TILLSON, GEORGE, pioneer industrialist, entrepreneur, and community planner; b. 25 Nov. 1782 at Enfield (now covered by the Quabbin Reservoir), Mass., seventh of the nine children of Hopestill Shaw and Stephen Tillson, a descendant of a settler in the Plymouth plantation in 1639; d. 15 March 1864 at Tillsonburg, Canada West.
In 1804 George Tillson took up land at Blaisdell (Exeter, Maine), and in 1808 married Nancy Barker, daughter of one of the original proprietors in the area. He returned to Massachusetts about 1813, but speedily joined the general westward migration from New England. He farmed in Herkimer and Otsego counties, N.Y., and, according to tradition, was also employed at Canandaigua, N.Y., as an iron-moulder and pattern-maker; his father had worked in iron, while his mother managed the family farm at Enfield. Tillson is said to have joined Joseph Van Norman* and Hiram Capron, established iron manufacturers at Manchester (Niagara Falls, N.Y.). In 1822, with Van Norman and Capron, he became part-owner of the iron works at Normandale, Norfolk County, Upper Canada. Tillson was described as “the principal and most experienced Engineer in the Furnace” and was credited with devising the system of flues that made the Normandale stove such a prized possession of pioneer households.
On the dissolution of the Normandale partnership in 1824, Tillson moved westward to Dereham Township. The abundance of bog iron in nearby Houghton and Middleton townships and the great stands of pine and hardwood were promising for industrial purposes, as was the water-power generated by the “rapids” in the Big Otter Creek. In 1824 Tillson “bargained” with William Warren Baldwin*, trustee for Maria Willcocks, for lots in Dereham Township containing about 600 acres of prime forest and including both banks of the Big Otter and of its confluents, Stoney and Clear creeks. Dereham was Tillson’s final move. In 1829 he took the oath of allegiance.
Although the deeds for the property (which cost £300) came into Tillson’s possession only in 1834, he had begun laying out his industrial complex along the Big Otter in 1825: a dam to harness the water-power, a blast furnace to refine bog ore, and a forge to produce simple iron objects. He also constructed a lock, probably to carry timber rafts past the dam. The resulting community, composed of his workmen and those of his son-in-law Benjamin Van Norman, who set up an axe factory, was first known as Dereham Forge. Tillson’s qualified success in iron production forced him into an entrepreneurial role. He advanced capital, chiefly in land but also in money, to Van Norman for the axe factory and for a saw mill, and to E. W. Hyman* for a tannery, to instance only the earliest transactions. Real estate development followed. In 1837 Tillson surveyed his property and laid out streets to encourage the occupation of the high ground north of the river. A striking feature was the 100-foot width assigned to Broadway, the main street; it still imparts a pleasing spaciousness to downtown Tillsonburg, a designation in use as early as 1834 (spelled Tilsonburg, 1865–1902).
Communications absorbed much of Tillson’s energy. From 1831, when he had been named commissioner of roads and bridges, he petitioned the courts of quarter sessions and later the district councils for local improvements. He desired the opening for timber rafts of the Big Otter Creek southward to Port Burwell (an unrealized dream), the construction of roads west and east to intersect the Talbot Road (these now form the highway between Aylmer and Courtland), and a road north to meet Governor’s Road (which connected Woodstock and London). The western connection with the Talbot Road was undertaken in 1845 and the Ingersoll and Port Burwell Plank and Gravel Road Company was formed in 1849 to give outlets to the north and south. Tillson, his two sons, George Barker and Edwin Delevan, and his son-in-law were large stockholders in the company; as the remainder of the stock was generally held in small lots, Van Norman and the Tillsons must have enjoyed substantial influence in its direction. George Tillson secured such lucrative contracts for construction that he and his son Edwin were able to greatly enlarge their saw mills. The company also enhanced the value of real estate and its success encouraged Tillson to construct the first large-scale buildings in Tillsonburg, which he leased to timber-cutters from the United States. It was while engaged in 1864 on surveys for the road going east to Courtland that Tillson contracted the pneumonia that proved fatal. He was survived by his widow and three of his nine children.
Tillson’s two sons were established mill operators during their father’s lifetime. The younger, Edwin, fully developed the water potential of the Otter for grist, flour, and saw mills. The waterpower that made these industries possible declined with the clearing of Dereham’s forests in the 1880s, and steam power was substituted.
Two phases of Tillson’s career are obscure. The details of the preliminary agreement with Baldwin cannot be traced, but it must have been sufficiently iron-clad to allow him to build extensively before he received the deeds. Nor can the story of Tillson’s arrest and trial at London during the rebellion of 1837 be substantiated. It was told many years later by his son, a boy of 12 when the incident supposedly took place; possibly Tillson was subjected to an informal interrogation.
George Tillson’s career illustrates the advantages that accrued to the newcomer possessed of skill and capital. He was one of many immigrants from the United States who prompted Sir John Colborne to speak of “the influence of Yankeeism so prevalent about St. Thomas and along the lake shore.” Membership in the then fashionable large family enabled Tillson to call upon a relative for every emergency; his nephew Harvey Tillson, the first clerk of Dereham Township, and his son-in-law Van Norman, who sat on the Brock District Council from 1842 and became in 1850 the first warden of Oxford County, were most notable. The ideal of the good citizen, carefully laying out his patrimony, was exemplified by George Tillson much as it was by his neighbour and old-time associate “King” Hiram Capron of Paris.
An account of a trip to Dereham Township in March 1825 by George Tillson is in the possession of Mr George Tillson, Shortsville, N.Y., and T. W. Dobbie, “Plan of the village of Tillsonburg . . . May, 1865,” is in the possession of the law firm of Tillson and Tillson, Tillsonburg, Ont.
Land Registry Office (Woodstock, Ont.), J. P. Ball, “Plan of the village of Tillsonburg . . . 1 Sept. 1854” (fragment); will no.30620, will of George Tillson, 24 Jan. 1856. MTCL, William Warren Baldwin papers, Peter Lossing to W. W. Baldwin, 22 Nov. 1824. Oxford County Clerk’s Office (Woodstock, Ont.), Minutes of the Municipal Council of the District of Brock, 1842–49. PAC, National Map Coll., George de Rottenburg, “Map of the principal communications in Canada West” (c. 1855–56). UWO, Norfolk County, Ont., Registrar, naturalization records, I. F. H. Baddeley, “An essay on the localities of metallic minerals in the Canadas, with some notices of their geological associations and situation . . . ,” Literary and Hist. Soc. of Quebec, Trans., II (1830), 332–426. Ont., Dept. of Planning and Development, Otter valley conservation report, 1957 (Toronto, 1957). Tillsonburg Observer (Tillsonburg, [Ont.]), March 1864, December 1865. The Oxford gazetteer; containing a complete history of the county of Oxford, from its first settlement; together, with a full abstract of each census . . . , comp. T. S. Shenston (Hamilton, [Ont.], 1852). E. D. Tillson, Record of George and Nancy Tillson’s family, chronological history of the ancestry and posterity of Edwin D. Tillson of Tilsonburg . . . from A.D. 1670 to 1888 (Tillsonburg, Ont., n.d.). Topographical and historical atlas of the county of Oxford, Ontario (Toronto, ). Craig, Upper Canada, 106–23. D. J. Hall, “Economic development in Elgin County, 1850–1880” (ma thesis, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ont., 1971; published, Petrolia, Ont., 1972). Fred Landon, Western Ontario and the American frontier (Toronto, 1941), 41–61, 170–85, 230–50; “The evolution of local government in Ontario,” OH, XLII (1950), 1–5.