The early history of Ridgetown was bound up with that of Howard Township until Ridgetown was incorporated as a village. Up to this time all the affairs of Ridgetown were handled by the Township Council.
The first white settlers came into this district for permanent settlement about the year 1824. There were no roads, nothing but solid forest, they had to secure the service of the Indian trappers who were at that time swarming through the thick forest in search of furs. The early settlers were not literary men, but they were real workers. Some were farmers and some were mechanics, but whatever their trade, they were no loafers. Each had to grow his own living or go hungry.
Among the first settlers to locate what we now call Ridgetown were Tom Marsh, James Watson, Edmund Mitton, Thomas Scane and an American named Ebenezer Colby. These early settlers were very much handicapped by having no wagons. They did their own hauling on carts called jumpers made by taking two long poles which were slightly crooked in one end and pinning them together in the form of a long sled. As late as the year 1837 there were no stores near Ridgetown where supplies could be purchased. There was however a small store at Morpeth and one at Antrin. Antrin was located on the lake shore road near Fred Coll's Fishery. The first record of a place of business in the village of Ridgetown is found in the minutes of the Township Council of December 1851. Malcolm McLean was granted a license to keep a saloon and a grocery store for which he had to pay a fee of two pounds and give two securities. For the next few years, Ridgetown grew quite rapidly and was incorporated as a village in 1875 with a population of 1,027.
Most all of the buildings along Main Street were of frame construction and were very flimsy. A fire broke out in 1873 on the south side of Main Street and levelled everything from where Dr. Orr's and McCallum's officers are to an open space just past the Anderson Hotel. Another disastrous fire broke out on May 10 and swept away all the Main Street buildings from what is now called Locke & Co. to Walnut Street on the north side and most of the buildings on the south side opposite. On October 24, 1899 another fire destroyed the north side of Main Street from Erie to Albert Streets. The properties destroyed by fire were rebuilt in uniform construction and were all brick buildings. Before the fire there were only three brick buildings in town, the oldest being what is now called Dr. Feagan's office.
Ridgetown had two boiler explosions in the mills. In the second, 4 people were killed and several others injured.
The first Post Office was at the corner of Main and Walnut Streets. It was a one story frame with a lean-to attached. It was served with mail delivery by a stage from Thamesville that went to Morpeth three times a week.
At this time, Morpeth was a thriving town much larger than Ridgetown owing to its situation, all shipping being done by water at this time. With the building of the Canada Southern Railway through Ridgetown, shipping and travel of all kinds became less at Morpeth, and the result was that Ridgetown experienced a real boom. Soon homes and factories were rushed to completion and Ridgetown found itself with 3 saw mills, 2 flour mils, 2 heading mills, a cheese box factory, a stave and hoop mill, an ashery and several other small concerns. During winter, much of the employment was cutting logs and wood, but as the lumber disappeared so did our saw mills and factories.
Ridgetown was incorporated as a town in January 1882 with a population of 2,097. Our first Mayor was J.H. Cunningham. The first school house in town was of log construction located on the corner of Main and Erie Streets. In 1885 the old High school was completed at a cost of $10,162. The new High School was opened a short time ago at a cost of $80,000.00. The Vocational School was opened in 1926.
The first cement walks were laid in Ridgetown in 1902. The first pavement on the roads began in 1920. The first street lighting system in town was oil-lamps. These remained in use for some time, then gas lights were installed and used for some years until McMaster Bros. installed an electric system which was later purchased by the present Public Utilities Commission in 1912.
The first newspaper, "The East Kent Plaindealer" was first published in 1875 and continued until the death of Mr. George Claxton in 1923.
The first Agricultural Fair was held in Ridgetown in the year 1860 on the Watterworth farm, and was known as the Howard Agricultural Fair. The fine arts, baking, etc. were displayed in the Township Hall on Main Street and the Poultry was shown in crates on the lawn of the Hall. Those who wished to exhibit livestock were obliged to bring fence rails and build their own pens. The Fair proved to be such a success that the Director's decided to make it a permanent affair and purchased some four acres of land on which now stands the home of the late Duff Brien. This was used as a fair ground for about 20 years or up to 1882 when it was sold and the present grounds purchased.
Transcribed from the records of Mrs. Geo. S. Brien, Rural Ridgetown Women's Institute.