A neighbour passed a pair of books over the fence to David Yates one day: The Old Log House and The Old Log School, both by Gavin Green and both containing stories from the history of Huron County.
Yates was a high school teacher at the time with a background in international history, political science and international relations.
“Local history was kind of like a neat sideline to that,” said Yates, 56, who lives in Goderich and retired from teaching this past June.
“And the deeper I got into local history, the richer it became. You realize Huron County, by land, air and sea, has it all. You can never run out of stories.”
He wasn’t always so sure.
In 2007, when a local newspaper editor asked if he would write a weekly column about Huron County history, Yates worried he would run out of material quickly.
“I thought, ‘Gee, after six months, what would you write about in Huron County history? It’s Tiger Dunlop and cows and plows,’ ” he said.
“But once I got into it, 12 years later, I’m still writing. I mean, the supply of stories—the material is just inexhaustible.”
Yates has since filed more than 560 stories for Focus Newsmagazine, the Goderich Signal-Star, the Clinton News-Record, and other local papers.
The work was surprising, and fascinating.
It was only a matter of time before some of the stories were collected into a book, a step Yates took this month by publishing Out of the Woods: Chronicles and Characters of Huron County.
The book contains 77 of Yates’s stories, covering the first 10,000 years of Huron history. It begins with human settlement after the last Ice Age and ends with the declaration of peace on Nov. 19, 1918, after the conclusion of the First World War.
“It’s not a best-of,” said Yates, who taught school in Clinton, Goderich, Exeter and Seaforth and retired as head of the Canada World Studies department at Central Huron Secondary School.
“They’ve been picked because I wanted to have a regional balance. They couldn’t all be from Goderich or Clinton or Seaforth.
“There’s some from Wingham, there’s some from Exeter. they’re from all over the county.
“They cover a wide array of historical genres, like social history, military history, agricultural history, crime, military history—just about everything.”
The book is published with help from the Huron Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society, and Yates hopes it will be the first in a series of books about Huron history.
“They’re not just people, but they’re events and incidences,” he said, referring to the stories in Out of the Woods.
“There’s ships. The Great Storm figures prominently in there. Some of the pioneers—the Huron Tract and Huron County.
“There’s personal profiles, but there’s also stories, crime, the last public hanging in Huron County. Social life, scandals, heroes, rogues, villains.”
Yates relied on newspaper accounts in his research, as well as photographs and historical letters kept at the Huron County Museum.
Many community members also donated or loaned him memoirs, letters, scrapbooks, diaries and journals.
“I always feel honoured and privileged to be able to handle that stuff, and people leave them with you, trusting that you’ll take care of them,” he said.
“People will suggest stories to you … and I’m always amazed at what I find. Once you think you know everything, something else comes along that absolutely astounds you.”
Yates did write about Dunlop, the colourful army surgeon, soldier and politician who oversaw the exploration and early settlement of the Huron Tract, a 1.1 million-acre parcel of land that covers present-day Huron and Perth counties and parts of Lambton and Middlesex.
He also wrote about Huron’s first people, the Attawandaron; Etienne Brule, the first European to arrive on the Huron Tract; and Col. Anthony Van Egmond, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars who settled in Huron and built the Huron Road for the Canada Company, under Dunlop’s supervision.
Other stories document retailer Timothy Eaton’s Huron County roots, and the impact of larger events like the Boer War, the Riel Rebellions and the First World War Conscription Crisis on the Huron community, among many other tales.
“We have a long and distinguished history,” said Yates.
“We have risen to our promise as a country, and southern Ontario has contributed in both peace and war time … southwestern Ontario has its own flavour, and it should be celebrated.”
Yates stressed it’s important to acknowledge the warts in Canadian history, noting the effects of residential schools on First Nations communities in particular.
“We can’t ignore that,” he said. “But we also have done a lot of good things that are worth celebrating.”
Out of the Woods is available for $25 at Fincher’s and The Book Peddler in Goderich.