Sunday, December 4, 2022
Altona was founded in the early 1800s by Mennonites of Swiss-German descent who had emigrated from Pennsylvania. They named their community after Altona in Germany, a town which is now part of Hamburg, Germany. It remained a small farming community until 1850 when Abraham Reesor built the first saw and grist mills in the area. Abraham was the son of Peter Reesor who was one of the early pioneers in the GTA. A school was built in 1834 and the community seemed to peak around 1856 at about 256 people. By 1869 the census showed only 200 residents and by 1910 it was down to only 100 people. This was often the fate of hamlets that were bypassed by the railways. The image below shows the Reesor mill as pictured in the 1877 County Atlas.
A couple of churches, the school and a hotel complimented the general store and provided for the spiritual and physical needs of the residents. A Mennonite Meeting House was built in 1852 and is one of the few buildings left in the community.
Through the window the simple pews can be seen as well as the pulpit. There is no ornamentation in the church and no stained glass in the windows. The Mennonites met here until September 15, 1974, after which regular services ceased.
The oldest grave marker in the cemetery is dated to 1835 and precedes the building of the meeting house. The early members of the community are interred here, including the Reesors, Nighswander, Widemans, Hoovers and Stouffers.
When the Federal government decided to build a second international airport for the GTA, a large area of flat land in Pickering was chosen. Altona was seen to be just below an approach to one of the runways and flights were envisioned coming in over the town at about 300 feet above. The town was essentially expropriated, and all the property owners were bought out. This small Georgian Style Cottage has survived and is distinguished by its elaborate two-tone brick work.
We gave more details about the proposed airport in our previous post on Brougham and so we won’t go through all of that again here. Several of the homes in Altona are still occupied but if the airport ever gets off the ground they may well be demolished.
The story and a half home with a front gable and gothic pointed arch front window was perhaps the most common style of architecture in Ontario in the years leading up to Confederation. There are a couple of them still remaining in Altona, but for how long?
The house of William Rhoddick has been demolished but the barn and silo remain. It has been 50 years since the land was expropriated and current assessments suggest that there will never be an actual need for this airport to be built. It’s sad that the legacy of the people who cleared the land and worked so hard to make a living has been lost and soon may be completely forgotten. I wonder how they would feel if they could see what has happened to the fruit of their labours.
With so many of the buildings in the hamlet in a continuous state of disrepair there is an ongoing threat due to nature. The powers of wind, rain and snow are slowly demolishing several of the buildings that haven’t already been intentionally destroyed.
The community has become one of empty laneways that lead to former houses that were either torn down or fell victim to arson and vandalism. The Barkey House was built by one of the early pioneers who was also a Mennonite preacher who served at the meeting house. The home was eventually sold to the Mitchell family who owned it until it was expropriated in 1972. The house made the news in 2012 when it was discovered that someone had built a confinement room in the basement with the intention of kidnapping a woman and keeping her there. The home burned down a couple of weeks after the discovery in a fire which was deemed as suspicious.
Just up the road from Altona is a small family cemetery on the former Forsyth property which is the final resting place for many of the early members of that family. The Forsyth Family Cemetery has a small area at the rear where several of the earliest markers have been gathered together and laid in a horizontal cement cairn to preserve them.
The fate of the remaining buildings in Altona is very much “up in the air” as it depends on the eventual outcome of the Pickering Airport.
Related stories: The Reesors – Pioneers of the GTA, Brougham – Ghost Towns of the GTA
Google Maps Link: Altona
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I recently drove through the Hamlet of Altona and I agree it is so sad to look at. All these Beautiful places will become memories if a certain Premier gets his way 😦
It’s the federal government that did this.
I attended the Mennonite Meeting House says a child, as did my father and grandfather before me. And I attended my first seven grades of Elementary School in the red brick schoolhouse across the road. My father grew up in Altona and our family has Deep Roots there. It is truly very sad to see the desecration of the whole Rural Life that happened in that area. There still are people living in Altona. And hopefully that certain Premier doesn’t get his way. We all need to get on his case and do what we can to preserve what is left of this beautiful Hamlet.
I cycle through the “airport” lands quite often and Ive spent a bit of time on the Pickering Ajax Digital Archive trying to match old pictures with what still exists.
I recently came across a waterfall/dam on sideline 30 (west side) that is about 1km south of the church. Was this the location of your family’s cider mill? Nothing but the dam and a small bridge that leads into some fields exists. Just curious if this was the location?
Yes, that mill belonged to the Nighswander family. During Hurricane Hazel, my grandfather and others worked all night to keep the dam from washing away.
Was your family’s cider mill about 1km south on sideline 30 (west side). I cycle through Altona quite often and came across a waterfall/dam that still exists. Curious if this was the location? Not much exists but it is a very scenic waterfall that still stands.
I attended the Mennonite Meeting House as a child, as did my father and grandfather before me. And I attended my first seven grades of Elementary School in the red brick schoolhouse across the road. My father grew up in Altona and our family has Deep Roots there. It is truly very sad to see the desecration of the whole Rural Life that happened in that area. There still are people living in Altona. And hopefully that certain Premier doesn’t get his way. We all need to get on his case and do what we can to preserve what is left of this beautiful Hamlet.
The feds own the land. And they pay a grant in lieu of property taxes paid out of YOUR taxes. The land was expropriated at the time Mirabel (white elephant) airport was built as Montreal’s second airport. Mirabel is No more. A complete survey can be completed soon and Houses and properties granted to well respected CO-OP style organizations like Options for Homes with over a quarter century record to create much needed housing. Three perhaps four polite letters to Justin, Jagmeet, Pierre, Elizabeth May, and to all social media. it would help to contact the various city Halls especially Oshawa and Pickering and Ajax and surrounds. My prayers are with you
We grew tomatoes for Campbells soup. Had Holstein cows. Some of the best farmland in Canada.It’s criminal what they did.Therre we’re all kinds of market vegetables, fresh eggs the best strawberries.
It’s The Forsyth’s no E at the end . My Grandfather , Floyd Forsyth maintained the cemetery .
Thanks for the correction. I’ve updated the story.
My husband and I really enjoy reading your blog. My family is from Altona so this post is especially enjoyable! Thank you for putting this together.
One small correction: Nightwander should be Nighswander (I noticed this on the Reesor Family post, too).
Thank you. I changed both of them
There are also 3 generations of the Meyer family buried at that Mennonite Church, my father Paul’s house still stands