When the first large migration of United Empire Loyalists arrived in Canada in 1783 there were virtually no roads, in what is now, the Province of Ontario.
First Nation’s people and early European settlers had blazed foot paths through the bush surrounding their cabins and settlements, but for travel of any distance most had to make use of natural waterways.
late as the 1880s, there was scarcely a good road to be found in central and south Lambton County, or for that matter, in most of the rural areas of the province.
That was about to change thanks to the efforts of
a concerned group of farmers, cyclists, and “wheelsmen’s associations” that came together to lobby the government for better roads in Ontario.
And it was largely through the efforts of these diverse
individuals that the Ontario Good Roads Association was founded in 1894 and remains today as Ontario’s primary advocate for good roads and other municipal improvements.
In a pamphlet produced in 1894
by the then fledgling association, it was noted that the horse and wagon still reigned supreme, as they had since Roman times.
However, it noted that “Ontario’s roads are in a sorry state compared to
those built by Caesar’s legions.”
It could be argued that through the efforts of its early members, it was the Ontario Good Roads Association that laid the cornerstones of our modern-day network of provincial
roads and highways.
Nevertheless, it was not until the advent of the automobile in the early days of the 20th century that sufficient pressure would come to bear on the government to concentrate its efforts
on developing better highways throughout the rural areas of the province.
By the 1930s, with a little urging by local politicians, it did eventually turn its attention to Lambton County and extended a main artery
south through central Lambton and Kent Counties, essentially connecting the towns of Petrolia, Dresden and Thamesville.
This of course, is what latter became known as Highway # 21.
Following the discovery of oil at Black Creek (Oil Springs) in the late 1850s, an unending line of stone-boats hauled oil from the primitive pits and refineries at Oil Springs to the railhead in Wyoming.
took them through one of the most unforgiving swamps to be found anywhere in North America.
Newspaper accounts of the day indicated that oxen heaved and stumbled, often up to their bellies in the wet, tenacious
Brookston clay while they were cursed on their way by “sweating teamsters.”
It was noted that following a heavy rain, the road was often strewn for miles with broken wagons, barrels of oil, loads of
timber, and other freight abandoned to the heavy, clinging mud of South Lambton County.
The road to the south through Dawn Township and into Dresden was little better and was described as little more than an opening
between the trees.
By the 1920s, some progress had been made with drainage and grading, but the roads of South Lambton were still known as the worst in the province.
his history of Highway # 21, Charlie Whipp, the former publisher of the Petrolia Advertiser-Topic, recounted an interview he conducted with the late Tony Isber, a long-time Petrolia restaurant operator, whose family in those days operated a wholesale fruit
and vegetable business in Petrolia.
With a Model-T Ford truck, the Isbers delivered fruit to general stores in many of the small villages south of Petrolia, namely Edy’s Mills, Rutherford, Oakdale, Shetland
and Croton, all of which were on or near what would become Highway # 21.
“No one, absolutely no one, would attempt to go down that road in the spring of the year,” noted Mr. Isber.
He recounted that on one occasion, with his father, Lotto Isber, as a passenger, their truck sank in the mud up to its axels.
To lighten the load, they began removing and stacking boxes
of fruit alongside the road when a man named J.T. Spoule happened along and offered to lend a hand.
As fate would have it, Sproule later ran for parliament and in honour of his good deed and the fact that he was
such a nice fellow, the Isbers decided they owed him a vote.
Tony noted that the Isbers being staunch Liberals, it would have been the first time they had ever voted Conservative.
It may have been wise for Sproule to have stopped and helped them because in the election of July 1930 Sproule won by less than 10 votes and it was generally considered that it was the influence of the Isber family that sealed his election.
Ironically, in later years it was much to the credit of J.T. Sproule and his provincial counterpart, Milton McVicar, MLA for East Lambton (also a Petrolia resident), that Higway # 21 would be created and the “road of
mud” that had caused such consternation to the Isbers would eventually be paved from Forest, south to Morpeth on the shores of Lake Erie.
On Oct. 19, 1934, during the depths of the Great Depression, Sproule
and McVicar were joined by a number of local dignitaries in officiating at a ribbon cutting for the new Kings Highway # 21.
It was one of several relief projects in the area that created much needed employment for
more than 500 persons.
Sproule noted at the time that the completion of the highway was a dream realized by the people of Lambton County.
We can also assume that it was
especially appreciated by the Isber family.