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Local author shares stories of 'brews, brothels and brawls'

Dave Town was featured as part of OMAH History Speaker Series; Black history focus of next presentation

As is now a tradition, popular historian Dave Town kick-started the 2023 Orillia Museum of Art and History (OMAH) History Speaker Series again this year on Jan. 18, and once again he captivated a large audience on Zoom with his talk, and the subject of his latest book, The Black Swamp Gang.

Town explained that in the 1870s Orillia was “awash” in alcohol. There were 29 bars for a population of less than 1,000 people. Orillia was a booming town, supplying goods for the lumber industry and the railroad. The lumbermen and the navies (employed by the railroad) worked hard and played hard.

According to Town, these men were interested in three things: “Brews, brothels and brawls.”

It was the same in the rural areas, where every crossroad, including Jarratt, Coulson, Price’s Corners and many others, had a tavern. Travellers could find a room, food, and alcoholic beverages at these establishments. Farm life was hard and some of the younger folk did not want that life.

It was from this environment that the notorious Black Swamp Gang came to be. First came the brawling in the taverns fuelled by alcohol and then came the rural crime. The gang formed around Big Sandy McDuff, the baddest of the bad, a gigantic and temperamental Jarratt farmer — a tavern brawler who never lost a fight.

The whole of north Simcoe County was terrorized by the Black Swamp Gang, who robbed farms, stole livestock and horses and even clothes from the clotheslines.

And then, they intimidated and terrorized the farmers into silence through barn burnings and other threatened vandalism.

Town shared his vast research into this largely untold and riveting story of the gang and the societal background that facilitated their exploits and the vigilantism of the era.

Do you want to know what this gang got up to? Click on this link to access OMAH’ s YouTube channel to hear the recording of the talk.

And for even more details, Dave’s book, The Black Swamp Gang, is available for purchase in the OMAH shop. Click on this link to purchase his book.

Join us on Feb. 15 in celebration of Black History Month, to hear Paul Barber and his talk, From Virginia to Canada: The Journey of My Black Ancestors.

While breaking down his ancestral brick wall, which had him stumped for almost 30 years, Barber, a Caucasian born and raised Canadian, found out through his maternal side, the Hendersons, who made their way to Canada in 1840, that he was part of African-American history. He will also recount the family journey that led him to Orillia, where the Hendersons played a contributing role in the history of our community.

To register for Paul’s talk or any of the upcoming talks, click on this link.

— Submitted by Mary Ann Grant