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Pioneer Life in Kent County

A synopsis of a paper by

DR. HOLMES states that in the year 1800 there were in what is now the County of Kent, probably not more than twenty families. Dr. Holmes’ paternal grandfather settled on Lot 23, Concession 1, Harwich, in 1796, and his father was born there in 1797, being the first white child born in Kent. His father lived on that farm until 1870, and then moved to Chatham where he died in 1890. Dr. Holmes gathered his data from his father regarding early days in Kent County, and says:

"At the dawn of the nineteenth century this County was an unbroken wilderness over which roamed a few bands of Indians who pursued their game through the trackless forest, or fished in its sluggish streams. Deer, bears, wolves, wild turkeys and foxes were plentiful, while smaller game was abundant then and for many years after.

Until 1845 the land in Kent was heavily timbered with oak, walnut, whitewood, beech, maple, ash and elm, and about that time a demand for some of these, especially for walnut, whitewood, and oak sprang up. The walnut and whitewood were exported for building and furniture and the oak was manufactured into staves and shipped to the West Indies for casks, and used there for sugar, molasses and rum. A few years later beech and maple were cut into cordwood and exported for fuel, or used on locomotives on the Great Western Railway. The demand for forest products gave an impetus to business among the farming community and greatly accelerated the clearing of the land. A standard saw log of walnut containing 303 feet of board measure sold for fifty cents in 1846."

Dr. Holmes states that the swampy land retarded the progress of the County and as late as 1860 the crops were inferior on this account. Malaria and ague had a debilitating influence on the settlers. Up to the farm work was mostly done by oxen. Grain was first reaped with the sickle, later by the cradle and finally in 1847 the first reaper made its appearance owned by John Williams who lived a mile east of Kent Bridge. Grain was threshed by hand flail or trodden out by horses on the barn floor, the first threshing machine being owned by William Partridge of Walkerville, the chaff being separated by a separate fanning mill.

Tallow candles provided illumination. Kerosene did not come into general use until about 1860. In 1867 Dr. Holmes carried a lantern on dark nights even though King Street, Chatham, was lighted by a few oil lamps.

Neighborly visits, dancing, music, mostly on the violin, some athletic games, and logging and husking bees relieved the monotony of rural life. Books were few but highly prized, such as Pilgrim’s Progress, a history of Pizarro’s Conquest of Peru, a life of Napoleon, and the novels of Captain Marryat and Jane Austin, and Pope’s translation of the Iliad and Odyssey.

For clothing the women spun the yarn and wove it into cloth on hand looms, and the homes were heated by open fireplaces.

Up to 1845 school teachers were often unqualified, poorly paid and usually boarded in succession with the families in the school section. Reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic and geography were the only branches taught and few schools were open all year.

The practice of medicine and surgery was open to anyone with a smattering knowledge of drugs. The "Doctor" went his rounds on horseback and usually augmented his income by cultivating some land or pursuing some other vocation. The University of Toronto School of Medicine was opened in 1827, but for many years the teaching was inefficient.

Lack of transportation and transmission of news in the early days was a drawback . news of the Battle of Waterloo, fought on June 18, did not reach Kent until late in September. Mail was transported on foot and by lumbering coaches drawn by four horses; these coaches were the only means of public conveyance.

Before grist mills were built along the Thames and along Lake Erie, the inhabitants had to take their grain by canoe to Sandwich, where it was ground by windmill.

Dr. Holmes gives a description of Tecumseh as related to him by his father, who as a lad of sixteen was present at Arnold’s Mill, on a small creek leading into the Thames, where Tecumseh and his braves encamped the night before the battle of the Thames. Tecumseh is described as being about feet 10 inches in height, erect, and of fine bearing. His dress consisted of buckskin leggings and moccasins and an upper garment of the same material reaching to his knees and fastened by a sash at the waist. His head dress was adorned with plumes and his manner indicated alertness and activity. When departing Tecumseh remained standing near the mill holding his horse by the head until the last of his braves had gone some distance on their eastward march. He then mounted and rode after them. He had remained behind to prevent the mill from being burned, knowing how essential the mill was to the settlers.

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