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Gentle clues to Picton’s past

Spectacles in a leather case embossed by Picton optician J. H. Porte were bought at an antique sale in Toronto in the 1980s and were originally part of a Victorian spectacle collection. Donald McClure photo

Two letters purchased from a Toronto stamp dealer many years ago for their philatelic interest later proved to be part of the social life of Picton’s Porte family in the 1870s. Donald McClure photo

By Donald McClure
Fred Wegg reached for a  shoe box on the top shelf of his popular Toronto stamp shop and dropped it on the counter in front of me.
“You might find something in here,” he said quietly.

I lifted the box lid never thinking that this little gesture would have an enduring interest – challenging my curiosity many years later.
I had no idea what brought me into this establishment on venerable Victoria Street, except that I never could walk past a stamp store without stopping for a peek.

Coincidence  does play a role in everyone’s life — almost as if these things are somehow meant to happen.

The box was  filled with neat little letters mostly written by two people to each other – one of which had a connection with a prominent Picton family active in the 1870s and whose contribution to our community was revitalized only this year.

I read some of the contents and had a notion to buy the entire box — just to keep it intact.   However after some thought, I decided to buy only two items one from each of the individuals to drop them into a mini collection of early Ontario culture.  They sat in a folder in my desk for years after.

Victorian habit of conserving paper by writing vertically over horizontal manuscript makes reading difficult to decipher. Donald McClure photo

One letter dated March 16, 1878 was sent to Milford Griffin Esq in Hamilton, Ontario  from Picton, Ontario by a Miss S. J. (Sarah) Porte on June 3, 1878 . The other was returned to Mr. Griffin by Sarah Porte  c/o W.J. Porte in Picton.  In nature they were fairly formal  private “letters of love and longing” which even today I feel a blush of guilt reading –  other than in the capacity of a strictly amateur social scientist and historian.

Leaving Wegg’s Shop that day – I did not have the slightest notion that I would come to live in the County. Nor did I realize how important to the community was the surname Porte.

Part two in the coincidence equation happened in 1981 when I purchased an old pair of spectacles in an embossed leather case printed with the Porte name at an antique show. I had forgotten about the letters and it was only when the third coincidence occurred that I began to link the letters and the glasses.

As a member of the Loyalist Parkway group of advisers I had the opportunity to work with Dave Taylor, the brilliant archivist, researcher and historian.  One day in a conversation about County people he mentioned the Porte family of Picton.  He said he had the Porte family on a list to do further research.  It was  then I remembered my finds and it spurred him into action.

Not long before his untimely passing, Dave gave me research notes detailing some of the key aspects of the Porte family’s presence in the County and a copy of William James Porte’s will.   W. J. was a jeweller who came to Prince Edward County from Ireland in 1854.  In 1869 he was listed as a watch maker with a shop on Main Street in Picton and a house on Centre Street. His business prospered and he was later joined in the business by his 15 year old son James H. Porte, according to  Margaret Haylock’s excellent article in the March 8 issue of the County Weekly News.

The occasion was the opening of the Marilyn Hymus gift shop in the Porte Building in the same store operated by J.H. Porte and putting the Porte  name back in the window.   This really did bring home to me the importance of this family business which operated for over half a century on Picton’s Main Street.

And so many years after finding some personal letters of a prominent family in our community (J.H. was twice elected mayor of the town),   I can only regret not following through on my original instincts to buy the entire box full of letters from dealer Fred Wegg — if only to keep this excellent snapshot of early County life forever intact.

The Porte name still enhances Main Street in Picton thanks to the Marilyn Hymus gift shop opened this year. Donald McClure photo

Filed Under: News from Everywhere Else

About the Author: He can tickle your funny bone or tug at your heart strings. County people may know him as a chronicler of everything that happens (or should happen) in the garden, but his interests stretch across the natural world. His unique sense of observation takes in a wide expanse of living and may even point out some truths about our own condition as managers of the world around us. With Loyalist antecedents in his family tree his roots go deep into the Ontario countryside.

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  1. Doris Lane says:

    You could be correct about 1878 letter. I don’t think the house on Paul street was built until the late 1800.s
    Angela of A v frame and photo has done some research on the Paul Street house where she lives so she probably has the dates
    I know he was president of the Tenneyson Club at one time . I do not know the dates. Wilmot Lane and myself were also President so it is up to the Strachans to carry on the tradition ifthe club still exists
    You might find some information on Porte in the tennyson Club minutes if you can find them. Barbara Holt might be a good resource

  2. Thank you Doris. I appreciate your information. The notes that David Taylor left me are as follows: “1869 Wm. J. Porte – Watchmaker – House on Centre St. ” and “1878 William J. Porte – Jeweler -Family 9, dwelling on Centre St. Shop Main.”

    Could it be that William J. Porte built his Paul St. homes after 1878?

    The envelop to Miss S. J. Porte is of little assistnce being addressed to “Picton, Ont. c/o W. J. Port”, which was fine because I presume everyone picked up their mail at the Post Office in those days. It is interesting to note that the letter from Hamilton was mailed July 3, 1878 and was received in Picton post office July 4th. Our old trains and horses were pretty reliable!

  3. Doris Lane says:

    JUst to correct something in the above article William Porte built his home at 33 Paul Street in PIcton. He built the one next door at 35 Paul street for his family.
    Dr Wilmot B Lane purchased the home from Porte and later his grandson Judge William Lane moved there. The home was purchased by the Strachans in the 1980’s. They are the owners of AV frame and photo

  4. kelly says:

    Such an amazing place to live! You have everything in the county!

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