Pioneer Life

Imagine the work involved in those days! First, the trees had to be chopped down in order to clear a spot to build a one-room log cabin and maybe a barn. Neighbour helped neighbour in what became known as a “bee”, and so the work went a little faster. If a man was lucky he had an ox to help with the heavy work of moving logs and removing the stumps, then get the land worked up to plant crops and gardens.

Quite often this was done between the stumps for a few years. Life was not easy for the pioneer woman, either. Besides the everyday chores of cleaning and cooking and washing that we still do, but with the help of modern machines, those people didn’t have running water, couldn’t plug in a vacuum; a washing machine was a scrub board in a tub of water operated by elbow grease, and they couldn’t run to the corner store for a quart of milk and load of bread—or pop and chip! Women had to milk the cow, bake their own bread and preserve all the food for the winter months—meats, vegetables from their own gardens and fruits, which they picked in the wild, often making it a family day.

They cooked on stone fireplaces or possibly over outdoor fire pits before they were lucky enough to obtain wood stove. Farmers raised cattle and pigs, a few of which were butchered in the fall for meat, and maybe a few sheep for mutton and wool, and of course, chickens. Nothing was wasted; candles were made from tallow (fat from beef); soap from melted fat scraps and lye, which was made by boiling wood ash in water.

As the woman became more adept at this, they added oils from flowers and herbs for a nicer smelling product. Pork fat was rendered into lard for cooking; meat scraps were ground up to make sausage, and hams smoked. Everyone had to have at least a milk cow and a few chickens whether they lived on a farm in the country or in a village. That was still a common practice for villagers even in the late 1930s. Small barns were the norm, the same as we have a garage for our cars they needed shelter for horses and the milk cow.

Times were hard for most settlers and the woman again had to make do with what she had, to keep her family warm in the winter. Out of the need for bed coverings came the quilt, though certainly nothing fancy like the beautiful prize winning quilts of today. The garments that were outgrown or beyond mending, were pieced together to make blankets to add a little more warmth to the cold cabins.

Eventually, as times got better and new materials more readily available, leftovers from sewing dresses and shirts for the family, were used to make prettier quilts. This way the women and girls whiled away many winter afternoons preparing tops, and the weather broke and travel became easier, the women got together for quilting bees to make short work of the task and enjoy each others company.


It is a great loss to local history that the early inhabitants did not keep any real records of what went on and by whom, in the beginning days of settlements in Almaguin. Occasionally one comes across some isolated cases, such as the stories telling where a man or woman carved out a home in the wilderness, but unfortunately there are no names and no dates provided to document the claim.

One such tale evolved during the building of the Rosseau-Nipissing Colonization Road through the Parry Sound District. Despite the back breaking work, the road gangs found time for humour, most of it harmless. No dates or names were ever provided to support the story. This particular event involved tow Irish teamsters working on a section of the colonization road outside of the Village of Magnetawan. Both men apparently had identical names. But as it turned out, they were not related to one another, unless one wishes to say that all Irishman are related by the mere fact that they are Irish, both worked under the same foreman and were not in any way adverse to having a little fun with their boss.

The day come when a large rock had to be removed from the roadbed and a team was needed to carry out the work. While both men were heading away from the foreman for a fresh load of gravel from a nearby pit, the foreman called out their name. The duo immediately turned their horses around, much to the consternation of the foreman who then attempted to explain exactly which man he needed to do the work. In the midst of the explanation, the teamsters both turned around again and headed back towards the gravel pit. He was left scratching his head to figure out if he would ever get the best of the two Irishmen, but the day did come when the foreman got the last laugh.

It was nightfall by the time one of the teamsters got around to heading back towards camp. Crossing paths with a skunk, he startled it and paid dearly for the unfortunate encounter. When he later arrived at the camp, the rest of the men refused to allow him anywhere near the place until he “smelled like a rose, an Irish rose at that.: From that moment on, the teamster was nicknamed “Rosy,” a name that apparently stayed with him for life. The foreman’s luck had changed and life made much easier for the duration of the road construction.

There are always difficulties when probing into the uncharted past, in separation fact from fiction. Nothing more so than unravelling the tale behind the name of the Distress River in Chapman Township. One such tale uncovered from the early settlement days, involved a number of men who lost their lives while eating a meal on the banks of this river. Nobody noticed that as the water was being poured into the kettle, a black lizard found its way into the container—one very poisonous lizard in fact. Subsequently the tea was brewed, lizard and all, with the deadly venom being released in the heat. The entire crew, having drunk the beverage, were to die an agonizing death within several hours. Thus the name “Distress,” for this particular river. Another less serious tale retrieved from the past was that several surveyors while charting the area around the river ran out of food. For several days they were in “Distress.”

The Great North Road started from Parry Sound was to become one of the more important transportation routes. Up until 1866, there had been little attention paid to a northerly route from this village. It soon became clear that in order to encourage settlers to move deeper into the new territory, away from the more accessible and readily settled areas, a road had to be constructed to intersect with the Rosseau-Nipissing Colonization Road. Providing easier access to Lake Nipissing and points north was the prime motivation for the government in building a route for the anticipated rush of wagon trains.

By 1870 this new road meandered out and up through the community of McKellar, through Hagerman Township into Croft Township and ultimately to Ahmic Harbour. An unnamed woman settler described it as a “vital link between Parry Sound and some of the most beautiful country in the north.” Unfortunately, all that is left of these first eyewitness accounts are fragmented excerpts out of the 1876 and 1877 diaries which belonged to this settler. Past researchers, however well intentioned, in recording her recollections for posterity chose to obscure the identity of the woman, leaving us to wonder as to her fate.

Fuelled by vague promises made by government officials, many hundreds of people, mostly English and German, set out to transform the vast tracts of virgin forest of central Parry Sound in the last century. This particular English woman travelled to Spence Township from Parry Sound with her husband, two sons and one daughter. From the few entries written by her that have survived, on gets a tiny glimpse of what the typical homesteader saw a they journeyed that last miles to the promised land. In an attempt to make the recorded diary entries anonymous, the family name, the names of the husband and children, unfortunately were omitted by the previous researcher.

What is clear is that the woman’s diary was apparently meant for her sister back in England, as the writings appear as letters to her that describe not only the daily household routine, but the breathtaking beauty of the countryside as the seasons changed.

Dear Sis,

As I write, the snow is falling and making the trees very majestic. I promised to describe our trip by stage from the Village of Parry Sound to our new home. Well, I shall keep my promise, but not all at once, as I feel that one cannot describe its full beauty in one short letter.

We hope that the children will learn to appreciate the beauty of their new home. To call it a spot of heaven on earth I do not think could be misconstrued as sacrilegious.

The stately maples, now bare, are forced to take second place by the tall kingly pines, whose aroma is ever stimulating. I am sure, dear sister, that your health would improve if you were to join us here…..

As you are aware from my last letter, we have now been here nearly two months, but if I live to be a 100, I shall never forget the array of colour that greeted us on our trip. Indeed, I have seen many masterpieces of colour, painted by famous artists, but believe me my dear sister, God is still the greatest artist of them all. He spared not one colour in His vast repertoire.

….to the pine, but his was not the case when.. (maple) had been touched by frost and the leaves had taken on different colours from gold to blood red and all the possible, and perhaps impossible, shadows in between.

The stately trees reached their branches over the road as if to have a more personal contact with their neighbours across the street. To ride or walk between this avenue of colour makes one feel as if their life is receiving an additional blessing from the Almighty. I believe that nowhere else in the world can you find such beauty of trees, sparkling brooks and majestic waterways, one must see them.

As much as I love the home land (England), I have come to love this vast land of Canada even more…

The history of Almaguin is a diverse as the region it covers and its people a hardy lot, a fact to which the local newspapers from the late 19th century and the early 20th century frequently attest. A few of those early district weeklies which managed to survive the ravages of time, reveal lively accounts of community activities, penned by the newspaper correspondents that appeared to have scoured the countryside. And readers were assured that the news they were reading, was “Supplied from the raciest and most reliable sources and up to the very latest dates.”

My Dear Sis,

The children and I have taken time off to go for one of our many walks in Mother Nature’s Garden. There are literally millions of wild flowers that appear to be trying to appear even more beautiful than their neighbours.

Early this morning, my husband took our oldest son and they went fishing for trout. They had their usual good luck, returning with seven of the prettiest fish you could imagine. It’s almost a shame to take such beautiful creatures from the water, however, I believe that the Almighty has placed them there for our use, and use them I must. They must be cleaned and salted in preparation for the evening meal.

My husband and son could have caught more without difficulty, but they knew that seven would amply feed our family for one meal. My husband has little patience with people who waste God’s provisions.

Tomorrow we are hoping to have the reverend for one of his most welcome visits.

I shall ask my husband to get some more of those lovely trout, as I know the reverend likes them so well.

The boys and I have the garden prepared for planting and we shall shortly plant our winter vegetables. My husband has promised to make what he terms as a root cellar, in which he feels the vegetables will keep without freezing.

This is the only thing I do not like about this country, the extreme cold temperatures. It is not unusual for one to freeze one’s face or feet should they be unduly exposed to the extreme temperatures, that although one may experience a certain discomfortures at such times, the winter is most invigorating. I have yet to have a cold since being here and you know how I suffered from this malady.

The candles are getting low, I must get busy an make some more, but I am going to use this as an excuse to continue this letter tomorrow….

I have finished the candles that I spoke about yesterday, I have also set bread. My, how it makes a woman’s heart leap for joy when she sees her husband and family sit down and devour two large loaves of bread fresh from the oven, to say nothing of the buns that I make as a special treat when I bake bread.

I always try to find some kind of fruit to put into those buns. My, those boys of ours give their father a run for his money when it comes to those fruit buns,

Sometime soon a new dress must be made for our daughter. My, how that child grows. This evening I must start some winter socks for my men.