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Old Time Customs
By John Burgess Calkin, M. A. LL.D.


Conditions of the Early Settlers

IT is well sometimes to look backward to the days and the doings of our fathers who left their home in the old land beyond the wide ocean, that they might make for themselves and their loved ones new homes in this new world of forests, wild beasts and untamed Indians. We, of this age and in this Canada of ours, may well be proud of the heritage they have left us with its priceless privileges. By noting what we owe to our forbears we may be stimulated to higher endeavor to leave the heritage thus fallen into our hands, with so much added enrichment, that our children may in turn hold their fathers in grateful remembrance for what they have done for their betterment.

Few English people were found in Nova Scotia outside of Halifax before 1760, and the chief concern of those here was to guard themselves against the Indian scalping knife and the French forces sent from Quebec to recover possession of the country. Subsequent to this date the earlier English colonists, chiefly from New England, succeeded to the lands near Annapolis, Canard, Wolfville, Grand Pre, Windsor, Truro, Masstown and Amherst, from which the Acadians had been removed in 1755. New settlers who came in later, including Loyalists from the United States—mostly farmers and disbanded soldiers—went back into the interior of the country where the more fertile lands were found, these new settlements in many cases being separated from the older ones by forest-covered lands less suited to agriculture. Through the forests the only roads were rough bridle paths. The smaller streams were crossed by fording, the larger ones the horses swam across, while their riders, having dismounted, crossed them in a rude sort of boat made of a big log dug out in trough fashion.

These pioneer settlers went in groups of five or six families, chose adjoining lots and built their houses about a quarter of a mile apart. Thus, in some measure, they provided for themselves the social advantages of larger communities. It was a truly simple life, that of our forefathers in their forest home. While the house-building was going on the home was in a domicile hastily thrown together after the fashion of the Indian wigwam. The more permanent dwelling was but a log cabin of small dimensions, comprising two rooms with an attic under the roof. The chimney, made of stones held together by clay mortar, was in one corner, or sometimes outside the house against one end. Timber was plentiful—including pines and hemlocks large enough to be made into boards three feet wide. As yet, however, there were no saw-mills, so that the houses and other buildings were made of logs rudely dressed with an axe, the roof being covered with home-made shingles, or with the bark of a hemlock tree.

A maple grove was reserved near by for its maple sugar and other saccharine products which it yielded every spring. The manufacture of the sap into the finished product cost much labor, but it was in the season when little farm work could be done and, not to speak of direct reward, the "good time" it afforded was rich compensation for the toil. The beech, too, was a favorite on account of its beech-nuts which, in the autumn, when the frost-smitten leaves were falling, it sent down in profusion. These home-grown nuts were then as highly prized by the children as are walnuts and other imported nuts in our day. The pigs, also, were fond of beechnuts and they were sent in droves into the forests for several weeks to be fattened on nuts which they gathered for themselves from among the dry leaves. It was inexpensive food, but it did not make pork of the best quality. Wild animals, such as the moose, caribou, bear, fox, wild-cat and raccoon, were numerous. It was no uncommon thing for bears and foxes to visit the farm-yard and kill the farmer's cattle, sheep and poultry.

When the home was made ready the new settler brought hither his youthful wife. It was no auto-car or wheeled vehicle of any kind that was used for the journey. Now, and for some years later, they travelled on horse-back, both on the same animal, over the narrow bridle path. Later in their life history the same conveyance furnished additional accommodation for the growing family—at least for two more, one on the horse's neck in front of the father, and the other behind in the mother's arms.

Our fathers had a fashion of getting amusement out of toil. It was customary in doing certain kinds of work for the men of the neighborhood to club together and, turn about, help each other. "Frolics" or "bees", such gatherings were called—"piling frolics" for rolling together and burning the big logs in clearing away the forests, "husking frolics" for stripping the husks from the Indian corn, and "raising frolics" for erecting the frames of buildings. Here it may be noted that beams, posts and other timbers used in buildings in the early times were much larger than those of the present day. Then, too, the timbers in the whole side of the building were put together and pinned firmly while lying in a horizontal position. At the "raising frolic" the whole side of the frame was erected in one piece, a process that required the combined strength of several men. In our day each piece is set up and put in place separately. It should be added that, whether as stimulus to physical energy or for good cheer, a jug of Jamaica rum was always considered an essential element of raising and piling frolics.

The "paring frolic" was an evening pastime for young men and maidens. The first part of the evening was devoted to paring apples and stringing the pieces into which they were divided. On the following day, and for several weeks thereafter, the strings might be seen hanging in graceful festoons from the kitchen ceiling. Later in the evening the scene was changed. By way of interlude, pumpkin pies, doughnuts, pound cake and home made cider were passed round. Thereafter followed the "tripping of the light fantastic" to the tune of "Hunt the squirrel" discoursed on nature's choicest instrument, the human voice.

Everything was home-made, outdoors and in, as the conditions of the early settler required. Necessity made him a jack-of-all-trades. For two good reasons, he was unable to buy many necessary things—there were none to be bought and he had no means of paying for them. And so he built his own house, barn and pig-pen; he made his farming implements—carts, sleds, harrows, yokes, rakes, baskets, barrels, milk dishes, cheese presses, brooms and many other things needed for indoors and out.

Within the house the industries were equally varied and comprehensive. The home was by turns a cheese factory, a soap factory, a candle factory, a carding mill, a spinning jenny, a weaving mill, and factories of other sorts. The clothes of the family were made in these domestic factories from start to finish. Every farm had its flock of sheep. In the spring these animals were rounded up, driven to some pond or deep brook and washed. Then followed the shearing. The wool was sorted "picked" or pulled apart, carded—in early times by hand—spun, woven and made into garments of all kinds and for all occasions. In like manner the manufacture of linen was carried on from the sowing of the flax seed through all the intermediate stages to the bleaching, from which there came the snow-white sheets, table-cloths, napkins and towels.

Of all these processes in the making of linen, the spinning on the little treadle wheel, propelled by the busy foot while the dexterous fingers drew out from a bunch of flax on the distaff the thread which was eagerly devoured by the whirring spindle. This same little wheel, so useful in its day and, with its incessant hum, so vividly suggestive of Miles Standish and his disastrous courtship of Priscilla, carried on by his proxy John Alden, had its day of toil and service. Then for long years in company with many other dust-covered castaways it stood in the attic, silent and neglected, awaiting another turn of the wheel of fortune to bring a more appreciative age. And now grandmother's little wheel, cleaned, polished and become a thing of beauty, is honored as a parlor ornament. In another part of the attic—we may call it the pharmacy—were stored the home-grown medicines. Doctors were many miles away, having their homes in more densely peopled places; and there were no telephones to summon them, nor auto cars to hasten them to the bed-side of the suffering. It might thus be many hours before their help could be obtained. It was prudent, therfore, to have first aid remedies at hand for emergencies, and Providence had beneficently stored them abundantly in forest and in field, in door-yard and by road-side. Herbs, they were called by those who gave thought to the maladies incident to the human body; often, however, they were rooted out with hostile intent by the farmer, forgetful of their healing virtues, and cast aside as weeds. Having been gathered in the evening before the dew came on them, dried, enclosed in paper bags and labelled, were peppermint, spearmint, pennyroyal, balm, wormwood, camomile, burdock, life-of-man, celandine, tansy, mayweed, yarrow, marigold, each having its special properties and heal-all—having the reputation of a panacea—and many others too numerous to mention.

It may be noted that there were certain persons in almost every community—of the female sex they generally were—whose knowledge of the medicinal properties of herbs enabled them to prepare remedies suited to the healing of every disease. Like the druggists of the present day, they had their mortars and pestles for making various concoctions from the roots, leaves, bark, and blossoms of field and forest plants. Of such a good Samaritan we read in the report of a noted family reunion held a few years ago in one of our southern counties. What became of the mortar we are not told. The pestle, however, still to the fore, is religiously kept as a relic in memory of her who, following in the footsteps of the Master, once went about doing good to all who needed her ministry.

It may be fancied that some people, ill-taught in the ways of the olden time, will be saying—"Tell us about the making of brooms out of ash and birch trees. Were they like our corn brooms?" Not very much. But they did the sweeping just as well, though, on account of narrower reach, they took longer time to do the job. Ash made the better broom, though it cost more labor in the making of it. The stick chosen was straight, free from knots, about three inches in diameter and about five feet in length. The bark was removed from about ten inches of the larger end. Here a ring of bark an inch and a half wide was left, and above this ring the bark was removed to the end of the stick. We now make a pencil line around the stick eleven and a half inches above the ring of bark and run a saw around this line evenly to the depth of about three-fourths of an inch, leaving the heart wood an inch and a half in diameter intact. We may now make a rough handle for our broom by dressing off the wood above the pencil line and to the depth of the cutting by the saw.

We are now ready to make the brush which will consist of two parts—an outer and an inner brush, making the inner brush first from the ten inches below the ring of bark. The sap wood is now pealed. up, each year's growth being separated from that of the preceding year and turned back over the ring of bark. Birch wood may be easily stripped up, but the grains of ash adhere so closely that they require to be carefully pounded to loosen them up. This may be done by one person holding the end of the stick on a block and turning it slowly around, while another pounds it with the head of an axe. The pounding will need to be followed up separately for each year's growth. The process is thus continued to the heart wood which is then sawed off. The strips or ribbons are then divided into narrow threads and turned down forming the inner part of the brush. The part above the ring of bark is then treated in the same manner and turned down forming the outer part of the brush. The whole brush is now firmly bound by twine around its upper part next to the handle. Finally the handle is dressed to the proper size and made smooth. The broom is finished.

In no way, perhaps, is a people's progress in home comforts more clearly indicated than in its means of lighting the house in the evening. Nature's simple provision, often adopted in the early days, was the resinous pine knot. It was often split into several pieces and some sort of stand was used to hold the lighted section in erect position. Contemporary with it was the feeble rush light, consisting of the spongy pith of the leafless tapering rush which we see so common growing in tufts in wet land. The pith, with a strip of rind on one side left to hold it together, was dipped in hot grease, forming a sort of candle, giving a good light, but short lived. Different kinds of stands were used for its support, similar to the candle-stick. In early times, before carpets became common, rushes were strewn on the floors of houses as a covering which was sometimes allowed to remain so long as to be filthy as well as a lodging place for disease germs. A new layer of rushes was thus an important part of house cleaning.

From the pine knot and the rush-light to the electric light is a long stride, and there were various intermediate steps between them. A strip of cotton cloth saturated with grease was one of the rudest appliances. In some parts of the country a lamp fed by whale oil or some sort of fish oil was in common use. The tallow candle, made chiefly of beef fat with a wick of soft cotton yarn—rarely of tow—held a long time almost undisputed and brilliant reign as an illuminant. The time came, however, with "the widening of man's thoughts," when the tallow candle was compelled to share its empire with ambitious rivals,—coal gas and kerosene—now holding a wide field in the lighting of our homes. And yet the tallow candle with its attendant, the snuffers, is by no means extinguished; and it still holds honourable recognition as the standard in estimating the brilliancy of illuminators of higher power. In many a home, too, where the candle has been superseded by "modern improvements," the brass candlesticks, clean and bright, adorn the parlor mantel as memorials of "ye olden time." For the information of those by whom the making of this old time light is considered a lost art, some details of the process may be given.

It may be stated that tallow candles, at least in the olden days, were divided into three classes or ranks according to the service for which they were intended. First were the "moulds" made by pouring melted tallow into a tin mould — larger and smoother than the other kinds—a tony light for company occasions; those of the second class were the cotton-wick dips, made for ordinary use; the third and lowest class were the tow-wicks, dipped last, when the tallow was nearly used up. They gave a very uncertain sort of light and sputtered and spat like an angry cat. They were often called "sluts," probably on account of the menial service they were made for, being intended for work in the cellar for which little light was needed.

The material required for making the "dips" comprised good clean tallow, a ball or two of soft cotton yarn for the wicks, several dozens of stiff, smooth rods about twenty inches long and three-eighths of an inch in diameter, two poles eight or ten feet long with benches about two feet high to rest on—kitchen chairs often served the purpose—and a large iron pot or kettle about half full of hot water. The wicking was cut into pieces about twenty inches in length, six or seven wicks were strung on each rod, so that the middle-of the wick would rest on the rod and the parts hang down on each side. The two parts were then twisted together, six or seven wicks being thus strung on each rod about an inch and a half apart. When a rod was filled and the wicks were straightened out by pulling them down with the thumb and finger, it was placed across the poles. The pot containing the water and melted tallow was placed beside the suspended rods. It scarcely needs to be stated that tallow, having less specific gravity than water, must rest on the top of the water. It may be observed, too, that the pot must be kept filled to the top,—otherwise the upper part of the candle would not profit by the dipping. For this purpose a supply of hot water and melted tallow must be kept on hand.

Everything made ready the dipping began. Beginning at one end the dipper lifted the rods one after another consecutively and plunged them into the pot, took them out quickly, straightened out the wick where necessary and replaced them on the poles. Thus the process went on through the whole row, and was repeated until the candles had grown to the full size. It will be understood that the growth was effected on the same principle as is that of the icicle suspended from the eaves of a building, only in the case of the icicle there is no wick to begin on and it grows vertically as well as horizontally, and is smallest at the lower end.

It is difficult to fully estimate the convenience and economic value of the friction match now universally used in making a new fire. The common way three-fourths of a century ago, when some of us were boys, was in the first place to follow the custom of the vestal virgins of ancient Rome in their precaution for the maintenance of the sacred fire. In his boyhood days the present writer observed the care with which his father kept the fire alive over night. A partially burned stick—a hemlock knot suited best—its face glowing with fire, was covered with a deep layer of ashes for the exclusion of air, thus arresting combustion. In the morning, when the covering was removed, there remained a fine bed of coals for starting the fire. The last spark, however, may have fled! Then what to do? First, the small boy was sent to the nearest neighbor's "to borrow fire." Seizing the brand between two sticks he hastened on his homeward way. The faster he ran the more fruitless appeared the outcome of his errand. Sometimes, indeed, fanned by the opposing current of air, the inflammable tongs lost their grip, and the remains of the brand fell to the ground. It was seldom, however, that these laudable efforts were thus luckless, and never did he give up without resort to new expedient for overcoming the difficulty. The old flint lock musket, now hanging on the kitchen wall, which perhaps had seen service in the hands of a Loyalist in the American Revolution and had since proved its worth in the pursuit of a bear which had done mischief in the farmer's barnyard or sheep pasture, came to the rescue. The spark generated by the sharp blow of the hammer on the flint, fell on the powder, passed on to the tinder, and the morning fire was soon ablaze.

Other expedients were used for obtaining fire, most of them of a chemical nature. We were often told that it could be done by briskly rubbing two pieces of wood together. The Indians had done it from time immemorial, it was said. But no responsible person claimed to have done it, or to have seen it done. The chemical match—a splinter of wood tipped with a mixture of chlorate of potash and sugar—when dipped in sulphuric acid was an effective, though rarely adopted, expedient.

In the early years of Queen Victoria's reign friction matches were sold as a curiosity in the streets of London. It is said that before this match had been perfected, Sir Humphrey Davy, one of the foremost chemists of the day, in writing to a friend, spoke of the newly originated match and wondered if it would ever come into common use!

It was a strenuous as well as a simple life that our pioneer ancestors passed through in clearing away the forests and securing for us the rich heritage they have left us. Being compelled to endure hardship and to rely on their own resources, they were developed into the robust, many-sided and resourceful men and women that they became—never non-plussed, never lacking in expedients. In this there was wonderful compensation for many deficiencies. What they lacked in elegance and in culture, they gained in broadness and grit. The limitations attendant on specialization they escaped.

And here we must not forget that many of the early 'settlers in this country of ours were of the flower of the British people—among the choicest in manly vigor, in mental ability, independent thinking and moral culture. Above all they had the will to dare and to do.

Nor have the descendants of these manysided men and women lost the initiativeness, the versatility and other virtues of their sires. The grit and the fibre are still there, flowing on as a precious inheritance to succeeding generations. Hence it was that in the late war in South Africa Canadian volunteers, though in war not to the manner born, were noted for their resourcefulness, ready application of mother wit in pressing emergency and possessed of unfaltering bravery that led to victory. The testimony, too, of our day, borne by the Great World War, has demonstrated that Canadians are true to their ancestors, to themselves, to their country, to their King and to righteousness!


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