The Story of Brantford
Brantford can boast of being one of the grandest cities of old Canada, and with its strategic location on the Grand River, it was once the 3rd largest industrial center in the country. Our downtown, where the longest stretch of pre-Confederation buildings in the province still stands today, is the legacy of the immense wealth and stability that was once Brantford's hallmark. But even this ancient downtown wasn't always here.
In the beginning was the Ford.
This spot on the Grand River is said by archaeologists to have been inhabited since pre-historic times — as far back as 10,000 years ago. The ancient trail between Niagara and Detroit crossed the Grand River at the site of the settlement that came to be known as Brant's Ford. When the Loyal Six Nations moved here in the 1780's, gifted the lands of the Grand River as a reward for their efforts fighting the Americans in the Revolutionary War, their village was off the trail, by where the Mohawk Chapel stands today (the first protestant church in Upper Canada.)
The first inhabitants of what was to become Brantford appear to have arrived in the early 1800's. There was an inn at the Ford as early as 1805. Misters Dutton and Wilkes leased the area that was to become the core in the 1820's from a chief of the Six Nations, and in 1830, a formal surrender of the Town Lot opened the downtown for settlement.
In 1836, the Grand River Navigation Company opened canal traffic to Cainsville, but in 1849, traffic was opened right to the foot of the hill below the south side of Colborne St. There was steamship transportation from the downtown to Buffalo and then on to New York City. Brantford became a major shipping centre for all the wheat that was grown in the 1850's in the area.
Unfortunately, trains followed the Canal only five years later and the Navigation Company went bankrupt in 1861. Still, by that time the basic structure of the downtown was laid out in pretty much its present configuration. Repeated fires resulted in replacing the original wooden buildings with brick, and, particularly in the years before the First World War, many fine pieces of architecture were built in the core. Brantford continued to grow and became one of the wealthiest cities in the region, with more rail connections to New York City than it had to Toronto.
Brantford evolved into what was basically a one-industry town, although it was extremely successful at its specialty: agricultural machinery and settler's goods. But then, through the latter half of the 20th century, tragedy after tragedy shook the downtown. The collapse of the city's main economic drivers — the farm equipment manufacturers, and the arrival of the all-too-common urban sprawl and mall phenomenon together drained the economic life out of the core. Many attempts to revive the downtown were made, such as parachuting a mall onto the Market Square, tearing down large numbers of buildings and inserting extra parking, but nothing seemed to work.
Finally, Brantford's downtown was re-invented as a university neighbourhood and as a cultural district. Festivals, students, and art and cultural events festoon the old city blocks throughout the year, much of it centered around the Harmony Square, where a free public ice rink, splash pad and stage attract activity. Many of the old buildings have been repurposed, and pedestrian traffic has slowly returned. Every day there is more to see, do, and experience in the downtown, and we invite you to be a part of the endless possibilities for what will happen here tomorrow.
Written by Bill Darfler, edited by Adam King.
Bill Darfler is a historical researcher, writer, and storyteller for hire, based in Brantford. He can be contacted via email.