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The Stories of the Counties of Ontario

“He’s a king upon a throne
Who has acre of his own!”

Alexander M'Lachlan.

THIS little county, which from the first has always been essentially a farming district, long laboured under the disadvantage of being somewhat swampy. This seems strange, when it is remembered that it is one of the highest parts of old Ontario, and is, in fact, the watershed between the four lakes—Huron, Simcoe, Erie, and Ontario. The altitude of Orangeville, which is only forty-nine miles from Toronto, is 1395 feet above sea-level, or 1100 feet above the spot occupied by the City Hall of Toronto. But this “roof of Ontario" as it has been called, is a very flat and in places a depressed roof, so that, fifty years ago, it was described as a dreary level of cedar and tamarack swamps, out of which the head-waters of the numerous streams that take their rise in the county “oozed” as little rivulets. But though, during the last few decades, Dufferin, like some larger counties, has lost population to the cities and to the West, its swamps are being gradually reclaimed, and now, especially during the last year or two since the county has had the benefit of a District Representative of the Department of Agriculture, the work of drainage has been going forward with great rapidity. A citizen of Orangeville owns a modern ditching machine, and at the little village of Laurel, which is only a flag-station on the Canadian Pacific Railway, no less than four cart-loads of tiles were delivered during one season, whilst one Dufferin County farmer put in “well over five miles of drains himself.”

The settlement of the county began in the twenties of last century, but for years the population was very thinly scattered. As late as 1841 Amaranth and Melancthon Townships together had only 105 inhabitants, but by 1851 this number had multiplied by five, whilst the less swampy township of Mono had over 1000 inhabitants.

Dufferin County was, of course, named after the popular nobleman who was Governor General of the Dominion from 1872 to 1878, but the origin of its somewhat odd township names is involved in an obscurity which even Mr. Gardiner’s painstaking industry can scarcely penetrate. Muimur and Garafraxa are supposed to have been derived from Indian names—Mono is Spanish for “ monkey,” but why it was applied to the township is not clear—and Amaranth may have been named after a common weed or the “imaginary unfading flower” of the poets. As to Melancthon and Luther, there is a local tradition that a Roman Catholic surveyor, disgusted with the swamps, determined to name them after “the meanest man he had ever heard of!” But as the name of the gentle Philip Melancthon was his German patronymic, Schwarzeid (meaning “black earth”) done into Greek, is there not a possibility that the township name merely refers to the colour of the swampy soil, and that the giver of the name Melancthon may have added that of his great associate, Luther, as an afterthought?

There is a pitiful pioneer tragedy connected with Melancthon and the scattered settlement of Horning’s Mills. One day a son of Horning and three other children, named Van Meer, were sent to fetch the cows for milking, and from that hour were never seen again. Long there lingered a notion that they had been carried off by Indians, and twenty years later a young man turned up, claiming to be the lost Horning boy. But he gave such a contradictory account of himself that his story was not believed, and the mystery of the children’s fate was never cleared up. There were rumours in the pioneer days of a silver mine, known only to a few white men and Indians, on a kind of island of rock in Melancthon swamp, but no one has ever been the richer for its mythical treasures.

Sixty years ago large quantities of maple sugar used to be made in Garafraxa and other parts of the county, and to the young folk at least sugar-making, though there was plenty of hard work connected with it, seemed one of the pleasantest tasks of the year. It belonged to the bright weather of early spring, when, though the snow still lay deep in the woods and the nights were sharp and frosty, the sun’s power was making itself felt in the lengthening days. Before the sap began to run, the careful pioneer made ready plenty of troughs and buckets, casks and kettles, for the “tapping” of his trees, often two or three hundred in number. The first step of the process was to make an auger-hole through the bark, in which to fix a “spile” or spout of metal or wood to carry the sap into the receptacles below. The sap was collected once or twice a day, and was boiled in great kettles hung from a pole held in crotched sticks over a fire in the open air. This fire was often built along the great trunk of some fallen tree. If possible each day’s “run” of sap was finished the same night. When the syrup was sufficiently well boiled, the kettles were taken from the fire, and their contents were stirred till they turned to sugar, which was set in moulds to harden. “On these occasions,” writes one who had often taken part in such frolics, “the fun was free and boisterous,” and when the youngsters at last made their way homewards, they were usually very hilarious and sticky.

Mr. C. R. M'Keown, who since 1907 has been the representative of the county in the Provincial Legislature, and has been kind enough to give me some notes concerning its history, says that “Dufferin was formed in 1879, by taking Orangeville, East Garafraxa, East Luther, and Amaranth from the county of Wellington, Mono and Muhnur from Simcoe, and Shelburne and Melancthon from the county of Grey. The Act forming the county was so shaped that Orangeville, upon the passing of the Act, became at once the county town. Tnis caused great rivalry between this town and the village of Shelburne, which, though small as compared with Orangeville, was situated in the very centre of the new county. The Separation Act, however, carried, and Orangeville became the county town.”

With the exception of one instance, Dufferin has always been represented in the Dominion and Provincial Legislatures by Conservatives. It first became entitled to representation as a separate county in the Dominion House in 1905, and Dr. Barr of Shelburne was its first member in the House of Commons.

The county has been the scene of many triumphs in the cause of temperance, and, except in the village of Grand Valley, there are no licensed hotels within its borders. In some other respects Dufferin is a progressive county. It has many rural telephones and a number of rural mail delivery routes. In connection with its high schools, short courses have been given in judging stock and seed, and a few months ago six rural schools united to hold a school fair at Laurel, the exhibits coming, not from school gardens, but from the home-farms of the pupils.

The couplet at the head of this sketch was written by a Scotsman, who in more senses than one may be counted a “pioneer” Canadian poet. Like Kingsley’s Alton Locke, M'Lachlan was both “tailor and poet,’ having learnt his trade in Scotland, before coming out to try, somewhat unsuccessfully, to make a success of bush-farming. Like Kingsley’s hero too his ideals were democratic. His early volumes of verse were printed in Toronto and published, not very effectively, by himself. But he made many good friends in his life. D’Arcy M'Gee in 1862 obtained for him the appointment of Government Emigration agent in Scotland, and twice his admirers, of whom there were many, subscribed to “testimonials” in the form of sums of money for his benefit. When nearly sixty, he settled with some members of his large family on a farm in Amaranth Township; and in the last year of his chequered life he bought “a substantial brick house in Elizabeth Street, Orangeville." There he died suddenly on March 20, 1896, and his mortal remains were laid to rest in the pleasant Greenwood Cemetery, two miles west of the town.

In the early nineties, a barrister and prominent citizen of Orangeville, Elgin Myers, who was created Queen’s Counsel in 1890 and County crown attorney of Dufferin in the following year, startled the community by his written and spoken recommendations of annexation to the United States. When it was objected that “public advocacy of the transfer of Canada and its people to a foreign nation" was “inconsistent with the holding of a public office in connection with the administration of justice,” he insisted on his right of free speech and declined to resign. Finally, after much correspondence, he was dismissed from his office by Hon. Oliver Mowat’s Government in 1892.

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