COLUMN: How the settling of early Sarnia became a family affair

Switchboard operators connect calls at the Bell Telephone building in Sarnia, circa 1950. Photo courtesy the Lambton County Archives, Wyoming. Sarnia Observer Negative collection, 01264-10

My earliest memory of my hometown is strolling hand-in-hand through Victoria Park (today’s Veterans Park) with my great aunts, Frances and Lily.

The year was 1951 and the park contained the old Carnegie Library and a great bandshell where the Sarnia Citizens Band and others would play on weekend evenings.

Auntie Frances and Auntie Lily were both born in the last decade of the 19th century. They were unmarried sisters and worked as telephone operators for Bell.

But in her fifties, Frances married an older gentleman named George LaForge.

Though largely forgotten today, LaForge was a famous and historically important Sarnia surname.

The 1949 centennial book “Lambton’s 100 Years” said this about my great, great, great uncle Joseph LaForge:

“Tradition names the pioneer LaForge as the first man to locate permanently on the Sarnia townsite.”

The even earlier Mugan manuscript also identifies Joseph LaForge as Sarnia’s first European settler.

My own research has confirmed Joseph LaForge arrived here from Clinton River (today’s Mount Clemens, Michigan) in 1807. In the days of New France, the family’s roots were in the Ohio Valley.

Uncle George, Frances and Lily all lived together on Maxwell Street during the 1960s, when my brothers Larry and Vince and I were teens. The fourth member of their little family was George’s aging sister, who we secretly (and disrespectfully) called Crazy Aunt Celine.

Celine’s favourite show on TV was wrestling. She would wear her finest outfit to watch it, believing the wrestlers could see her shrieking “Kill him!” as the mayhem unfolded on the tiny screen.

Uncle George had interesting tales to tell, if only I’d thought to ask. I saw see him almost every week, because my father sent us over to Maxwell Street armed with lawn mowers or snow shovels, depending on the season. He would sit in a rocker on the front porch, smoking a pipe, and watch us work.

While researching one of my books I stumbled upon a 1922 Observer story that mentioned my late Uncle George.

In 1832, original settler Joseph LaForge had a son, whose name was also Joseph. He is remembered in local lore as the first non-Indigenous child born in Sarnia.

That baby lived to the age of 90 and died in in 1922. And one of his pallbearers was Uncle George – his son, and my great uncle.

Many of our older citizens and elders have amazing stories to tell – tales that are a historian’s delight.

We need to encourage them to share those tales, before they are lost forever.

 

Phil Egan is editor-in-chief of the Sarnia Historical Society. Got an interesting tale? Contact him at philegan@cogeco.ca