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The Stories of the Counties of Ontario

“In the country places,
Where the old plain men have rosy feces,
And the young, fair maidens Quiet eyes!”

Robert Louis Stevenson.

THIRTY years ago there lingered about Woodstock, in Oxford County, traditions of English gentlemen, “fine” and otherwise, who had “come out "with more or less money, and had attempted to transplant into the wilderness—tracked here and there with “blazed” paths - the luxurious habits and customs of their class. They were remembered as “holding their heads high,” thinking much of “family,” superciliously tolerant of “the lower orders,” keeping numerous servants, making rash experiments in farming, building roomy dwelling-places, devoting their time largely to sport and amusement., spending freely on wine, horses, and imported luxuries. Elderly ladies recalled with indulgent smiles the gay doings—the balls, the sleighing parties — of their girlhood, when the Imperial garrison at London furnished for a large area of country a supply of military gallants always ready to take part in any accessible diversion. Woodstock was in those days, it was said, “a very English place,” but even thirty years ago these early glories were but a memory. Scarlet-coated officers had long disappeared from the scene; the gay butterflies of family and fashion had given place to more sober, hard-working folks—in some instances, it was whispered with bated breath, to the men and women who had tended their horses and cooked their luxurious feasts. Some were ruined, some were dead; others, after playing for a few years at pioneering, had returned to more congenial surroundings, but meanwhile the rank and file of “less fortunate” settlers had plodded on, year after year, clearing the bush, gathering out the stones, making at once their own farms and the county, which is to-day notable fur its prosperity and fur its quiet beauty of low, rolling hills, well-cultivated fields, and gentle streams.

The county gained its name of Oxford in 1798, when the old township of Oxford on the Thames, with other municipalities formerly belonging to the then huge counties of Norfolk and York, was formed into a new county and made part of London district. The townships of Zorra and Nissouri were added in 1821, and sixteen years later steps were taken tor the erection of a jail and court-house at Woodstock, where the first court was held for the new “District of Brock” in April, 1840. The survey of the first three concessions of Blenheim Township was ordered in 1793 for the benefit of an American, Watson, to whom Governor Simcoe, in reward for some services rendered during the Revolutionary War, had promised a township. This man’s nephew, Thomas Horner, built the first mill in the county, bringing the material from Albany, New York State, in two small boats by lakes and rivers and portages to Burlington Bay, from which he carried them inland to Blenheim on ox-sleds. The mill was built and fitted up by the end of 1795, but before a plank was sawn the dam burst and could not be repaired, for lack of workmen, till 1797. This accomplished, Horner claimed the township, but Simcoe had left the country, and the new Governor refused to honour his promise. Worse still, in the troublous times that succeeded doubts were cast upon Horner’s loyalty. Though Deputy-Lieutenant of the county, General Brock would not trust him with a command during the War of 1812. But, not to be deterred. from taking part in the defence of the country, Horner. at his own expense, raised a corps of seventy-live Indian warriors, and afterwards served in the ranks as a volunteer.

When Oxford County became entitled to a representative for itself in the Assembly, Horner was its first member. He was also a Justice of the Peace, performing many marriages, under the rule that a magistrate might officiate where no Church of England clergyman liked within eighteen miles. A brother-magistrate is said to have married between four and five hundred persons.

A few years after Horner’s death in 1834 Francis Hincks (afterwards knighted) represented the county. Still later, George Brown, founder of “The Globe, sat for Oxford.” Several early elections for the constituency were held at “Martin’s Old Stand,” in the village of Beachville, whose importance has been long outstripped by its younger rivals, Woodstock and Ingersoll.

The former, long referred to ignominiously as the “Town Plot,” had indeed been marked out for a town by Simcoe, but as late as 1836 it was represented by “a paltry village”—or, rather, by “a few straggling houses at very unsocial intervals.” Even at that date it had its (now) venerable brick Church of St. Paul’s, one brick house among the wooden ones, a post-office, to which came three mails a week, and a subscription library, but it had no newspaper till 1840.

During the first half of the nineteenth century the population of Oxford County increased very rapidly, numbering over 32,500 by 1852. Of these nearly a third had been born in “the old country.” At that time immigrants usually arrived in Canada about August, a circumstance which must have added to the hardships of the first year.

In the township of Zorra there settled a notable colony of Scotch Highlanders. The pioneers of this colony, Angus and William MaoKay, took up land in Zorra in 1820. After nine years Angus, as is told by Rev, W. A. MacKay, in his Pioneer Life in Zorra, went back to Scotland and brought out his aged mother and a shipload of Sutherlanders, who had been heartlessly driven by their landlords from their little holdings. Of course, much in their new life was quite outside their former experience, and, judging from the number of ghost stories told amongst them, the great woods must have had a powerful effect on their lively Celtic imaginations. In the first spring after their arrival, one party of immigrants was much alarmed one morning by some weird, unaccustomed sounds. On this occasion, however, they decided that the Indians, not ghosts, must be accountable for the noise, and the men armed hastily, only to be informed by older settlers that the disturbance was caused by nothing more dreadful than the bull-frogs celebrating the breaking of their icy prison.

In clearing the woods many accidents occurred through the inexperience of the choppers, and some piteous stories could be told of women and children left alone in the strange land to fight the battle of life. On the whole) however, the Highlanders were of the type speedily to “ make good.” They were alike sturdy and God-fearing, helpful to each other, ready to sacrifice much for the education of their children, great readers of their Gaelic Bible, regular attendants at the little log churches. Once a year people used to gather from miles around for the great Communion in Zorra Church—the best building in the township—and on that occasion every householder in the neighbourhood showed that hospitality which caused Burns to declare:

“In Heaven itself I’ll ask no more
Than just a Highland welcome.”

Unhappily some amongst those fine people found a terrible enemy in “the black bottle.” One Scot, with grim irony, called his own whisky jug “Jeroboam,” because that king “had made Israel to sin,” and at elections, weddings, and funerals, at barn-raisings and logging bees “the black bottle” was responsible for much that was unlovely and nut a little that was tragic in the simple life of the times. Perhaps it had also something to do with the ghost-seeing habit.

When a Highlander died in Zorra his corpse lay for several days in state, his neighbours keeping watch over it, and relieving the near relatives of the work of house and farm. The coffin was home-made and darkened with lampblack and white of egg. Covered by a “morte cloth” of black silk velvet, it was borne to the grave on men’s shoulders. Later, as the roads improved, lumber wagons were used, and the first spring wagon in a neighbourhood did duty as a hearse far and wide. As late as 1830, however, there were in the whole county only three carriages of the type described as pleasure wagons.

In the thirties Oxford County, as others, had its grievances concerning land grants and roads; but during the Rebellion two hundred stalwart men presented themselves at Embro to express their loyalty in a practical fashion by fighting the rebels, if need were. As there were not guns enough to go round, the men were put through their exercises with hop-poles. After a week there came news of an intended attack on Woodstock so, armed with guns and clubs, the Highlanders matched to the defence of the town, inspired by the warlike strains of the pipes. It proved a false alarm. On their way home some of the volunteers were so much alarmed by the cracking reports from the trees that they fled helter-skelter; but apparently this little lapse did not destroy the confidence of the neighbourhood in the valour of its amateur soldiers, for during the “Fenian scare "an old Zorra lady is reported to have said: “They may tak' Montreal, and they may tak’ Toronto, and they may tak’ Woodstock, but they’ll never tak’ Zorra."

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