Preface to The Bruce

Birth of a book

In April 2016 early planning was under way for a documentary about the history of Bruce County (described in Appendix A). I was casting about for a new project to follow Heart of the Great Lakes, and a companion book to the documentary seemed a good choice. I broached the subject to county archivist Ann-Marie Collins—she was in favour, as I suspected she would be.

I approached Yvonne Drebert of the film company, the Ontario Visual Heritage Project. OVHP had already created historical documentaries on seven Ontario counties, but never with an accompanying book. She was intrigued, wondering how I would carry it off, but assured me that if I went ahead I would have access to the material I wanted-all research, interview transcriptions, scripts and images. So I went ahead.

Since the Bruce County Historical Society (described in Appendix B) was a partner in the film project and an established publisher of county history, I decided to offer the book to the society to publish, and they accepted.

My goal was to launch the companion book at the same time the film came out, in early 2018. Normally a complete history of Bruce County would take years and years to research and write, but I had several aces up my sleeve:
— The structure of the book and the topics to cover already existed in the script, and since the film didn't cover every possible aspect of county history the book didn't need to either.
— I had already published the history up to 1850 in Heart of the Great Lakes.
— The Bruce County Museum had asked me to write the texts for an exhibit about pioneer settlement, "The Last Frontier", to open in summer 2017. My research for that period, 1850 to 1900, would apply equally to the companion book.
— The historical society had already published two county histories so I could draw on them for the settlement period and part of the 20th century
— Finally, I helped research the documentary itself. While the primary historical researcher was Bill Darfler, I contributed background information from the Archives, particularly the Bruce Krug interviews of Bruce County people (described in Appendix C), which turned out to be a significant element in the book.

The film

The documentary "The Bruce" is a film in three parts. The title of the first episode, "The Fishing Chiefs", refers to those Saugeen Ojibway chiefs responsible for managing the fishery. By extension, this episode investigates the Ojibway relationship with their waters and lands, and with the visitors who arrive, some invited, like the Métis traders and Methodist missionaries, and some unwelcome: the commercial fishermen who invade the fishing grounds. Treaties push the Ojibway onto ever smaller territories but they continue the fight to have their fishing rights recognized, right up to the present day.

The second part, "The Last Frontier", is the colonization period. Surveyors lay out roads and divide the land into lots. Immigrants from Europe pour into the newly-created Bruce County, buy lots, start farming and survive a year of starvation. Places like Kincardine, Walkerton and Ripley are founded. Weather observers and storm signals warn mariners of bad weather. Lumbering extends even into the Greenock Swamp and furniture factories profit from easily available timber, but clear-cutting leads to destructive bush fires. The settlers' need for land impacts the Saugeen Ojibway and the Métis, and also alters the local ecosystems. The county's population declines as people choose a life out west ... but return for annual reunions. Volunteers preserve history by restoring the Chantry Island lightkeeper's cottage.

In the third episode, "The Peaceful Path", the Bruce passes through two wars and the Depression. A stagnant economy is stimulated by the arrival of the world's largest nuclear power plant. The revival is further boosted by an influx of tourists drawn to the county's natural beauty and two new national parks. Nature conservation becomes the new imperative, at forest preserves, nature reserves and bird sanctuaries. The Greenock Swamp gains protection, as does the Niagara Escarpment, through the efforts of the Bruce Trail organization. The Bruce is energized and foresees a peaceful future for all peoples, Ojibway, Métis and European.

What's in the book

The book The Bruce also has three parts. The topics reflect those in the film, but with much more historical background. For example, the film has one sentence about seven dance halls on the lakeshore; the book has a paragraph on the history of each one. In Part One, Ojibway history unfolds in considerable detail, certainly more than has appeared in previous histories. For Part Two on the settlement period I greatly enhanced the account of the life of a Bruce County pioneer, reflecting the work I did on the museum exhibit "The Last Frontier".

As for the structure, I occasionally strayed from the order of presentation in the film script. For instance, I delayed until the end of Part 3 the fight for Ojibway fishing rights, and the account of volunteers restoring Chantry Island buildings.

In one respect the book mirrors the film: it takes quotations from the filmed interviews and intersperses them throughout the text.

What's not in the book

The reader should not think that she is holding a complete history of Bruce County. Among the subjects which are scantily treated, or not at all, are: farming, politics, hospitals, libraries, sports, arts and more. It's a long list, and shows that a truly complete one-volume county history remains to be written.

If your favourite topic is missing, the response is: we (the filmmakers and the author) have tried to portray the experiences of a broad range of people in the history of the county of Bruce and Saugeen Ojibway territory, but due to limitations of time and space, many important stories had to be left out.

We needed to be selective, and so the documentary and the companion book highlight topics specific to Bruce County, like nuclear power. They do not highlight topics which developed similarly in other Ontario counties, like farming. The film and the book talk about what makes Bruce County special.

Conceivably there could be a second edition of The Bruce with further amplified contents. Or separate volumes on specific subjects ... how about The Women of Bruce County?


In the course of research I encountered a surprising number of books on Bruce County, such is the enthusiasm for local history. Each township, town and village has its own history book, and usually more than one. In a sense the complete history of the county has already been written, but it exists not in one volume but in a library of 287 books, those listed in the bibliography. At the risk of slighting other authors, I can recommend the books by Anne Judd, David Kennedy, Patsy McArthur, Peter Schmalz and John Weichel.

I have quoted generously from three sources: two historical society books (Robertson, 1906, and McLeod, 1969) and my own Heart of the Great Lakes (2015). As described in Appendix C, the Bruce Krug interviews supplied illuminating commentary.

About the author

Robin Hilborn is a retired information officer for the federal government and author of the local histories Southampton Vignettes (2010), Heart of the Great Lakes (2015) and The Bruce (2018) as well as articles on county history. He volunteers at the Bruce County Archives and serves on the executive of the Bruce County Historical Society and on the steering committee of the Bruce County Heritage Documentary Project. He lives in Southampton with his wife Heather Wallace.

How to order

To order The Bruce, print (or copy out) the form below, fill in and mail with your cheque to:

421 Clarendon St., Southampton ON  N0H 2L0

Please send me ___ copies of The Bruce ($35 each).

If over 20 km. from Southampton, add $17 per order for shipping. (Free delivery within 20 km. of Southampton.)

I enclose a $_____ cheque to "Robin Hilborn".





• Price in Canada is in Can$.   For U.S. addresses, in US$.
• We accept cheques, but not credit cards (no need to reveal your card number).
• No tax ... Family Helper Publishing is tax-exempt.
• Queries:

For more information



The Bruce
ISBN 978-1-928192-05-3
236 pp., hardcover,
    bibliography, index
$35, from Robin