Omemee, oh my, where did this musical name originate? The original village name was Williamstown, in honor the founding family of William Cottingham who settled here in 1821. By 1835 a post office was granted and in 1840, the name was changed to Metcalf. Because both of the above names were in use elsewhere the name was again changed to Omemee in 1857. This latest name change originated from the Omemee family of Mississauga natives who hunted and fished in the area of the Pigeon River.
The Cottingham family, Maurice, sons William & Samuel soon established a grist mill and saw mill here. This site was the logical choice as it had the only waterfall on the Pigeon River and it had access to Pigeon Lake and eventually the Trent Waterway. A Mr. Myles searched the nearby woods and found the material for millstones. After dressing these stones he set up the mill equipment in a shanty on the side of the Pigeon Creek by William Cottingham. With the mills in operation by 1825 they proved to be a boon to local farmers who no longer needed to make the arduous journey to Deyell’s Mill in Millbrook or to Peterborough for their milling needs. The mill was rebuilt in 1872 and power was generated by a large waterwheel. William Jr. managed the mill until it was purchased in 1878 by Thomas Stephenson. In 1880 John Beatty rented the mill until Stephenson’s sons could take over the business. Operation of the mill continued by Stephenson’s grandsons until the mill was destroyed by fire in 1972.
1857 brought a new prosperity to town. The Port, Lindsay & Beaverton Railway finally reached the town of Omemee and operated until the line was abandoned in 1989. Today, the Omemee Rail Trail uses this right of way for 35 kilometers from Peterborough to Lindsay. This “Missing Link” was built from Peterborough to Omemee in 1882 as short cut between the towns where it met at “the Old Road” from Port Hope on its way to Lindsay. The highlight of this section is Doube’s trestle, a 700 foot long & 40 foot high trestle bridge spanning Buttermilk Creek. Despite his fear of heights, the Ranger still has fond memories and photos of nervously walking over this ‘officially closed’ bridge which still held the ties and rail but no railings! What a difference the planking and railings of the trail make today!
By the late 1800’s the village industrial complex included Thomas Stephenson’s grist & saw mill; Lamb’s Tannery which employed a dozen hands dealing in large quantities of hides; Mitchell’s Pump Co.; Ivory’s Woolen Mill; Evan’s and Redpath Foundry; J. McCrea’s furniture and undertaking; the George English Carriage and Wagon shop and D. Minn’s harness and saddlery as well as a shingle mill & a cloth mill. The village included three churches, four hotels, many stores, a public and high school, the Watchman Warder newspaper (1856-1867) and later The Herald. Until the 1860’s Omemee rivalled Lindsay as the largest town in Victoria County.
The Shaw Tannery, the large white factory located on King Street at the east end of Omemee was in operation for many years and at one time provided the sole leather for one-third of the boots made for the Canadian Army during the Second World War. After the war, Shaw wished to run his plant in a more efficient manner, it is said that he purchased several surplus Rolls Royce Marlin B-12 engines with the intention of converting them to run on diesel fuel to power the plant, don’t know how that turned out. Shaw was also the proud owner of a surplus Super Marine Spitfire aircraft. This plane was for a time kept chained down to the cement lot outside the tannery. It was said that at one time, some of his employees fired up the Spitfire to hear its engine roar. Not a good idea…the propeller engaged and the plane ripped itself free of its bonds and began rolling across King Street. Fortunately the plane was stopped before it caused any damage, Mr. Shaw was not amused!
The industrial section of Omemee declined and by the 1950’s only the Regal Stationery Company, based in London England was still in operation. Regal was established in Canada in 1928 and was associated with retailing and direct sales. Located in the former Shaw Tannery building, the most prominent building in the village that even today still stands after Regal packed up and moved to a plant in Toronto. The Hansard Transcripts of 1977 show that the job transfers to Toronto took place over a year. Consequence of the certification of employees in Omemee? Over one hundred jobs were lost in 1975. The Regal Gifts Corporation was purchased in 2005 by an American private equity firm that operated it until its insolvency in 2016. This prominent white building is now home to a warehousing facility.
Omemee today is a sleepy little town on the Pigeon River with its main street the busy Kawartha Lakes section of the Trans Canada Highway 7 running through it. One of the most historical buildings on King Street is the local Legion Hall. This rather large building started its life as the Evan’s and Redpath Foundry which was powered by water from a dam nearby. It operated until the early 19th century at which time it was renovated for use as the Legion Hall and is still in use today. It is said that this is the only place in town to get a drink! Be sure to check out Discover Omemee Initiative’s amazing 24 x 16 foot mural on the west wall of the legion building at 46 King Street East. This mural celebrates the local culture and heritage of the village and acknowledges the service of veterans. Painted by Mount Forest artist, Cliff Smith.
As with a lot of small towns, Omemee has had many notable citizens over the years. This was the birthplace of Flora Macrea who at a young age moved to Toronto to become a nurse at Rotherham House, a private hospital on Sherbourne Street. Here she met and married a young patient, John Craig Eaton, son of Eaton’s department store founder Timothy Eaton. In 1915, John was knighted and he and Lady Eaton left a remarkable mark on the village. The most obvious legacy of the Eaton family is the attractive and historical Coronation Hall on King Street, as well as the Lady Eaton School and the United Church Rectory. It is said that the Eaton’s had proposed that Omemee change its name to Eatonville, the town fathers declined. Henry Sherwin of Sherwin-Williams of Canada was born here as well.
This is also the hometown of Neil Young. Neil’s family moved to Omemee in 1949 when he was four years old, he lived here for four years, and is where he contracted polio during the 1951 epidemic. In 1953, his family moved to Winnipeg. Many years later, his father Scott, an author and sports writer, returned to the area until his death in 2005. The “Youngtown Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum” a tribute to Neil was opened at 45 King Street West in Omemee in 2006 by Trevor “T.R.” Hosier and was closed in 2014. The museum reopened at the Olde Gaol Museum in Lindsay in 2015 and was permanently closed in 2017. Neil is best known for “the town in Northern Ontario”, in his hit song “Helpless” in 1967.
Another not to miss in Omemee is the music-themed 12 x 8 foot Neil Young mural on the west wall of Coronation Hall on King Street. A community collaboration led by the Omemee and District Lion’s Club in a partnership with the Omemee Legion and the Kawartha Trans Canada Trail. Credit to Carrie Cockburn, artist and photographer, and design and artwork by artist Russ Gorden. An interesting note here…once a railroad hub and source of heating coal for the area, there are plans to establish the largest coal facility in Ontario (but no rail service) in Omemee so customers will be able to experience coal once again.