TOWN OF EXETER HISTORY
Learn about Exeter's history!
The town of Exeter, located on Highway 4 about 50 km north of London, Ontario, was founded by Irish settlers in 1832. With its prime location along the Huron Tract and close proximity to the Aux Sables River, Exeter provided great opportunity for entrepreneurs and soon became a thriving commercial hub serving the broader community.
Exeter’s historic streetscape is lined with one, two and three-storey 19th century buildings that housed many of these commercial enterprises. In the 1870’s, Exeter’s Main Street was proud to offer citizens:
|7 general stores||2 hardware stores|
|6 grocery stores||2 lawyers|
|6 doctors||2 drug stores|
|6 harness shops||2 book stores|
|4 furniture stores||2 Telegraph offices|
|4 tailors||2 photographers|
|3 banks||2 shoe stores|
|3 tin & stove smiths||2 jewellery stores|
|1 liquor store|
Additionally, Exeter had several barbers, butchers, bakers, confectionary & music stores.
Today, Exeter has a population of approximately 4,785 residents and is still a commercial hub with more than 250 businesses.
Originally from England, the Pickard family is known as one of the founding families of Exeter. James Pickard arrived first in 1852, followed by his brother Richard shortly after.
After arriving in the area, businessman James “Boss” Pickard moved a small retail enterprise from Usborne Township to Exeter after building a much larger store, the “Old Reliable House” on the east side of Main Street between James and Huron Streets. The store consisted of three floors that sold whatever the townspeople needed to outfit hearth and home. The building remains standing today and houses Huron Apothecary. Immediately behind the Main Street business, Mr. Pickard built a warehouse that is the manufacturing site of Exeter Furniture today.
In addition to his retail expertise, James Pickard also developed businesses that took advantage of Exeter’s close proximity to water. He ran a gristmill at the site of the original McConnell Mill near the original north boundary line of Exeter and he also owned a steam sawmill at the south end of the settlement. His real estate holdings were substantial and he dabbled in farming when not busy managing his other enterprises. He was said to have owned much of the land east of Main Street at one time or another.
Not all his business ventures were great successes, but James Pickard was certainly instrumental in shaping Exeter. He spent his final years living in a house located at the corner of James and Andrew streets that still stands today.
Upon his arrival in the mid 1850’s, Richard found gainful employment with his brother to get himself established in the area. He and his wife Phoebe built a home located at 66 John Street East, which at the time was one of only 14 homes in the settlement. The initials “R.P” can be seen above the archway that frames the front door.
Once settled, he struck out on his own and formed a partnership with George Samwell, who also hailed from Devonshire, England. In 1872, the two opened a large department store at the corner of Main and John streets, on the east side of town.
“Samwell & Pickard” remained a fixture on Main Street until 1889, when George Samwell decided to call it a day. The partnership ended and, as the Times reported, “the business will be carried on in all its usual magnitude” by Richard Pickard who welcomed his son, Robert into the business. Eventually the business relocated to the site now occupied by the Ranch House Inn. It was business as usual until Robert sold his interests in 1903.
Robert and his wife Elizabeth Verity lived in a house built by his father immediately west of the original Pickard home. Today, the house boasts many of the original features, which include the stained glass for the windows that was imported from England. This beautiful home is simply referred to as “The Pickard House” and its current owners have acknowledged its heritage with a plaque that reads the same.
Another name synonymous with the development of Exeter is that of Isaac Carling. One of 3 sons of Thomas and Margaret Carling, Isaac arrived in Exeter with his wife, Anne Balkwell, in 1847. He and Anne welcomed 3 sons and a daughter. He was also involved in politics as he was Exeter’s first Reeve and a member of the Legislative Assembly.
Upon his arrival, Isaac realized the vast potential of this settlement and wasted no time in taking advantage of the natural resources available to him and established a tannery at the corner of Ann and Main Streets. He also opened a general store where Custom Covers is located today.
It was due to the influence and foresight of both Isaac Carling and James Pickard that Exeter became a village in 1873 and through this accomplishment, Exeter was awarded a railroad line that solidified its importance to the surrounding communities.
His business successes allowed him to build one of largest (of the time) and most luxurious homes in Exeter described as “a reminder of Grecian and Roman architecture.” The grounds were described as “breathtaking” with a grand display of flowers and foliage that complimented the property.
The “Carling House” as it was referred to in later years, stood for many years and was incorporated into plans for the new hospital that opened in 1953. The “grand lady of Huron Street” remained a visible presence until the hospital expanded its facilities and the original home was torn down. Some of the original contents of the house have been incorporated into the furnishings of the public areas of the hospital today.
Isaac died in 1895 at the age of 70 having accomplished much during his lifetime. History will remember him as “a sincere Christian, scrupulously honest and a true gentleman.”
Thomas Gidley and his father arrived from London, England in 1852 and initially settled in Stephen Township, clearing a bush and building a log cabin as their first family home. In 1852, Thomas Gidley moved Exeter after realizing he had larger opportunities in the growing community. After arriving in Exeter, Thomas built a larger, more stately home located at 273 Marlborough Street, at the end of Gidley Street West which still stands today. He and his wife had three sons: Richard, Charles and Samuel. Thomas Gidley, like Isaac Carling, entered the fray of local politics and served as Reeve from 1860-1863.
Thomas’ son Charles also built a rather imposing home in 1865, which is still located at 231 William Street. The house was built on a triple lot, in a grove of pine and honey-locust trees and the entrance to the property was accessed from Main Street. Shade is still provided by the same butternut tree that provided a cool respite well over a century ago to those who visited with the Gidley family.
The original estate had a wrap around front porch that was removed at some point in time. The current owners erected the decorative pillars around the front entranceway to complement the Victorian features of the house.
Interesting Fact: Canada’s second Prime Minister, Alexander McKenzie, stayed as a guest at the Charles Gidley home while he visited the area.
A cabinet-maker by trade, Thomas Gidley established a family-owned chair and furniture factory in 1859 that is believed to have been located across the street from where the lawn bowling greens are found today. The lower retail outlet housed a furniture showroom as well as an undertaking business. Today, “Kalidoscope of Quilts” is located in this site. The Gidley family built the “Odd Fellows Block” in 1887 as indicated on the upper façade of the building, which also has the IOOF logo inscribed.
Upon Thomas’ death in 1880, Richard assumed ownership of the original family farm and Charles and Samuel carried on the operations of the furniture business. Gidley furniture pieces can still be found in homes both in Canada and United States today.
Upon his arrival to the area, William Verity operated a foundry that was located on the west side of the Aux Sables at the corner of William and Alexander Streets, just north of where the Shell Gas Station now sits. This very successful enterprise manufactured plows, sugar kettles, horse powers, straw cutters, saw outfits as well as box and cook stoves. Due to the quality and reliability of the products he produced, Verity became known as one of the world’s greatest plow makers.
As the demand for products increased, Verity and Sons decided to relocate from their property in Francistown to a larger property located at the corner of Main and Wellington Streets (the LCBO is currently located at this location). After the move, the business grew to employ 60 workers and was granted a property tax exemption from Exeter council due to its importance.
Verity also sat on the first Exeter council in 1873 and helped bring the first railway to town.
In 1892, after 30 years of operation in the Exeter area, William Verity sold his foundry to Massey Harris, which was located in Brantford, Ontario. When the Verity family left for its new home, so did the name that was such an integral part of the early business success stories for the Village of Exeter.
Exeter and District Heritage Foundation
“A History of Exeter, Ontario” – J.L. Wooden (1973)
Exeter Times-Advocate Archives