Unto the hills: Meandering through Mount Horeb

Just in Time local history series

By Ian McKechnie

The former Mount Horeb store, looking northeast. Photo courtesy of Muriel Oliver.

A quarter of a century ago, Bus No. 52 made its way through Mount Horeb en route to Jack Callaghan Public School every weekday between September and June. Only seven years old at the time, I recall looking through the school bus window as it passed a few of the old landmarks, utterly unaware that there was once much more to this erstwhile hamlet than the schoolhouse, the church, and a smattering of farmsteads that remained in situ by the late 1990s.

Like a handful of other rural communities in Kawartha Lakes, its name has biblical origins. Elijah, the great prophet of the Old Testament, was said to have taken 40 days and 40 nights to reach Horeb, “the mountain of God.” It takes me considerably less time to reach its namesake, on the border of Manvers and Ops Townships, by bicycle on a humid Friday morning in late June. Even so, I have packed a lunch of ham sandwiches, a butter tart, some fresh fruit, and plenty of fluids – knowing full well that I must pedal up a steep hill to reach Mount Horeb United Church, where I am scheduled to meet with longtime Mount Horeb resident, Muriel Oliver, at 11 a.m.

A wee bit out of breath after scaling the hill on which the church has stood since 1894, I am greeted by the cordial Mrs. Oliver. She unlocks the venerable place of worship and leads me inside. Until the onset of the pandemic, the Mount Horeb congregation was known around the countryside for its famous ham and strawberry suppers. “As I remember as a child, the first strawberry supper was next door to the church at the property called The Maples,” Oliver tells me. “The Jacksons lived there. Then it got big enough that the ladies got together, and they held it in the shed (beside the church), and people donated their salads or pies, and they served a lot of people.”

Mount Horeb’s Tunis Hart and his wife, Hannah Lees, with son George Hart and a grandchild. Photo courtesy of Lisa Hart.

Many of those people could trace their history in the community back to the 19th century. Mount Horeb was originally settled in the 1840s, and was largely populated by farmers like Tunis Hart, who lost his hand in a threshing accident during the winter of 1883 and was said to have replaced it with a scary-looking leather strap. Tunis and his wife, Hannah, had six children and today lie at rest in the Mount Horeb Cemetery. The latter is immaculately maintained, a far cry from the situation in August of 1912, when the Watchman Warder’s Mount Horeb correspondent reminded parishioners that they “should not leave such an eyesore as the weeds in our little burying ground presented.”

After showing me around the church, its outbuildings, and the cemetery, Oliver invites me to follow her up to her house where I can enjoy my luncheon in the comfort of her air-conditioned kitchen. Later, I pedal southward on Hillhead Road, passing the fine red-brick schoolhouse that replaced an older facility in 1922. It is surrounded by stately maple trees under which generations of children undoubtedly gathered to cool off in the shade during warm spells – especially if they had just walked up and down the big hill on which the hamlet of Mount Horeb once stood.

This hill, a bit higher than the one I cycled up earlier, was once significantly steeper than it is today. In 1984, the county lowered it by 40 feet – ostensibly in the interests of highway safety – resulting in some curious topography wherein buildings once at or below grade are now higher than the road itself. These include the Magahay barn as well as a smaller structure that was moved from its original location around the corner where, I’m told, it once served as a blacksmith shop.

Among the blacksmiths that once served the people of Mount Horeb was George Caldwell, who in December of 1894 narrowly escaped serious injury when his wagon overturned while descending the infamously sharp slope. Dangerous though it was, the hill was also a symbol of endurance. “Our mail carrier never lost a trip this winter,” noted the Watchman Warder on March 15, 1900. “When he could not make it with horse and rig he unhitched, left the cutter on the road, put the horse in a farmer’s stable, took the mail bag on his back and made the grade.”

Upon reaching the summit, the mail carrier might have deposited his burden in the little store once situated at the northeast corner of Mount Horeb and Hillhead Roads. A Mr. Elliott served as storekeeper here for many years in the late 19th century, and was known colloquially as “Elliott of the Mountain.” As in many rural communities, the store was where people were kept abreast of the latest in local gossip – especially in August of 1895, when Mount Horeb-area farmer Jeremiah Murphy was arrested by secret service agents for his role in distributing counterfeit money.

Today, that store – like Muriel Oliver’s childhood house across the way – is long gone, a victim of the road reconstruction project almost 40 years ago. Still, Mount Horeb remains home for Oliver, who looks back on the old hamlet with warm memories. “I spent my formative years there,” she says, “and to me there’s no better place to live.”

1 Comment

  1. Patricia Teskey says:

    Thank you, Ian McKechnie, for this very interesting and beautifully written article!

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