Perry Kluke laid out binders full of pictures and articles on the history of Bryson on the table in the common room of the town’s senior’s residence on rue Principale.
Explaining how documenting the history of Bryson and the broader Pontiac is his life’s passion, Perry focused on telling the stories of Bryson’s architectural past, which reveals the ups and downs of the town’s 150-year-plus history. The fact that the site of the senior’s residence was formerly the site of a magisterial courthouse building encapsulates this change. Back when the courthouse stood, Bryson was the economic and political centre of the Pontiac, being a lumber industry town and the site of a grist mill that brought in farmers from around the region.
However, a major fire in 1914 destroyed 94 buildings and the fact that the railroad skipped the town meant that Bryson would lose its political and economic status. Bryson conceded its spot as the seat of the county in 1926 to Campbell’s Bay while Shawville gradually became more economically prominent. The old courthouse was eventually abandoned, with the bricks being used to build the church in Campbell’s Bay, according to Kluke. This is just one of many instances of how Bryson has changed in the past 150 years.
The village that was to become Bryson was originally founded in 1858 as Havelock, Quebec, named in honour of British general Henry Havelock, who died in 1857 of dysentery in India while crushing an uprising against British imperialism during the Indian Rebellion. By the time it was incorporated in 1873, another Havelock in Quebec had beat it to the punch in Le Haut-Saint-Laurent in 1871, meaning Pontiac’s Havelock needed a new name.
The town was designated Bryson after the local lumber baron
and Mayor of Mansfield-et-Pontefract, George Bryson Sr. in 1873.
There is some dispute that the town was in fact named after George’s son, John Bryson, who served as the Pontiac’s MP between 1882 and 1892. However, given that John would have only been 24 and not yet politically prominent at the time of the town’s incorporation makes that unlikely.
As Bryson boomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was the site of many prominent buildings including the aforementioned courthouse which was built in 1881, the original Forest Inn, several churches of different denominations, and a variety of businesses. THE EQUITY was founded in Bryson in 1883 in the building where the town’s post office currently stands before eventually moving to Shawville. The first steel bridge to Calumet Island was built in 1883.
As the industries in the Pontiac evolved and changed, so did Bryson. Forestry and related industries remained major employers throughout the town’s history until the closure of the Portage-Du-Fort mill in 2008. The Bryson generating station was built in 1925. The New Calumet Mine on Calumet Island was also a major source of employment through the middle of the 20th century before closing in the 70s. The schoolhouse in Bryson, which was built in 1932 was also an economic boon before education was moved elsewhere in the 70s. All these different nodes of economic activity served to make Bryson a thriving community.
However as the Pontiac began to lose industry, Bryson, like every other town in the region, suffered.
In the 70s, one of the founding directors of the Bryson RA and long-time Lion’s Club member, Ed Gutoski, remembers the town had about 25 businesses, including a theatre, multiple hair salons, grocery stores, a butcher, an inn, banks, restaurants and more.
Eventually, though, the town lost more and more old buildings and signs of the past as the mine closed and forestry slowed down. Many old businesses and public buildings were lost to fires, others were lost to neglect.
“As things get old, the people who own them, not knowing that eventually they’re going to be heritage, get rid of them to avoid paying taxes on or maintaining them. They didn’t have any use for them anymore,” said Joanne Ralston, a councillor in Bryson, about the loss of some older landmarks of the town.
A few buildings, particularly the old Anglican and United churches, as well as one old town and telegraph house, remain and now serve as homes. The old schoolhouse is the town’s municipal office, with the basement serving as the privately owned gym.
However, despite what can be seen as a relative decline in the town’s economic luck, it’s community spirit has been kept alive.
“When I think of the old-timers, I think of the dedication, I think of the commitment they had, I think of the love they had for their community, it was all very strong. And they were all fiercely proud of Bryson. They built the place basically, they and their ancestors. And they were awfully proud of it,” said Ed, who first move to the town in the 1960s.
Organizations like the Lion’s Club, the RA, the Golden Age Club and the Revitalization Committee all represent the community’s continued pride in the town, according to Joanne.
Always having a commitment to bilingualism within the small town, Joanne and Ed said that the community spirit of Bryson continues on in the younger generation, with the success of the start of the Bryson 150 celebrations providing strong evidence. This has left Joanne and Ed optimistic about the future of the community, despite its continued challenges.
“I will say when it comes to per capita, the number of volunteer hours that people in Bryson put in for their community, we are one of the highest,” said Joanne about the success of the 150 events and the continued legacy of community spirit.
As the Bryson 150 celebrations move ahead throughout the year, walking tours and historical trivia hosted by Perry will be held. Perry also hopes to provide more of his knowledge on Shawville and Portage-du-Fort as those towns mark their 150 anniversaries. THE EQUITY also plans to dig more into the history of Bryson this year.
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