The history of Sackville is entwined with the windswept marshes that surround it. Long before humans recognized its potential, flocks of migrating birds were drawn to the marshlands. For centuries, the silty shores of the Cumberland Basin have been a gathering place for shorebirds at low tide; at high tide waterfowl feed on the salt marsh. Further inland, the dense grasses provide protection and nesting areas.
The marshlands proved to be a strategic location for native peoples as well. More than 7,000 years ago, Mi’kmaq canoed and portaged the marsh’s waterways to pass from the Bay of Fundy to the Northumberland Strait. Its central location within Mi’kmaq territory (today’s Maritime Provinces) made it an ideal meeting place for Mi’kmaq Chiefs.
A strategic location and fertile marshland also attracted Sackville’s first permanent settlers. Emigrants from the Atlantic Coast of France, Acadians brought their indigenous farming methods – dyking and draining marshland – to the New World. As population pressures grew in the French colony of Acadia, many of these settlers left Port Royal to relocate on the marshes at the head of the Bay of Fundy.
In 1708, five families from Acadian settlements near Nappan/Maccan (just south of Amherst) set up homesteads from Westcock to Middle Sackville. By 1752 there were a few hundred people living on the marshes bordering the Tantramar River. The largest village was "Tintamarre" in present day Middle and Upper Sackville. A monument commemorating the founding of this Acadian settlement has been erected on the site of Campbell Carriage Factory Museum.
As these settlements grew and trade flourished, French and British military forces fought to secure this strategic point on the Isthmus of Chignecto. In the 1750s the British built Fort Lawrence and the French built Fort Beauséjour on adjacent ridges of the Tantramar Marsh.
In 1755, British forces seized Fort Beauséjour and renamed it Fort Cumberland. This was a key battle and resulted in Britain gaining control of New France and Acadia. Caught in the crossfire, an estimated 10,000 Acadians were deported to other colonies in British North America or to France. Their homes and barns in and around the marshes were burned to the ground. Through their efforts, thousands of acres of reclaimed salt marsh laid the foundation for Sackville’s prosperous agricultural economy. Wooden remnants of dykes hand built by the Acadian can still be seen along the Westcock Marsh.
Following the deportation of the Acadians, the British encouraged New Englanders to resettle the marsh and the adjacent uplands. Between 1760-61, the first major wave of “Planters” arrived – 25 families, primarily from Rhode Island. Disbanded military personnel from Fort Cumberland who accepted land grants also established homesteads in the area.
In 1762-63, The Township of Sackville was laid out. Named in honor of Lord George Sackville, commander of British Forces, Sackville consisted of 100,000 acres and 20 families.
From these beginnings, the Township grew slowly. By 1767, the population was a modest 349. Efforts to promote settlement resulted in the "Yorkshire Immigration" of 1772-75 when over 1,000 settlers left their homeland, seeking relief from rising rents and religious tension. Most of the Yorkshire Methodists settled in the Sackville area where they extended the dykelands, producing hay to feed domestic and foreign markets.
Sackville became the centre of one of the most successful farming districts in the Atlantic region. Although the 12,000 acres of dykeland produced rye, oats, flax, barley, hemp, Indian corn, and tobacco, hay remained the primary cash crop up to the mid-19th century.
Middle Sackville was the heart of the community in the 1830s, clustered around sawmills, gristmills, and the millpond that is now known as Silver Lake. Associated businesses included tanneries, leather goods factories, carriage factories and blacksmith shops.
The “Great Road” to Prosperity
Downtown Sackville developed later, around the 1840s. William Crane is credited for initiating the shift. He relocated his thriving trading business and store to the present site of the Sackville Town Hall, and in 1836 built his mansion across the street. Cranewood is now the home of the president of Mount Allison University. Crane successfully lobbied for a more direct route to Nova Scotia, rather than the High Marsh Road into Middle Sackville. The Great Road, later renamed Bridge Street, ran through the heart of the business district, connecting Sackville to Nova Scotia across the Tantramar River.
In 1839, Charles Frederick Allison donated money and land in the centre of town to establish the Mount Allison Wesleyan Academy, which become Mount Allison University. The University houses one of the oldest art galleries in Canada, Owens Art Gallery.
The first public wharf was constructed in 1841 at the end of Landing Road. Sackville’s shipbuilding industry flourished in the mid to late 1800s. Three large shipyards on the Tantramar River were building sailing shops that carried cargo and passengers to Maritime ports, the eastern United States and beyond. A total of 165 ships were launched from local yards. Today, the Boultenhouse Heritage Centre overlooks the site of the yards and features handcrafted models depicting Sackville’s seafaring past.
The first of two foundries, Enamel and Heating Products Limited opened in 1852 followed by the Enterprise Foundry in 1872. Both foundries produced a full line of stoves and heaters, employing up to 500 when they merged. Sackville became known as the foundry capital of the Maritimes, exporting its products all over the world. The history of the foundries, including photographs and artifacts are displayed in the Boulenthouse Centre.
By the turn of the century Sackville was booming. The population approached 2,000 when the town was incorporated in 1903. During this time most of the buildings now comprising the town’s core were constructed. Still the heart of Sackville’s downtown, this area is known as the Wood Block and has a Provincial Heritage site designation.
In recent years, there has been a growing emphasis on Sackville as a cultural resource – a place for artists, naturalists and ecotourism. Large tracts of marshland have been flooded, returning them to a more natural state for migratory birds. In 1947, the newly formed Canadian Wildlife Service located its Field Office in Sackville, underscoring the renewed interest in the importance of the marshes to migratory birds. Developments such as the Sackville Waterfowl Park reinforced this trend. Through an extensive boardwalk, the Waterfowl Park enables visitors and residents alike to connect with the marsh and its inhabitants.
Sackville's business landscape has also changed. In 2002 Moneris Solutions, one of the largest merchant transaction processors in North America moved to Sackville. Moneris Solutions took over the former Atlantic Wholesalers headquarters, beautifully restoring this landmark building and creating hundreds of jobs for people of the area. Sackville’s high-speed telecommunications have also attracted a number of smaller knowledge-based businesses.
Today, Sackville is known as one of the best places to live in Canada. And as one of the province’s oldest communities, history is never far away. Shortwave transmission towers rise from centuries old salt marsh. Manufacturing plants overlook glistening mudflats. Ancient dykes lie buried beneath modern ones. Everywhere on the marsh there is an overriding sense of the past, so tangible that one can almost hear the creak of an Acadian ox-cart as the sunset ignites the skies over Westcock Marsh.