News

Town ensures Tillson’s vision for property is preserved

By Debora Van Brenk, The London Free Press

Rolph Street school. (File photo)

Rolph Street school. (File photo)

A debate that simmered for weeks over the ownership of a park once owned by the scion of a Southwestern Ontario town’s founder is now settled, with the school board that’s maintained it for eight decades saying it will relinquish any claims to it.

In 1865, George B. Tillson, son of Tillsonburg’s founder, registered several parcels of land in his name, including property he was later to place into public care. He also later deeded an adjacent parcel for educational use, land on which Rolph Street school was eventually built.

But the school closed last year, and the Thames Valley District school board recently sent out notices it intended to sell its property.

The question was: Which parcel? “A portion of the property which the Thames board intends to sell is registered in the name of George B. Tillson,” the board said in a legal notice looking for Tillson descendents to step forward by April 29.

And that didn’t sit right with Jenese Price Derrough, a great-great-grand-daughter of George B. Tillson who lives in North Carolina. She said Tillson’s vision for the property should be upheld since he never handed over ownership.

"George Tillson's whole goal for the property was education," she said. "If he wanted them to have it he would have deeded it to the school board and said, In 100 years, you can sell it."

She feared the school board was grabbing the land and would sell it for development.

But that’s not the case, said Kevin Bushell, head of facility services for the Thames board.

He said the board was getting ready to sell the school property and needed to know where the school property ended and the parkland began.

Now that descendants — Derrough and others — have come forward, the board has suspended any potential sale. “We’re actually doing anything but a land grab. We’re giving it back. We’re trying to make it right,” Bushell said.

Dealing with pre-Confederation documents has its challenges, he noted.

Some of the ravine area is already used as part of the town’s Participark.

Bushell gave assurances that won’t change, even when the board eventually puts the school property up for sale.

“We’re going to work with the town to transfer that (parkland) parcel to the town.”

And, he said, the board will make sure there’s a strip of land that will provide access from the street to the park at the back.

The town intends to keep the park in public hands, town clerk Donna Wilson said in an email to Derrough late last week.

“The Town’s lawyer has advised us that the School Board will not attempt to sell any parcel which is in the Tillson name and the Town’s lawyer will be working towards clearing up the title to a number of pieces of property within the Town that are currently green space or parkland currently in the Tillson name . . . The property will remain green space and there will not be any attempt to sell the land.”

George Barker Tillson was just a boy when his pioneering mother and his father — who was the town’s founder, George Tillson — moved to the area from Maine in 1825. George B. was the eldest of nine children and part of a family that owned much of the land in and around what is now Tillsonburg.

Derrough emphasized she is not the family spokesperson, and other relatives in her father’s generation should have a voice in what happens to the property.