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The McGregors
The First Winter


The grain threshing was left until the ground was frozen because the threshing machines and the "horse powers" that ran them were a heavy load. At Jim's farm the thresher, or as it was more often called, the separator, was set to be fed at the stacks, and the straw proceeded on canvas carriers to the barn. The horse power was then set up a few yards from the machine and was turned by four horses, one on each of four arms rotating on a centre of gears which operated jointed steel bars that carried the power to the separator. A man had to cut the bands tying the sheaves with a knife, and spread the straw evenly on the canvas carriers. On the centre of the horse power there was a small platform on which a man stood, like the rowing master in an ancient galley, cracking a whip to keep the horses going. The horses had to be trained to work patiently and to step over the tumbling rods carefully. Each one was tied by a long headline to the end of the arm behind him. It was a business, and required a gang of ten or twelve men. Janet prepared the dinner for them in trepidation. She welcomed Mrs. MacDonald, and was visibly relieved to see her kind-hearted neighbour carrying what was obviously more food.

"I'm so glad you came. I'm wondering if I have enough to feed the men."

"I brought four pies; I see you only have two. My dear, that's only a drop in the bucket! But you have lots of meat and potatoes and fresh bread. You make nice bread, Janet."

"Whatever will they do with all those pies?"

"You would wonder. I think some of them look on these threshings as pie-eating contests. They don't get them any other time."

The threshing was going along steadily, but Willie Ross was impatient. "You should feed the machine faster, Alex, or we'll not be done by dark."

But old Alex Stewart was a careful man, and would not be rushed by the impetuousness of youth. "There's nae profit in stuffing the feeder and putting grain out in the straw, lad." "You coddle the thing, Mr. Stewart. Let it pay its way." "I've seen the day, Wullie, when we threshed with a flail and winnowed by hand. And I tell you, this thing, as you call it, is a boon to mankind. You might well coddle it. It will make all you young fellows rich. It's a big step, boy, a big step."

At the sound of the gong, the men trooped into the kitchen. Janet was astonished when they sat down at the table without washing. She quickly learned that the theory was that it took up valuable time, and that since they got dirty right away again anyhow, there was little point. Besides, it would use up all the hostess's clean towels. As the men sat down, their arms on the table, Janet's good linen tablecloth quickly lost its gleam. The food, including the pies, disappeared as if by magic. The men seemed to eat as if in a competition. In fifteen minutes they were already leaving the table. Some managed to overcome their shyness and thank Janet, but it was only the Highlanders who did this.

"Well, they came, they ate, and they went," she said to Mrs. MacDonald.

"I think they did well enough, Janet. Now we get ready for the supper."

Winter pounced suddenly. A very mild December day was followed by a shrieking blizzard. The winds swept across the lake, picking up moisture and dropping it in the form of snow up to thirty miles inland. For this strip of land, one hundred miles long, in the lee of Lake Huron, was the snow belt, and had an annual fall of snow three times the average for Ontario. And as, over the years, more and more of the forest disappeared, the winds became stronger. What had been, in those first pioneer days, cold with snow became cold with blowing snow, a much more serious proposition. For, unlike Jim and Janet, not many of the settlers thought of leaving windbreaks. They were too anxious to get rid of the trees, and as a result, on all the flatlands near the lake, drifting snow was a problem that has only increased over the years.

Jim and Janet found it comfortable enough in the cabin. The logs were a good insulation from the cold, and there was lots of good hardwood to burn. The snow even served to chink the small openings around the windows and prevent drafts. Jim let the livestock out every day to water at the creek, and the house itself had a flume of four-inch boards running a small stream of melting snow continuously to a barrel close to the back door. They were isolated during the storms, of course, but it was a comfortable, snug feeling and it gave them a chance to resume the playfulness the last few months of never-ending work had almost eliminated. When the skies cleared a new life began, the winter life that was so important to the pioneers, for it enabled them to do the things that there was no time to do in the spring and summer. Snow made it possible to reach areas inaccessible in summer. Long roads could now go through the forests in all directions, seeking out the good timber, and huge loads could be hauled easily. The sawmills relied on the logs coming in on these snow roads to keep them going through the summer, for there were no streams in this part of the country reliable enough to float log rafts. And there was always clearing to do, for once into the bush and away from the wind, it was never too cold to work. The trees were cut and limbed, the good timber was cut into logs to be shipped to the mills or to be used for building, but the greater part was just piled ready to be burned when the snow melted.

Jim and Dan MacDonald always worked together when they were clearing, for any kind of bush work was dangerous for one person working alone. A loose branch falling or a slip of the razor-sharp axe and a man could lie helplessly to die in the snow. It was the first time Dan had used Jim's new saw. It ate through the hardwood like a knife through butter, the sawdust coming out in long strips hanging together. Dan was impressed.

"You set this saw, Jamie?"

"Sandy Fraser showed me how. I've a bit to learn yet, but it runs easy."

"You must have held a gun at his head. Old Sandy knows a lot, but he's mighty close about telling it."

"He likes good liquor, Dan, and the man who brings it to him. Now if you would show me how to use an axe, I would be the smartest man in the township."

Jim was good enough with an axe, all the pioneers had to be, but Dan MacDonald had that extra flair, the almost contemptuous skill, that marks the good billiard player or the first-rate gambler. The axe almost seemed part of him as he swung at a standing tree. The notch nicked top and bottom rhythmically and sank quickly into the wood until it made a V on its side. A notch cut in the other side to almost meet the first notch felled the tree. A simple procedure, yet to be done speedily it required absolute accuracy with the axe blade.

With larger trees Dan would look casually at the treetop, then at where he wanted it to fall, and cut a small notch. Then he would stand with his back to the tree, a hand on either side of the notch, and look again at the top. If it was needed, he cut a little on one side or the other. Then the men would cut rapidly through the tree with the saw from the other side, a slight deviation of the saw either way controlling the tree's fall. Dan could fell a tree, sometimes a crooked or deformed one, a foot or so from where he wanted it. In the limbing-up the axe flashed effortlessly; the branches were cut close to the log and the limbs into easily handled lengths. Then the two men bent to the real work, the sawing of the tree into logs or stovewood or, if they were clearing, into lengths which could be carried. And it was here that the set and sharpening of the saw became important. A good saw would cut almost twice as fast as a poorly set one. But, over all, it was the skill, or lack of it, on the part of the men that was important. The saw had to he handled lightly but firmly, it had to be pulled back and forth with a rhythm that laughed at the work. Working with a man who "rode the saw" or ignored the rhythm was a back-breaking experience. Some never learned; they were put to carrying brush or piling wood.

The settlers tried to do most of the clearing in winter, unless the snow got very deep. The trees were cut down, sawed into lengths, and piled together. Sometimes the logs were piled on top of the brush to press it down. When spring came and the ground was damp enough to prevent the entire forest from catching fire, the brush and lesser timber was burnt. The heat from dozens of fires was intense and the smoke choking, and at night the fires glowed red, lighting the sky and casting an eery glow over the bush.

After the fire the clearing was a desolate picture; logs and charred pieces of logs, odd bits of limbs that had refused to burn, and stones cracked and broken with the heat, lay about in confusion. Then the debris was rounded up again, the piles farther apart this time, and on a misty day the fires were set again. Then it was time to pull the stumps. Oxen were used, for they were steadier and not easily excited, and the larger ones were even stronger than horses. Chains were wrapped around the stumps to put the strain on the weakest roots first, and the entire stump came out with a twist at the pull of the oxen. Larger stumps had to be pulled by a stump-puller, a simple set of heavy chains which joined two stumps. A ratchet arrangement between them, worked by a lever, pulled steadily until the weakest stump gave way. Then the whole process of piling and burning was repeated, although the stumps were often allowed to dry until the next fall when the damp weather came again.

After several weeks of this back-breaking work, Jim delivered the logs, as they had agreed the spring before, to Bauman's mill. Frederick Bauman himself was there to greet him.

"A good load this morning, Jim. I see you haff some cherry this time."

"Just a few as a teaser, Mr. Bauman. Andrew Murdoch said you might be interested."

"That Andrew iss too smart for his own good, but I might be able to handle some at that."

A stout, red-faced man in his fifties, Frederick had come with his parents from Bavaria to settle in Carrick Township. He had seen opportunities in the lumber business and built a dam and a mill on the Nine Mile River. Jim knew he had hit a weak spot in Bauman when, after the lumber had been unloaded, he said, casually, "You got much of this cherry, Jim?"

"A tree here and there, Fred. I would hate to cut many, though, unless the price was right. I'm told it makes very handsome furniture."

In fact, Jim had a grove of fifty or more. This was unusual for black cherry, for, as a rule, it grew scattered among other hardwoods. But he knew its worth and, even if he hadn't, Andrew Murdoch had been quick to point it out to him and Janet before they had bought the land.

"Well, we'll see how it saws, my boy. I might could use it."

But Bauman was not about to give himself away either.


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