In the mid-19th century, the government embarked on an ambitious scheme to free up crown lands and open new areas for settlement. They started by building a series of roads leading to the unsettled central portion in the southwest part of the province known as the Queen’s Bush.
As soon as the roads were usable, the government began promoting the lands as a rich, agricultural resource. They focused their attention on attracting settlers from the British Isles.
Many people desperate for an opportunity to improve their lot bought the pitch. Shortly thereafter stagecoaches, brimming with eager newcomers, were regularly making their way up to the wild unknowns. It’s unlikely any of these adventurous souls read an 1846 Canadian Gazetteer account describing the area, rather unencouragingly, as “it has not long been open for settlement, and no return has yet been made from it.“
“Crude” was probably the best description for roads in the mid-19th century. At their worst, they were horrible. Accidents were commonplace and stagecoaches could rarely travel more than a few kilometres per day. As a result little outpost communities, such as Ponsonby, began to pop up every few kilometres or so. In those early days, their sole reason for existence was to provide overnight respite to the injured and exhausted travellers making the treacherous stage journey into the untamed west.
Ponsonby was first settled around 1840. It became official when John Thorpe Jr. opened a post office in 1856 and named the settlement Thorpville. The village’s name changed in 1863 when James Hailey took over the post office, which he ran from his general store. During the 1860s the village included a hotel, owned by George Hirst, a wagonmaker, John Newman, a carpenter, Richard Ariss and a butcher, Arthur Hickling. The Maitland brothers operated a blacksmith shop and later expanded into wagon making.
By the 1880s the wagon trains had stopped rolling and Ponsonby’s fortunes began to slip. For a while it found renewed life as a service and supply centre for the local farm community. A public school opened around 1886 and a Methodist church by 1892. Other residents included the two blacksmiths, Peter Beattie and George Little and two wagonmakers, George Brown and George Little. The remainder of Ponsonby’s residents, such as John Faskin, Mrs. Ellen Fife, George Maitland and Francis Murdock, farmed and sold livestock. Dawson and Beattie opened a feed mill in 1895, the same year that David Duffield took over the post office and general store.
Ponsonby continued to decline during the early 20th century. As roads improved and automobiles grew in popularity, farmers found it easier to travel to larger centres. The general store and post office finally closed in 1912. Today a few remnants of old Ponsonby still remain. George Hirst’s hotel was beautifully renovated and is now used as a private home. Portions of the former store and old post office remain in use. Sadly, the cemetery was an unfortunate victim of road widening. They tried to make amends by laying out a small pioneer cemetery alongside the new road. Other than a few original homes which remain occupied, little else remains of Ponsonby.