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The mud church of Shanty Bay

September 2020

The small Village of Shanty Bay, north of Barrie, Ontario, has a historic church that is one of the few remaining structures in Ontario built of “rammed earth.”

Built in the Gothic Revival style, beginning on 29 June 1838, and officially dedicated as St. Thomas Anglican Church on 27 February 1842, “rammed earth” construction involves mixing wet clay with chopped straw, compacted into forms and covered, when dry, with plaster or siding for durability and protection against weather.

The walls on the St. Thomas Anglican Church are three feet thick, laid on a stone foundation, with stucco covering the exterior. They were built using the “quatting” method, which involves building up the walls in three-foot layers at a time, allowing a day for each layer to dry before adding the next layer.

The bell within the bell tower has hung there since 22 January 1864.

The interior includes the original wood flooring, ceiling beams, reredos (altarpiece) and interior panelling, all hand hewn from local pine, ash and cedar, with adze (tool) marks still visible on them. The original square wooden pews also remain in use by the parishioners.

Construction of the church was instigated by Lieutenant-Colonel, Edward O’Brien, a founder of Shanty Bay, and his wife Mary, who donated the land for the church and clergyman’s residence.

The church can be found at 28 Church Street, just south of Ridge Road. Services are held on Wednesday night and Sunday.

LCol O’Brien’s son, William Edward O’Brien, would also go on to be a Lieutenant-Colonel himself, commanding the 35th Battalion, The Simcoe Foresters, from 1882-1898. He also commanded the York Simcoe Battalion during the 1885 Riel Rebellion.

The 35th Simcoe Foresters would merge with the Grey Regiment in 1936, to become the Grey & Simcoe Foresters (G&SF), a militia regiment with companies in Barrie and Owen Sound to this day. The guidon of the G&SF hangs by the main door inside the church.

Lucius Richard O’Brien, another son of LCol O’Brien, became a noted oil and watercolour landscape painter.

The establishment of Shanty Bay

The Village of Shanty Bay, on the shore of Lake Simcoe, came about largely because of the Underground Railroad. While actually a metaphorical railroad, it was network of secret routes and safe houses in the United States, dating back to the early 19th century, that was used by escaped slaves in America to escape into the free states and British North America (now Canada). The “railroad” saw great assistance from abolitionists and other sympathetic groups, who aided the escaped slaves at great risk to themselves.

Shanty Bay was one of the settlements for Black refugees in Oro Township, who were housed in shanties, thus bringing about the name.

It’s believed that over 30, 000 escaped slaves who were taken to safety and freedom by the Underground Railroad, although official U.S. Census records account for only 6,000. This discrepancy could be due to poor recordkeeping at the time, or a deliberate downplaying of the success of the “railroad,” but there is no doubt that it was a complete success, and aided in the eventual abolition of slavery across the entire United States.

Numerous fugitives’ stories are documented in the 1872 book The Underground Railroad Records, by William Still, an abolitionist who then headed the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee.

More information about Shanty Bay’s history: Shanty Bay – A Village Remembers, written, compiled and collected by Ted Bigelow. Ted is a direct descendant of the earliest pioneers who founded Shanty Bay, Col E.G. O’Brien and his wife, Mary.

Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St.Thomas_Anglican_Church(Shanty_Bay,_Ontario), https://www.stthomasshantybay.com, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oro-Medonte, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underground_Railroad, https://greysimcoeforesters.wordpress.com/2016/02/04/william-edward-obrien, Shanty Bay – A Village Remembers, written, compiled and collected by Ted Bigelow, https://www.doorsopenontario.on.ca/en/simcoe-county/st-thomas-anglican-church, Top 150 Unusual Things To See In Ontario, by Ron Brown, Shanty Bay: A Village Remembers, by Ted Bigelow.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/the-mud-church-of-shanty-bay/

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