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Pen Pictures of Early Pioneer Life in Upper Canada


THE first houses and barns of the settlers were built of logs. When a new settler came into a neighborhood, the neighbors, and if there were any within a convenient distance, would assemble at the "raising" and help the newcomer to rear his domicile. Some of these houses were substantially built, but the first put up, being often erected in a hurry and without any assistance, were only temporary structures or cabins, twelve to sixteen feet square, one story high, built shanty style, i.e., with the roof sloping one way and covered with bark or small hollowed basswood logs, laid in tile fashion. A small window, containing six or eight lights of glass (sometimes oiled paper), furnished light, although square holes closed by a shutter were sometimes made to take the place of windows. The chimneys were built of sticks and clay, bricks not being procurable, and lumber being scarce, the doors were made by splitting pieces of timber into rough boards, and in some cases the hinges and latch were made of wood. The floor was made of split logs, and sometimes the earth, packed down hard, served as a floor. There is a tradition in the writer's family that in the pioneer house of his paternal great-grandfather, built in 1800, a big stump, hewn flat on top, standing in the centre of the house, was used as a table; rough benches served as seats, and there being no chimney for the first few months after occupation, the smoke escaped through a hole in the bark roof. The logs comprising the walls of the old log houses were notched so as to fit into each other at the corners of the building, with the ends of the logs left projecting a foot or two. After the building was completed, these logs were usually sawn off. The cracks between the logs were chinked, i.e., filled with wedge-shaped pieces of wood and plastered with clay, moss often being stuffed in temporarily to keep out the cold. Many of these primitive houses contained only one room, one end being occupied by the fireplace and the other by the beds of the family. In the two-storey houses, in many cases, the upper storey or loft was reached by a ladder, sometimes from the outside.

These old log houses were quite comfortable, and some of the old settlers made shift in them for years when they might have had better. Fifty years ago even, many of them were still to be seen standing in the oldest settled parts. This tardiness in doing away with the old log houses was due partly to the fact that they were exempt from the taxation that was imposed upon stone, frame and brick structures.

The furniture in these primitive houses was very rude and plain, and did not consist of much more than a bedstead, chairs, or stools, and a table, all home-made, with shelves on pegs in the wall for holding the dishes.

The Fireplaces.

A conspicuous part of the old farm house was the large red brick chimney containing the fireplaces, one or two on each floor, built up from the ground, the lower part being of stone. Very often they were built on the outside, but against the house at the end. A crane, with a number of hooks for hanging the kettles on, swung back and forth in the kitchen fireplace. Here was done all the cooking for the family, and although not to be compared with stoves as a means of heating, our forefathers enjoyed the comfort of the old fireplace. It was, indeed, a cheerful sight during the long winter evenings to see the family seated around the fire, with the light from the burning logs illuminating their beaming, healthy, happy and satisfied countenances,—the men-folks smoking or reading, the women knitting or sewing, the children listening to stories of bygone days, which were being told them by their mother or father, or the aged grandmother, grandfather or perhaps by some stranger, who might be, for the occasion, enjoying the hospitality of their home. The social life of the fireplace days has disappeared. Newspapers and books have taken the place of the family chat of the fireside. The old folks do not take the same interest in telling of the days gone by, or in relating folk-lore, or the children in listening as they did when sitting around the old fireplace. Our brilliant means of illuminating our houses has now, it may be said, turned night into day, so that the people do not give their evenings up to rest and social intercourse as much as they did in the days of the candle and hearth fire. The appurtenances of a well-equipped fireplace were the hand-bellows for blowing the embers into a flame, the tongs, the long-handled shovel, the poker, the spit, for roasting fowl over the hot fire, the fire irons or andirons (sometimes called fire dogs), for placing the sticks of wood on, so that they would burn more easily, and the fender in front of the fireplace. On the mantel over the fireplace were placed the brass candlesticks and some of the family ornaments and bric-a-brac. In the summer time the crickets got into the fireplace and broke the monotony of the evening by their chirping; sometimes they would venture out of their hiding-places on to the hearth, when the playful kittens would gambol around them and stealthily grab some of them up.

Great chunks of wood were burnt in the fireplace, the largest, called the "back log," being placed behind. The back log was sometimes so large that in some of the primitive houses it was drawn into the house by a horse. About the large kitchen chimneys, in winter, hung squashes to keep them from frost, and guns, to keep them from rust. In front of the chimney, on poles suspended from the ceiling by cords, hung chunks of beef and venison, and strings of apples to dry. Sometimes pieces of meat were hung up to dry inside the capacious chimney itself, far enough away from the fire to prevent them from being roasted, and yet not far enough for them to become blackened by the smoke.

The first chimneys were built of sticks and clay, as bricks were not then procurable. A framework of sticks was well plastered on the outside and inside with clay mixed with straw, which, in time, by the heat from the fire, became almost as hard as stone. These chimneys were always built on the outside, probably to render them safer from fire. In a song sung by the young folks years ago in one of their games this chimney was referred to thus

"Sticks and clay will wash away,
March on, my ladies, on!"

The Felling of the Trees.

An old Fireplace

Considerable of the time in the winter was spent by the pioneer in felling the trees, preparatory to clearing the land. The sound of the chopping and the crashing noise made by the falling trees, as they yielded to the sturdy strokes of the woodman's axe, could be heard in all directions. In the fall of the year, previous to this, the "underbrushiug" was done. This consisted in cutting down the small trees and bushes and throwing them together into piles, so that they would not be in the way of the chopper. The trees were chopped so that they fell in a pile or "winrow." During a dry spell in summer, a day was set for the "burn," when the piles in the "fallow" were set on fire. After this, what remained was cut into logging lengths, a logging bee made, and these lengths drawn together by oxen, and again made into piles and burnt. The chunks which remained after this second burning were collected by the farmer and his men (the women folks and children often assisting at the "chunking") into little piles, and once more set fire to and kept burning by heaping up the burning fragments and pieces of log until they were all reduced to ashes. The brush, consisting of the limbs and branches, was collected into separate piles and burnt. In order to hasten the clearing of the land, and save labor the farmer would often convert part of his woods into a "slashing," by chopping the trees down, and allowing them to remain for a few years in this fallen condition, to be acted upon by decay. Sometimes he would "girdle the trees," i.e., cut off a ring of bark around the tree, so as to prevent the return of the sap from the branches to the roots in the fall of the year. In consequence of this the trees would die and fall to the ground in the course of a year or two. What had not fallen in three years' time were cut down. To save the time and labor of cutting the fallen trees into lengths suitable for being drawn together by the oxen, they were often "niggered," i.e., burnt in two, by placing small pieces of wood across the larger logs and setting them on fire.

The Stumping.

After the land was cleared of the timber, the only obstacle remaining was the stumps. They did not prevent the farmer from cropping the land, however, the three-cornered drag being made as a means of harrowing up the land between the stumps, and the grub hoe or mattock for getting out the roots, although after the first crop the ground was usually allowed to remain in an uncultivated state until after many of the stumps had been removed. The hardwood stumps usually rotted, out in the course of three, four or five years, or became loose so that they could be easily pulled out by the oxen, the larger ones being burnt by piling brush around them and setting them on fire. The pine stumps were not got rid of nearly so easi1y, but would remain undecayed in the ground for twenty years or more, the pitch in the wood acting as a preservative and preventing decay. The pine trees were not usually as close together as the other trees, and very frequently were found growing among trees of other kinds. To get rid of these almost everlasting pine stumps it was necessary to resort to something besides decay and fire. To dig them out would take too long, although that was frequently done. Sometimes blasting was resorted to. Holes were bored in the stump with an auger, powder was placed in these holes and exploded by means of a fuse. This was a better plan than digging, although not suited for decayed stumps. After the blasting the roots near the surface had to be dug out and cut off.

The best device for ridding the land of pine stumps was the stumping machine. This took the stump out almost intact. All that had to be done by way of preparation was the cutting off of some of the larger roots. The first appliance for pulling out the stumps consisted only of a good strong logging chain, and a pole from twelve to fifteen feet in length and six to eight inches in diameter. The chain was fastened around the stump, but slack enough to permit of the end of the pole or lever being inserted between it and the stump. To the other end of the pole was hitched a yoke of oxen, which, on being driven ahead, twisted or upset the stump from its place in the ground. This plan of pulling stumps was only suited to the smaller ones. It was the stumping machine that pulled out all sizes, by means of a screw fastened to a framework placed over the stump, and attached to a chain placed around it. Above the machine was a long pole fastened to the screw. A horse hitched to the other end of the pole was driven round the machine and elevated screw, stump and all. After the pine stumps were taken out, they were either made into piles and burnt or placed in rows and made to serve as fences. When properly made, these stump fences were as secure a fence as could be got, and were very lasting. In sections of the country where there was considerable pine timber these fences might be seen extending for miles.



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