Tillsonburg, the heart of Oxford County, has roots going back hundreds of years. A heart forged from iron and timber that continues to beat with strength and pride today. Read more to discover the businesses that thrive today thanks to the efforts of great men from a great time.
Have you ever been in Tillsonburg, Ontario?
Do not be tricked by its relatively small size; the place has much to offer. Set close enough to the rest of Southern Ontario to be conveniently near the urban centres, yet remote enough to preserve its rich history and quaint ambience, Tillsonburg has a fantastic story to tell... A story of one man’s industrial vision that has grown into a full-fledged community with a legacy.
It all began in 1825. George Tillson, a pioneer industrialist and an expert in ironworking, saw great potential in pine forests and bog iron in the area.
Purchasing 600 acres of land around Big Otter Creek, he planted the seed of what will become Dereham Forge, or modern Tillsonburg. The bog iron business flourished - shrewdly tapping into the rest of the local resources, Tillson formed a fledgling community comprised mostly of his family and employees.
Iron production gave birth to an axe factory, which further increased wood harvesting potential. The heart of Tillsonburg, the Broadway Street itself, is proof of the town’s sylvan roots: the 100-foot (30 m) wide street owes its size to the logging wagons that required sufficient space for turning and maneuvering.
Today’s residents have George Tillson to thank for ample parking space!
A New World Tale of Success
In 1872 the small community was incorporated as the Town of Tillsonburg.
The first mayor was Edwin Tillson, (late George’s son), and he kick-started more branches of industry, utilizing the Big Otter Creek for water infrastructure and production of food and agricultural goods.
Some time later, a booming tobacco industry became the vital source of income to the town. In the early 20th century, electricity was introduced. A public library was opened in 1915 with funds from Carnegie Foundation. The first automobiles rolled through the wide main street, today unique and endemic to Ontario.
As you can see, Tillsonburg is a manifestation of a dream pursued, envisioned, and realized by one person. An immigrant from Massachusetts, a descendant from the first Plymouth colonists, found the final stop for himself and his family - a home. A classic New World tale of success!
The Tillsons and the Aesthetic Movement
You can’t see much of the past industrial efforts of Tillsonburg today - the vast forests of Dereham have been cleared, the iron long excavated; but the Tillson legacy has left quite a few traces and monuments. The most famous, of course, is Annandale House, the home of the first mayor, Edwin Tillson and his family.
The house-turned-museum looks quite unlike your regular late 19th century home: patchwork of beautiful arts and crafts, elegant décor, and intricate architecture suggest everything but an industrial, entrepreneurial legacy.
How come? Two words, one name. Oscar Wilde.
In 1882 his tour of North America led him to Woodstock where he gave lectures on the Aesthetic movement. The movement’s members, disillusioned with the frugal values of Victorian society, endorsed the turn-of-the-century thought of “art for art’s sake”.
In face of encroaching industrialization, they embraced handicraft, manufacture, natural colours and materials, local art, conservatism and, most importantly, the notion that not everything has to have a practical purpose - introducing painted ceilings, stained and etched glass, woodwork, and numerous other “domestic arts” that have been preserved until today.
Oscar Wilde, clad in flamboyant clothes, velvet knickers, abundant variety of colours and flowers mesmerized Mary Ann Tillson, one of the attendees to the lecture. She readily embraced Aestheticism, introducing to her own home much of what Oscar Wilde had spoken about.
Annandale House became a Canadian National Historic Site in 1997, and you can come and see the just how much Oscar Wilde and the Aestheticists influenced the history of the Tillsons and their picturesque little town.
Attractions You Can Visit
Other pieces of tangible history of Tillsonburg do not lag behind the Tillson manor in interesting trivia. Tillsonburg houses an airport that was built in the midst of World War II as a secondary relief field for the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Decades of upgrades and renovations have led it to become the most important airport in the whole of Oxford County.
The pristine environment lends itself perfectly to popular golf course trails, whether you are a fan of golf or simply love nature-gazing or hiking in the great outdoors.
For cinephiles, Broadway Street has its own Broadway - Broadway Cinema, which, despite its unassuming size, has all the modern blockbusters on display.
Three words describe Tillsonburg community: enriched, inspired, connected.
Tillsonburg is not a big town, and its population of just under 16,000 nurture strong bonds with each other. Just like George Tillson built the town with nothing but his own and his family’s effort, Tillsonburg relies above all else on communal collaboration and joint community effort. This means a bunch of happy neighbours, always keen to help you and welcome you into their fold.
In spite of closely-knit community, the town is well connected and not at all remote or unreachable, as two highways link it to the rest of Southern Ontario in a very convenient way.
In the contemporary times of hustle and bustle and living at neck-breaking speed, Tillsonburg is a treasure trove of the most valued riches today: leisure, peace, greenery, and stressless lifestyle. The town is enriched with leisure and recreational services and programs: you simply have to slow down to take in all that Tillsonburg has to offer.
A plethora of parks, trails and natural recreational centres make Tillsonburg the green oasis of nature lovers. Healthcare facilities, a hospital, well-developed infrastructure, and communications certainly do not lack, if you think that being close to nature means being far from convenient life. Urban and rural do not stand at odds in Tillsonburg. They seamlessly flow into each other and form a unified whole.
The legacy of Arts & Crafts movement has left a deep mark on Tillsonburg.
Even if you do not hold Oscar Wilde in high regard, you will find the local art flourishing in diverse aspects of which at least some will make you fall in love with the place. You simply have to admire the effort that people of Tillsonburg put into their handiwork. From rustic and antique to contemporary and modern, the products of the inspired hands of this town complement the grand history of the area with the individual histories of its inhabitants.
From agri-business to grassroots initiatives, the local is the best here, and never fails the enterprising history and identity of the self-sufficient Tillsonburg spirit.
Tillsonburg, Ontario is a place that does not squander its legacy, but builds on it in order to persevere for the generations to come. At the crossroads between present and past, rural and urban, agricultural and industrial, Tillsonburg’s idiosyncratic identity never fails to enthral its visitors.
A small place with great identity, it is bound to leave you in awe. Take your time with it, and enjoy the slow rhythm of its beauty.