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The Stories of the Counties of Ontario

“Rickety, shingleless, old and grey.
Scathed by the storms of many a day,
In a wayside spot where the wild weeds grow,
Stands the old cabin of long ago.”

Thomas Sparks, M.D.

THIS county was not set apart as a separate municipality till 1847, but to make intelligible the first chapter in its history it is necessary to go back a quarter of a century—to the year 1824—when the Canada Land Company was organised in London. It received its charter in 1826. One of its most eager promoters (already mentioned more than once) was the Scottish novelist John Galt, and he was amongst those who came out to this country to look after the interests and carry out the plans of the Company. It began its operations by buying up "vast tracts of the Clergy Reserves and Crown lands,” to sell at an advanced price in small lots. It was at first intended that, under certain conditions as to settlement and improvements, it should be permitted to buy at a low price all that remained ungranted of the Crown Reserves (about 1,300,000 acres), and half of the Clergy Reserves. It had not, however, been many years in business when another able Scot, Bishop Strachan, succeeded in persuading the Government that the Clergy Reserves should be controlled by the Church. The Canada Company was accordingly forced to accept, in exchange for the Clergy Reserves, what was known as the Huron Tract, of which the present county of Perth is an important part. This vast estate comprised about one million acres, and stretched almost from the head of Lake Ontario to the site of Goderich on Lake Huron. It has proved to be a rich and fertile country, but was then unknown. Only where the agents of the Company had entered from the east, near where the city of Stratford now stands, they had found a great swamp, which stretched away towards the north, through Elma and Ellice townships, and it seemed vain to hope that these dismal marshes could “ever be made available for agriculture.”

However, the Company, determined to make the best of what seemed to them a very bad business, set about making surveys and opening roads. The Huron road was cut from the east across the present counties of Perth and Huron from the site of Stratford (now a flourishing city of 13,000 inhabitants and the county seat of Perth) to Goderich on the shore of Lake Huron. On both sides of this road the wild lands were surveyed, concession by concession, as settlers came in. In the names of the townships then set apart there lingers a reminiscence of the first directors of the Company—Easthope, Ellice, and Downie; Blanshard, Fullarton, Hibbert, and Logan. The Company leased lands to the incoming settlers, giving them the right to purchase the farms they were improving, after five or ten years, but, as they charged increased prices as the country settled up, the people felt the Company’s hold upon them a hardship and an injustice; and some, it is said, ruined themselves by borrowing money at exorbitant rates of interest to pay for their farms. The pioneers felt that, though the Company had done some good work in opening roads, and so forth, that it was they who were really making the country, in putting up their rude log huts, clearing their patches of fields in the great woods, making their homes in the wilderness, marrying and giving in marriage, bringing up a new generation to possess the land after them, building their small schoolhouses at the cross-roads so that the little ones might have a chance to become good and useful citizens; and one cannot but feel that the pioneers were largely in the right.

Always, indeed, in these little excursions into the stories of the counties, the interest of the tale belongs to the people—the men, the women and the children, at their work and play. So we are proportionately grateful when a writer, like Mr. William Johnston, in his Pioneers of Blanshard, succeeds in gathering up some of the hitherto neglected crumbs of history, lingering in local tradition and the memories of the older inhabitants.

For instance, he tells—and the paragraph seems full of the “local" colour of the pioneer days—how the immigrant seeking a home was always anxious to locate himself near water. The first settlements of Perth were near the Thames or its tributary creeks. Later comers, sometimes far from a running stream, were forced often to content themselves with water drawn from a hole dug in a marshy spot. A “tasteful and methodical” pioneer might cut three or four feet from a hollow stump and sink it in the hole he had scooped out, to give the substitute for a well some appearance of cleanliness. More often no such precaution was taken; the frogs were permited freely to enjoy themselves in the source of the family water-supply, and when, during the summer-time, the “wrigglers” became too uncomfortably numerous, the water was strained before using through a piece of calico.

The writer lingers in his passage through that picturesque period of sugar-making and spinning-wheels, of logging and “raising” and quilting “bees,” to describe the evolution of a farmer's vehicle from the first “ox-sled" of the pioneer, made with axe and auger, and used both in summer and winter—through the more pretentious ox-cart and the larger ox-wagon, with its seats resting on poles—to the spring wagon, and that trim delight of the spruce young farmer, especially in his courting days, the top-buggy, which in turn may soon be superseded perhaps by the motor “runabout.”

The way in which the poor and struggling people helped each other was a pleasant feature of those bygone days, but a blot upon almost every large gathering for work or amusement was the amount of drinking. In fact, at “bees” and sales and “raisings” one of the most important functionaries was the “grog-boss,” armed with a jug of whisky. In consequence not a few social gatherings ended in free fights, nor was it uncommon that during the putting up of a new barn some poor wretch should be crushed to death by carelessly handled timbers.

But in those days there were fine opportunities for the steady and determined. A young Irishman in 1836 opened a humble little backwoods store on Fish Creek in the village of Kirkton (half in Perth and half in Huron County). Afterwards he carried on business in St. Mary’s, and later in Toronto, living to make widely famous for commercial success and integrity the name of Timothy Eaton.

By the way, the first building was not erected in St. Mary’s (or Little Falls) till 1841, and in the following summer an immigrant family tried in vain to obtain food and shelter in the little hamlet; but when, at the suggestion of the Canada Company, a grist-mill was erected, the village began to thrive. In 1845 when Commissioner Jones of the Canada Company visited the place his wife was invited to give it a new name. Her own name being Mary, she dubbed the settlement St. Mary’s, bestowing upon it the sum of ten pounds towards the erection of a stone schoolhouse. Two years later St. Mary’s was advanced to the dignity of having a post-office, the settlers previously having had to go to Embro or Beach-ville in Oxford County for their mail.

The high prices current during the Crimean War, when wheat reached the phenomenal figure of $2.25 the bushel, did something to set many a struggling farmer on his feet, and the conditions of life gradually improved. Nor were there wanting occasional holidays and merrymakings. In those days May 24th, the Queen’s Birthday, was also “training-day” for the militia, and every able-bodied man, from twenty-one years of age to sixty, was required to muster at an appointed place for a day’s drill. Mr. Johnston gives a lively account of “training day” at St. Mary’s in 1860, when he was one of the company of citizen-soldiers.

The weather was hot, and many of the men had walked seven or eight miles to take part in the exercises. Horses were scarce, but the commander, Colonel Sparling, was mounted on an ancient steed to give dignity to the occasion. Few of the officers had had any military training, and it was an anxious task to put the men, in their motley garb of blue cotton or black broadcloth, through the prescribed drill. On this occasion an Irishman, Cathcart, who had at least seen the drilling of regular soldiers in his native isle, took the lead, and for an hour or Iwo the men marched and counter-marched, shouldered and grounded arms as best they could. At last came the order to "change front,” but, says Mr. Johnston, “soon it was painfully evident that we were not going to be successful.” To make matters worse some mischievous fellow had attached a bunch of grass to the brass buttons adorning the “claw-hammer” tails of a comrade’s coat, and at a crucial point in the manoeuvres the Colonel’s steed reached out, seized upon the morsel and held on till the cloth of the tails gave way. The wearer of the garment expressed his wrath in no measured terms, and the absurd incident so upset the gravity of the already confused amateur soldiers that there was nothing for their officers to do but propose three cheers for the Queen and dismiss them.

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