Past Forward in Picton

This article was originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of Invest In Style Magazine

Picton is the nerve centre of Prince Edward County and its largest town. As well as its prosperity and growth over the two centuries since it was founded, Picton can brag of a wealth of heritage buildings that reflect its rich history.

“History is alive here, it’s all around us,” says Peter Lockyer, former CBC broadcaster turned local historian and tour guide. “That’s why I named my company History Lives Here.”

Macaulay Heritage Park is an attractive historic site featuring Macaulay House, built in 1830 and restored in the mid 1850s.

Picton can trace its roots to the early 19th century when settlers began to take up land on the shores of Picton Bay. One of the most influential of these early arrivals was Reverend William Macaulay, who came in 1815 at the head of a group of settlers and promptly laid out a townsite. He named it Picton.

“Picton is named after Sir Thomas Picton, a Welsh general who died at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 – the same year Macaulay arrived in Prince Edward County,” explains Lockyer. “Picton was apparently a brilliant general who served under Wellington for years, but he was not a pleasant man.”

Macaulay’s community grew rapidly and through the 19th century the harbour bustled with schooners and steamers, initially shipping wheat to Great Britain and barley to the breweries of the United States. 

When the United States imposed tariffs in the 1890s that blocked all agricultural and fisheries imports from Canada, Prince Edward County farmers switched to growing canning crops. By 1902, one third of all Canada’s canned fruits and vegetables came from ‘The Garden County.’

Today, Picton is known for its small-town charms, its nearby wineries, the warm welcome it provides visitors and, perhaps most notably, for the many handsome historic buildings that survive from the 19th century. 

Macaulay Heritage Park was established to preserve a number of these historic buildings. St. Mary Magdalene Church, made of stone and topped by an elegant bell tower, dates to 1825 and owes its existence to Reverend Macaulay.

 

This is a rendering of St. Mary Magdalene Church, made of stone and topped by an elegant bell tower, dates to 1825.

Today, it houses the Prince Edward County Museum. The clergyman’s home, Macaulay House, is an attractive Regency-style red brick house erected nearby, in 1830, that has likewise been restored. Completing the collection is a 19th-century carriage house and heritage gardens.

 

Some restoration work was done in 1977 and in 2008 the gallery partitions were removed, restoring the spatial integrity of the building. (2020 Google Maps Photo)

But history certainly isn’t confined to Macaulay Heritage Park.

“The Regent Theatre was originally a warehouse, built circa 1830, but in 1918 it took on a new life as an opera house and performance stage that could accommodate over 1,000 people. It continues to this day as a setting for cultural activities,” explains Lockyer. “Next to the Regent is our Carnegie Library, built with $12,500 in funds granted to us by the Carnegie Foundation. Andrew Carnegie was a wealthy Scottish immigrant to America who made his fortune in railroads and the steel industry. He valued literacy as a basis for success in life and built 2,500 libraries around the world.”

Located at 208 Main Street, Picton. In 1907, this building was opened as the Carnegie Library. Photo by Taylor Nullmeyer

Wandering the streets of Picton you come across the Town Hall, built in 1866 as a fire hall, then served for a time as the Bijou Opera House for live travelling shows and movies, and finally restored in 1988 to serve as a Town Hall. The Crystal Palace was built in 1890 for the local agricultural society and modelled after the Crystal Palace from the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. The District Court House was built in 1832 and is still in use, and the 1834 Gaol now houses part of the County Archives.

 

Benson Hall in Benson Park is one of our greatest treasures,” asserts Lockyer. “It was built circa 1812 by the Barker family, Loyalists who received a land grant in what is now downtown Picton. Barker Street in Picton is named after the family. The house was moved to its present location from Main Street to make way for a new post office in the 1890s. Benson Hall is the centrepiece of Benson Park, a green space gifted to the town by William Benson, a man who made his fortune in the canning industry.

Spend an afternoon strolling the streets of historic Picton, while enjoying its more contemporary boutique shops, art galleries and cafés.

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Written By Andrew Hind

PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY MUSEUM