History of Combermere

Combermere, a scattered community of about 250 population, lies where highway 62 crosses approximately the middle of a 38 mile stretch of navigable waterway on the Madawaska River, 925 foot elevation and free from hay fever.

It has served the lumber industry in by-gone years under the name Dennison’s Bridge, when the square timber rafts were floated down from Algonquin Park to their destination in Ottawa, Quebec and across the seas to England. There are still signs of the old log drivers chutes where the timber was floated around the rapids on Byers Creek.. For that time it was a busy settlement with a tannery, woolen mill, grist mill, cheese factory, sulky race track, blacksmith shop, shingle making, sawmills, shoe shop and two hotels which served the river drivers.
John Dennison emigrated from England to Montreal in 1825. He took part in the Rebellion of 1837-38, earning himself the title of Captain. From Montreal, he traveled up the Ottawa River, accompanied by his two sons John and Henry. They then ascended the Madawaska River for many miles landing at a spot which came to be known as Dennison’s Bridge. In 1854, Captain Dennison and his son Henry, traveled further to Opeongo Lake and settled there. Elizabeth Dennison married John Hudson who had come out from England and in 1878 they took over the stopping place, later known as the Hudson House (but built originally as Dennison House). John Dennison moved across the river and built the log house which stood, although long since deserted until it fell in one stormy night Feb 11th, 1951.

Other settlers soon arrived. Mr. Dan Johnson came from Quebec, to open Combermere’s first store. The second store was owned by Henry James but it burned in the August 5th fire. It was later rebuilt by Frank Stafford and then ultimately owned by Mr. William Waddington who arrived from Leeds, England, to open a third store and to grind flour on large flat stones. McLaughlin Brothers of Arnprior saw the great wealth of timber in this country, and began lumbering operations with a depot at the foot of Kamaniskeg Lake (now Chippawa Cottage Resort) and Palmer Rapids, which is still known as McLaughlin’s Farm. These two brothers, Messrs Claude and H.F. McLaughlin became millionaires through the forest wealth of our country. But with time, they brought work for men, who began pouring in. Among them was Mr. J. E. H. Miller, who was the first Post Master (not correct – Dan Johnson was), as well as Clerk. In his home, the Post Office was maintained for over seventy years, chiefly by Miss Mabel Miller, who lived to be over eighty years of age when she died.

In 1871, a small log schoolhouse was built on land purchased from Mr. Dennison for one dollar. The first teacher was the doctor’s wife and she received one hundred and fifty dollars a year. The school was used for church services and the doctor did the preaching. Today, there is a modern public school as well as a catholic elementary school and high school.

Many were the hardships endured by the early settlers. Mr. John Dennison walked, many a time to Eganville, fifty-one miles and carried home a bag of flour on his shoulder. When he accidentally shot off his thumb, he had to walk to Ottawa some hundred and thirty miles, for medical attention. The mail, eighty years ago, was brought by horses, from Cobden, fifty-five miles away, once a month. But times have changed through the years. We have excellent highways, a beautiful new bridge, and bus service to Pembroke and Toronto. Children are bussed to Public and High Schools and we have daily mail, and a splendid new Post Office.

But let us go back again to the early years. In 1880 the name of the village was changed to Combermere. No written record has been found, as to where the name actually came from. Some say it is named for a place in England, and some say that the son of Lord Combermere once visited this place. Shortly after this, more settlers arrived, the Schwiegs and Boehmes from Germany, and the Farmers from Wales. These latter family open a small shop, where they made river drive boots. The Reids opened a woolen mill, which has long since been torn down; Mr. James McKay, a gristmill, also gone. Mr. James built a store and home by the bridge, burned in the fire in 1911. Mr. Paddy O’Brien arrived from Rockingham and opened a hotel, known as O’Brien House.

Should our pioneer grandfathers arise, what a change hey would see, compared with the solitary pine-clad hills, that nestled down close to the river’s edge. Only the river itself, is forever the same.

Disaster struck Combermere, on August 5th, 1911. Fire broke out in the Hudson Hotel, and before it had burned itself out, had destroyed the store and dwelling of Mr. W. R. James, the Township Hall, Mr. C. B. Dennison’s home, hotel stables and S. James’ tinsmith shop. The hotel was rebuilt as a three-story brick building. Again fire struck in 1913, and the hotel was again destroyed. It was rebuilt the next year as a two-story structure, but today it contains Mr. Lew Waddington’s store.

But the greatest tragedy of all struck the village in 1912. Captain John H. Hudson ran a passenger boat between Combermere and Barry’s Bay. He had finished his summer’s run, when Tailer Boehme asked him to make a special trip, for a body (a relative of Mr.Boehme’s). Captain Hudson made the trip on the afternoon of November 12th, but he never returned. He had picked up a few passengers, who were glad of the opportunity of getting down to Combermere. A terrific storm overtook the ship and she went down in the wild waters of the Kamaniskeg. Four men clung to the coffin, and drifted to an island. One died of exposure, but the three were later rescued. Saved were Joseph Harper, Gordon Peverly and J. S. Imlach all of Ottawa. Died on the island was Paddy O’Brien. Those who went down with the ship were the following: Captain Hudson, Tom Delany, fireman, Aaron Parcher, pilot, all of Combermere, Robert Pachal of Yorkton, Saskatchewan who was accompanying the body of John brown, of Palmer Rapids, who had accidentally shot himself out West. Also drowned were Mr. William Murphy of Rockingham and an eighty-year old lady, Mrs. McWhirter of Fort Stewart. It was the greatest tragedy that ever struck Combermere.

Combermere is a pretty little village, spreading along both sides of the Madawaska River. It contains two churches, the Roman Catholic and the Anglican. There are numerous stores, garages, a barbershop, two restaurants and a small hotel. Beside the river stands a new and beautiful building. It is the Convent of the Faithful Companions of Jesus. Along beside the river, but nearer the village, is Madonna House, the training center and headquarters for the men and women, who dedicate their lives to work for God and the needy fellow-men. This institute began with a six-roomed lending library, and additional building for many activities. The members number seventy persons. St. Benedict farm at Craigmont, part of the establishment, provides most of the food for the workers.

The beauties of Combermere, and the good fishing became known to the outside world; tourists flocked in and the fishing camps and tourist lodges sprang up. Among the early ones were Mrs. Maggie Hudson (widow of Captain Hudson, lost on the Mayflower), Fred Conley’s and Mrs. Boehme’s. Through the years the tourist trade has grown, and many lodges cater to the summer population. In 1934 the Women’s Institute was organized with a membership of 18 and it has kept up a membership slightly above ever since. The first president was Mrs. Sadler, the wife of Doctor Sadler, who practiced medicine here for many years. He was a familiar figure in the old days, at all hours, traveling the backwoods roads with his horse and buggy.

One of Combermere’s sons was Dr. John Dafoe, born on a farm not far from the village in 1886. He taught school in Combermere when very young. Then he attended Arnprior High School, walking to and from Arnprior, a distance of ninety miles each term. He went in for journalism, and became Editor-in-Chief of the Winnipeg Free Press. He attended Press Conference in Britain and Australia and was a member of the Paris Peace Conference in Paris in 1919. He also published many books. His was the idea of the “Commonwealth of Nations”. He was offered a cabinet post by Hon. MacKenzie King, but refused. He said he wanted no part in politics. This was because he had taken a responsible position, the year before. In 1934, Chancellor of the University of Manitoba, a position he held until his death in 1944.

Ours is a beautiful village, and there is no more wonderful sight than the autumn trees, reflected in the peaceful waters of the river. Artists have found it, and it is becoming a “Painter’s Paradise”

On October 5th 1860, the townships of Brudenell, Radcliffe, Raglan and Lyndoch were incorporated as a joint municipality within the United Counties of Lanark and Renfrew. Brudenell was named the senior township of this municipality. In 1902 Radcliffe became a separate township and held its first council meeting on January 13th. The following were the officers: Reeve – John C. Hudson (Captain); Councilors – William Boehme; James H. McKay; Thomas Mahon; Joseph Mayhew; Treasurer – W. E. James; Clerk – J. E. H. Miller.

Radcliffe Township received is name in 1859 from Hon. Thomas Radcliffe who fought under the Duke of Wellington, in the Napoleonic Wars. Mr. Radcliffe was given a tract of land in Canada, and settled in Wellington County and became a member of Parliament.

(Reprinted from a story in the 1960’s Tweedsmuir History Book of the Combermere Women’s Institute with additional information in brackets by David Kelley)

By David Kelley
Curator, Mission House Museum & Gallery