| Brief History of Brussels
Brussels was originally named Ainleyville after Englishman and 'founder' William Ainlay who laid out a townsite where the Maitland River crossed the boundary between Grey and Morris Townships.
To learn more about Ainleyville and the original settlers of the land, read the writeup, "What's in a Name?". (Click here to read the writeup)
Brussels was formed on December 24th, 1872 following weeks of discussions on the topic of incorporating as a stand-alone village.
Brussels' Queen Hotel, Hotels in Brussels, RuralVoice.ca (21 March 2015)
By 1874, the railway had been completed through Brussels.
Brussels flourished and prospered. Early wealth came from beef, wheat and lumber – staple commodities in the British colonial period. Fortunes were made and the physical evidence of this prosperity can still be seen in the impressive 19th Century architecture in the downtown core and back streets.
Through the burst of business and activity in the town, Brussels has certainly seen its fair share of historic fires with various mills, factories, hotels, restaurants, and homes all going up in flames, losing elements of the town's history.
At one point, Brussels had a population peak around 1,200, however, in more recent times the population is around 1,000.
| Extended History
Learn about Ainleyville by reading "What's in a Name"
What’s in a name?
Ainleyville, Dingle and Brussels
By Hilary Ibbotson-Machan, 2021
Indigenous Lands & Treaties (Pre-1850s)
Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the area, the land on which the village of Brussels is situated was occupied by the Attawandaron, Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee peoples.
The earliest known settlers of the area were the Attawandaron, who were called the Neutral people by early Europeans, the name denoting their ability to remain neutral in conflict between the Iroquois Confederacy to the south and the Huron peoples to the north.
The Attawandaron were hunters and traded with others using furs and animal skins. This nation was dispersed in the 1650s due a combination of war, disease and famine, and remaining members became a part of various other Iroquoian nations.
In 1827, Treaty 29, also known as the Huron Tract Purchase, was signed by representatives of the Crown and certain Anishinaabe peoples. The territory described in the written treaty covered about 2.2 million acres and spans the present-day counties of Huron, Perth, Middlesex, and Lambton.
Permanent settlement, however, was many years away.
William Ainlay & Land Purchase (1850-1854)
William Ainlay (1811-1862) was born in Yorkshire and came to Upper Canada as a child with his parents and two brothers, settling at Port Hope.
By 1851, Ainlay was living in Logan Township, Perth County with his wife Eleanor and nine children ranging in age from one to 17 years.
Ainlay decided to investigate the unclaimed wilds of Huron County in search of an area that had both good soil quality and waterpower.
The 1851 census of Logan Township, Perth County, showing William Ainlay, wife Eleanor and children Henry, Hannah, John, Thomas, Charles, Robert, William, Watson, and Arabella. Enumeration for the 1851 census was not started until January 12, 1852. The family would move to what is now Brussels in 1853, where son Joseph was born in 1854. (Source: Library and Archives Canada: Census of 1851: https://central.bac-lac.gc.ca/.item/?app=Census1851&op=pdf&id=e002366733).
He found both in the area that now makes up present-day Brussels. Ainlay cleared some land and built a log shanty before returning to his Logan Township residence for the winter. In the spring, he returned and planted crops before returning once again to Logan.
In 1853, the Ainlay family moved permanently to their new home on the Maitland River. The following year, Ainlay purchased 200 acres on Lot 1 and 2 of Grey Township.
Correspondence from William Ainlay regarding his intent to settle and purchase Lot 1, Concession 10 in Grey Township, Huron County. Dated September 1, 1854, Ainlay paid a deposit of five pounds to secure rights to purchase the 100-acre property. No actual grant or sale for the land exists in this record group. The word “SCHOOL” across the top of the page tells us that this property had been set aside by the Crown as a School Lands or School Reserves. Money raised from these properties was to be set aside for funding of future schools. (Source: Archives of Ontario: RG1, Series C-IV: Township Papers, ca. 1783-1870s: https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CSYM-Y9C7?cat=185567)
Similar correspondence from William Ainlay regarding the 100-acre parcel on Lot 2, Concession 10 in Grey Township, Huron County. Coupled with Lot 1, Ainlay now had his name attached to 200 acres, part of which would become his town plot named Ainleyville. (Source: Archives of Ontario: RG1, Series C-IV: Township Papers, ca. 1783-1870s: https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CSYM-Y9SP?i=1065)
On April 1, 1856, William Ainlay sold his 200 acres on Lots 1 and 2, Grey Township to John Nicholas Knechtel. This property included the town plot for Ainleyville, which he had laid out the previous year. Ainlay was paid 50 pounds for the land. Knechtel, together with Thomas Halliday in Morris Township, sold most of the village lots as population and demand increased. (Source: Archives of Ontario: RG1, Series C-IV: Township Papers, ca. 1783-1870s: https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CSYM-Y9S1?icat=185567)
Ainleyville (1855-November 1872)
In 1855, Ainlay laid out a village plot in the southeast corner of his property, naming the new settlement Ainleyville.
The following year, he sold his property to farmer and land speculator John Nicholas Knechtel, but the name of the settlement remained.
The Ainlay family were not the only people in the area in the early 1850s.
Thomas Halliday had moved to Lot 30, Concession 6 of Morris Township a few days prior to Ainlay’s arrival; however, Ainlay beat him to the punch when it came to erecting a shanty.
Present day Turnberry Street was the dividing line between Grey and Morris townships, with the Ainlay property to the east and the Halliday property to the west.
About 30 other families came to the area surrounding the new settlement, where work had commenced on erecting the buildings needed to provide services and materials.
Part of a four-page map entitled New Map of the County of Huron compiled by R.W. Hermon. This map shows the village of Ainleyville, with Dingle P.O., in its position straddling the border of Morris and Grey townships. Note that Ainleyville is misspelled as Ainlaysville. (Source: The Ontario Historical County Maps Project: https://maps.library.utoronto.ca/hgis/countymaps/huron/Huron2.jpg)
In 1856, a post office was opened in the village, but, for unknown reasons, it was named Dingle instead of Ainleyville. Residents would find themselves describing their addresses as “Ainleyville, Dingle PO” until 1872.
The County of Huron Gazetteer and General Business Directory for 1863/1864 shows the settlement’s rapid growth. Local businesses in Ainleyville at that time included five general stores, three blacksmith shops, two cabinet makers, two tinsmiths, two drug stores, one tailor, one bakery, one wagon shop, one saddlery. There was also a fanning mill, two sawmills, a grist mill, and a flour mill. For entertainment purposes, residents had their choice of two taverns and one saloon. There was even a 10-member brass band!
Ainleyville residents also had a choice of five different places of worship in the early 1860s: Knox Presbyterian Church, Canadian Presbyterian Church, Ainleyville Wesleyan Methodist Church, Ainleyville New Connection Methodist Church, and Ainleyville Bible Christian Church.
Ainleyville continued to grow and flourish.
By 1872, the settlement included one grist mill, one large flour mill, two sawmills, two planing mills, two shingle mills, two sash and door factories, one flax mill, two lime kilns, two brick yards, two carriage factories, one woolen factory, one straw factory and two wagon shops.
Residents could also get the goods they needed locally as there were three butchers, two tailors, two bakers, three milliners, five blacksmiths, three boot and shoe stores, two hardware stores, two tin and stove shops, nine general stores, three grocery stores, one liquor store, one jewelry store, one book and drug store, two furniture stores, two music dealers, two photograph galleries, two law offices, two conveyancers and insurance agents, one printing office/weekly newspaper, three doctors, one private bank, two livery stables; five churches; and four hotels.
Ainleyville, with its population of 781 people, was trying to make sure it remained in a favorable position by enticing a railroad to the settlement. A movement to incorporate officially as a village was also afoot.
While locals identified as living in Ainleyville, they were technically residents of Grey or Morris townships.
But that all changed in 1872 when talk of incorporating as a stand-alone village began.
Ainleyville Incorporation to Brussels (Post November 1872)
The November 15, 1872, edition of The Huron Expositor ran a small piece about the first incorporation meeting.
“INCORPORATION – A meeting of the freeholders and ratepayers of the village of Ainleyville was held last Saturday, at Armstrong’s Hotel, to take into consideration whether it would be advisable to have the village incorporated. The meeting was well attended, and a large number expressed their opinions on the matter. It was moved and seconded that this meeting deem it expedient to have the village incorporated, which was passed unanimously, there not being one hand held up against it.”
A committee of seven prominent residents was formed to facilitate incorporation. It appears, however, that not everyone in town supported the move.
“Our village but a few weeks ago, has had the preliminaries of incorporation thrust upon it, in a quiet way, by one or two of its resident magnates…” read the Ainleyville news section of the Huron Expositor on December 6, 1872. The writer went on to claim that public meetings on the matter of incorporation were not properly advertised to citizens, and instead consisted of a few prominent men issuing edicts and drumming up support for them among those who frequented the local hotel bar rooms.
The following week, on December 13, 1872, the newspaper ran a letter to the editor signed using the penname Sylvan, in which the author marvels at the change in Ainleyville’s residents since incorporation became a topic of discussion.
“As a general rule the conversations of the natives had been about the prices of pork or wheat, or the scarcity of the almighty dollar. Now all was changed, high sounding names from the ancient classic authors, or modern British Poets, met the ear, in the stores, barrooms, and on the public streets.”
The residents of Ainleyville were trying to come up with a new name for the incorporated village. One resident, says the writer, even wanted to put forth Agamemnon as a suggestion.
A letter to the editor from John Leckie in the same edition, written as a rebuttal to the December 6 article, outlined the process that saw Ainleyville become Brussels. Leckie was the Reeve of Grey Township from 1868-1872 and became the first reeve of the newly minted Village of Brussels, a position he held for many years. He also served as warden of Huron County in 1876. He was also a proponent of incorporation.
After an initial meeting, it was decided to form the seven-man committee and gauge support for the movement in the community, Leckie wrote. A few days after the initial meeting, an “anti-incorporation” meeting was held by some community members. Leckie goes on to say, however, that once those opposed were given more information, all but three or four agreed and signed the petition in favor of incorporation.
“The Committee had only a very short time to complete their business, and held three meetings, the last of which took place on Thursday evening previous to meeting of County Council,” Leckie said. “All the preliminaries being completed, except the selection of a name, which we found a very difficult matter.”
Leckie said those in attendance had poured through almanacs, history books and post office lists, but found “all the favorite names were already in use, either in the immediate locality, or so near that to adopt them might give rise to confusion.”
Two days later, the committee held another hastily arranged meeting attended by about 30 ratepayers. Word of the meeting was spread by word of mouth as there was not time to arrange for posters or handbills. After hearing a number or name suggestions and discussion by those present, the name Brussels was voted on and accepted.
While some histories of the village have suggested that Brussels received its name from Belgian railway workers building a line in the area or that the railway station was named Brussels prior to the incorporation, there is not indication of either of these scenarios in period newspaper accounts.
While the anticipated construction of the southern extension of the Wellington, Grey and Bruce Railway, and the expected commerce it would bring, most likely spurred the residents to incorporate, the station itself was not opened until July 1, 1873.
The naming of the village had nothing to do with the railway. In fact, Leckie’s letter to the newspaper indicates that meeting attendees, comprised of village property owners, offered various name suggestions, and discussed several of them, before settling on Brussels.
On December 4, 1872, a petition to incorporate as the Village of Brussels was presented to Huron County council by John Stauffer. It contained his signature, along with those of 112 other freeholders and householders.
The incorporation as a village and its accompanying name change became official on December 24, 1872.
The Village of Brussels was officially born and within a decade its population was bursting at 1,800 people.
A notice regarding the name change of both Ainleyville and Dingle Post Office to Brussels ran in the Guelph Mercury on December 27, 1872.
Early Maps of Brussels (1872-1904)
The Village of Brussels circa 1879. Note that many of the streets planned for the village were never opened or developed. (Source: Illustrated Historical Atlas of the County of Huron, Ont.. Published by H. Belden, 1879: https://digital.library.mcgill.ca/countyatlas/searchmapframes.php)
First drawn in 1890 and revised in 1904, this is a fire insurance plan map of the Village of Brussels. These types of maps were initially created for insurance companies to provide them with information about building composition and to assess fire risks and assist in setting insurance rates. (Source: Library and Archives Canada: https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/CollectionSearch/Pages/record.aspx?app=fonandcol&IdNumber=3815083&new=-8585908628754450058)