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The McGregors
The First Farm


On a cool April morning three people stood on a small hill by the roadside in Bruce County. Andrew Murdoch was pointing out the farm he had recommended to Jim and Janet, for she had insisted on taking part in the inspection as well. "If I'm going to live on the place, I want to see it myself."

The first building was a log cabin twenty feet square, built by Toby Hart, the first owner. Toby had been a carpenter in England, so the place was well put together. There were two bedrooms and one common room, and even one clothes closet. A lean-to woodshed was at the back, and some distance away stood a neat privy. These were quite common now, and no stigma was attached to having one; Jim remembered that his Uncle John and Aunt Christine, pioneers of this convenience in the area, had been considered "uppity". The logs of the cabin had been squared neatly and well chinked with lime plaster. The roof was covered by shakes, extra-thick long shingles split from cedar blocks right on the place. There was a rough table and benches and one chair; the only concession to luxury on the place was a rocker. In one of the bedrooms there was a bedstead with ropes strung across the frame in place of springs. The windows each had six small panes of glass, and although the door was of rough sawn lumber, it fitted neatly enough in a well-made door frame. The rooms had no ceiling; the joists lay open with a few boards scattered on them. A squat, cast-iron cookstove stood close to one wall, with the stovepipe going up from it to an elbow which went through a plaster collar to bend again and reach for the sky. The floor was just plain dirt. Some clay had been mixed with the loam and pounded hard; a little salt had then been mixed in with the clay, and the end result was almost a cement. A fence of slim tamarack poles gave a touch of elegance to the yard around the house, which was otherwise rather scrubby. A low, smelly building sat at some distance. Toby Hart had kept pigs. There were no other outbuildings.

The farm was one-quarter mile wide by five-eighths mile long. It was on a tilt right to left as they looked at it from the road. Water came out of the slope a little to the front and above the cabin. Then it trickled down in a tiny stream, through watercress and outrails, to join the creek on the left boundary of the farm. The creek came from the woods at the back of the farm, and it was already a year-round stream. Between the creek and the cabin, and bordering the water farther back, was a beaver meadow, where there were only a few scrubby trees and a good deal of coarse grass. In front of the house, and farther back on the right, was a clearing on the slope. A few of the larger stumps remained, but most had been removed. A crop of peas had been reaped from it the previous year and a few dead vines that had escaped the scythe remained.

Further back was an area where the trees had been cut and the brush burned, but the stumps were still there. Andrew Murdoch got a spade from his buggy. "Come, we'll walk over the land and check it. You may be sure I did this before I bought it from Mr. Hart, but I want to show you what to look for."

They walked back and forth slowly; covering a great deal of the farm. Even the wooded area was closely inspected. Every hundred yards or so Andrew thrust the spade into the ground and turned up some soil. "See how all over there is a covering of fine soil, that is the humus, an accumulation of years of dead leaves and twigs. In the forest it is five or six inches thick and lies on top. Here where Toby broke some land it is mixed with the topsoil. This is the stuff that grows a rich crop for anyone on any kind of soil for a few years. Then when it stops suddenly they wonder what has happened. For if there is poor soil underneath, once this humus is worn out, it stops producing." Angus picked up a handful of soil to show to Jim and Janet. "Look at the soil underneath here. It's reasonably good, for this is sharp land with plenty of lime in it. It's a gravelly loam, easy to work and easy to drain. Not as rich, perhaps, as some of the flat land in the county, but you can't have everything. If you farm it carefully and put back something every few years, it will never let you down. It will always grow a crop of grain, barley, oats, and peas, or even wheat and corn." As he spoke Murdoch dusted his hands on a large handkerchief. He returned it to his pocket and turned to look directly at Jim. "But you will have to work it, Jim. I need not tell you that. Plough so you hold the rain back on the hillsides. You have some hills here you can't afford to let the soil wash down. And the beaver meadow there, that can help you right away. You can cut hay of a sort off it even this year, but it needs a few drains. Get the drains in as soon as you can. There are plenty of flat slabs of limestone; you can make stone drains, you know. But perhaps I am preaching too much. You will have learned a lot of this from Angus."

"It never hurts to learn more, Mr. Murdoch. I didn't know you were such a farm expert."

"I learned a good deal from my father in Scotland. He loved the land, poor man, and only a barren piece he had to work with. I wish he could have lived to come to this country. It will be a great country, Jim; it may even feed the world some day. Now look at the forest that is left. There is good straight timber, rock elm to build your barns as well as a few for your neighbours. There are even some pine and lots of basswood. Lumber for anything you want, just for the cutting. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the maple is bird's eye, though you can't tell until you cut it. I saw some cherry, too ... a good wood, very handsome. I think they will start to use it soon."

Andrew went into everything: where there was cedar to split for fence rails; how to make a sluice and guide the spring water to the cabin; where and how to build a barn for the livestock; and how to make the cabin more livable.

"You'll have to get a ceiling over the rooms before July, or Janet will roast in there. But you can't do everything at once and it is hard to choose which comes first. If you have the money to spare, Jim, hire some help. The first year is very important. You must be ready for the winter. Winter is the bane of this land, but we may be a tougher people for it."

They spent the night at Jim's home.

"How much does Andrew want for the place?" asked Angus. "He wants one hundred dollars down and seven hundred more to be paid in ten years. Interest is four per cent."

"Whew, I was afraid of that. The man's a shrewd one, he knows he has you, but there are worse men to deal with. He is known to be honest."

"Yes, he's honest. He's also very good at looking after Andrew Murdoch. But I think he might be reasonable if a man got into difficulty and couldn't meet the payments, and it's a good place, Angus, I can see that now. A man could do well on it."

The older brother smiled. "I can see that Andrew has already talked you into it. He's a spellbinder, there is no doubt. The man can talk a fortune right into your hands and all you have to do is sign the paper. But I know the place myself; you could do worse. There must be thirty acres clear - enough to get by on. 'Tis better than trying to chop out a farm overnight."


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