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The Old Provost

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By Pat Mestern
February 21, 2004

First mention of William Buist occurs when Reverend Patrick Bell pens in his c1833 journal that he met with Buist while still in Scotland, but on his way to the ship to set sail for Upper Canada. Bell also mentions in a letter to his brother that Buist was a relative by marriage, of James Webster, although there was a great age difference between the two men. Webster was in his twenties during the 1830's and Buist in his fifties.

William Buist sailed for Canada on a non-temperance ship shortly after Bell. He arrived in Little Falls/Fergus mid-winter 1834 where he spent the winter with James Webster in the log cabin, known as “Scott’s Cabin”. The Scott Cabin was located near what today is known as the Old Stone Weigh Scale Building in the north parking lot behind St. Andrew Street.

His first priority, during the spring of 1834, was to have a small portion of land cleared by the side of Beaver Meadow Creek so that he could plant corn and wheat. Beaver Meadow Creek now runs underground behind the Weigh Scale Building, right under the Thompson Furniture store. If you stand on the grate behind the furniture store you can still hear the creek’s water racing to the river. In 1835, Buist became the first person to purchase land, buying acreage from Adam Fergusson that today would encompass a square bounded by Hill, Gartshore, St. Andrew and Gowrie Streets.

In the spring of 1834, James Webster, who’d had a more substantial log structure built that sat roughly on what is today, the west corner of St. Andrew Street and Provost Lane, moved himself and Buist along with Mrs. Ann Inglis, a housekeeper into it. This spacious structure became known as “The Cleikum”, translated it is “The Gathering Place”. Behind The Cleikum, a stone stable was erected for a milch cow and Webster’s riding horse. The stone barn still stands behind the Bank of Nova Scotia. The Scott Cabin was then used as a bunkhouse for single men after which it became a pig sty.

After Webster married and moved to his father-in-law’s spacious home between Fergus and Elora, “The Cleikum” was sold to John- Joseph - Wood and William Buist moved to his own home on his farm property. His house, a “romantically Canadian”, one storey log structure with porches on three sides, sat on the south-east corner of what is today St. George and Cameron Streets. It was demolished during the 1930's or early 1940's. Buist called his Upper Canada estate “Beechwood” for the abundance of that species of tree on his property. Is there a beechwood tree grows within ten miles of the property today? Buist paid choppers to clear his lands in 1834 and harvested his first crop of wheat in 1835, an event which was attended by Rev. Patrick Bell, inventor of the Bell Reaper. Most of Buist’s first harvest was sold as seed but he did provide the first grist for the new mill.

Buist was very active in the community. He is listed as a founding member of the Curling Club and a charter member of the St. Andrew’s Society. At a St. Andrew’s Dinner on November 30, 1835, Honorable Adam Fergusson presided as President, Crichton - spelled also as Creighton - from Lower Nichol sang a number of original and traditional songs, George Wilson was Croupier, Webster and Buist were Stewards. Forty settlers were present at Black’s Tavern and they were served a traditional “Scotch” meal. Thomas Young mentions that when “The Provost”, known as “The Major” got together in a celebratory manner at “Old Black’s Tavern”, the nature of the evening changed and events tended to spill over and out although the Major was always careful to stay well away from the blows.

From 1834 through 1845, Webster, Buist and A.D. Fordyce, Sr., were the only people who could act as Magistrates in Nichol Township. In 1842, William Buist caused a riot when he allowed women who owned property the vote. The campaign was hard fought by Charles Allan of Elora and James Webster of Fergus. Webster was declared winner then it was found out that the women had cast a ballot! After the offending ballots were removed, Webster still won by a narrow victory. It is common knowledge that this particular political battle caused a lot of the hard feeling that existed between Fergus and Elora during the next one hundred years. Slights take a long time to die.
William Buist, as the most senior member of the community/settlement, quickly got the title “Provost” which mean’s “Mayor - Head Man”. Provost Lane is named after the gentleman.

What is known about William Buist? We do have information that he served in the Napoleonic Wars and was known as “The Major”. In several places his name is also written as “Captain William Buist”. In 1847, Militia appointments for the Fifth Battalion included A.D. Fergusson as Lt. Colonel and William Buist Esq. As Major. He was independently wealthy. He was a founding member of a fraternity known as “The Militaria”which seems to be little more than a drinking club that met at “Old Blacks Tavern” whenever possible. According to Gibbie Todd, “Old Blacks Tavern” was a place where “all seemed to be on an equality - the rich could associate with the mechanic and the labourer - and neither locks nor keys were necessary.”

Gibbie Todd also wrote that Captain Buist was a corpulent, “burly gentleman of low stature, rather eccentric in his character and who seemed to rule as KING among them all”. A.D. Ferrier wrote in 1866 that Buist was “an honest, kind-hearted, social, old gentleman, a good farmer, very persevering and industrious - and although in some respects a little hasty and prejudiced, yet, I don’t suppose he left an enemy in the country.”

The lives of Thomas Young and Buist entwined between 1835 and 1837. According to Young, Buist was a good friend of a man by the name of David Chalmers, cousin of Mrs. George Wilson of Harvey Cottage, which made him a relative by marriage to James Webster. Chalmers was a pallbearer at Webster’s funeral in 1869. Chalmers was a land speculator and at one time owned approximately one thousand acres that ran from the 15th Concession of Nichol to Aboyne where he also held property on both sides of the Grand River. “Between the two gentlemen,” Young wrote, “not a barrel of whiskey remained full. They quaffit ‘til they dropit.”

During the early 1850's, in failing health, Buist wished to see his “auld hame” once more and left for Scotland in the spring of 1853. He never returned to Canada. The Guelph Advertiser lists Buist’s death in Scotland as follows: Died - On July 1st, 1853, at the Farm House of Crowan, Perthshire, Scotland, at the residence of his nephew, Mr. Robert Hill, William Buist, Esq, of Beechwood, Fergus. He was the oldest settler in the Fergus Settlement, an honest and upright man, and much respected by all who knew him.

Buist remained a bachelor but had a number of comely Scottish girls as servants at “Beechwood”. Thomas Young wrote that “Many’s a young Nichol or Garafraxa lassie who went to Mr. Buist’s “Beechwood” as a fresh maiden and left as a married woman. Buist delighted in playing matchmaker with all the young lads in the community. He regularly invited bachelors to his abode to check out his new help. Several of those young girls were married on the front porch at “Beechwood” which overlooked the high falls as waters spilled into the first section of the Grand River’s Gorge, today the site of Monkland Mills on St. Andrew Street East. Buist even hosted their reception, at which the “cathur ran free” for all to enjoy, “Cathur being whiskey of course.



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