The first time I took the short drive to the A.W. Campbell Conservation Area with my dogs nearly eleven years ago I remember walking up the hill to the deserted board and batten house at the top. Being new to the area I had no idea of it’s history or anything about A.W. Campbell, his land or his life here. Walking around the boarded up building trying to peek through the shuttered windows trying to catch a glimpse of what was inside, all the while wondering why this amazing old building wasn’t opened to the public. Every trip to the park after that day I always walked around the old house still hoping for a glimpse into what once was.
Born on March 7th, 1888 in a frame house his father, Neil W. Campbell built. The house where Neil and Isabella Campbell (Walker) started their family was built in 1867 on lot 23, concession 6 in Brooke Township. The land was purchased from the Crown on August 1st in 1866. Archies mother, Isabella was born in Metcalf Township and his father Neil, Argyleshire, Scotland.
Archie was raised with 11 brothers and sisters. The house built at the “peak of Mosa”, now A. W Campbell park was located about three miles from the Alvinston Constitution school which Archie attended. He walked there, over hills and a swaying bridge during all sorts of weather over the Sydenham river for an education most kids during his time didn’t receive. It instilled in him a love for reading, good conversation and political activities.
The house on Campbell farm became a meeting place for many young folks in the community where they were able to discuss the important topics of the time, and singing Gaelic around the family’s organ. Archie’s political interests led him to become the Secretary of the United Farmers of Ontario and later as a part of the Canadian Social Credit Party he worked with William Aberhart (who became the premier of Alberta) helping to draft the party’s constitution.
Archie also developed and interest in the Caribbean’s oil deposits which is how he gained the nickname “Archie Jamaica”.
Archie remained a bachelor living out his life on the farm where he was born. He developed a love for the land, the forest and the nature around him making him a conservationist long before it was the norm. The family farm had a grove of ironwood, elm, shell-bark hickory and many others which he chose to preserve at a time when everyone else would have cut them down for lumber.
He dreamed of his land becoming a park where many people could come and enjoy the property as he did. He also wanted the property to become a place for education and learning. Before his death he made arrangements for the farm and other properties belonging to the Campbell family become a park for future generations.
Archie Campbell died on March 27th, 1965 and he willed the 308 acre property to the Sydenham Valley Conservation Authority (now St. Clair Conservation Authority) with certain conditions attached for the price of $15,000.
After Archie’s death the Sydenham Valley Conservation Authority teamed up with the Alvinston Rotary club and built three pavilions by 1975. One still remains there today where the large stone barbecue pit still resides. In 1966 a dam was built creating a small pond close to the house and a few years later in 1969 a second dam created a lake on 18 acres of A.W. Campbell’s land which they stocked with large mouth bass. At one time there was a beach area where people could swim but since then a public swimming pool was built for people to use instead.
Thirty elementary schools took part in planting 4,500 pine and spruce trees leading from the museum down a path through a virgin forest that was once used as an indigenous trail into a clearing. Throughout the park you could find trees that were bent over by indigenous people, which marked their way through the forest.
In 1969, Newbury’s original train station was relocated to the park to be used as a nature centre. The historical house was turned into a museum and was furnished with furniture donated, many from the Campbell family giving the museum the look of a typical farmhouse from the late 1800’s. Officially the park opened on June 18th 1968 and was called A.W. Campbell Conservation Area and the Sydenham Valley Outdoor Educational School was officially opened.
As an avid conservationist Archie would have happy to know that programs were being taught on conservation touching on agriculture and land use. Identification of trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and forest management all were a part of the parks agenda. Kids learned to identify animals, insects and birds plus study their natural habitats. At one time there was an apiary and a pheasant rearing station all geared towards teaching. Boy Scouts travelled from all around to camp At A.W. Campbell Campground. “This farm one day will make an interesting park for a lot of people,” Archie told friends before he passed away.
The Campbell House Museum was operated through the 1970’s and into the early 80’s opening a few days per week from May to September. Around the Museum were barbecues, picnic tables and nature trails all enticing visitors to enjoy their stay. The park included a camping area for people to stay, pavilions for family reunions, picnics and many other activities. July and August brought hay rides, hikes and films to be enjoyed by local youth and those staying at the campground. In the winter the trails made way for snowmobiles, cross-country skiing and tobogganing. In the spring the Sugar Shack welcomed visitors for demonstrations when maple syrup was ready to be made in the bush.
Campbell House Museum had their operating costs funded through Ontario’s Historical and Museums Branch and many volunteers spent hours working there. Dawn McNally fondly remembers visiting Archie Campbell with her father, John Leitch as a child. Her father helped turn the property into Archie’s dream of a park with camp grounds and trails. “My best memory is when Mr. Campbell was still living and we would visit him. He had chocolate drops with the coloured centre behind his counter and never failed to give us one. He sure knew how to make a couple of kids happy. Such a sweet memory. I think of him whenever I have one!” Dawn reminisced. As a teen Dawn also spent many hours painting and restoring historic home into a museum.
In later half of the 1980’s the hours of operation of Campbell House Museum changed to only opening on one weekend a year during the annual Maple Syrup Festival. During those years the condition of the floors in the house fell into disrepair. Closing to the public due to the necessity of the structural work that needed to be done, which included dry rot and a roof repair to stop it from leaking.
In 1991 the Corporation of the Township of Brooke designated A.W. Campbell House Museum as being of historical Value or interest under the Ontario Heritage Act. Around the same time a group formed called “Friends of Campbell House”. A restoration project began by the St. Clair Region Conservation Authority with funding from the village of Alvinston, Mosa and Brooke Township with help also from the Alvinston Rotary Club, the Optimist Club of Alvinston and the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Recreation. Matching provincial grants for the project were obtained by the Local Conservation Advisory Committee (LACAC) for Brooke Township.
With new structural supports, a new roof, flooring and board and batten which was treated with linseed oil giving the building a more natural look. Before the renovation the museum was painted brown. With the new shutters up the Friends of Campbell Park gave tours of the house and museum over the first weekend in September, 1995. They hoped to find other groups with the same passion who would want to volunteer manpower to keep the museum open to the public on a more permanent basis. As far as I could find it only continued being opened up during the Maple Syrup Festival until 2001.
In 2001 the Campbell House Museum was broken into and a number of artifacts were stolen. Since then the windows and doors have been locked and boarded up and to date has never opened up to the public.
Even with the continued break ins and damage done to the building by raccoons and squirrels the interest and charm remains for the building. On Facebook I often come across many wedding or engagement photos taken at Campbell house, using it as a backdrop for their professional photo sessions and announcements.
In the time I have gotten to know the park I also found myself peering into the windows of the old Newbury Train Station. IT also has never been open to public in my time here. The building was built in 1918 and donated to the park in 1969 to be used as an outdoor education centre with a theatre and classroom. In the mid 90’s this changed as most educational classes moved to the L.C. Henderson Outdoor Education Centre. Like Campbell House with no programming the building slowly feel into disrepair. In November 2015 a SCRCA staff report was submitted detailing the buildings deteriorated condition. After offering to donate it back to Newbury, Newbury’s Council’s decision was to reject the offer so the SCRCA staff recommended to tear it down.
A plaque now stands where the Nature House (Newbury Train Station) once was in the middle of a small naturalized meadow for bees and butterflies.
In September of 2021 the SCRCA’s Board of Directors approved the removal of the Campbell House Museum from the A.W. Campbell Conservation Area. This came after a staff report on the building brought up safety concerns detailing that the building has deteriorated to a point that it was no longer safe for public use. The possibility of injury to those responsible for the ongoing break ins of the historical home also lead to liability concerns. The estimated costs to repair the building would also be significant so it was also recommended that the A.W. Campbell Museum be removed from the park and the contents of the building that can be salvaged be offered to local museums. Any remaining items would be sold at auction and the revenue be put towards the estimated $16,700 cost of demolition.
The same fate fell upon the A.W. Campbell Conservation Area Sugar Shack. An SCRCA staff report in November 2015 recommended demolishing it after minor building renovations brought to light more structural issues that the building had. It was deemed unsafe. At first the SCRCA had intentions of rebuilding the Sugar Shack but the price tag came in at $30,000 to rebuild. In 2016 the SCRCA board voted to demolish it.
Once news of the upcoming demolition found it’s way onto the facebook group “Lost Lambton Found!” many local residents expressed their outrage at another historical building at at A.W. Campbell Conservation being lost. The story shared was from the Petrolia Independent, the September 30th, 2021 edition. Tales of Archie Campbell were shared online including ones of visiting the house or people reminiscing of their days as a volunteer. The overwhelming sentiment was one to save the house before it disappeared. A Petition was started on “change.org” and in a short amount of time it was shared gaining over 700 signatures before the SCRCA’s next meeting to finalize the demolition. From there a new group of local residents formed called “Friends of Campbell Park”. Within the first 15 hours that the petition went live $1100.00 in donations were verbally committed towards restoring the Museum if the SCRCA rescinded the demolition order. A local Lambton County roofing company, Cheshire Roofing offered to donate their time repairing damage to the roof when they first heard of the petition.
The Friends of Campbell Park along with the Municipality of Brooke-Alvinston are working together with the SCRCA to try and find a solution to the future of the A.W. Campbell Museum. The historical building was entrusted to the Sydenham Valley Conservation Authority (now the SCRCA) with one of the conditions being the upkeep of the home so future generations could enjoy it along with 308 acre property. In the not so distant past A.W. Campbell Conservation Area was one of the most popular conservation areas around.
As a proud Scotsman, Archie read the Glasgow newspaper regularly and he was ahead of his time in his conservation ideals and work ethic. It was at a time in history when most people wanted to cut the forests down not thinking of the need to save them and natural habitats for future generations.
Brooke-Alvinston Councillor and board member for the SCRCAFrank Nemcek was quoted in the Petrolia Independent on the demolition of the Sugar Shack saying, “once it’s gone, it’s hard to get back, we have to keep what we have.”
2 thoughts on “Archie “Jamaica” Campbell and his Conservation Legacy”
What an important part of our areas history that should be preserved.A wonderful glimpse into the past that should be preserved for future generations to
excellent story, very well researched