The first settlers were timber squatters; Scottish settlers followed. The most prominent Scottish settler was John Lorne McDougall. McDougall was the first store owner and later a member of Parliament. His mill, built in 1855, is now a museum. Around 1848 the site received its present name, for Renfrewshire, Scotland. Renfrewshire is the ancestral home of the Stuarts, a Scottish royal family.
In 1850, Sir Francis Hincks offered free water sites to those who would build mills, and a boom followed. The town was first prominent for lumber, butter making and textiles. Renfrew is now primarily a service centre complemented by some light manufacturing.
The Renfrew Creamery Kings competed in the National Hockey Association, the predecessor to the National Hockey League, in the early 1900s. Financed by wealthy contractor and industrialist, Ambrose J. O'Brien, the team was nicknamed the Renfrew Millionaires. They competed for the Stanley Cup in 1910. Today the Renfrew Timberwolves compete in the Central Canada Hockey League.
The Renfrew Fair has been held each fall since 1853. A bluegrass festival is held annually in July.