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Romantic Kent
The Story of a County 1626 - 1952
By Victor Lauriston
The Life of a Pioneer


Note: This is a chapter from this book which is included to give the visitor an idea of what pioneer life was like. You may wish to try to find a copy of this book as it makes excellent reading.

PIONEERING IN KENT, and throughout Upper Canada, was a tale of hardships difficult for a later generation to picture. True, the land was a free grant, or cost at most two or three shillings an acre; but it was wrested from the forest by the laborious toil of men women and children eking out a bare existence.

The pioneer home was a mere shanty of logs and bark, quite often without window or door, with a deerskin hung over the entrance and a chimney to let out smoke and let in light. A pioneer’s tools were an axe, a large hoe, an auger and a sickle; or, if better footed than ordinary, he might have saw, spade, wooden plow, plow shares, ox-yoke and chain. The housewife worked with a skillet, a pot, a spinning wheel, a set of cards for wool, a log cradle and a sugar-trough for bread-tray. Corn and vegetables grown in the stump-pitted clearing were supplemented by fishing and hunting. A pittance of money or additional goods might be earned if the pioneer worked away from home, on the older farms or at Detroit. If he did, the women and children were left to fend for themselves for months at a time.

Life in the bush held little romance and was not for timid folk. The deep silence of the woods at times grew unbearable. Between mosquitoes and the smoking punk used to deter them, the summer nights were a continuous penance. The visits of Indians, sometimes bold to audacity, always mysterious, were dreaded. Danger from wild beasts was ever present.

Wolves were a terror in the land; and at certain seasons no woman’s life, much less a child’s was safe on the trail after nightfall. Even in daylight, sheep were in constant danger, and after dark all young stock had to be penned. The nights were often made hideous by the unearthly howling of the wolves as they prowled about the enclosures, or tried to stampede belated cattle. These defended themselves by forming in circle, the calves inside, presenting a chevaux de frise of lowered heads and horns to their ravenous enemies.

So destructive were the wolves that, quite early, a bounty was paid, a "wolf scalp warrant" to the value of $6 being issued for each wolf-scalp taken. A memorandum in the books of John Dolsen, J.P., of Dover reads: "1834, April 25, issued to Archibald Thomson one certificate for wolf scalp; May 19, issued certificate for five scalps (and on same date) certificate for two scalps killed on 18th. C. Cartier says that Thomson has killed 23 or 24 wolves in all up to this time this year."

And, in 1842, a sensation resulted when Daniel O’Reilly, a Chatham magistrate, was charged with signing wolf scalp certificates in favor of Adam Snider and using them to pay certain private debts. O’Reilly’s version was that Snider brought in wolf scalps, he issued the certificates in due course, and accepted them in payment for land sold to Snider. But suspicion long lingered that the scalps were fictitious.

The pioneer’s first task was to provide shelter. His weapon was the axe. The surrounding forest offered abundant building material. If wise, he copied and improved on the log cabins of his predecessors, felling trees of the proper dimensions and cutting them into logs of suitable lengths. With these he contrived a one-story cabin, whose single room had perhaps ten by twelve feet in floor space—largely because logs any longer than twelve feet were beyond his ability to handle unaided. On the front, thicker logs were used, so that by the time the last tier was placed, there was sufficient slope from front to back to provide fall for a roof. Poles were laid cross-wise; and these covered with bark, opened out and piled two tiers deep. Additional poles, superimposed on this bark and tied to those underneath with basswood thongs, ensured, without nail or bolt, a roof strong enough to defy any gale, and tight enough to keep out rain and snow.

Basswood logs, split as evenly as possible, were used for floor and door. For the floor they were trimmed on one side with the axe, for the door on both sides. The cracks between the logs were chinked with splinters of wood; then plastered with mortar contrived of clay and ashes, the latter a fair substitute for lime. The window—there was but one—if ostentatious might have two small panes of glass; usually a single pane; quite often oiled paper took the place of glass. Many cabins had no window at all.

This primitive shanty, usually contrived single-handed, served the settler and his family for their first summer. Often it served for years, where the farmer was more concerned with clearing land than with home comfort. A house large enough to meet the requirement of his settlement duties came later. In this undertaking, the entire settlement co-operated. The logs for the walls, hewn with a broad-axe, were hauled to the site by oxen; and, in contrast to the rude "notch and saddle" corners of the first shanty, were built up into neat and perpendicular "dove-tailed" corners by expert axe-men.

Cornelius McBrayne, Botany’s first post-master, thus describes an old-time house raising:

"The logs were cut and hauled on the ground and about the middle of October they would have an old-fashioned house-raising. An invitation was given to about twenty men from the old settlement, and with the help they had among themselves would have enough. The invitation was looked upon as general, and some twenty-five or thirty were ready and glad of a chance to assist. A good supply of handspikes, mulays and skids, with the bark peeled off, were provided beforehand, so that there would be no hitch when operations commenced in the raising.

"It might be well here to explain what a ‘mulay’ is as a great many people had never seen them. The head is in the shape of a crescent, or exactly like a new moon put upon the end of a pole, by which the men would push the logs up the skids. It answers the same purpose in raising a log building as the pike poles of today do in the frame

"As soon as the log reached the top it was ‘spotted’ — a chip taken off the heaviest end and turned over. This would keep it from rolling while the men on the corners prepared the ends to fit the logs below.

"There would always be a race to see which party would get its end up first. The men on top would stand back a few feet and stick their axes in the top of the log laid down, and thus prevent the rolling log from crushing their toes. Sometimes the cutting at the corners would be rather deep, and cause the log to ‘ride’, as it was called; then it would be turned up and some taken off so it would rest firmly on the corners, and at the same time have as small a crack as possible.

"During the time the corners were being prepared, those on the ground had a chance to discuss any matters of public or private interest; and such as the general news of the neighborhood was given and in like manner received. After the walls were raised to a height of about seven or eight feet, the beam plates were laid. The beam plates are two side logs, somewhat larger than the other logs of the building, with grooves cut for placing the beams which support the floor above. Three or four rounds are placed above the beam plate, the first rib, and then the roof is commenced. A straight grained oak is selected and cut in lengths for clap boards, which when nailed together make a very good roof."

Like the house, the inside furnishings were almost all homemade products of the settler’s skill and craftsmanship although at times these were not of a very high order. The bed was a one-leg structure, built into a corner of the house, the sturdy log walls doing duty for the other three legs. The "springs" were poles, or basswood planks. The earliest mattresses were of hemlock boughs; later, corn husks or rye or wheat straw; still later, sewed in a tick, wild fowl feathers, especially duck and geese, easily obtained every autumn. Sometimes the skins of wild animals served as sheets and coverlets.

An indispensable feature of the pioneer dwelling was the open fireplace. An opening was cut in the log wall at the far end of the cabin; and here was erected a crude, box-like structure of stone with an open front. This rendered a three-fold service—cooking, lighting and heating. The wide fire place was large enough to take a backlog four feet long and a foot through. A few stones, or sometimes round green stick, did duty as andirons. Every night in cold weather a backlog would be "walked in" and placed in the wide chim- ney; this, with a forelog and some split wood ensured a rousing fire through the night.

The chimney above the fireplace was contrived of clay and straw, kneaded and rolled to such a consistency as to handle firmly and stay when placed between the upright poles which formed the skeleton of the chimney. A rod of iron, if such could be procured, was put in, on which to hang the pots. A later improvement on this was the "crane", set in the jamb, which could be swung out, the pots hung on it, and then turned back over the fire.

The light from the fireplace was generally sufficient for work done after dark. The men employed their evenings making axe handles to replace those frequently broken in felling trees and splitting wood: it was customary to have a few extra handles for quick replacements. Sometimes the men would mend the children’s shoes, or contrive hickory brooms for the housewife. She, in turn, spent her evenings in spinning, knitting, patching clothes, darning socks, or in other of the many duties falling to her lot.

As a distributor of heat in very cold weather, the fireplace was too efficient. The complaint was common that you were seared on one side and frozen on the other. Still, by frequently turning, one did fairly well.

Clothing was home-made, and usually woollen homespun. Even where a settler could conveniently obtain from a trader the cloth required to stand the rough usage of bush life, it was so dear that few could afford the price. Many old country immigrants brought with them quantities of linen; but sooner or later the great majority were clothed with the products of their own toil. Hand cards, spinning wheels and hand looms, operated by the women-folk, transformed the wool shorn from the settler’s own flocks into cloth. Spinning was a by-occupation of the pioneer women: but weaving was done by weavers, either men or women, who had to take their pay in farm products.

As soon as the settler’s clearing was large enough, a few sheep would be kept to provide clothing for the family. The shorn wool was first washed to free it from dirt, and picked by hand in readiness to be carded. This was done by means of two hand cards, which worked it into rolls ready for the spinner. The old-fashioned spinning wheel converted these rolls into yarn. The older women used a smaller wheel, operated by foot, so that they could work sitting down; but the younger women and girls used a large wheel, spun around by hand.

The wool was stretched and twisted into yarn by walking backward from the wheel for the full length of the room. Homes which could afford it sometimes hired girls to do the spinning. Three skeins of yarn, composed of fourteen knots of forty threads around a homemade reel of a certain size, constituted an acceptable day’s work. For spinning eighteen skeins, a week’s work, a girl was paid one dollar, including board. To spin three skeins a girl traveled a trifle over six miles, half that distance backward. Every thread was gone over with the fingers after being drawn out, to give it the required even twist. An expert spinner could complete four skeins a day, adding materially to the distance she traveled, and then say she was not tired.

For a fancy piece of dress goods, the wool was spun into a fine quality of yarn, about three skeins to one pound of wool. The wool was colored to suit the fancy; and, with the artistic selection and blending of colors, woven in plaids, checks, stripes or any selected pattern, some striking effects were achieved for the wives and daughters of the more aristocratic families. The women folk vied with one another in designs to suit their fancy: but the mere men had to be content with coarser yarn, to ensure a heavier cloth which would stand rough usage.

For coloring their cloth and yarn, the early settlers had to provide their own dye-stuffs. Butternut brown, very durable, was made by boiling the bark of the butternut tree or the outer hull of the nut itself in water. Brown was also obtained by boiling sumach bobs. The blossoms of the golden rod yielded yellow; and the bark of the soft maple, boiled and with copperas added, gave a deep black.

At times, clothes would be made from the cloth as it came from the weaver; but for winter wear the cloth was put through the process of "fulling." This was done by placing it in a tub of luke-warm water with plenty of soap, where it was trampled, hour after hour, by barefoot boys and girls. By this means the cloth was shrunk and made much thicker.

Sometimes fulling bees were held. The web of cloth, well soaked in soapy, tepid water, was placed on a strong table. The neighbors gathered for the bee took their places around the table, gripped the web simultaneously with their hands, and brought it down with a thud. This pounding went on for perhaps two hours, with occasional intervals when the folk paused to rest and the web was treated with a fresh supply of soap and water. Every now and then the web was shifted in position, so that the strong might alternate with the weak, and the web receive an equal degree of pounding throughout. To produce an equal shrinkage in every square inch was an operation requiring art and skill; hence the bee usually produced better results than the haphazard "tub and children" process. Eventually the web was hung out to dry; and at long last the capable and resourceful housewife was able to convert it into clothing.

To the housewife, likewise, fell the task of supplying straw hats for the family. She selected the straws by hand from the wheat or rye fields before the grain had quite ripened. Cut with the scissors, the straws were spread out in the sun to bleach. This done, they were tied in bundles and stored till winter gave leisure for plaiting them into braids about a half inch in width. These braids the housewife wetted and bent into the required shape as she sewed them together by hand. Come spring, she had at least one straw hat for every member of the family: which might mean a dozen or more hats made every winter.

In the earliest days, the wide fireplace provided the sole illumination for the cabin at night. A piece of rag set in a saucer of oil had the advantage, that it could be moved to any part of the room. Coon oil was chiefly used; and settlers kept a good supply on hand.

The tallow candle came later. Its production was simple but tedious. The wicks were dropped into melted tallow; then with drawn; then dipped again after the adhering tallow had cooled. process was repeated, time after time, till the candle was of proper size. A block of wood, with a hole in the centre, served as candle stick.

Eventually, moulded candles came into general use. Metal moulds, capable of making three, six or even eight candles at a time, became standard equipment in the pioneer home, greatly curtailing the labor of candle-making. They looked better than the tallow dip, though they gave no better light.

Paper, ink and pens were likewise home-made. The inner bark of the birch tree, divided and subdivided till it was thin and pliable as papers could be written on with ink very nicely. Ink was sometimes made by dissolving gunpowder in water. The ink mostly used was made by boiling soft maple bark, and adding copperas and a little sugar. Such ink, quite black, cost about a cent a gallon, and was for many years used in the schools. The pen was whittled from a hickory stick, about the size of a lead pencil, sharpened four square, with grooves running back from the point and widening as the square widened. Quill pens, also used, could be made by anyone with a sharp knife.

Thus by their own ingenuity, and at the cost of tedious and patient toil, the pioneers provided themselves with these amenities of civilization. If they could not have what they wanted, they invented substitutes. or did without. Even with the advent of trading posts and itinerant peddlers, the settler was still handicapped by the lack of ready money; practically all trade was by barter, and quite often the hardworking settler had little more than enough for his own needs.

Under such conditions, the manufacture of black salts, or pearl ash, was a godsend, however improvident it may have seemed to a later generation. For this, ashes were gathered from the fireplace, or from the fallows where the logs had been burned to get rid of them. The ashes of hardwoods, and particularly of the elm, yielded the most black salts.

The ashes were gathered into leaches, over which water was poured. The water, passing through the ashes and collected in vessels under the leach, formed lye. This lye was boiled in large kettles till the last of the liquid had evaporated and only the solid or "black salts" was left.

The making of black salts was yet another of the pioneer housewife’s many chores. The pearl ash was in great demand for soap making; and was one of the first crops for which the settler could get ready money.

So the leached ashes from the burned logs became "the father of potash, the grandfather of pearl ash, the great grandfather of saleratus, the great-great grandfather of soda, and a distant ancestor of the baking powder of the present day."

Food commonly consisted of cornmeal (occasionally flour) and vegetables with such game as the settler could kill. Tea, sugar and meat were luxuries, tea being seldom used except on Sundays. Cook stoves were unknown, the baking being done in small Dutch ovens or ovens made of mud; a rod was stretched across the chimney from which a chain with a hook carried the bellied pots, sufficient for all culinary purposes. Hand-carded, hand-spun, hand-woven and butternut-dyed woolens formed the better clothing; sheep and deer skins, linens and linseys were the every-day wearing apparel. In the absence of grist-mills, corn and grain were ground with hand mills or pounded in mortars shaped out of the heads of tree stumps, the being separated by the children’s lungs or on sheets blown by the breeze.

Self denial and frugality reigned. Cash, if available, was barely sufficient to pay taxes or the very small land installments. Products that would realize cash were carefully hoarded. Barter was the general mode of exchange, farm products or labor being given in return for the small household necessities.

Long trips to "The Store" were made for the simplest commodities; one day a roll of butter to buy a pound of salt, again two or three eggs for a darning needle. Long pedestrian trips were frequent. An old man from the Longwoods walked to Fields’ blacksmith shop in Harwich to have his plowshare laid, returning the same day, a distance of fifty miles. A bushel of salt cost eighteen of wheat, a yard of cotton one bushel, a pound of tea $2 or $3, and sharpening plow-irons 62½ cents.

Travel was mostly on foot. A new settler seldom possessed a horse, and few roads were usable for wagons. As late as 1842, there were only 25 wagons in Kent and Lambton. For farming and logging operations, oxen were generally employed; for the new settler they were the only draught animals. The stone boat—a tree crotch boarded over—was at once his wagon and carriage. Roads, save in favorable seasons, were almost impassable. As late as the 1840s it was not uncommon for the Royal Mail stage, with its four horses, to get thoroughly mired. A few of the more prosperous settlers may have owned horses; a few had riding horses, the ladies riding astride; but "shanks naggie" was the popular form of locomotion.

Marriage couples, often accompanied by a train of friends, traveled long distances to the nearest minister. A Raleigh yeoman and his fiance walked the entire distance to Detroit and back, sleeping over night in a hollow log to resume their journey in the morning. A Romney man, en route to Chatham on a similar errand, ferried his bride-to-be over a Harwich swale on his shoulders.

Jurymen from Howard and Orford, often from sheer necessity, walked the long distances to and from the court at Sandwich, receiving neither pay, food nor accommodation, save the paltry 25 cents for each case on which they served.

But, if journeys on foot were inescapable, there were compensations or ameliorations. The doors of most houses were never barred; the wayfarer was welcome. In winter, on the main lines of travel, in the taverns and in many farm houses, great fires were built and banked upon retiring, to accommodate the needy and impecunious who might come during the night; the morning light often revealing many arrivals curled up on the floor, sleeping soundly before the comfortable hearth. Even where charges were made they were modest—meals 12 1/2 cents, bed or lodging the same, and five cents for a gill of whiskey.

At first, social intercourse was exceedingly limited. A visit from a distant neighbor (there were none near) was a rare and welcome break in the uneventful monotony of wilderness life. But, as the scattered clearings edged closer to one another, social amenities, became possible. In the backwoods, the popular "dance" required little preparation beyond the "fixins" which the boys generally provided by means of coon hunts, a coon skin being a cash commodity at the store.

In the "front clearings," though, preparations were more elaborate, involving a resort to the "Corners" for nankeen knee trousers and vests at 67 shillings (York currency), scarlet and swansdown vests at 50 shillings, dancing pumps at 24 shillings, calico for gowns at $1 a yard; cambric for waists and scarfs at $3 a yard, besides numerous ribbons, "silver lace bows and hair bands," and the like. Then to the strains of fiddle or bagpipes, played by some Celtic Pat or Sandy, perched on high in a convenient corner, dance after dance in endless round continued far into the early morning hours. The only interruptions were the frequent visits of the male dancers to an adjoining room to investigate the merits of Dolsen’s corn juice or peach brandy, with now and then resultant breaches of the peace when the escort home of some forest belle was disputed.

The pastimes like the surroundings were rude and wild. Coon hunts, cock-fights, rifle matches, wrestling and fisticuffs, and, later, horse racing, provided diversion. At such events, whiskey was ever present. Nor was its use confined to the cross-roads; it formed the social beverage alike of yeoman, merchant, squire, judge and parson. "Drunk as a squire" was a true if not a complimentary saying. The drinking habit cropped up at every barn raising or other gathering. Even at funerals "drinkin’ under the dead" was a common observance. At the funeral of a prominent official who died at "Sally Ainse" on the Thames, even the parson had to be propped up by friendly hands while he read the service, his practiced tongue giving no evidence of his paralyzed limbs.

Entries in a lower Thames merchant’s day book are eloquent of the times. "Ebenezer Wilcox, to 3 gallons of whiskey for Parson’s dance; Hezekiah Wilcox, to 2½ gallon spirits for Gibson’s funeral, 32s. and for share of H. Ball’s dance, 10s and Thomas Williams, for egg nogg, 6s ‘because he was afraid to fight’."

Schools were few, poorly attended, and, on an average, open only six months a year. In time they were assisted by the district and the government according to the number of pupils and length of time open; but the burden fell chiefly on the settlers, who took turn about boarding the ill-paid Dominie in their homes. As late as 1840, a baker’s dozen of preachers sufficed for the spiritual wants of the community, the tying of marriage knots and the christening of the resulting olive branches. Doctors were rarer still: but the babies came into the world without their assistance and, strange to say, with astonishing success. Except on special occasions, sick settlers still drenched themselves with salts at 37½ cents per dose, or had recourse to "a vomit" at similar cost. A common and popular medicine was sulphur at four shillings a pound.

The lakes and rivers were the great highways of the pioneers. Close to them the first settlements were made; and when eventually settlement worked inland, long distances and lack of time and money prevented systematic road work.

From early times, the Indian had traveled the wilderness; but the Indian had no wheeled vehicles. Till the white man came, he lacked even the horse. Overland, he followed a winding course, taking advantage of high ground and skirting tricky swamps and difficult hills. The earliest pioneer roads—mere bridle paths—in many cases followed these Indian trails. Over these bridle roads, men, on horse- back or on foot, toted their grist to the least distant mill; or, with wives and families, went to visit their neighbors on the great occasions of births, marriages and funerals, or to attend the rare religious services, held in a log church or school or oftener in the most commodious cabin. Road improvement consisted simply in clearing away fallen timber or underbrush, with perhaps a trifle of widening. Surviving stumps quite frequently dotted the trail.

Winter improved these bush trails. Then the ground, mucky in spring and fall, froze hard, and snow, which the forest prevented from drifting, leveled the surface. As late as 1862 a text-book writer grew ecstatic:

"It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the frost and snow to the people of Canada, or to place any money value upon them. That which most Europeans have deplored as the only drawback to this country is in truth the source of its rapid prosperity. The operations of agriculture or commerce do not necessarily require perennial communication with a market. As there is but one crop of grain or lumber in the year, it is sufficient if once in the year an opportunity is afforded to transport it, and this Canada possesses in a higher degree than any other ‘more favored clime’.

"In the dead of winter, when all agricultural outdoor operations have ceased, the farmer after having threshed his grain, can sally forth to any market he may select even if distant one hundred miles or more and combine other business or pleasure in the town with that of the sale of his products. He can go anywhere while the snow lasts for all roads are alike; and he can take as large a load as can be transported by the same power on the best wheel roads of Europe."

Possibly true of the eastern portions of Upper Canada, this description did not fit exactly the county of Kent, where the "January thaw" had been, from time immemorial, a recurrent phenomenon. And, with the felling of the forest trees, and the resultant drifting of the snow, the advantages of the winter trails became even less evident.

Over these trails the farmers had been able to travel, and trans port goods, in horse-drawn home-made sledges. The usual conveyance was the "jumper"—a wooden box on runners, sometimes iron-shod, more often bare. Town residents sometimes used the more elaborate traineaux or carrioles; thus Simcoe travelled down the Thames on the ice in 1793. The winter roads enabled the settler to travel long distances at little expense; since he, his family and his horses had to be fed, anyway. As late as 1825, fully two-thirds of the crops in Upper Canada were transported to market in winter.

The first Upper Canada parliament, sitting at Newark in 1793, passed an act placing roads under overseers to be appointed by the ratepaying householders at their annual town meetings. Every person was required to bring tools and to work from three to twelve days, and owners of carts and teams at least six days. At first, ten days’ time was required from rich and poor alike; but when large blocks of land, granted to favorites or held by speculators, stood in the way of improvement, dissatisfaction at the road law which exacted no more from the large landowner than from the tenant or laborer led to the days of statute labor being based on assessment.

At the commencement of the nineteenth century, from the eastern boundary of Upper Canada to the Detroit river the sole land com- -munication was by a series of portage roads, designed to fill the gaps where water transport was inconvenient, difficult or impossible. In 1810 the navigation of the Thames to Lake St. Clair was supplemented by the Baldoon Road, constructed by Lord Selkirk’s Scottish settlers. In 1803 the government had opened the old stage road "the Tecumseh Trail" along the south shore of Lake St. Clair to the mouth of Pike Creek; but the roadbed was hard to keep in repair, and was ultimately submerged.

Private enterprise and generosity, stimulated by necessity, helped. The Niagara Falls Canada Constellation of September 13, 1799, gives us a glimpse of pioneer roadbuilding from Oxford to the mouth of the Thames. The settlers, in one year, at the expense of Thomas Ingersoll, cut and bridged a road from Burford to La Tranche through a wilderness of between 25 and 30 miles. Elisha Putnam of Oxford later, by subscription, continued the road to Allen’s, in Delaware township. The subscription was insufficient to finish the work, but the road was passable for sleighs.

Putnam, undiscouraged, started a second subscription to continue the road some fifty miles to the Moravian grant. This provided a ten-foot wide roadway, with logs cut to twelve feet. By 1799 Putnam had opened the road for half the distance. The Moravians undertook to add a further seven miles, to provide a junction with the "old road", giving a good wagon road to the mouth of the Thames, ensuring for the coming winter communication with Detroit and not a day’s ride without settlements. "Such is the enterprise of our western inhabitants that 150 miles of road is made without the least allowance from government."

The quotation clearly indicates there was already a road along the river, from Cornwall’s to the mouth of the Thames.

In the Talbot settlement, road construction, as distinct from surveys, was commenced in 1809 under the direction of Colonel Mahlon Burwell, and the first sections were completed in 1811. This highway was gradually extended, and eventually the two main branches were completed from Fort Erie to Sandwich and from Port Talbot to London. Talbot street soon became known as the best road in Upper Canada; it was one of the first where corduroy was replaced by more advanced types of construction.

In 1795 the entire revenue of Upper Canada, £900 sterling, left nothing for roads. In 1804, with growing revenues, £1000 could be appropriated. The amounts gradually increased; between 1836 and 1840 Upper Canada was to spend £100,000 on roads. Meanwhile, the War of 1812 had emphasized the need for better overland transportation facilities, and during and after that struggle there was some improvement.

The first step was the laying of logs crosswise of the right of way where it traversed swampy ground. Thus originated the notorious "corduroy road" whose discomforts became a tradition. One writer says: "Whole hecatombs of trees were sacrificed to form a corrugated causeway of their round trunks, laid side by side, over which wagons can be slowly dragged or bumped, any attempt at speed being checked by immediate symptoms of approaching dissolution in the vehicle."

According to some writers, simple ditching, to drain the right of way, would have solved the problem as efficiently, and more comfortably. But for lack of tools or time, or both, corduroy was preferred. Kent, with much swampy terrain, got its share: as late as 1943, road work on Concession 3, Harwich, between the Centre Line and the Mull Side Road, in Howard, between Concessions 5 and 6 and on the Chatham-Camden town line uncovered logs, in perfect condition, probably laid more than a century before. Some logs were as much as two feet in diameter, though most were from ten to twelve inches. The logs were 12 to 14 feet in length, and oak had apparently been preferred.

Drainage, when it came, often left the corduroy high and dry, whereupon attempts were made to cover it with earth. Often the penetrating winter frosts heaved the logs through the earthen covering. Eventually corduroy was superseded by the "dirt road," rudely graded, excellent in midsummer and midwinter, but pretty sure, on the clay soils of Kent, to become deeply rutted with the autumn rains and spring thaws. In time, efforts were increasingly made to improve these dirt roads—especially those subject to heavy traffic—by graveling. With good grading and sufficient gravel, this made an excellent road; but too often the local road authorities applied their gravel with a stingy hand.

Following the union of 1841, the Municipal Act placed the roads of Upper Canada wholly under local control; and the Assessment Act provided that every male between 16 and 60 was liable to a minimum of two days’ statute labor, with longer periods according to property assessment. The rate of commutation, 2s 6d per day, might be varied by by-law, and later was doubled. Delinquents who failed to work or pay could be imprisoned. Roads must be not less than 30 and not more than 90 feet wide; and local rates could be levied for local roads on petition of two-thirds of the ratepayers representing one-half the assessed value.

So far as concerned Kent, this was the system of road construction and administration in vogue for sixty years.

In 1832, Upper Canada was forty years old. The Quaker, Benjamin Lundy, founder in 1815 of one of the earliest anti-slavery societies in the United States, was keenly interested in the success of the fugitive slaves who had found refuge there. His diary of a mid-winter journey to secure first-hand information gives a vivid picture of travel in the southwestern peninsula at that period.

Lundy crossed the Niagara at Queenston on January 13, 1832, and about mid-day took the stage for Hamilton. All inland travel in Upper Canada was by stage coach (so called), taverns and stage houses at intervals furnishing meals and lodging to wayfarers and providing fresh horses.

From Hamilton, junction of the routes from York and Queenston, the stage ran daily in summer and tri-weekly in winter as far west as Brantford, the mail continuing through to Detroit thrice a week. The run often started before daybreak, and if the going proved heavy, it was not unusual for passengers to make it easier by getting out and walking, and even by "putting shoulders to the wheel" at bad spots in the road. On this particular trip, there was plenty of snow and the stage-box could be placed on runners, so the stage made satisfactory progress, reaching Brantford the day after leaving Hamilton.

On the evening of January 16, Lundy reached a stage house three miles south of London. Thence he journeyed on foot through the village of London and beyond to the Wilberforce settlement where, spending a couple of days sizing up the progress and prospects of the negro colony, he found conditions encouraging and opportunities plentiful for homeseekers to secure uncleared land to convert into fertile farms.

Returning to the stage house south of London, Lundy resumed his journey to Detroit. Starting at 3 a.m. on January 22 the stage crossed a good bridge at Delaware to the north side of the Thames, reaching Ward’s tavern in time for dinner. The same afternoon Lundy came to New Fairfield village. After traversing the Indian Reserve, the stage passed fine farms. A little before dark it reached Howard Bridge at Arnold’s Mill where it recrossed to the south side of the river, Here was a tavern, stage house and store, where the day’s journey ended.

Routed out before daybreak on January 23, the passengers resumed their journey about 4.30 a.m., the more pretentious stage coach giving place to an uncovered sleigh. Traversing a road along the south bank, the wayfarers came, 10 miles west, to McGregor’s Mill, where they found a large mill, a store and a post-office.

The morning being cold, the passengers were allowed to sit by a fire in the kitchen while the mail was sorted. After a few minutes’ delay, they hurried back to the sleigh, and went on to the little village of Chatham. It was now daylight, and they stopped for a few minutes at a tavern and stage-house in the village. There was also a store— apparently Stephen Brock’s.

From Chatham the travellers proceeded five miles down the Thames to a tavern on the south bank kept by L. Goss. Here horses were changed, and, the snow being pretty well gone, the sleigh took to the river ice. The ice was strong, and good time was made. Lundy records that the land bordering the river exhibited a dense population of "French Creoles" and Europeans with a few Americans. He manifestly uses the term "creole" in the New Orleans sense, as referring to a native-born descendant of a settler from Europe.

A more graphic record is left by Mrs. Anna Jameson of a trip to Chatham following a visit to Colonel Talbot in 1837. Thirty-four years after its founding, Colonel Talbot’s demesne had grown to 540,000 acres with an estimated 50,000 population. The original Castle Malahide, burned by the Americans in 1814, had been replaced by a more pretentious structure—"a long wooden building, chiefly of rough logs, with a covered porch running along the south side." Talbot confided that for sixteen years, in the early stages of the settlement, he scarcely saw a human being "except the few boors and blacks employed in logging his land." He himself assumed the blanket coat and axe, slept upon the bare earth, cooked three meals a day for twenty woodsmen, cleaned his own boots, washed his own linen, milked his own cows, churned the butter and made and baked the bread.

Leaving the settlement, Mrs. Jameson proceeded to Chatham. The best—in fact the only—vehicle available was a farmer’s cart. She sat on a seat strung on straps, a primitive species of shock absorber. Talbot Street was then the best road in western Upper Canada, so, as far as the Howard-Harwich town line, the going was not too bad. There the cart turned north.

"The road," writes Mrs. Jameson, "was scarcely passable; there were no longer cheerful farms and clearings, but the dark pine forest and the rank swamp, crossed by those terrific corduroy paths (my bones still ache at the mere recollection!) and deep holes and pools of rotted vegetable matter mixed with water, black, bottomless sloughs of despond! The very horses paused on the brink of some of these mud-gulfs, and trembled ere they made the plunge downwards. I set my teeth, screwed myself to my seat, and commended myself to Heaven—but I was well-night dislocated.

"At length I abandoned my seat altogether, and made an attempt to recline on the straw at the bottom of the cart, disposing my cloaks, carpet bags and pillows so as to afford some support—but all in vain; myself and all my well-contrived edifice of comfort were pitched hither and thither, and I expected at every moment to be thrown over headlong; while to walk or to escape by any means from my disagreeable situation was as impossible as if I had been in a ship's cabin in the midst of a rolling sea."

Just before entering the thicker woods, a stop was made at wayside inn "to gain breath and courage and refresh the poor horses before plunging into a forest of some twenty miles in extent."

"The inn," writes Mrs. Jameson, "the only one within a curcuit of more than five and thirty miles, presented the usual aspect of these forest inns; that is, a rude log hut, with one window and one room answering all purposes, a lodging or sleeping place being divided at one end by a few planks; outside a shed of bark and boughs for the horses, and a hollow trunk of a tree disposed as a trough. Some of the trees around it were in full and luxuriant foliage; others which had been girdled stood bare and ghastly in the sunshine. To understand the full force of the scripture phrase, ‘Desolate as a lodge in the wilderness,’ you should come here."

Mrs. Jameson’s driver followed the creek road in Harwich:

"Turning the horses’ heads again westward we plunged at once into the deep forest, where there was absolutely no road, no path, except that which is called a blazed path, where the trees marked on either side are the only direction to the traveler. How savagely, how solemnly wild it was! So thick was the overhanging foliage, that it not only shut out the sunshine but almost the daylight; and we travelled on through a perpetual gloom of vaulted boughs and intermingled shade. There were no flowers here—no herbage. The earth beneath us was a black, rich vegetable mould into which the cart wheels sank a foot deep; a rank, reedy grass grew around the roots of the trees, and sheltered rattlesnakes and reptiles.

"The timber was all hard timber, walnut, beech and basswood and oak and maple of most luxurious growth; here and there the lightning had struck and shivered one of the loftiest of these trees, riving the great trunk in two and flinging it horizontally upon its companions. There it lay in strangely picturesque fashion, clasping with its huge boughs their outstretched arms as if for support. Those which had been hewn to open a path lay where they fell, and over their stumps and roots the cart had to be lifted or dragged. Sometimes a swamp or morass lay in our road, partly filled up or laid over with trunks or fallen trees by way of a bridge.

"As we neared the limits of the forest, some new clearings broke in upon the solemn twilight monotony of our path; the aspect of these was almost uniform, presenting an opening of felled trees of about an acre or two; the commencement of a log house; a patch of ground surrounded by a snake fence, enclosing the first crop of wheat and perhaps a little Indian corn; great heaps of timber trees and brush-wood laid together and burning; a couple of oxen dragging along another enormous trunk to add to the pile. These were the general features of the picture, framed, as it were, by the dark, mysterious woods."

Mosquitoes, thick in undrained woodland and swamp, tormented the traveller. At length, the jolting cart emerged into the valley of the Thames. "The first view of the beautiful little town of Chatham made my sinking spirits bound like the sight of a friend."


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