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The Stories of the Counties of Ontario

“I wuss ye weelI the kinrtra's lairge,
An’ ye’re but twa wi‘ Mary,
Ye’ll shortly hae the owner's chairge,
Nae doot, o’ half a prairie.
Theres ample room in sic a park
To found a score o' nations,
An' flourish like a patriarch
Amon’ your generations.”

J. Logie Robertson.

"THE country’s large”—even so it may be said of Renfrew County alone, with its three dozen townships, named variously with Indian words and with names reminiscent of Canadian Governors, Crimean generals, lumber merchants, great ladies, and little English villages.

A curious incident links this county, till less than a century ago inhabited only by Indians, with the brave days of early French exploration, for in 1867 an antique astronomical instrument was ploughed up near Muskrat Lake, which, on good circumstantial evidence, proved to be an astrolabe lost by Champlain in 1613 on his disappointing journey up the Ottawa, by which route the lying De Vignau had promised to lead him to Hudson Bay.

In 1827 the Hudson’s Bay Company established one trading post at Golden Lake and another at the Chats, with a third, Fort Coulonge, on the Quebec bank of the Ottawa, between Allumette and Calumet Islands. Some seven years later the lumbering operations begun on the Ottawa extended to the banks of its tributary streams, watering the well-wooded wilderness now Renfrew County. But the dark and turgid Madawaska—the "Never-frozen,” as its Indian name means—rushing headlong between high precipitous banks, was regarded even by the hardy lumbermen as so dangerous that it was not till 1836 that the cutting of the valuable timber upon its banks commenced. Soon after that, however, the Government took measures to render it more passable.

In 1821 Peter White, who had been in the Royal Navy and had come to Canada in 1813 to serve under Sir James Yeo on Lake Ontario, settled on the site of Pembroke, Renfrew’s future county town. He had brought up his family by canoe from Bytown, taking fourteen days on the way, though the journey can now be made in three and a half hours, and at first the house of his nearest white neighbour was sixty miles distant from his log cabin. It is said, by the way, that the roofs of such log cabins, made of hollowed tree trunks, with the grooves placed alternately up and down, were a better defence against rain than the walls usually were against wind.

It was not then, as with our modern pioneers in the west, that the first resource was grain. The old-time backwoodsman looked to obtain his first cash payment from potash; and Mrs. McDougall, a member of the Women’s Historical Society of Ottawa, writing of “Renfrew in the Early Days,” describes how the ashes from the burnt wood were leached in wedge-shaped vessels, how the lye was boiled "until it looked like molten iron,” and then was poured into coolers, “two of which filled a barrel.” A barrel of potash of first quality was at one' time worth thirty dollars, and it was the custom for the local merchant to pay on account twelve dollars for each barrel, but the farmer had to wait patiently for the rest until “the merchant returned from Montreal, where he got ready money for all the potash entrusted to him.”

The housekeeper of those almost moneyless days was happily wonderfully independent of the shops, with remarkable ingenuity, her spinning-wheel, her supply of sugar and syrup from the maples on the farm, and plenty of "Labrador tea" for the gathering along the edges of swamps and streams. (This was said, by the way, to be a “very fair substitute for the real article.”) If she wanted vinegar, she made it with "vinegar-plant.” If she had need of candles, she took some wicks, about half a yard long, and dipped and re-dipped until her candles were thick enough; but her labours in this matter were soon simplified by the coming in of moulds.

Bread-making in those days had its own peculiar difficulties. In the first place, as has been said over and over again, it was hard to obtain flour. One Renfrew settler carried a bag of wheat twelve miles to be ground in a coffee-mill, and another, whose family was giving a party, rode sixty miles to Perth for flour to make bread. In the second place, before hops were grown, ordinary yeast was not to be had, and the dough was "raised” with a preparation made from burnt hardwood or with fermented bran, which last made a nice white loaf, but one that dried extraordinarily quickly.

The Indians brought supplies of fish, game, and cranberries to the settlers, but wild strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries only followed the clearing of the land. The Caughnawaga Indians, coming from the Lake of Two Mountains to winter at Golden Lake, were the first to bring in apples—little, round, hard things, but none (he less the delight of the children.

That was the period when many useful people had to itinerate—not only missionaries, but also tailors and shoemakers. As for teachers, Renfrew seems to have been fortunate in obtaining for the children the services of some well-educated young men who had come into the district in hopes of sport.

Amongst the immigrants of different ranks and nationalities, the county had, of course, its share of oddities. One of the most eccentric of the pioneers was that “real Highland chieftain,” "The MacNab of MacNab,” who, in 1825, received a grant of the township named after him. Four or five miles from the head of the Chats Rapids, he built his castle, Kinne1 Lodge. Around it his clansmen erected their humbler dwellings. Every year he sold an immense quantity of fine timber, and it was his delight at times, “to move about the Provinces,” somewhat in the style of “Vich Ian Vohr” in Waverley, attired in full Highland costume, and attended with a piper going before, and a “tail” of henchmen following after. There are many stories of his consequential manners. It has often been told how he registered in the visitors’ book of an hotel at Kingston as “The MacNab,” and how a young relative, the future “Sir Allan” of Hamilton, coming in immediately afterwards, registered as “The Other MacNab.” An acquaintance who addressed him as “Mr. MacNab” was called to order with the remark: "Sir, I thought you had known better— nothing but MacNab, if you please. Mr. does not belong to me.” In 1837 he offered his services to Sir Francis Bond Head, as “the only Highland Chieftain in America.”

Many immigrants, some of whom were described as "lovely Highland girls,” came out to his estate every year, tie used to meet the new-comers at Quebec and escort them in person “to the land of timber instead of heather,” but his management of affairs did not altogether please his clansmen, and in 1842 the Government, desiring to put an end to the constant contentions, paid him $16,000 to relinquish his rights. After living in Hamilton for a few years, he returned to Scotland to take possession of a small estate left to him in the Orkneys, and died in France in 1860. Highlanders settled also in Buchanan and Ross townships.

In the early days the district along the upper portion of the Madawaska (now comprised in the townships of Brougham, Wilberforce, and Grattan) was known as "Rogues’ Harbour,” from the fact that absconding debtors and other disreputable squatters had made it their refuge.

In 1854 Renfrew, separated from Lanark, was represented in Parliament by Sir Francis Hincks. It was twelve years later, however, before the county gained its municipal independence; and “when the county town was Perth and there were no roads through Renfrew, to be singled out as a juryman meant that the hand of fortune was against you." Jurymen were then paid twelve and a half cents for each case they were on, but were not allowed mileage, even though they might have to tramp on foot fifty, sixty, or seventy miles to attend the court.

About 1850 a road was opened from the Ottawa, below Calumet Island, to Cobden, at the head of Muskrat Lake, and stages were run on this highway to connect with a “line" of rowboats which carried passengers and goods to Pembroke, till they were superseded by a small steamboat. This seemed an immense advance, but now the transcontinental line of the Canadian Pacific Railway passes through Pembroke.

For long, farming in Renfrew was neglected for the sake of lumbering; but as the lumbermen had to go farther back their demand for supplies led to some cultivation of the soil, and some of the great lumber merchants established farms to supply their own camps.

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