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The Stories of the Counties of Ontario

“The sun is up and through the woods
His golden rays are streaming;
The dismal swamp and swale so damp
With faces bright are beaming.”

Alexander M'Lachlan.

FROM a first visit, long ago, to the little old Trinity Church at Galt there remains with me an impression of a quaint tin-covered spire, and of a certain white tablet on one of the walls within, bearing in bold black letters the name, Absalom Shade! More recently, on taking up James Young’s Reminiscences of the Early History of Galt and the Settlement of Dumfries, I discovered again the same quaint name “writ large” across its pages. And this is how Mr. Young portrays its owner: “He was tall and wiry, straight as an arrow, with regular and sharp features—the whole face being lit up with the sharpest of bluish-grey eyes." Shade's connection with Waterloo County began in his early manhood, when he “ looked, every inch of him, the typical *live" Yankee, minus the dyspepsia, slang, and tobacco.” By birth a Pennsylvanian, by trade a carpenter and contractor, circumstances threw him into association with William Dickson, a Scotch gentleman, practising law at Niagara, who bad just purchased the township of Dumfries.

Originally, this block of 94,305 acres had been part of the Indian grant on the Grand River, but Brant had sold it some eighteen years earlier. After that it had changed hands several times, but none of its owners before Mr. Dickson made any use of it. He, however, immediately after his purchase, in 1816, took steps towards settling the land.

At that date Dumfries was uninhabited save for a few hunters and trappers who had squatted along the river, but in the neighbouring township of Waterloo there were beginnings of settlement. Thither in the first years of the century had come a number of German families from Pennsylvania, travelling for weeks along the rude trails of the time, of what was then a wilderness, but is now a prosperous farming country, dotted with towns and villages. The covered wagons of these immigrants, serving at night instead of tents, were usually heavily laden and drawn by four or five horses each. One case is on record, however, of a wagon drawn by a yoke of oxen and a single horse hitched in front.

Of course these people suffered hardship at first, but they were thrifty and persevering. In the first years ot scarcity they planted the parings of the potatoes they were obliged to eat. Not all were poor, however^ There is a tradition that one company brought with them half a barrel of gold and silver to pay for the land they were taking up, and suffered in consequence “perils of robbers” on the journey. These immigrants were less ruthless than some of their contemporaries in the indiscriminate slaughter of forest trees, and within a generation the thickly-settled township of Waterloo had a picturesque, well-settled appearance, delightfully reminiscent of many a lovely country district in the old world. The “Pennsylvania Dutch,” as their neighbours called them, were followed in a few years by Mennonite immigrants from Europe; and halt a century ago it was only the children in many a household in Waterloo who could speak English.

In 1805 the first settlers came to Berlin; but its population had not reached five hundred forty-five years later, and the not-far- distant village of Preston, with one thousand one hundred inhabitants, was a more important place. In the middle of the ccntury, when the district of Wellington became the County of Waterloo—an enormous county, by the way, extending ninety miles from north to south and from twenty to forty from east to west—there was a lively struggle over the choice of a county town. Galt, then an incorporated village of two thousand souls, bid hard for the honour; Preston, too, made a fight for it; but it fell to Berlin, which, though small, was thriving. It had already entered into the manufacture of furniture, now one of its chief industries; and in the course of years it has outgrown its rivals for municipal honours, though Galt is a busy town, claiming to be “the Manchester of Canada.”

But when young Absalom Shade agreed to go “prospecting" with Mr. Dickson on his huge estate, all this was far in the future. About where Paris now stands they judged it advisable to hire an Indian guide. Under his leadership they soon came to a beautiful valley, surrounded by forest-clad hills and watered by the broad river, where years earlier a solitary settler had begun to build a mill, of which some dilapidated remains still stood. Tragical stories of Indian outrage floated about the ruin, but the truth seems to be that Alexander Miller, as the adventurous pioneer was called, had failed to obtain a title to the land and so had abandoned the enterprise.

Shade fell in love at first sight with the valley, and, though he explored further, remained convinced that this was the best site for beginning the settlement. Mr. Dickson leturned to Niagara, though afterwards he lived for some years at Galt, and one of his sons eventually made his home there. But Absalom Shade’s house and store were the first buildings erected, while he converted the old ruin into “ a rough and-ready grist-mill" to serve till a better oue could be constructed. A smithy and a

distillery were soon added, but for several years the place grew very slowly. About 1825 there was an improvement, Mr. Dickson having persuaded many Scottish settlers to come to Dumfries.

He offered a farm to the “Ettrick Shepherd,” but Hogg declined, saying, “The Yarrow couldna want him.” For another literary man, an old schoolfellow of his, Mr. Dickson showed his affection by naming after him his settlement when it first attained to the dignity of having a post-office, but the settlers clung to the familiar name of “Shade’s Mills” till, in 1827, John Galt visited the little hamlet, when his popularity brought the new name into favour.

Destined, like other districts, to suffer from “the railway fever” in the 'fifties, the opening of a new road was quite sufficient in 1839 to throw the district into wild rejoicings. Galt was cut off "from the head of navigation at Hamilton ” by the dreaded Beverly swamp, which, with "its bottomless mud-holes,” soon became the scene of various appalling stories of the disappearance of benighted travellers by mire or murder. It was a terrible business to conduct a heavily-laden wagon through this “Slough of Despond,” and, to avoid the necessity, Absalom Shade, who took quantities of farm produce "in trade,” conceived the brilliant idea of building a fleet of great flat-bottomed boats—sixteen feet wide and eighty feet long—to sail down the Grand River to Lake Erie, and thence by the recently-opened Welland Canal to Lake Ontario. Each of these “arks” was of capacity to carry 400 barrels of flour, and there was vast excitement in Galt when they were loading. Owing to the difficulties of navigation they could be used only during the spring floods. For three years in succession Mr. Shade sailed with his fleet, but in the third year one of his seven well-laden “arks” ran on a rock. With difficulty its cargo of flour was saved and put on an island in the river; then Shade hurried back to Galt, worked almost night and day to complete a new "ark,” reloaded his flour, and “caught up to the first and only fleet which Galt ever possessed” about the middle of the Welland Canal. With such energy, it is not wonderful that Shade succeeded in making a fortune.

In 1832 Dr. Miller, Galt’s first permanent medical man to remain any length of time, settled in the village, though he regarded it as a “very discouraging” place. Conditions were rapidly improving, when in 1834 a terrible calamity occurred. Late in July the whole neighbourhood welcomed eagerly the coming of a “wild-beast show” to Galt, but the country folk had hardly left the village when it was whispered that one of the showmen was down with the cholera. That was Monday, and within a week, and chiefly before Friday night, nearly a fifth of the villagers had fallen victims to the plague.” Not a few of the country visitors to the show were also stricken, but through the horror of the sudden agonising deaths and hasty burials, sometimes of several bodies in one grave, Dr. Miller, Dr. McQuarrie, and a young doctor, John Scott (who had just arrived from Scotland, and afterwards settled in Berlin), fought the disease inch by inch. They were aided bravely by a number of the villagers, and before long the plague was stayed.

It may give a false impression of the brave old pioneer days to close with this sombre picture; but there is not spare to tell of the debating societies and amateur theatricals which enlivened the settlers’ busy lives, nor of Ihe lengthy sermons and admirable lectures which improved their minds. For the same reason, the hot political contests of “the Rebellion” period, the excitement over the visits of such notables as William Lyon Mackenzie, Governor Arthur, and Lord Elgin, the odd happenings on "training day.” and other festive occasions, have all to be passed over (regretfully) in silence. But they leave one with the impression that life in the country — when the province was practically all country—was extraordinarily full and vigorous and interesting.

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