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The McGregors
Black Jim McGregor


Jim was well into his twenties when he left home, as had two of his brothers before him. Angus stayed, for he would inherit the farm, and he ran it now with little help from Rory. Careful, conservative, hard working, and honest, Angus McGregor was now a broad, stocky man, his hair already greying and receding at the temples.

"You'd best, go, James. There's work in the lumber camps, or, mayhap Andrew Murdoch would take you on at the framing.. You're a good man at the railings. None better, lad. We ken ye dinna agree with Father nor he with you. Go, before there are words between you that nothing can mend."

Jim had known the time to leave was fast approaching, and his hesitation had not been entirely for himself.

"You'll watch out for Mother then, Angus. I don't like to see her so worn. She's almost an old woman now, and her life spent for all of us."

Angus ran his hand through his thinning hair. "Aye, her time is coming, and a better mother never was known and with no help from him we will not name. They tell us God directs these things. I hope that is right, else the world is a topsy-turvy place with no meaning. I talked to Mr. McLean about it, but the man's mind is of nothing but bits of scripture. He worships the Bible, not God. A man has to make up his own mind. But look to it, Jamie boy. Heed what Mother has taught you and you willna gang far astray."

So Jim found work with Andrew Murdoch's crew of six. They were all young except Ben McAdam, the foreman. Jim himself stood well over six feet then, but that was nothing unusual among the Hielan'men, as they were called by the Lowland Scots. His hair was coal black, and he was already proud of a black moustache. There was no ounce of spare fat on his lean body, and black, bushy eyebrows almost joined together over his nose to give him a rather fierce appearance. His nose was slightly hooked, and the mouth was set in hard lines. To soften this harsh, craggy visage there were his warm blue eyes that laughed when the rest of his face was still. He was sometimes called Black Jim because there were other Jim McGregors: Curly Jim for instance, and Jim's Jim, as well as Groundhog Jim and Cloudy Jim. This last was the absent-minded one. Names were often acquired in childhood for the most trivial of reasons, and they stuck for life, for the early settlers did not care much about a man's hurt pride. Although no one would be called an uncomplimentary nickname to his face, when he was not present the name would always be used. Black Jim was lucky: he could easily have been called Monkey Jim, because of his climbing ability.

Jim had no trouble fitting in with the gang. He was a good man for the top work at the railings, well able to run along the plates and beams and scramble up the rafters in his bare feet. And there was plenty of work for the gang, for the log barns had outlived their usefulness. All across the country these log barns were being demoted to sheep pens and implement sheds, while timber barns went up, often with the help of Andrew Murdoch's crew of six.

The new barns had a skeleton framework of beams hewn from pine or rock elm, though sometimes beech or maple was used for short spans. For the rafters, occasionally cedar or tamarack poles could be found slim and straight enough for the purpose, but most of the rafters were sawn out of spruce or hemlock. The barn walls were of inch boards, often hemlock.

Farm woodlots, or rather the remains of the original forest, provided cheap and plentiful lumber. Sawmills were located on streams big enough to provide water power. Planing mills, to dress the rough lumber, came next, and they were followed by small furniture factories and woollen mills, again using water power. Where the water was unreliable, steam was used to power the factories, for there was always plenty of wood for fuel. Iron foundries began to locate in the towns.

It was about this time, during Jim's early manhood, that the whole area of Western Ontario between the lakes became self supporting and semi-independent, viewing the Yankees to the south and the French to the east with some distrust. But for the swift advance of the railroads this might have become an independent state, so sure were the inhabitants of their worth and of the superiority of their ideals over those of the rest of North America. A heavy influx of American settlers coming in before 1850 had been absorbed, and it was generally felt that they had come to know their place. For although it was well known that the Yankees were full of ingenious ideas and were often better equipped to deal with the wilderness, it was understood that on no account mustthis be admitted. The Yanks were already too sure of themselves; though good enough people at heart, they refused to take seriously all the values held by the British-born stock. One should make allowances, but only up to a point.

Although the life of the framing gang was hard, not one of the crew recognized the fact. The wine of life ran free in their veins; the joy of physical fitness and the spice of danger in their work and the constantly changing scenes ruled out boredom. Whiskey was taboo through the week. Andrew Murdoch was grimly consistent about that. Even though the supply was plentiful at all the barn raisings, he was adamant that none of his crew must indulge. No workman of his was going to fall drunk off high places. On Saturday night, however, the lid came off. All that day the tension would build up, until evening, when the crew would head for the nearest tavern.

Only Ben McAdam stayed sober. A small, wry, and exceedingly tough man, who had been born fifty years before in Glasgow; he had seen enough of liquor and what liquor could do. He was a teetotaller now, but went with the gang anyway. He drank sarsaparilla, ginger beer, and even lemonade whenever he could get them, and although bartenders frowned on such fussy ideas, they made no comment. Ben was very handy with his fists and not above using his feet as auxiliaries. He had been a sailor in his younger days.

The framing gang worked its way into Huron County. Andrew Murdoch scouted ahead, driving the newest and most fashionable buggy. His outfit was impeccable, as was the man himself. He wore a good broadcloth suit, kept his linen clean, and even wore gloves. He sported Dundreary whiskers, was tall and almost painfully thin, but carried himself with elegance: As a front man he left little to be desired, for he could unbend to talk and joke with the crudest while being in no way abashed in the company of bankers and lawyers. He drank in moderation, but only the best whiskey and brandy available. Like many Scots, in business he was shrewd, very close in money matters, and strictly honest; honesty was almost a fetish with him, an obsession he pursued for its own sake, often without any particular regard for the welfare of those with whom he did business.

There was little trouble keeping work lined up ahead for the gang. They would arrive at the farm which was next in turn and find a number of logs waiting for them. In the earlier years these were hewn square, with broadaxes-short-handled, heavy-bladed tools of which only one side was sharpened, leaving an edge like a chisel. The work done with these was amazing; the beams would be almost as smooth as if sawed, hardly a blade mark showing. As most of the logs were hardwood, a good deal of muscle was involved here. The logs were mortised at the joins and held together by wooden pegs. The framework was made in sections, each section called a bent. The bents for a barn, being four or more, were laid in a row, one partly overlapping the other in domino fashion. Beams called wall plates were hewn in readiness to join bents together when they were erected. On the day of the "raising", fifty to one hundred men would gather neighbours from far and near and even townspeople out looking for free whiskey and a bit of excitement, for a raising was a social event.

The timber gang walked about checking to see that all was in readiness. They were treated with unusual respect on this particular day and while they tried to be offhand, joking with the crowd, it was with some tenseness that they divided the men into groups, each with a certain purpose. A mistake of only an inch or so in measurement could ruin a reputation. Andrew Murdoch was present, urbanely affable and betraying no apprehension, but he took no part in the operation. He left the command to Ben McAdam.

A group began to gather around the top beam of the first bent lying on its brothers. The men ranged in age from fifteen to seventy, with varying intelligence and skills. At a signal they stooped and grasped the beam. At Ben's "Yo-o heave!" they lifted it waist high at the top beam only. At the next call it went shoulder high. Then the pike-pole men set their pikes, and at the next "Yo heave!" the top beam went out of reach of the men without poles. They turned to the sides still lifting on the upright beams. Each successive "Yo heave!" found the burden lighter and most of the lifters dispersed to get out of the way of a possible slip. The pike poles lifted and pike poles on the other side kept the bent from going too far until it was temporarily braced. There was danger in this primitive operation, which was not much different from what might have taken place in ancient Egypt, but despite the hilarity of the gang and the inexperience of many eager recruits, few serious accidents occurred. Ben McAdam had ensured that a core of mature men skilled in all farm and forest operations had been stationed at the crucial points. Used to danger and intelligent in avoiding it, they were an important supplement to the timber gang, often making the difference between a day that ended in celebration and one that ended in disaster.

When the bents were all erected and braced, the wall plates went up to hold the skeleton together. Corner braces went into slots already mortised and were pegged in. Various other beams found their places; and then the rafters went on two by two. Sometimes sides were chosen for this work, and it was then that accidents could happen. If there was a large number of skilled or semi-skilled men available, the siding might go on the same day. If not, the siding and roof were left for the framing gang to finish.

Naturally, this enthusiastic mob ate and drank hugely. Planks on trestles were set under trees for tables, planks on blocks made seats. Huge platters of meat, potatoes, and vegetables lined the tables, which strained under the weight of huge platters of pork, cured or fresh, and fresh beef and mutton often killed for the occasion. The meat was a good deal fatter than that which the settlers' finicky descendants would eat in the years to come, for a pig would not be butchered until it weighed five hundred pounds or more, and a beef often reached twelve hundred pounds. An aged ram was often considered suitable meat for a raising, and the guests sometimes insulted the hosts by a good deal of baaing and butting after the meal. Fresh-baked bread was always a delight, and batteries of pies provided the last touch. Whiskey and beer never reached the tables, but it was available by the gallon or by the keg, only partly concealed in odd corners. If the weather was fine the day would stretch well into the next, as a dance, a real barn dance, took place on the new barn floor, and the steps and music reverberated into the stillness of the dusky night.


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