Riddell Reminiscences of Northumberland County


COPYRIGHT (c) 2004 Michael Stephenson

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Mr. Riddell Tells of the Old Days

Interesting Reminiscences of Early Life in West Northumberland—Then and Now.

Though the writer of these lines is now a somewhat old settler, he can lay no claim to being a pioneer, as this county had been peopling for more than thirty years before we knew it, still even then more than half of the county of Northumberland was an unbroken forest against which the pioneer had not lifted an axe. They were brave men and women those first settlers, who needed strong arms and stout hearts to face the hardships of the Canadian wilderness. It was a formidable undertaking to enter these primeval woods to be buried in them, with the hope of working themselves out to the light of day—making for themselves and children a home. How few of these obscure husbandmen have left any monument of themselves, other than this fair country that they won from the wilderness. A late writer thus speaks of them:-“The pioneer days of Ontario’s early settlements are fast receding from view, and I sometimes think it would be well to recall some of the heroes and heroines of that past; for theirs was a life long conservation to the good of those who succeeded to the rich inheritance conquered from the forest. The luxuries that we now demand as necessaries were to them unknown, and their toil was long and arduous. Mechanical appliances to lighten labor were almost unknown, —but there was a community of interest that united scattered settlements in one common brotherhood, and then there were social gatherings where hilarity was unbounded.” Bees for every conceivable purpose were organized. Husking corn, paring apples, cutting logs, raising buildings, logging, quilting, were each in turn the occasion of festive gatherings, and when lads and lassies gathered in the large kitchen, with its capacious fire, and danced to the rollicking tunes of some amateur violinist, there was no occasion for pity nor any who thought their lot a hard one.

As a class the old settlers were a hardy people, full of life and energy. If they endured much they also enjoyed much—and many of them said, even after they had come to enjoy many comforts—that the years spent in clearing up their farms were the happiest of their lives. They were also a hospitable race—they welcomed you to their homes with the utmost cordiality and cheerfulness—shared with you the best they had, even if their larders were not groaning with their burdens, nor their pantries overfull. It is a matter of great regret that so many of the next generation squandered in idleness and wantonness the wealth so laboriously gathered, and so carefully preserved by their fathers.

The farmer of 1833 had to rise early in the morning. He would have been thought indolent if he had not his breakfast (in winter) and chores done before daylight. These chores in the morning were not many. His horses (if he had any) were the only stock stabled, other stock, cattle, sheep and pigs, took the lee side of the barn or fence or straw stack, if there was one. This way of wintering in severe seasons and late springs caused great losses in cattle. This was especially the case in the spring of 1836 and 1842, when from want of shelter and scarcity of fodder, and the lateness of the season, the cattle died by hundreds all over the county. After his chores were done—he either went to the barn to thresh, or to the woods to chop—for firewood, cordwood or follow. The threshing at that time had all to be done with the flail, or else trodden out by horses. Then providing the firewood was no small job. There were no stoves used in farmers houses then, which were often open enough to be well ventilated, and a good buck-log often contained as much wood as would now keep a stove burning a whole day. Attending these duties kept farmers busy during winter.

As spring drew on sap troughs had to be provided, and tapping trees, sap gathering and sugar making attended to, to provide the season’s stock of sugar and molasses, perhaps also some to sell or trade. Then rails had to be split and fences made and mended. As soon as spring opened ploughing, sowing and harrowing had to be done. At that time fall wheat was the only kind of wheat grown and the principal crop, and hardly any fall ploughing was done. A farmer during seed time, had to rise early in he morning, throw some feed to his horses, oxen or other stock, carry out seed and sow till breakfast time, and then harrow till dinner time, then at his noon spell go out and sow enough of ground to keep his harrowing till sundown. Then he had the planting of his corn and potatoes to attend to, no other root crops were grown then. If he got his crop all sown and planting done by the old training day (June 4th) he thought he was well forward with his work.

After planting was done his summer fallow, which was then generally rough and stumpy, had to be attended to. Old logs were drawn off as many stumps pulled and drawn away or burnt as possible. This fallow was usually ploughed the first thing in the spring and by the time planting as done it was ready for the second ploughing. When the old logs, stumps and other rubbish were burnt off, the land ploughed and well dragged so that nothing need be done at fall wheat seeding time but rigg up and sow. But perhaps his fallow was new land, if so when the dry weather came on the brush was carefully burnt off, and likely the neighbors invited to a logging bee, of course he returned this work in due time as wanted. A yoke of oxen with from three to five men, one to drive the rest to roll the logs up in heaps, was calculated to log an acre a day. Then when the logging, both his own and his neighbors, was all done and a favorable spell of weather set in all the neighbors had to be duly warned, the log piles were fired. After they began to burn they had to be constantly attended to to keep the logs rolled together, when the heaps burnt out the brands were finally piled and burnt or drawn to some out of the way place. This was by far the dirtiest, blackest, hottest part of the work, with the hot sun beating down from above and the intense heat of the half burnt logs on the ground below; then after the ashes from the heaps had been gathered up for pot ashes, or scattered over the ground and the land duly cooled the wheat was sown and dragged in with a heavy A drag. Then rails were split and the piece fenced in, which required no more done to it till the following harvest.

Along with this work the farmer had to attend to his haying and harvest. During this time of year he had to be early in the fields, swinging the scythe or rocking in the cradle, as the case might be, till breakfast time, (say 7 o’clock), then with a short breathing spell he was again at work till noon, then after dinner and another short rest he wrought till sun-down. Most of the farmers took lunch both in the forenoon and afternoon. After the first or second days mowing he had to stop as soon as the dew was off and turn or shake out his hay if it needed it, and then begin to rake up cock. This had all to be done with the hand rake and pitchfork. If the farmer had any children that could help they all assisted in haying and gathering the crop. Sometimes his wife helped also, especially to draw the hay to stack or barn, when no other help could be obtained. In harvest time his work was done much the same way. His own family helped all they could. If a man could be got, the farmer either cradled and the man bound or the man cradled and the farmer bound—in any case the binder was expected to keep up with the cradler. If no help could be got he cradled one part of the day and bound and set up the other part until his harvest was all in. Everything had to be done by hand. Peas were pulled with old scythes or hand rakes.

As soon as the wheat was got into the barn some had to be threshed by the flail for seed, and to keep them in bread the rest of the wheat was left until hard frost set in, when it threshed better, cleaner and easier. After fall wheat seed time the days became shorter and the work easier. The farmer dug his potatoes, cut his corn and drew it home, had a husking bee or two of his own and attend those of his neighbors. Then as frosty weather came on before snow fell, if he was clearing up land he brushed out as much as he intended to crop during winter, to clear the following summer for wheat.

While the husband was thus toiling without, the wife was just as busy laboring within. Besides the never-ending care of her family, she often carded, spun and wove cloth to clothe herself, husband and family, thus providing the good “Canadian grey cloth with which every farmer was then clothed,” and flannel or lighter cloth for herself and children. Many grew flax to make garments for summer wear. This had to be pulled, steeped, dried, broken and scutched, as well as spun and woven. From this were made underwear and summer clothing for the family. The farmer at that time took as much pleasure and pride in his new suit of Canadian grey, especially if dressed and pressed, as he does now in a new suit of the best broad cloth, and matrons and fair maids took as much pride in showing their new “linsey woolsey” dresses, spun and woven with their own hands, as they do now in showing their new silks and satins.

How differently the farmer of the present time is situated. His stock is all or nearly all under shelter. His principal work during the winter and spring is attending to their wants. He has no sugar making to attend to and very little threshing to do. If he has hay to sell he has that to draw away, or he may draw out his manure to some distant field, or some field that he intends planting. True he has his summer fire wood to provide, but with our improved horse and hand cross cut saws this is not much of a job. The old farmer would burn as much wood in one day as he burns now in a week.

Then as spring comes on he gets out his cultivator, drill or seeder—cultivating and sowing at the same time—though his ploughing and harrowing have to be done the same old way. With his many improved tools and implements he can put in his seed and do his planting quicker, easier, and with less bodily toil than the old farmers did.

The farmer certainly sows more roots, turnips, mangolds, carrots, etc., than formerly, but they are now mostly wrought with the horse hoe, so that they do not require as much labor as when all the ground had to be hoed over by hand.

When hay time comes round, instead of the scythe he gets out his mower, sitting on it as easy as if driving on the road, and cuts in a little more than an hour as much as he could cut with a scythe in a whole day, with a great deal more ease and less sweat of the brow. Then he mounts his horse rake and rakes up his hay as fast as 8 or 10 men could with hand rakes—some even have hay loaders that rake and load the hay on the waggon at one operation. When hay is put in cocks it has still to be done by hand, also pitched on to the waggon in the field, and though many have horse forks for unloading in the barn, much is still pitched there in the same old way.

Then when harvest time comes round, instead of a cradle he takes out his self-binder, riding round the field at his ease, leaving the sheaves all ready bound for stooking up, harvesting as much in a day as ten men could formerly do when it had all to be done by hand. His peas, too, instead of being pulled with a scythe, hook or rake, are pulled with a horse rake or cut with a pea cutter.

Then with regard to threshing. While he farmer of old had laboriously to pound out his crops with the flail or tread them out with horses, he now calls to his aid the steam thresher, that will thresh 6 or 7 hundred bushels of grain in a day, leaving the grain nearly ready for market and carrying the straw on to the stack at the same time. Then his fanning mill has a bagger attached that bags up the grain as fast as it comes from the machine.

There is some work done by hand as of old. All the grain and hay has to be pitched in the field and much of it in the barn and to the threshing machine. Manure has to be loaded, drawn out and spread in the field the same as ever. The farmer now has more roots and corn to attend to, and more fall ploughing and cultivating to do—as land now takes more cultivation to fit it for crops than it formerly did.

We now propose to notice as briefly as possible the first introduction of improved labor-saving implements into this county. The first threshing machine was a small one brought in early 1832. It did little work that season, but in 1833 got all the work it could do. This machine, horse-power and all was loaded on two wheels, and when one went for it he took the fore wheels and reach of his waggon, bringing the whole at one load. These threshers had no horses—just two men. The farmer found the four horses and all other hands. The machine was small, could hardly ever thresh 100 bushels of wheat in a day, and grain and straw all came out together. It took a great deal of shaking and much room on the barn floor to hold chaffy heap. Their charge was every 15th bushel. A man followed the machine, helping to clean up the grain and seeing they got their just measure. Every year after this new threshing mills with improvements were brought out. All were open machines and all threshed with beaters—spikes coming later. In 1842 a Mr. Livingstone, formerly a resident of this county, brought in one of Pitt’s Separators, and these in time superseded all the old open machines. The machines now in use are all on the same principle as Pitt’s, but much enlarged and improved. At first they were driven by 8 horses but now mostly by steam engines, and had no straw carriers or stackers as they were then called. When these were first brought out an additional charge was made for their use, but soon all machines had them.

The next labor saving implement brought in was the old wooden revolving horserake. He first brought here was in 1841—it was very successful, saving much time and hard work; as their cost was little, $7 or $8 they soon spread all over the country. Taking into consideration their small cost, and the amount and kinds of work they did we doubt if any greater labor-saver has ever been invented. Some years after a stout wire rake was brought out. They were not a success for hay, they did for raking stubbles. Then our present revolving steel horse rakes came in and have superseded all other kinds.

The first reaping machine brought here, (we believe the first ever used in Canada) was brought in by the late Daniel M. Kyes for the harvest of 1843. The Messrs Wade brought in one of the same kind in 1844. These machines were the old “Hussy.” They were made something like an old lowdown cart; the machinery was placed in this. A man also sat or stood in it, putting of the sheaves with a peculiar shaped rake with the teeth straight out. Horses were tandem on these machines. In 1847 there were several McCormack reapers brought in. They did not do well; they were too slightly gotten up. The late Messrs Helm & Son, Cobourg, began the manufacture of reaping machines in 1848, on a plan similar to McCormack, that took the first prize at the Provincial Exhibition held at Cobourg that year. Several different kinds of reapers were soon afterwards introduced.

After mowing machines came into use a number of combined machines were tried, some of these did fairly well for both reaping and mowing. About 1860 self-raking reapers began to come into use. There was one tried at the Provincial match at Dundas in 1864, it did not work well at that time but they soon improved and came into general use. They the March harvester was brought in, 1868. On clean, light strawed crops they did well, on thistley heavy strawed crops they cut more than the harvester could bind. Then Self-binders were introduced, though rather troublesome to work at first they have now nearly driven out all other reapers. The first Self-binder we ever saw was in the show yard at Rochester in 1868; that one bound with wire and seemed to do good work. It was several years after that before we saw one at work in the harvest field, it then bound with twine.

The Mowing machine began to come into use about 1850-52. The first used here was the Ketchum mower. It did good work, but was heavy on horses, and awkward to manage. Soon other kinds came out, Ball’s Ohio, Sprague’s and others. We have cut most of our hay crop with a mower since 1853. A writer in 1852 said it was a matter of surprise to many that while grass cutting by hand is much slower work than cradling, the reaper requiring two men each, should be so much more generally introduced than the mower, which could cut nearly as many acres per day with only one man to manage it.

The two-horse cultivators came into use about 1854-55. The drill cultivator horse-hoe some years earlier. Although we have seen we never used the old Bull plough, made with a three-cornered iron point, the rest of all wood with only one handle. The first plough we used was a “Dutcher”, though the “Norton’s” were the most common. These were made with cast iron mould boards, and had very short handles. Iron ploughs were tried, and they did good work but they were heavy, and required strong horses. The American “Lap-Furrow” was for a time a favorite plough, then “Hill’s” fleet with a metal and then with a steel mould, a very useful plough. The most of ploughs now have iron or steel beams, steel mould boards with wooden handles.

At first most of the harrowing was done with A drags. Any harrows used had only six bills, heavy with large teeth. We think we had the first eight-billed angle harrows used here. They were made by the late Wm. Johnstone, Front Road, West. As they covered so much more land on cleared fields and harrowed, the ground so much better they came into general use. But all wooden harrows are now nearly superseded by iron ones.

I would take up far too much time to notice all the improvements made on our farm tools and implements during the period under review. At first all our hoes and forks were made of iron by the blacksmith. They were heavy and clumsy, very unlike the fine, light, polished hoes and forks we now use.

There had been an Agricultural Society in this county before we knew it. This first society was formed in 1824. It held shows and ploughing matches, and gave prizes on the best managed farms, and for essays on wheat culture and other farming subjects. The present Agricultural Society was formed in 1836-7. It held its first show in 1839 at Grafton, and except when the Provincial Exhibition or the Central fair was held in Cobough, has held a show every year since then.

A Farmers’ Club was begun in 1846, and though often dormant, it took occasionally lively starts and held sometimes ten or twelve meetings a year. A subject for discussion at next meeting was selected and some one appointed to introduce it, which they might do either verbally or by a written paper, the subject was then discussed by all the members present. This has been superseded by the Farmers’ Institutes.

When we first knew the county a very few of the most enterprising farmers took an agricultural paper the “Genesee Farmer” or the “Albany Cultivator.” We had no agricultural paper in Canada until the “British-American Cultivator” was begun in Toronto in 1842. We had an agricultural paper, the “Newcastle Farmer” published in Cobourg from 1846 to 1849.


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