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The Stories of the Counties of Ontario

“When the hill of toil was steepest,
When the forest-frown was deepest,
Poor, but young, you hastened here;—
Toil had never cause to doubt you—
Progress’ path you helped to clear;
But to-day forgets about you,
And the world rides on without you—
Sleep, old pioneer!”

Will Carleton.

LONG after the Loyalists had begun the building up of this province, Bruce County was peopled only by Indians, who belonged to the Ojibway race, made famous by Longfellow in his poem “Hiawatha.” In 1834 a Methodist missionary settled at the mouth of the Saugeen, turning many a red man to Christianity, and his son, born in 1835, was without doubt the first white child born in Bruce County.

A little earlier, Captain Alexander MacGregor had discovered that the neighbourhood of “Fishing Island” (Amabel Township) was teeming with fish, and he arranged with a Detroit company to buy from him all the fish he could catch, ai a dollar a barrel, to be salted and packed. Near his camp he used to station a watchman in a tree to report the approach of a shoal, which looked like a silver cloud in the water. Then in hot haste a large rowboat, “its stern piled high with the seine,” was manned. Rowing round the shoal, the fishermen encircled it with the great net, then hauled ashore and sometimes thousands and thousands of fish were thus entrapped. To land them a man got into the net, in the midst of the struggling, glittering mass, and threw the fish ashore with a scoop. But sometimes, when the catch was very large, the landing was extended over three days to give the curers a chance to handle the fish, or, if the supply of salt or barrels ran low, some of the prey were allowed to escape. For a while MacGregor made large profits, then a Canadian company obtained the sole right of fishing on the islands, and MacGregor had to seek new fields for his operations.

In 1848 arrived the first permanent settler, according to Mr. Norman Robertson, to whose History of the County of Bruce I am much indebted; but Kincardine and Southampton both claim the honour of being the first settlement. At the latter place one of the pioneers was Captain Kennedy, “an educated half-breed,” who, four years later, headed a party sent out by Lady Franklin to search for her husband, the famous Arctic explorer.

One of the Huron Township pioneers, Abraham Holmes, is notable for his enterprise in sailing a huge dug-out canoe regularly between Goderich and Penetangore (Kincardine). It was propelled by oars or sails, was large enough to carry as many as five barrels of flour, and in it many a settler made part of his journey into the wilderness.

The subject of transportation in those early da3rs, as now, when it is occupied largely with great railway enterprises, is a fascinating one, perhaps because so much depends upon it. In nothing did the pioneers display greater pluck and ingenuity than in their journeys. A jam of driftwood in the Saugeen River was made to do duty for a bridge, and a man, lacking a boat, once crossed the stream on the back of an ox. Others made great rafts to carry their families and effects downstream, and happy they might count themselves if they did not get their unwieldy crafts stranded in some rapid.

One Bruce County woman recalled, long years later, the perils of her journey in as a child. Starting from Goderich on a dark night in an open boat, the party was overtaken by a gale, and, dreading worse things, attempted to run ashore. So in black darkness their little vessel plunged to her doom on the beach, while her passengers were rescued with difficulty, to trudge dripping wet through the howling storm to seek shelter in an overcrowded shanty. But at last they reached Kincardine, "thankful to be done with travel cither by land or water.’’

Not less perilous was the plight of two young daughters of a settler in Saugeen Township, who on a December day in 1851 undertook to ferry two travellers across the river in a canoe. When they started there was ice and snow-slush in the water, and on their return this blocked their way when they were too far from land to be reached by rope or pole. Paddling incessantly, the girls kept them selves from freezing, but all the long day could make no headway, and it was dusk when someone felled a small tree into the river. At this they grasped in passing, and so were saved.

It was about the same time that an enterprising business man resolved to set up a steam saw-mill in Southampton, but as there was no road through the county, the problem of getting the huge iron boiler to its destination threatened to be insoluble. By some means the boiler was brought to Hanover, high up the Saugeen, and was there left on the river’s bank till some ingenious mortal proposed “to make an ironclad of it.” All openings having been plugged up, it was rolled into the water with a tremendous splash. It was so long in coming to the surface that the pessimistic declared that it was lost for ever, but a moment later its black bulk reappeared, and started on its way north without waiting for any one to take command. It was soon captured, and with a dry cedar log lashed to each side made “the strangest craft that ever navigated the Saugeen.” It was steered safely to Southampton, at the mouth of the river, however.

A somewhat similar story is told about a great potash kettle. In the early days a few of the pioneers made potash, though when there were no wharves it was a formidable task to land such a huge mass of iron from a small sailing vessel, but Captain Duncan, who later commanded the Ploughboy, the first steamboat of Bruce County, got over the difficulty in an original fashion. Placing the kettle gently in the water, he got into it himself and paddled it ashore. This was no doubt “the first instance of sailing in an iron vessel on Lake Huron.”

In matters small and great there was indeed endless opportunity for the ingenuity of the pioneers to display itself. In the shanties was often found a mysterious-sounding article of furniture called “a one-post bed,” the walls of the shanty being made to do duty as supports instead of the other three posts. The crossing of streams was a frequent difficulty, but when a foot-bridge over the Teeswater, where Paisley now stands, was carried away by a freshet, the two families living on opposite sides of the stream trained a dog to carry small articles across it. By the way, the first doctor who settled at Paisley was the father of one of Canada’s sweet singers, Isabella Valancy Crawford.

There was a great mixture of races in Bruce County, including a number of Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonites, and a colony of evicted Highlanders, who spoke only Gaelic, and being fishermen and shepherds, suffered great hardships before they could reap much profit from their bush farms.

For thirty years after the opening of the “Queen's Bush” to settlement Bruce County made great progress, touching in 1881 its high-water mark in population with

65,000 souls, though the emigration of the young to the west and other districts had already begun. A few dates, taken almost at random, suggest the gradual improvement in the conditions of life. In 1851 and 1853 the first schools were opened at Kincardine, Southampton, and Walkerton, but by 1856 twenty-eight or thirty school-houses had been erected. Already Bruce County had an agricultural society, and in 1856 its first public library was opened at Inverhuron. Five years afterwards the first newspaper was published at Walkerton, and 1862 was the last in which a bounty was paid for wolf scalps. In 1867 Bruce County (earlier united with Huron and Perth) began its existence as a separate municipality. A year or two later South Bruce had the honour of being represented in Parliament by a great man who has recently passed away, Edward Blake.

Open-handed hospitality, helpfulness to each other and great energy were characteristics of the Bruce pioneers, the latter quality sometimes displaying itself in hot contests over municipal matters. When in early days the townships of Bruce were to have been made an adjunct to two townships in Huron County, the pioneers refused to pay taxes. When Kincardine wished to pass a by-law taxing the county for the construction of a harbour a great procession started from Brant Township to protest, headed by Joseph Walker, riding the solitary horse of the settlement. Bad roads were long a drawback to the community, and in 1868 began ail agitation for rival railways, one to have its terminus at Kincardine and the other at Southampton. The latter town was first to obtain railway connection in 1872. Finally, a battle royal raged for eight or nine years over the choice of a county town. In 1865 the matter was settled in favour of Walkerton, named after the energetic little Irishman mentioned above, who had built there a grist-mill and saw-mill. This town is situated on the Saugeen, in a valley so beautiful that a Scotchman who saw it in the spring of 1849, when white with the blossoms of wild plums and cherries, said to a comrade, “Eh, mon, if Eden was anything like this, what a fool Adam was to eat the apple.”

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