in the chorus.

According to Wikipedia, Arkona is a community located in the municipality of Lambton Shores in southwestern Ontario near the LambtonMiddlesex county line, situated beside the Ausable River, on Former Kings Highway 79 (now Lambton County Road 79), Arkona is roughly half-way between Thedford, and Watford.

The site of the village is at the base of the Wyoming Moraine which formed along the shores of ancient Lake Arkona during the retreat of the Wisconsin Glacier some 16,000 years ago. Rich deposits of fossils are revealed at nearby Hungry Hollow. Evidence of early human habitation exists at the site of Paleo hunting camps which were found just a kilometer south of Arkona dating back some 11,000 years. Subsequent migrations of Archaic and Woodland peoples moved into the area as the climate and vegetation changed. Evidence of this long-standing habitation is frequently discovered in the fields surrounding the current village.

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