“Any wound sufficient to agitate the nerves and necessarily make the hand shake must end the business for that day.”
PERTH, ON — So reads “Rule No. 21 of Dueling” as explained in the local museum of this historic Upper Canada town, where much is made of the fact that Canada’s last fatal duel took place here. In fact, the duelist who survived became a judge and ended up presiding in the same courthouse where he was tried and found not guilty.
The circumstances are analyzed and displayed at the Perth Museum, but without a morbid fascination.
Neither is there anything moribund about Perth, where one can indulge in an appreciation of the past. This well-preserved town 80-km southwest of Ottawa with many pre-Confederation buildings, has incited some authors to refer to it as Canada’s Williamsburg (Virginia). But since Perth is a living, viable town, the comparison is not especially valid.
Perth does not rest on its laurels, hosting a brilliant summer drama series, music fest, a garlic festival and an opportunity for visitors to get a feel for Canada’s past.
Residents of Perth seem to heed the town’s motto — Make Haste, Slowly —and have maintained many of their fine old sandstone buildings, along with a genteel, reserved mind set. Perth remains well preserved partly because of its steady, yet unspectacular growth. Throughout its history, Perth has owed its continual prosperity to its wise use of natural and human resources and government largesse.
Have you ever wondered what happened to our soldiers and officers after the War of 1812?
Retired half-pay army officers from the War of 1812 settled early in Perth and invested carefully, rarely inducing a boom-and-bust cycle. They became the new commercial elite, pouring money into their residences, many of which remain today. In 1850, Perth lost its status as district town, and since then its population has barely doubled. A golden opportunity for underdevelopment, some might say.
Left: Inge-Va House is where the victim of the duel died. Right: The McMartin House.
Local Potsdam sandstone and clay were used for building here. Two examples are the Perth Town Hall and the Matheson House, which houses the Perth Museum. The perfect symmetry of the house can be seen in the dining room and one can imagine frequent guest, prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald, being entertained there. You can almost hear the Scottish songs, quiet laughter and chin wagging echoeing in the room.
The two pistols from the famous duel are on display and the entire episode is documented in a sober, reflective way.
A beautiful example of Perth architecture, complete with its gabled roof, is nearby at Inge-Va House. It was here that Robert Lyon, the fatally wounded duelist,s came to die. He is buried next door.
Not far away is the McMartin House. Much to the chagrin of locals, the original owner insisted that only American materials be used. In architecture, at least, the War of 1812 lives on!
Even the design is typically American, of the Federal style rarely seen in Canada, with recessed archways over windows and a cupola on the top, surrounded by four lanterns.
The two cannons proudly displayed in front of the Perth courthouse were recaptured from the Americans in the War of 1812.
These cannons now sit solidly in front of the courthouse on Drummond St., serving as a gentle reminder that Perth stands on guard for the heritage and past of Upper Canada.In more recent times, the town highlighted its Scottish origins by staging the longest kilt run in the world! A kilt run? Think men in kilts running in an eight kilometre race.
Left: Perth courtouse. Right: Perth City Hall is made of Potsdam sandstone,.
You can’t turn a corner in Perth without being reminded of the past. Next to the Perth Museum at 1 Gore St. E. is Shaw’s of Perth, one of the oldest department stores in Ontario. It is anything but decrepit. Other preserved buildings along Gore Street include the old post office and the building housing Maximilian’s Restaurant (99 Gore St. E.). There are many antique shops and used book stores – always a good sign.
Facing the old mill is the park donated by the town matriarch, Jessie Stewart. When she bequeathed the park to the town, she insisted that all activities held there be free of charge. That’s why the Stewart Park Festival, a musical event in the summer, is free, along with hugs.
Residents of Perth are very proud of a new statue at the entrance to the park in honour of local hero, the legendary Canadian jumper Big Ben. He was the first horse to win two World Cup Finals, back to back, in 1988-89. He and his rider, Ian Millar, were inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, Big Ben being only one of two animals ever bestowed this honour.
You may have remarked that almost everything of interest in Perth can be visited on foot.
This is part of its irresistible charm. Don’t focus on the duel – just follow your instincts and enjoy walking, or heck, cycling around this gem of a town.
For information on Perth and the surrounding area, go to http://www.lanarkcountytourism.ca