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The Stories of the Counties of Ontario

“Cheerily on the axe of labour
Let the sunbeams dance,
Better than the flash of sabre
Or the gleam of knee.”


THE first white settlers in Norfolk County on Lake Erie, as in Frontenac and Lennox, were Loyalists, and the story of their journeys to their new home in the great woods of noble beeches, maples, and white pines would easily fill a volume. One large family party of men and women and young children—the Mabees— wintered at Quebec; then the mothers and little ones were put on board open boats, whilst the men, happy enough to possess several horses and cows, drove the animals along the shore. For provisions they trusted largely to corn-meal and the milk of the cows.

The patriarchal leader of the cavalcade, Frederick Mabee, built the first log cabin of the new settlement at the foot of the hill overlooking Turkey Point, but within a year he died suddenly and was laid to rest in a coffin made painfully by the hollowing out of a great walnut log, and his grave was marked by a large boulder.

Another party of settlers from the south, bound for Townsend Township, slung baskets or panniers in pairs across the backs of their cows and tucked a little child comfortably in each basket.

Late in the summer of 179S) Governor Simcoe visited Norfolk County and chose a site, a little east of where Port Dover now stands, for its chief town, intending that a fort and Government building should he erected. He named it “Charlotte Villa,” in honour of the Queen, but the town was never built. In 1803, when Turkey Point (or Port Norfolk, as it was called for a time) became chief town of the London District, which was much larger than the present County of Norfolk, the settlers put up a log building, of which the upper storey served for a court-room and the lower for a jail. The latter was, however, so insecure that "any prisoner could release himself in half an hour unless guarded by a sentinel.'’ The juries, by the way, generally “held their consultations under the shade of a tree.”

During the War of 1812 three American schooners bore down on Port Norfolk to burn the Court-House. One of their officers was killed, and they retreated without carrying out their plan. Several of the mills were burned, however. In 1820 Vittoria became county town ; afterwards the courts were held at London, and still later Simcoe, which now has a population of about 3200, became county town for Talbot District, as the country now comprised in Norfolk was called for a while. At the time of the rebellion Norfolk was represented in the Assembly by Dr. Rolph, and feeling ran high for and against the rebels.

But to go back to earlier times—Governor Simcoe was so much pleased with the district that when a Loyalist, Captain Samuel Ryerson (uncle of the great educationist, Rev. Egerton Ryerson), asked his advice as to where to settle, he recommended Long Point and promised large grants of land to him and his family. Ryerson had come to Niagara from New York, a difficult journey in those days, when there were no roads. Being obliged to come up the Hudson, then down the Mohawk to Lake Ontario, he had brought a boat as large as he dared, considering that it was necessary to make a portage between the two rivers. Besides its human freight it was heavily laden with farm implements, household utensils, and supplies of groceries to last two or three years; but at Queens-ton it had to be unloaded and carried round the Falls to Chippewa, a distance of twelve miles. By this time the summer was almost ended and the voyagers were eager to press on, to get some kind of shelter put up before winter; but they were twelve days making the final hundred miles, which seemed to carry them beyond the last outpost of civilisation.'

Sailing along the shore of Lake Erie, the captain, liking the appearance of a small creek with high, sloping banks, ran his boat into it, landed and decided that at that spot he would make his home. There ill due course, after many difficulties, he built not only a log house, but a flour mill and sawmill. Once he planned to try to make a town of it, but thought better of it, and to this day Port Ryerse—as, through a mistake, the place was called—is only a little hamlet. The Long Point settlement at this time (1795) boasted four householders in twenty miles, all settled along the shore. Between them and Niagara lay the Mohawk reserves along the Grand River, but the Indians were friendly and were by no means bad neighbours.

All kinds of wild creatures abounded in the woods and along the shores—from wild geese and ducks, pigeons and turkeys to bears and wolves. Years afterwards an old trapper declared that he had killed over a hundred bears and wild-cats innumerable, whilst musk-rats were so plentiful that in one year he had caught 1700. Captain Ryerson had a couple of deerhounds, and when he wanted meat he used "to go to the woods for his deer as a farmer would go to the ford for a sheep.” For fear of the wolves the cow was tied to the kitchen door every night, and during the day was taken by the men to the place where they were chopping and fed on “browse” from a maple tree cut down each morning for her especial benefit

Of course the settlers got their sugar from the trees, and till the mill was built they made johnny-cake, instead of bread, of corn ground in a coffee-mill. Almost the greatest difficulty in the early days was to get clothes. The wolves, which, even after the country was partly settled, used to raid the folds, made it difficult to keep sheep, and "it was flax, the peddler’s pack, and buckskins that the early settlers had to depend upon for clothing.”

After the Loyalists other immigrants gradually came in, but the lack of markets was a great discouragement to farming. There was very little money in the country, and the people had to trade their goods as best they could. For many years lumbering was the chief industry of the county. In Walsingham Township thousands of forest giants were floated down Big Creek, near the mouth of which stands the little old village of Port Royal, and even in the last quarter of the nineteenth century the people in the back parts of the township were clearing the land and chopping and logging as the settlers on the lake had been doing eighty years earlier.

Besides its magnificent trees Norfolk County possesses other interesting natural features. In the township of Townsend are beds of limestone extraordinarily rich in fossils, whilst Houghton has strange high sandhills above the lake, from which the tops of dead trees stick out like the masts and spais of stranded ships. In Charlotteville deposits of bog iron-ore led to the building at Normandale in 1823 of a small blast-furnace. Last, though not least, amongst the notable features of the county is the island, jutting out thirty miles into the lake, from which the early settlement of Long Point was named. It supplied excellent cedar for posts and was the haunt of wildfowl innumerable.

It has, moreover, a special human interest, for there, some fifty-eight years ago, lived Abigail Becker, a "Canadian Grace Darling,” who one bitter winter morning—the story is well known—saved from death the crew of a lake schooner. It had been driven by a fierce north-west gale on a sand bar, the waves every moment threatening the lives of the eight men who formed its crew.

“And it was cold—oh, it was cold!
The pinching cold was like a vice.
Spoondrift fell freezing—fold on fold—
It coated them with ice.”

For hours the sailors had clung despairingly to the rigging, but Abigail and her boys made a fire on the shore and then the strong, brave young woman signalled to the men to trust themselves to the raging surf and to her help. At last the captain ventured and was swept far down the beach, but Abigail dashed into the foaming water and dragged the half-frozen man to land. She did the same for six more. The cook, unable to swim, could not be induced to venture, but on the morrow they reached him with a raft. Before this Abigail had saved two other people from drowning, and it seemed especially sad that later she should lose a boy of her own in the waters of Port Rowan Bay.

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