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Reminiscences of Cromar and Canada
Chapter XX - Tilbury East

THE Township of Tilbury East, to which we came, consists of a tract of level land with clay subsoil overlaid with black mould from decayed leaves, decomposed tree trunks and other defunct vegetable matter. It was covered by forest consisting chiefly of ash, beech, maple, oak, hickory, and elm, the latter being the most plentiful. As there were few stones it gave promise of becoming a rich farming country. At the time of our arrival, land, in its natural state could be purchased for about five dollars an acre, so that settlers with limited means and abundant energy had the prospect of winning their way to independence and comfort.


The chief drawback to the locality was the want of drainage. As the township was bounded on the north by the River Thames and on the south by Lake Erie, it would at first sight appear as if drainage facilities would be abundant, but there were special difficulties owing to the general formation of the country. Along the river was a strip of land about a mile wide formed by alluvial deposits from spring freshets on which an early settlement had been made, but to the south of that was a marshy treeless plain about two miles wide, incapable of drainage by gravitation, and so wet as to be practically impassable. For that reason, settlement by extension from the north was rendered almost impossible. Scarcely less difficult would have been the extension of the settlement from the south. The bank of Lake Erie is perhaps fifty feet above the surface of the lake but the fall of the land northward and away from the lake is so decided that even the rear of the lots fronting the lake can only be drained into that outlet with much difficulty. Under these circumstances, no general extension northerly of the Lake Erie settlement was possible without the construction of expensive drainage works which could not be effected without the intelligent co-operation of an organized community. There were, however, four or five creeks or natural water-courses, at various distances apart from each other, but all commencing some distance north of the lake, and pursuing a northerly course through the Township, each in its separate channel which at first is ill defined, but increases in width and depth as it proceeds northerly until, at a distance of several miles from their several sources, each becomes a wide depression with a deeper channel in the centre, perhaps five or more feet below the level of the surrounding country. On one of these, known as "Number Ten Creek" from the number of the lot in the Middle Road Range through which it passes, the first attempt at settlement inland was made. The adventurers were two brothers of the name of Smith who, with their families, came from Dumfries-shire, Scotland. They took up land at the place where that creek crosses the Middle Road and were followed shortly afterwards by Matthew Martin and Alexander Stevenson who occupied land about a mile to the north. We came on the scene about thirty years later and occupied the lot on the creek immediately south of Mr. Martin's. At the time we arrived we had John Kerr as our neighbour immediately south of us.

The above pictures are from around Fletcher and Merlin which are in Tilbury East and are just to give you an idea of what the area looks like. It is very flat but rich farmland. The picture above is a satellite image from Google Maps showing how flat the land is.


Many tales were told of privations endured by the early settlers. Uncle John Fletcher used to tell of a time in his household when his family was reduced to potatoes alone as food for about two weeks. He said that he noticed that as the days passed the inadequacy of the potato, alone, as a food became apparent from the daily increase of the quantity requisite to appease their hunger. Of his neighbour, Mr. Stevenson, he said that the story was current that at the same time, his household had found it necessary to dig up for food some of the potatoes that had been planted. Mr. Stevenson denied that he had dug up planted potatoes but admitted that he had once found it necessary to use cuttings that had been prepared for planting.

Not only was there difficulty in raising from the stumpy soil food sufficient for daily need, but there was difficulty experienced in getting their grists ground. Some would appear to have provided themselves with a quern for domestic use while others preferred to take their grists to Amherstburg, and later to Chatham, by canoe. In either case it was necessary to convey the grain and the grist across the marshy plains. Mr. Stevenson told me that he carried his grist from the river on his back, resting his load on the ground, when dry, and upon his stout staff when the ground was wet. Mr. Stevenson, like many of his neighbours, found it necessary, occasionally to interrupt his farming activities to find employment in the United States for the purpose of earning ready money, and such an experience may possibly have been confined to one or more of his return journeys when shouldering, his burden was his only resource. Be that as it may, to reach the river Thames in that day through the unbroken forest and across the marshy plains must have been a difficult undertaking, even on horse-back, if available. Mr. Martin, unlike his neighbour Mr. Stevenson, never left his farm. He arrived early enough in the season to enable him to clear off a small field on the bank of the creek in time to get it harrowed and seeded with fall wheat the same year, and from the time of the harvesting of that first sowing onwards, he never found it necessary to quit the farm or to purchase the staff of life. His family, at the time, consisted entirely of girls, but these, in every way possible, devoted themselves to the interests of the common household, and with their noble efforts, together with those of their capable mother, Mr. Martin soon found himself firmly and comfortably established as one of the most prosperous farmers in the county.

The pressing need of roads was partly met by the construction by the Government, for military purposes, of a road intermediate between the Talbot road along the shore of lake Erie at the south and the road along the river Thames at the north. This road, known as "The Middle Road," with a concession of lots on each side, was run in a zig-zag course diagonally across the main survey of the township, making a track of gore lots along each of "the Back Lines" as the flanking roads were called. This road proved a double benefit. It provided a road to Chatham round the swamp land referred to, and it aided much in the draining of the lots situated on the southerly side.


Before the time of our arrival, this road as well as most of the concessions had been opened for traffic and means for supplying the primative wants of the community abundantly provided. Grateful acknowledgement of the services done to the community by the family of Thos. Smith was often made by the old settlers. Starting with a simple quern provided for their own use, they installed, first a rude ox-driven, and later, a fully equipped grist mill driven by steam power. To this, was later added a saw-mill, all of which was a great service to the community. The mechanical genius of the family was Robert who showed not only skill with machinery but would also survey boundary lines by a rude compass of his own equipment which is now in my possession. All this machinery, with a general store managed by the same family, was in full operation before we joined the settlement on the creek.

Smith's Mills were, at that time, a scene of great activity. Thither went coloured boys on horse-back with a bag of corn to be ground into meal to make corn-bread and mush, and farmers came from miles around with wagons and larger grists. There too was Smith's store which had patronage from far and near, though even froth the time of our first arrival, Valetta competition had begun to prove a strong counter attraction. In winter there was a constant procession of sleighs log-laden with bells jingling, bound for the mill. The logs wpuld be sawn for lumber for the use of the hauler, in exchange for sawing or in barter for goods from the store. In no case was cash paid for logs. Around us therefore was great activityŚmore in fact than was in evidence around our old home in Scotland though the volume of money passing from hand to hand was vastly less.


Our first season was very wet and the creek, unassisted by any drainage work, continued to flow with its sluggish stream during the whole season. Our house which was being built under the direction of my cousin John Fletcher, was on the west side of the creek and though there was a road in front of it there was as yet, no bridge. This made it necessary for all materials to be drawn through the creek which soon became a deep mire.

The house stood well above high water mark, but nevertheless the whole surroundings were wet and soggy, while the creek itself, during much of the season, overflowed its proper bounds and spread over the flats on both sides for a width of many yards.

James and I started forthwith to try out our own skill and the capacity of our new Canadian axes on the trees surrounding the house and on the fallen timber, dry and hard, with which the ground was strewn, and, with blistered hands, succeeded in making a clearance around the house.

Our next concern was a well. The digging part we soon completed to our own satisfaction, but the covering of it was our difficulty. With labour we had carried on our shoulders from the adjoining bush by wading almost ankle deep, and in water-soaked shoes a number of idles with which we had hoped to make a cover close enough to support a covering of clay, but were much discouraged with our slow progress. While thus employed, Patsy Murphy, a kindly neighbour whose shack was just across the road from us, came over to see how we were getting on. He told us that the proper way was to use black ash slabs for a covering. That information was of little use to us for as yet we did not know a black ash from an elm tree, and about splitting logs we knew absolutely nothing whatever, he then pointed to a black ash tree standing near by and said that it would suit our purpose. I asked how much he would take to do it for us. He mentioned a small sum and a bargain was quickly struck, he was a splendid axe-man, and in what we thought an amazingly short time he had felled the tree and cut it into proper lengths. He then proceeded with axe and wooden wedges, and what we deemed wonderful dexterity, to split the log into slabs. Our work was then finished with ease and expedition and we soon had a good supply of the best water obtainable.


The great problem that faced the early settlers was how to make a living while the forest was being cut down and the soil prepared for the plough. Rejoice as he might on the prospect of seeing some day broad fields covered with yellow grain he needed something more substantial to feed and clothe himself and his family in the meantime. In some sections of Canada it was customary to clear off a piece of ground during the early summer, burn the timber, drag the scorched ground with a harrow made in the shape of the letter A and sow the wheat for the first crop on this surface without the use of a plough. In Tilbury, this method was not practicable. Ploughing and digging amongst green roots though exceedingly laborious, was their sole resort.


No revenue could be got from the sale of timber. Even as late as the time of our arrival very little could be made from that source. In the primeval forest there were great oaks four and six feet in diameter at the stump and towering fifty or more feet in height without knot or blemish. Before the time of our arrival these had been cut and taken away in square timber, but whatever the lumbermen made out of them, the portion that came to the settler was small. There was still left timber that in our time had a little exchange value. There was some oak fit for cutting into lumber planks. Logs of maple, white ash, basswood and buttonwood were bought at the mill, but the price paid was no more than enough to pay for the labour of cutting and drawing. No timber that could be thus sold was wasted, but much fine wood was unsaleable. Great hickories, towering almost like the oaks already referred to, could not be profitably utilized for any purpose other than to be split into fence rails or cord-wood. We used all the timber that could in any way be made serve the needs of ourselves or others, but after all such timber was removed there were great numbers of huge elms and other kinds of trees that were absolutely unsaleable.

Various means of clearing the land were employed. Some simply girdled the trees and left them to die in their uprightness and at leisure. Others slashed them down in great windrows to he later burned when thoroughly dry, while those who looked for early pasturage, or even for cultivating amongst the stumps, made a thorough clearance by carefully piling the brush and crosscutting the body timber to he rolled up into heaps and burned. Whatever the relative merits of these schemes were, they all prepurpossed a long period of hard work with practically no immediate return.


Some year before our arrival, there was introduced a method of utilizing the ashes for the production of potash or pearl ash. To extract this material, the ashes were carefully gathered and placed in leaches into which they were packed so that when water was applied the whole content would be soaked and the contained potash carried, in the form of lye, into a large trough. The lye was then boiled in a large kettle till all the water was evaporated. The boiling process would last about three days, during which about four hundred or more pailfuls would be disposed of, and the solid matter would remain in the form of black salts. This could then be converted into potash or pearl ash according to the refining process adopted. This process was introduced into Tilbury East by a number of Scottish people who had settled for a time near Montreal and hence were known as "lower Canadians." Of them the most enterprising perhaps was John Richardson.

To secure the best results the timber had to be burned when green and the ashes carefully collected so as to avoid any mixture of earth. In order to get the timber out in piles for burning, the section to be dealt with would be carefully examined, and if possible two large trees would be cut that they would fall side by side. Other trees would be felled and the trunks cut in lengths so that they could be drawn by oxen to the side of the pile and by the use of skids and hand-spikes rolled in or piled on top. These heaps, when completed, would be from twelve to thirty-six or more feet in length and seven or eight feet in height. The work, as thus indicated was laborious, and as it required several wagon loads of the wet elm ashes to make a batch which would not realize perhaps more than $40.00, it will be seen that its chief merit way that it enabled the settler to keep the pot boiling while he toiled on in hope of green fields and yellow grains.


At the time of our coming there was over the country a sense of deep depression. Owing to the ravages of the weavel there as not enough wheat produced to feed the population and flour was very dear. The wet season destroyed the corn crop on which that section of country largely depended. The Reciprocity Treaty which had done so much to encourage agriculture during the previous ten years, was abrogated two months before we landed. Greenbacks, as the American bills were called, were worth little more than half their face value, and the American people had been so reduced in circumstances that their financial power was limited. Yet, after all, they were practically the only purchasers of our horses and cattle. Little of their paper money was circulated in Canada but for a long time their purchases were paid for in silver. Sometimes these coins came rolled in cartridges with the amount in each marked by the bank, but often they were carried loose in a sack laid on the floor of the dealer's buggy or road-cart.

I remember buying a plough from Mr. John Soutar in Chatham, costing $16.00 and paying for it in full in five and ten cent pieces which I had just received the same day for farm produce. After a time, silver became legal tender only at a discount of some fifteen per cent, which soon had the effect of restricting its use to service befitting its humble status.


In clearing the country and in raising buildings there were many tasks that required the co-operation of a number of men. If there was logging to be done or a building to be raised, men would cheerfully be on hand when required. No gathering of the kind could be had however without an abundant supply of whiskey. At the time the excise duty was small and liquor correspondingly cheap. In the early part of the eighteenth century when rum was first imported to England a tavern near Liverpool exhibited the sign "A drunk for a penny, a dead drunk for twopence and straw for nothing." Whether rates equally low were offered in Tilbury East I do not know, but certainly drink, in large quantities was supplied and, no doubt the other effects would follow as a matter of course. It needs no stretch of imagination to see that as time went on many would gather in quest of liquor rather than of service. An under-current of dissatisfaction with the method would naturally begin to be felt, though, for a time it would not find expression.


By and by, however, all restraint was broken and the gathering storm of dissatisfaction and disgust found utterance through the voice of Mr. John Richardson who was not only a resourceful business man but also an enthusiastic temperance advocate. One day it became his turn to raise a frame for a new barn. The men invited duly assembled, but declined to commence work until they were assured that the usual liquor provision would be forthcoming. It so happened that Mr. Richardson was especially skilled as an axeman and as such had been accustomed to have assigned to him the duties and responsibilities of a "corner man." Whether the corners were to be made on the ridge and saddle method, or with the more artistic dovetail joints, notching the timber so as to make a neat corner true to the perpendicular, required highly skilled workmanship. Mr. Richardson reminded his would-be, conditional helpers that he had assisted most of them at their railings without using a drop of their liquors and that if they were not willing to work for him on the same terms, they might as well go home for not a drop of liquor would he furnish whatever became of the building. This seems to have been all that was needed to give the sober element the lead that they required, and needless to say, the building was duly raised, and from that time onwards, the use of drink on such occasions steadily lost its popularity.


Another step in the advance of temperance sentiment was marked by an Act passed in 1853 by the Parliament of Canada which enacted that in Upper Canada the sale by retail, of liquors in inns and taverns may be prohibited by by-law, "provided that before the final passing of such by-law the same has been approved by the municipality." Shortly after this law came in force the council, presumably in response to a petition of the ratepayers, met to deliberate on the matter. My uncle John Fletcher who was then Township Clerk, was unable to attend through sickness. In his place he sent his brother William, then a student for the ministry and enthusiastically in favour of prohibition. From what I have heard, I doubt whether a majority of the Council was favourable to the measure but they were not hard to persuade to dispose of it by submitting it to the People in terms of the Act. The result was that the by-law was carried triumphantly, and though since superseded by legislative enactment, it has never been repealed by the council, or will of the people of Tilbury East.

Of course, in a 'Township situated near places where drink could be procured, any one determined to get it would have no difficulty in doing so. In Chatham there were several taverns, and on my first journey along the "town-line" between Harwich and Raleigh on the way to Tilbury East I noticed two not far from the city limits. One of these was on the Raleigh side with a sign-board on which was the picture of an old fashioned beehive with the oft quoted words:--

"Within this hive we're all alive
And whisky makes us funny
If you are dry, come in and try
The flavour of our honey."

A little farther on, we passed one on the Harwich side, in front of which was the figure of a gate and upon it an equally pressing invitation in the words :Ś

"This gate hangs high and hinders none.
Refresh and pay and travel on."

With such a surrounding there was no thought of forcibly depriving of liquor any who desired to obtain it. At the same time, the closing of the local taverns, removed from many the temptations which otherwise they were unable to resist.

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