Our Last Year in the Backwoods of Canada

THREE years ago,1 having submitted to the public a few sketches of bush life, being the result of our first year’s experience as settlers on the “free-grant lands” of Muskoka, I spoke in the concluding one in a tone of mingled hope and fear as to the result of our efforts to make hush farming succeed without capital, and without even the means of living comfortably while trying the experiment. It is needless to say to those who know anything of Muskoka that the misgivings were fully realized, and that the hopes proved mere illusions and melted imperceptibly away, as those airy fabrics too often do.

The autumn of 1873 saw the breaking up of our little colony, in the final departure from the bush of my dear child Mrs. C——, and her family. My sonin-law, Mr. C——, soon found his bush farming as wearisome and unprofitable 1 See the March and April numbers of The Atlantic Monthly, 1874. as we did ourselves. Having formerly taken his degree of B. A. at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and his wishes having long tended to the church as a profession, there was nothing stood between him and ordination but a little reading up in classics and theology, which he accomplished with the assistance of his kind friend, the Church of England clergyman at Bracebridge. He was ordained by the Bishop of Toronto in October, 1873, and was at once appointed to a distant parish. Our parting was most painful, but it was so obviously for the good of the dear ones leaving us that we struggled to repress all selfish regrets, and I. in particular, heartily thanked God that even a portion of the family had escaped from the miseries of bush life. Our small community being so greatly lessened in number, the monotony of our lives was much increased. None but they who have experienced it can ever realize the utter weariness and isolation of the backwoods. The daily recurrence of the same laborious tasks, the want of time for mental culture, the absence of congenial intercourse with one’s fellow-creatures, the many hours of unavoidable solitude, the dreary unbroken silence of the immense forest which closes round the small clearings like a belt of iron, — all these things ere long press down the most buoyant spirit, and superinduce a kind of dull despair from which I have suffered for months at a time. In conversation once with my daughter-in-law, who was often unavoidably left alone for the whole day, we mutually agreed that there were times when the sense of loneliness became so dreadful that had a bear jumped in at the window, or the house taken fire, or a hurricane blown down the farm buildings, we should have been tempted, to rejoice and to hail the excitement as a boon. And yet, strange as it may appear, I dreaded above all things visits from our neighbors. It is true they seldom came out, but when they did every one of them would have considered it a want of kindness not to prolong their visit for many hours. Harassed as I was with never-ceasing anxiety, and much occupied with my correspondence and other writing, I found such visits an intolerable nuisance, particularly as after a little friendly talk about household matters, knitting, etc., where we met as it were on common ground, there was invariably a prolonged silence which it required frantic efforts on my part to break, so as to prevent my guest’s feeling awkward and uncomfortable. In my estimation of the merits and agreeable conversation of my neighbors I made one great exception. Our nearest neighbor was an intelligent Englishman who lived a lonely bachelor life, which in his rare intervals of rest from hard labor he greatly solaced by reading. We lent him all our best books and English newspapers, and should have been glad to see him oftener, but he was so afraid of intruding that he seldom came except to return or change his books. At such times we had much really pleasant conversation, and often a stirring discussion on some public topic of the day, or it might be a particular reign in Cassell’s History of England, or a play of Shakespeare, both of which voluminous works he was reading through. He had been head shopman in a large grocer’s in England, and was slightly democratic in his opinions; my tendencies being in the opposite direction, we differed sufficiently to prevent conversation becoming dull. A more well-conducted, hard-working, abstemious, and trustworthy man I have seldom known, and we got to consider him quite in the light of a friend.

The autumn and winter of 1873 passed away with no more remarkable event than our first patch of fall wheat being sown, from which in a burst of temporary enthusiasm we actually expected to have sufficient flour for the bread of the ensuing winter. The following year we by no means slackened in our efforts to improve the land and make it profitable; but we found that though our expenses increased, our means did not. The more land we cleared, the more the want of money to crop and cultivate it became apparent, the labor of one individual being quite insufficient for the purpose. To remedy this want my son resolved to do what was a common practice in the settlement, go out to work for his neighbors, receiving from them “return work” instead of any other payment. The only difficulty when they came to us was the providing sufficient food, even of the commonest kind, for hungry men engaged in logging; but even this we managed in the first half of the year. This appeared to be a year of general want in our settlement, for when our dear companion came home from his day of outside toil, our usual question was, “ Well, dear, what did you have for dinner? ” and the reply was sure to be, “ Oh, bread and treacle and tea,” or, “ porridge and potatoes;” and this in the houses of the better class of settlers, many of whom were noted for always putting the best they had before any neighbors working for them. In fact there was so little of the circulating medium in the place that all buying and selling was conducted in the most primitive style of barter. A settler having hay, corn, or cattle to sell was obliged to take other commodities in exchange; and more than once when we wanted some indispensable work done, my son, finding that we could in no way provide a money payment, would look over his tools or farm implements, and sometimes even his clothes, and part with whatever could possibly be spared. We suffered at intervals this year more severely from the want of money than we had ever done, and had even long spells of actual hunger and want, which I trust have prepared us all to feel for the remainder of our lives a more full and perfect sympathy with our destitute fellow-creatures. I have mentioned our fall wheat. Alas for all human expectations, when it came to be threshed in the autumn of this year, it was found to have been “ winter killed,” that is, it had been frozen and thawed so often before the winter snow of the year before had finally covered it that the grain was small, shriveled, withered, and unfit for anything but feeding poultry.

The work of this year appeared to us all harder than ever, and my eldest son’s health and strength were evidently on the decline. Nevertheless, nearly every day he did the work of two men, as in addition to the cultivation of the land he had to chop all the fire-wood for daily use, to draw the water, and to do various jobs more or less fatiguing to insure anything like comfort to the family. He became so attenuated and cadaverous looking that we often told him he could make his fortune on any stage as the lean apothecary in Romeo and Juliet, It was with scarcely suppressed anguish that night after night we saw him so fatigued and worn out as to be hardly able to perform his customary ablutions before sitting down to the writing and reading with which he invariably concluded the day, and which was the only thing linking us all to our happier life in former times. Indeed, both my sons, in spite of hard work and scanty food, contrived to keep up a little reading and study, and even to write occasional articles for our local paper which showed an aptitude for higher pursuits than bush farming. Both of them at times worked for and with each other, which was a most pleasant arrangement. At this time my youngest son was going through, on his own farm, the same struggles as ourselves, and was, I am bound to say, in every respect as hard-working and energetic as his elder brother. His family was fast increasing, as he had now two little boys in addition to the one we had charge of, and before the end of the year he was thankful to accept the situation of schoolmaster at Allensville, which added forty pounds a year to his slender means. It was on one occasion when he was working on our land with his brother, and when four other men were giving my son “ return work ” by logging a large piece of ground near the house, having brought their oxen with them, that we had half an hour of the delicious excitement of which my daughter-in-law and myself had talked so calmly some time before. It was a bright, sunny day, and my daughter and myself were busily engaged in cooking a substantial dinner for our working party, when, chancing to look up, my daughter exclaimed, “ Mamma! is that sunlight or fire shining through the roof? ” I ran out directly and saw that the shingles below the chimney were well alight and beginning to blaze up. Calling out to my daughter in passing, I flew to the end of the house and screamed out “ Fire! fire! ” in a voice which my sons afterwards laughingly assured me must have been heard at the post-office three miles off. It had the effect, however, of bringing the whole party to our assistance in a few seconds; they were met by my daughter with two buckets of water, which she had promptly procured from the well. My two sons were immediately on the roof, one with an axe to cut away the burning shingles, the other with water handed up by the men to keep the fire from spreading. In ten minutes all danger was over, but it left us rather frightened and nervous, and I must confess that I never again wished for excitement of the same dangerous kind.

In the summer of this year I went to Bracebridge on a visit, to my daughter, Mrs. C——, whose husband had lately been appointed by his bishop resident Church of England minister in that place, a change very agreeable to him, as he was well known and much liked and esteemed by the inhabitants. When I left the bush to go into Bracebridge it was with the full intention of never returning to it, and all my family considered my visit to Mrs. C—— a farewell visit before leaving for England. I had made great exertions to get from my kind lawyer and a friend an advance of sufficient money to take one of us back to the dear “ old country,” and all agreed that I should go first, as I was confident that my personal solicitations would soon secure the means of bringing back at least my eldest son and daughter, who, being the only unmarried ones of the family, were my constant companions. Having unfortunately for my plans, but quite unavoidably, made use of part of the money to leave things tolerably comfortable in the bush, I waited anxiously till the deficit could be made up, which I fully hoped would soon be the case, by literary work. But my projects all failed, and disappointment, anxiety, and the burning heat of the weather gave me a very severe attack of illness, which left me so weak, feeble, and completely crushed that I was thankful to send for my son and to go hack ignominiously to the hateful bush.

The year wore slowly away and Christmas Eve came at last. The snow had fallen in such immense quantities that the roads were nearly impassable from the deep drifts. Our worthy friend, Mr. A——, was away at the lochs, eight miles off, where he had taken a job of work, and we therefore felt pretty sure that he could not pay us his customary Christmas visit. We felt almost thankful, much as we liked him, for we had been literally without a penny for more than two months, and all our provision for Christmas festivities consisted of a plenty of potatoes and a small modicum of flour.

But we were not to escape the humiliation of having an invited guest and nothing to set before him. Long after dark a well-known knock at, the door announced Mr. A——, who came for the key of his house, of which we always had charge, and who had walked the whole way from the lochs to be with us, over roads deep in snow and dangerous from the drifts at either side, which Were so many pitfalls for unwary travelers. We welcomed him and made him drink some hot tea, a needful refreshment after his cold and weary tramp of six hours. When he was gone we resolved ourselves into a committee of ways and means, but as nothing could be done to alter the state of affairs, and as there was obviously a ludicrous side to the question, we laughed heartily and went to bed. Having edified the public with an account of our first Christmas dinner in the bush, I am irresistibly tempted to give the details of the last, which certainly did not show much improvement in our finances. On Christmas morning of 1875 we very early heard a joyous shout, and saw dear C—— advancing with two very small salt herrings (the last of his stock) dangling triumphantly in one hand, and a huge vegetable marrow in the other, these articles being the only addition he could make to our Christmas dinner, which for the three previous years he had been mainly instrumental in providing. What could we do but laugh and cheerfully accept the situation? C—— promised to bring his wife and the two babies down on the ox-sleigh as early as possible. We borrowed some butter from our friend Mr. A——, who had a stock of it, and sent for him before dinner, fearing that delicacy would prevent his coming, as he could too well guess the state of the larder. Our guests assembled and dinner time arrived. I served up a large and savory dish of vegetable marrow mashed with potatoes, well buttered, peppered, and salted, and baked in the oven — in short a very novel kind of pie; the two herrings carefully cooked, and a steaming dish of potatoes, which with tea made up a repast we much enjoyed. When tea time came my daughter, who had cheated herself for the good of the community, supplied us with relays of “ dumpers,” which met with universal approbation.

In compliment to our guest. Mr. A——, we had all put on what my boys jocosely term our “ Sunday - go - to - meeting clothes,” and I was really glad that the grubs of such untold weary weeks past, upon this day, at least, actually turned into butterflies. Cinderella’s transformations were not more complete. My daughter became at once the elegant young woman she had always been considered; my sons, stepping back into their gentlemanly clothes, threw off the care-worn look of working-day fatigue, and were again distinguished and goodlooking young men; and as to my pretty daughter-in-law, I have left her till the last that I may have the pleasure of saying that I never saw her look more lovely. She wore a pale silk dress, had delicate lace and bright ribbons floating about her, a gold locket and chain and sundry pretty ornaments, relies of girlish days, and to crown all, her beautiful hair flowing over her shoulders. I thought several times that afternoon, as I watched her caressing first one and then another of her three baby boys, that a painter might have been proud to sketch the pretty group, and to add, at his fancy, gorgeous draperies, antique vases, and beautiful flowers, instead of the rough, coarse belongings of a log-house. I noticed that on this Christmas Day no attempt was made at singing; not even our favorite hymns were proposed; in fact, the year had been so brimful of misfortunes and miseries that I think none of our hearts were attuned to melody. Ah, dear reader, it takes long chastening before we can meekly drink the cup of affliction, and say from the heart “ Thy will be done!” Our party broke up early, as the babies and their mother had to be got into the ox-sleigh, smothered with warm wraps, and taken home before the light of the short winter day had quite vanished. In parting we all agreed that we had passed a few hours very pleasantly.

Very different was our fare on New Year’s Day of 1875; a sumptuous wild turkey, which we roasted, having been provided for us by the kindness of one whom we must ever look upon in the light of a dear friend. The “ gentlemanly Canadian,” mentioned by me in my bush reminiscences, read my papers and at once guessed at the authorship. Being on an election tour with his friend Mr. Pardee, and coining to Muskoka, he procured a guide and found us out in the bush. He stayed but a short time, but the very sight of his pleasant, friendlyface did us good for days. Finding that I had never seen a wild turkey from the prairies he asked leave to send me one, and did not forget his promise, sending a beautiful bird which was meant for our Christmas dinner, but owing to delays at Bracebridge it only reached us in time for New Year’s Day, which brings me to an era of important family changes.

I began the year with more of hopefulness and pleasure than I had known for a long time. My determination that 1875 should see us clear of the bush had long been fixed, and I felt that as I brought unconquerable energy and the efforts of a strong will to bear upon the project it was sure to he successful. I had no opposition now to dread from my dear companions; both my son and daughter were as weary as myself of our long-continued and hopeless struggles; my son’s health and strength, as I have before intimated, were visibly decreasing; he had already spent more than three years of the very prime of his life in work harder than a common laborer’s, and with no better result than the very uncertain prospect of a bare living at the end of many more years of drudgery, while his undoubted capacity fitted him for higher employments. It was better for him to begin the world again, even at the age of thirty-two years, than to continue burying himself alive. We had long looked upon bush life in the light of exile to a penal settlement, without even the convict’s chance of a ticket of leave. These considerations nerved me for the disagreeable task of getting money from England for our removal, in which, thanks to the unwearied kindness of the friends I have before mentioned, I succeeded, and very early in the year we began to make preparations for our final departure. It required the stimulus of hope to enable us to bear the discomforts of our last two months’ residence in the bush. After the turn of the year immense quantities of snow continued to fall, and we were closely encircled by walls of ice and snow fully five feet in depth. The labor of keeping paths open to the different farm buildings was immense, and the unavoidable task of cutting away the superincumbent ice and snow from the different roofs was one of danger as well as toil. I was told that we were passing through an exceptional winter, and I believe it, as long after we were in Bracebridge the snow continued to fall, and even so late as the middle of May a heavy snow-storm spread its white mantle on the earth and hid it from view for many hours.

The last day at length arrived; we sat for the last time by our log-fire, we looked for the last time on the familiar landscape, and I, at, least, felt not one pang of regret. I cling fondly to the friends I love, to my animals, and even to places where I have lived; and in quitting France I could have cried over every shrub and flower in my beloved garden. How great, then, must have been my unhappiness, and how I must have hated my bush life, when my only feeling at leaving it forever was joy at my escape! The roads were so dangerous for horses, and so many accidents had occurred, that my son had the greatest difficulty in hiring a wagon and team for our own use; all our heavy baggage had been conveyed to Bracebridge on ox-sleighs. He succeeded at last, and the afternoon of the 2d of March saw our exodus begin. My son and the driver carefully spread our softest bedding, blankets, and pillows on a layer of hay at the bottom of the wagon, and on these my daughter and myself reclined at our ease with our dear little hoy between us. My favorite cat, Tibbs, of Atlantic Monthly celebrity, was in a warm basket before me, and her companion, Tamkins (a legacy from Mrs. C—— when she left the bush), securely tied up in a bag, slept on my lap the whole way; my son sat with the driver, and Jack, our black dog, ran alongside. We slept that night at Utterson, and next morning went on to Bracebridge, where my son had secured for me a small road-side house. When we were tolerably settled he started for Toronto and Montreal in search of employment, taking with him many excellent letters of introduction. In Montreal he was most kindly and hospitably welcomed by two dear friends, ladies who came out with us from England, who received him into their pleasant home, introduced him to a large circle of friends, and did much by their kindness to restore his shattered health. Eventually, finding nothing suitable in either place, he decided to go on the survey, his name having been put down by our kind friend, Mr. G——, of Sarnia (the donor of the wild turkey), on the staff appointed by government to survey the district of Parry Sound. Severe illness of our little boy, followed by illness of my own which still continues, was my welcome to Bracebridge; but still I rejoice daily that our bush life is forever over.

Here I finally drop the curtain on our domestic history and make but a few parting observations. I am far from claiming undue sympathy for my individual case, which is too probably one among many, but would fain deter others of my class, and especially elderly people, from breaking up their comfortable homes and following an ignis fatuus in the shape of emigration to a distant land. I went into the bush of Muskoka strong and healthy, full of life and energy, and quite as enthusiastic as the youngest of our party. I left it with hopes completely crushed, and with health so hopelessly shattered from hard work, lifting heavy weights, and, I may add, unceasing anxiety, that I am now a helpless invalid, entirely confined by the doctor’s orders to my bed and my sofa, with not the remotest chance of ever leaving them for a more active life.

H. B. K.