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Backwoods of Canada
Letter 9

Loss of a yoke of Oxen.--Construction of a Log-house.--Glaziers' and Carpenters' work.--Description of new Log-house.--Wild Fruits of the Country.--Walks on the Ice.--Situation of the House.--Lake, and surrounding Scenery.

Lake House
April 18, 1833

BUT it is time that I should give you some account of our log-house, into which we moved a few days before Christmas. Many unlooked-for delays having hindered its completion before that time, I began to think it would never be habitable.

The first misfortune that happened was the loss of a fine yoke of oxen that were purchased to draw in the house-logs, that is, the logs for raising the walls of the house. Not regarding the bush as pleasant as their former master's cleared pastures, or perhaps foreseeing some hard work to come, early one morning they took into their heads to ford the lake at the head of the rapids, and march off, leaving no trace of their route excepting their footing at the water's edge. After many days spent in vain search for them, the work was at a stand, and for one month they were gone, and we began to give up all expectation of hearing any news of them. At last we learned they were some twenty miles off, in a distant township, having made their way through bush and swamp, creek and lake, back to their former owner, with an instinct that supplied to them the want of roads and compass.

Oxen have been known to traverse a tract of wild country to a distance of thirty or forty miles going in a direct line for their former haunts by unknown paths, where memory could not avail them. In the dog we consider it is scent as well as memory that guides him to his far-off home;--but how is this conduct of the oxen to be accounted for? They returned home through the mazes of interminable forests, where man, with all his reason and knowledge, would have been bewildered and lost.

It was the latter end of October before even the walls of our house were up. To effect this we called "a bee." Sixteen of our neighbours cheerfully obeyed our summons; and though the day was far from favourable, so faithfully did our hive perform their tasks, that by night the outer walls were raised.

The work went merrily on with the help of plenty of Canadian nectar (whiskey), the honey that our _bees_ are solaced with. Some huge joints of salt pork, a peck of potatoes, with a rice-pudding, and a loaf as big as an enormous Cheshire cheese, formed the feast that was to regale them during the raising. This was spread out in the shanty,  in a very rural style. In short, we laughed, and called it a pic-nic in the backwoods; and rude as was the fare, I can assure you, great was the satisfaction expressed by all the guests of every degree, our "bee" being considered as very well conducted. In spite of the difference of rank among those that assisted at the bee, the greatest possible harmony prevailed, and the party separated well pleased with the day's work and entertainment.

The following day I went to survey the newly-raised edifice, but was sorely puzzled, as it presented very little appearance of a house. It was merely an oblong square of logs raised one above the other, with open spaces between every row of logs. The spaces for the doors and windows were not then chopped out, and the rafters were not up. In short, it looked a very queer sort of a place, and I returned home a little disappointed, and wondering that my husband should be so well pleased with the progress that had been made. A day or two after this I again visited it. The sleepers were laid to support the floors, and the places for the doors and windows cut out of the solid timbers, so that it had not quite so much the look of a bird-cage as before.

After the roof was shingled, we were again at a stand, as no boards could be procured nearer than Peterborough, a long day's journey through horrible roads. At that time no saw-mill was in progress; now there is a fine one building within a little distance of us. Our flooring-boards were all to be sawn by hand, and it was some time before any one could be found to perform this necessary work, and that at high wages--six- and-sixpence per day. Well, the boards were at length down, but of course of unseasoned timber: this was unavoidable; so as they could not be planed we were obliged to put up with their rough unsightly appearance, for no better were to be had. I began to recall to mind the observation of the old gentleman with whom we travelled from Cobourg to Rice Lake. We console ourselves with the prospect that by next summer the boards will all be seasoned, and then the house is to be turned topsy-turvy, by having the floors all relaid, jointed, and smoothed.

The next misfortune that happened, was, that the mixture of clay and lime that was to plaster the inside and outside of the house between the chinks of the logs was one night frozen to stone. Just as the work was about half completed, the frost suddenly setting in, put a stop to our proceeding for some time, as the frozen plaster yielded neither to fire nor to hot water, the latter freezing before it had any effect on the mass, and rather making bad worse. Then the workman that was hewing the inside walls to make them smooth, wounded himself with the broad axe, and was unable to resume his work for some time.

I state these things merely to show the difficulties that attend us in the fulfilment of our plans, and this accounts in a great measure for the humble dwellings that settlers of the most respectable description are obliged to content themselves with at first coming to this country, --not, you may be assured, from inclination, but necessity: I could give you such narratives of this kind as would astonish you. After all, it serves to make us more satisfied than we should be on casting our eyes around to see few better off than we are, and many not half so comfortable, yet of equal, and, in some instances, superior pretensions as to station and fortune.

Every man in this country is his own glazier; this you will laugh at: but if he does not wish to see and feel the discomfort of broken panes, he must learn to put them in his windows with his own hands. Workmen are not easily to be had in the backwoods when you want them, and it would be preposterous to hire a man at high wages to make two days' journey to and from the nearest town to mend your windows. Boxes of glass of several different sizes are to be bought at a very cheap rate in the stores. My husband amused himself by glazing the windows of the house preparatory to their being fixed in.

To understand the use of carpenter's tools, I assure you, is no despicable or useless kind of knowledge here. I would strongly recommend all young men coming to Canada to acquire a little acquaintance with this valuable art, as they will often be put to great inconvenience for the want of it.

I was once much amused with hearing the remarks made by a very fine lady, the reluctant sharer of her husband's emigration, on seeing the son of a naval officer of some rank in the service busily employed in making an axe-handle out of a piece of rock-elm.

"I wonder that you allow George to degrade himself so," she said, addressing his father.

The captain looked up with surprise. "Degrade himself! In what manner, madam? My boy neither swears, drinks whiskey, steals, nor tells lies."

"But you allow him to perform tasks of the most menial kind. What is he now better than a hedge carpenter; and I suppose you allow him to chop, too?"

"Most assuredly I do. That pile of logs in the cart there was all cut by him after he had left study yesterday," was the reply,

"I would see my boys dead before they should use an axe like common labourers."

"Idleness is the root of all evil," said the captain. "How much worse might my son be employed if he were running wild about streets with bad companions."

"You will allow this is not a country for gentlemen or ladies to live in," said the lady.

"It is the country for gentlemen that will not work and cannot live without, to starve in," replied the captain bluntly; "and for that reason I make my boys early accustom themselves to be usefully and actively employed."

"My boys shall never work like common mechanics," said the lady, indignantly.

"Then, madam, they will be good for nothing as settlers; and it is a pity you dragged them across the Atlantic."

"We were forced to come. We could not live as we had been used to do at home, or I never would have come to this horrid country."

"Having come hither you would be wise to conform to circumstances. Canada is not the place for idle folks to retrench a lost fortune in. In some parts of the country you will find most articles of provision as dear as in London, clothing much dearer, and not so good, and a bad market to choose in."

"I should like to know, then, who Canada is good for?" said she, angrily.

"It is a good country for the honest, industrious artisan. It is a fine country for the poor labourer, who, after a few years of hard toil, can sit down in his own log-house, and look abroad on his own land, and see his children well settled in life as independent freeholders. It is a grand country for the rich speculator, who can afford to lay out a large sum in purchasing land in eligible situations; for if he have any judgment, he will make a hundred per cent as interest for his money after waiting a few years. But it is a hard country for the poor gentleman, whose habits have rendered him unfit for manual labour. He brings with him a mind unfitted to his situation; and even if necessity compels him to exertion, his labour is of little value. He has a hard struggle to live. The certain expenses of wages and living are great, and he is obliged to endure many privations if he would keep within compass, and be free of debt. If he have a large family, and brings them up wisely, so as to adapt themselves early to a settler's life, why he does well for them, and soon feels the benefit on his own land; but if he is idle himself, his wife extravagant and discontented, and the children taught to despise labour, why, madam, they will soon be brought down to ruin. In short, the country is a good country for those to whom it is adapted; but if people will not conform to the doctrine of necessity and expediency, they have no business in it. It is plain Canada is not adapted to every class of people."

"It was never adapted for me or my family," said the lady, disdainfully.

"Very true," was the laconic reply; and so ended the dialogue.

But while I have been recounting these remarks, I have wandered far from my original subject, and left my poor log-house quite in an unfinished state. At last I was told it was in a habitable condition, and I was soon engaged in all the bustle and fatigue attendant on removing our household goods. We received all the assistance we required from -----, who is ever ready and willing to help us. He laughed, and called it a "moving bee;" I said it was a "fixing bee;" and my husband said it was a "settling bee;" I know we were unsettled enough till it was over. What a din of desolation is a small house, or any house under such circumstances. The idea of chaos must have been taken from a removal or a setting to rights, for I suppose the ancients had their flitting, as the Scotch call it, as well as the moderns.

Various were the valuable articles of crockery-ware that perished in their short but rough journey through the woods. Peace to their manes. I had a good helper in my Irish maid, who soon roused up famous fires, and set the house in order.

We have now got quite comfortably settled, and I shall give you a description of our little dwelling. What is finished is only a part of the original plan; the rest must be added next spring, or fall, as circumstances may suit.

A nice small sitting-room with a store closet, a kitchen, pantry, and bed-chamber form the ground floor; there is a good upper floor that will make three sleeping rooms.

"What a nut-shell!" I think I hear you exclaim. So it is at present; but we purpose adding a handsome frame front as soon as we can get boards from the mill, which will give us another parlour, long hall, and good spare bed-room. The windows and glass door of our present sitting-room command pleasant lake-views to the west and south. When the house is completed, we shall have a verandah in front; and at the south side, which forms an agreeable addition in the summer, being used as a sort of outer room, in which we can dine, and have the advantage of cool air, protected from the glare of the sunbeams. The Canadians call these verandahs "stoups." Few houses, either log or frame, are without them. The pillars look extremely pretty, wreathed with the luxuriant hop-vine, mixed with the scarlet creeper and "morning glory," the American name for the most splendid of major convolvuluses. These stoups are really a considerable ornament, as they conceal in a great measure the rough logs, and break the barn-like form of the building.

Our parlour is warmed by a handsome Franklin stove with brass gallery, and fender. Our furniture consists of a brass-railed sofa, which serves upon occasion for a bed, Canadian painted chairs, a stained pine table, green and white curtains, and a handsome Indian mat that covers the floor. One side of the room is filled up with our books. Some large maps and a few good prints nearly conceal the rough walls, and form the decoration of our little dwelling. Our bed-chamber is furnished with equal simplicity. We do not, however, lack comfort in our humble home; and though it is not exactly such as we could wish, it is as good as, under existing circumstances, we could have.

I am anxiously looking forward to the spring, that I may get a garden laid out in front of the house; as I mean to cultivate some of the native fruits and flowers, which, I am sure, will improve greatly by culture. The strawberries that grow wild in our pastures, woods, and clearings, are several varieties, and bear abundantly. They make excellent preserves, and I mean to introduce beds of them into my garden. There is a pretty little wooded islet on our lake, that is called Strawberry island, another Raspberry island; they abound in a variety of fruits--wild grapes, raspberries, strawberries, black and red currants, a wild gooseberry, and a beautiful little trailing plant that bears white flowers like the raspberry, and a darkish purple fruit consisting of a few grains of a pleasant brisk acid, somewhat like in flavour to our dewberry, only not quite so sweet. The leaves of this plant are of a bright light green, in shape like the raspberry, to which it bears in some respects so great a resemblance (though it is not shrubby or thorny) that I have called it the "trailing raspberry."

I suppose our scientific botanists in Britain would consider me very impertinent in bestowing names on the flowers and plants I meet with in these wild woods: I can only say, I am glad to discover the Canadian or even the Indian names if I can, and where they fail I consider myself free to become their floral godmother, and give them names of my own choosing.

Among our wild fruits we have plums, which, in some townships, are very fine and abundant; these make admirable preserves, especially when boiled in maple molasses, as is done by the American housewives. Wild cherries, also a sort called choke cherries, from their peculiar astringent qualities, high and low-bush cranberries, blackberries, which are brought by the Squaws in birch baskets,--all these are found on the plains and beaver meadows. The low-bush cranberries are brought in great quantities by the Indians to the towns and villages. They form a standing preserve on the tea-tables in most of the settlers' houses; but for richness of flavour, and for beauty of appearance, I admire the high-bush cranberries; these are little sought after, on account of the large flat seeds, which prevent them from being used as a jam: the jelly, however, is delightful, both in colour and flavour.

The bush on which this cranberry grows resembles the guelder rose. The blossoms are pure white, and grow in loose umbels; they are very ornamental, when in bloom, to the woods and swamps, skirting the lakes. The berries are rather of a long oval, and of a brilliant scarlet, and when just touched by the frosts are semi-transparent, and look like pendent bunches of scarlet grapes.

I was tempted one fine frosty afternoon to take a walk with my husband on the ice, which I was assured was perfectly safe. I must confess for the first half-mile I felt very timid, especially when the ice is so transparent that you may see every little pebble or weed at the bottom of the water. Sometimes the ice was thick and white, and quite opaque. As we kept within a little distance of the shore, I was struck by the appearance of some splendid red berries on the leafless bushes that hung over the margin of the lake, and soon recognized them to be the aforesaid high-bush cranberries. My husband soon stripped the boughs of their tempting treasure, and I, delighted with my prize, hastened home, and boiled the fruit with some sugar, to eat at tea with our cakes. I never ate any thing more delicious than they proved; the more so perhaps from having been so long without tasting fruit of any kind, with the exception of preserves, during our journey, and at Peterborough.

Soon after this I made another excursion on the ice, but it was not in quite so sound a state. We nevertheless walked on for about three- quarters of a mile. We were overtaken on our return by S------ with a handsleigh, which is a sort of wheelbarrow, such as porters use, without sides, and instead of a wheel, is fixed on wooden runners, which you can drag over the snow and ice with the greatest ease, if ever so heavily laden. S------ insisted that he would draw me home over the ice like a Lapland lady on a sledge. I was soon seated in state, and in another minute felt myself impelled forward with a velocity that nearly took away my breath. By the time we reached the shore I was in a glow from head to foot.

You would be pleased with the situation of our house. The spot chosen is the summit of a fine sloping bank above the lake, distant from the water's edge some hundred or two yards: the lake is not quite a mile from shore to shore. To the south again we command a different view, which will be extremely pretty when fully opened--a fine smooth basin of water, diversified with beautiful islands, that rise like verdant groves from its bosom. Below these there is a fall of some feet, where the waters of the lakes, confined within a narrow channel between beds of limestone, rush along with great impetuosity, foaming and dashing up the spray in mimic clouds.

During the summer the waters are much lower, and we can walk for some way along the flat shores, which are composed of different strata of limestone, full of fossil remains, evidently of very recent formation. Those shells and river-insects that are scattered loose over the surface of the limestone, left by the recession of the waters, are similar to the shells and insects incrusted in the body of the limestone. I am told that the bed of one of the lakes above us (I forget which) is of limestone; that it abounds in a variety of beautiful river-shells, which are deposited in vast quantities in the different strata, and also in the blocks of limestone scattered along the shores. These shells are also found in great profusion in the soil of the Beaver meadows. When I see these things, and hear of them, I regret I know nothing of geology or conchology; as I might then be able to account for many circumstances that at present only excite my curiosity.

[Maps: Charts shewing the Interior Navigation of the District of Newcastle and Upper Canada.]

Just below the waterfall I was mentioning there is a curious natural arch in the limestone rock, which at this place rises to a height of ten or fifteen feet like a wall; it is composed of large plates of grey limestone, lying one upon the other; the arch seems like a rent in the wall, but worn away, and hollowed, possibly, by the action of water rushing through it at some high flood. Trees grow on the top of this rock. Hemlock firs and cedars are waving on this elevated spot, above the turbulent waters, and clothing the stone barrier with a sad but never-fading verdure. Here, too, the wild vine, red creeper, and poisonelder, luxuriate, and wreathe fantastic bowers above the moss-covered masses of the stone. A sudden turn in this bank brought us to a broad, perfectly flat and smooth bed of the same stone, occupying a space of full fifty feet along the shore. Between the fissures of this bed I found some rosebushes, and a variety of flowers that had sprung up during the spring and summer, when it was left dry, and free from the action of the water.

This place will shortly be appropriated for the building of a saw and grist-mill, which, I fear, will interfere with its natural beauty. I dare say, I shall be the only person in the neighbourhood who will regret the erection of so useful and valuable an acquisition to this portion of the township.

The first time you send a parcel or box, do not forget to enclose flower-seeds, and the stones of plums, damsons, bullace, pips of the best kinds of apples, in the orchard and garden, as apples may be raised here from seed, which will bear very good fruit without being grafted; the latter, however, are finer in size and flavour. I should be grateful for a few nuts from our beautiful old stock-nut trees. Dear old trees! how many gambels have we had in their branches when I was as light of spirit and as free from care as the squirrels that perched among the topmost boughs above us.--"Well," you will say, "the less that sage matrons talk of such wild tricks as climbing nut-trees, the better." Fortunately, young ladies are in no temptation here, seeing that nothing but a squirrel or a bear could climb our lofty forest-trees. Even a sailor must give it up in despair.

I am very desirous of having the seeds of our wild primrose and sweet violet preserved for me; I long to introduce them in our meadows and gardens. Pray let the cottage-children collect some.

My husband requests a small quantity of lucerne-seed, which he seems inclined to think may be cultivated to advantage.

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