History of Farming in Ontario

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Publisher's Device


This Volume consists of a Reprint, for
private circulation only, of the One Hundred
and Sixteenth Signed Contribution
contained in Canada and its Provinces,
a History of the Canadian People and their
Institutions by One Hundred Associates.
Adam Shortt and Arthur G. Doughty,
General Editors

The Land and the People

From the most southern point of Ontario on Lake Erie, near the 42nd parallel of latitude, to Moose Factory on James Bay, the distance is about 750 miles. From the eastern boundary on the Ottawa and St Lawrence Rivers to Kenora at the Manitoba boundary, the distance is about 1000 miles. The area lying within these extremes is about 220,000 square miles. In 1912 a northern addition of over 100,000 square miles was made to the surface area of the province, but it is doubtful whether the agricultural lands will thereby be increased. Of this large area about 25,000,000 acres are occupied and assessed, including farm lands and town and city sites. It will be seen, therefore, that only a small fraction of the province has, as yet, been occupied. Practically all the occupied area lies south of a line drawn through Montreal, Ottawa, and Sault Ste Marie, and it forms part of the great productive zone of the continent.

The next point to be noted is the irregularity of the boundary-line, the greater portion of which is water—Lakes Superior, Huron, Erie, Ontario, the St Lawrence River, the Ottawa River, James Bay, and Hudson Bay. The modifying effect of great bodies of water must be considered in studying the agricultural possibilities of Ontario.

Across this great area of irregular outline there passes a branch of the Archæan rocks running in a north-western direction and forming a watershed, which turns some of the streams to Hudson Bay and the others to the St Lawrence system. An undulating surface has resulted, more or less filled with lakes, and almost lavishly supplied with streams, which are of prime importance for agricultural life and of incalculable value for commercial purposes. To these old rocks which form the backbone of the province may be traced the origin of the large stretches of rich soil with which the province abounds.

An examination of the map, and even a limited knowledge of the geological history of the province, will lead to the conclusion that in Ontario there must be a wide range in the nature and composition of the soils and a great variety in the climatic conditions. These conditions exist, and they result in a varied natural production. In the extreme south-western section plants of a semi-tropical nature were to be found in the early days in luxurious growth; while in the extreme north, spruce, somewhat stunted in size and toughened in fibre, are still to be found in vast forests.

It is with the southern section, that lying south of the Laurentian rocks, that our story is mainly concerned, for the occupation and exploitation of the northland is a matter only of recent date. Nature provided conditions for a diversified agriculture. It is to such a land that for over a hundred years people of different nationalities, with their varied trainings and inclinations, have been coming to make their homes. We may expect, therefore, to find a great diversity in the agricultural growth of various sections, due partly to the variety of natural conditions and partly to the varied agricultural training of the settlers in their homelands.

Early Settlement, 1783-1816

Originally this province was covered with forest, varied and extensive, and was valued only for its game. The hunter and trapper was the pioneer. To protect and assist him, fortified posts were constructed at commanding points along the great waterways. In the immediate vicinity of these posts agriculture, crude in its nature and restricted in its area, had its beginning.

It was into this wooded wilderness that the United Empire Loyalists, numbering in all approximately ten thousand people, came in the latter part of the eighteenth century.[1] They were a people of varied origins—Highland Scottish, German, Dutch, Irish Palatine, French Huguenot, English. Most of them had lived on farms in New York State, and therefore brought with them some knowledge and experience that stood them in good stead in their arduous work of making new homes in a land that was heavily wooded. In the year 1783 prospectors were sent into Western Quebec, the region lying west of the Ottawa River, and selections were made for them in four districts—along the St Lawrence, opposite Fort Oswegatchie; around the Bay of Quinte, above Fort Cataraqui; in the Niagara peninsula, opposite Fort Niagara; and in the south-western section, within reach of Fort Detroit. Two reasons determined these locations; first, the necessity of being located on the water-front, as lake and river were the only highways available; and, secondly, the advisability of being within the protection of a fortified post. The dependence of the settlers upon the military will be realized when we remember that they had neither implements nor seed grain. In fact, they were dependent at first upon the government stores for their food. It is difficult at the present time to realize the hardships and appreciate the conditions under which these United Empire Loyalist settlers began life in the forest of 1784.

Having been assigned their lots and supplied with a few implements, they began their work of making small clearings and the erection of rude log-houses and barns. Among the stumps they sowed the small quantities of wheat, oats, and potatoes that were furnished from the government stores. Cattle were for many years few in number, and the settler, to supply his family with food and clothing, was compelled to add hunting and trapping to his occupation of felling the trees.

Gradually the clearings became larger and the area sown increased in size. The trails were improved and took on the semblance of roads, but the waterways continued to be the principal avenues of communication. In each of the four districts the government erected mills to grind the grain for the settlers. These were known as the King’s Mills. Water-power mills were located near Kingston, at Gananoque, at Napanee, and on the Niagara River. The mill on the Detroit was run by wind power. An important event in the early years was when the head of the family set out for the mill with his bag of wheat on his back or in his canoe, and returned in two or three days, perhaps in a week, with a small supply of flour. In the early days there was no wheat for export. The question then may be asked, was there anything to market? Yes; as the development went on, the settlers found a market for two surplus products, timber and potash. The larger pine trees were hewn into timber and floated down the streams to some convenient point where they were collected into rafts, which were taken down the St Lawrence to Montreal and Quebec. Black salt or crude potash was obtained by concentrating the ashes that resulted from burning the brush and trees that were not suitable for timber.

For the first thirty years of the new settlements the chief concern of the people was the clearing of their land, the increasing of their field crops, and the improving of their homes and furnishings. It was slow going, and had it not been for government assistance, progress, and even maintenance of life, would have been impossible. That was the heroic age of Upper Canada, the period of foundation-laying in the province. Farming was the main occupation, and men, women, and children shared the burdens in the forest, in the field, and in the home. Roads were few and poorly built, except the three great military roads planned by Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe running east, west, and north from the town of York. Social intercourse was of a limited nature. Here and there a school was formed when a competent teacher could be secured. Church services were held once a month, on which occasions the missionary preacher rode into the district on horseback. Perhaps once or twice in the summer the weary postman, with his pack on his back, arrived at the isolated farmhouse to leave a letter, on which heavy toll had to be collected.

Progress was slow in those days, but after thirty years fair hope of an agricultural country was beginning to dawn upon the people when the War of 1812 broke out. By this time the population of the province had increased to about eighty thousand. During this first thirty years very little had been done in the way of stimulating public interest in agricultural work. Conditions were not favourable to organization. The ‘town meeting’ was concerned mainly with the question of the height of fences and regulations as to stock running at large. One attempt, however, was made which should be noted. Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe took charge of affairs early in 1792, and, immediately after the close of the first session of the legislature at Newark (Niagara) in the autumn of that year, organized an agricultural society at the headquarters which met occasionally to discuss agricultural questions. There are no records to show whether social intercourse or practical agricultural matters formed the main business. The struggle for existence was too exacting and the conditions were not yet favourable for organization to advance general agricultural matters.

When the War of 1812 broke out the clearings of the original settlers had been extended, and some of the loyalists still lived, grown grey with time and hardened by the rough life of the backwoods. Their sons, many of whom had faint recollection of their early homes across the line, had grown up in an atmosphere of strictest loyalty to the British crown, and had put in long years in clearing the farms on which they lived and adding such comforts to their houses, that to them, perhaps as to no other generation, their homes meant everything in life. The summons came to help to defend those homes and their province. For three years the agricultural growth received a severe check. Fathers and sons took their turn in going to the front. The cultivation of the fields, the sowing and the harvesting of the crops, fell largely to the lot of the mothers and the daughters left at home. But they were equal to it. In those days the women were trained to help in the work of the fields. They did men’s work willingly and well. In many cases they had to continue their heroic work after the close of the war, until their surviving boys were grown to years of manhood, for many husbands and sons went to the front never to return.


[1] See ‘Pioneer Settlements’ in this section.

A Period of Expansion, 1816-46

The close of the war saw a province that had been checked at a time of vigorous growth now more or less impoverished, and, in some sections, devastated. This was, however, but the gloomy outlook before a period of rapid expansion. In 1816, on the close of the Napoleonic wars in Europe, large numbers of troops were disbanded, and for these new homes and new occupations had to be found. Then began the first emigration from Britain overseas to Upper Canada. All over the British Isles little groups were forming of old soldiers reunited to their families. A few household furnishings were packed, a supply of provisions laid in, a sailing vessel chartered, and the trek began across the Atlantic. The emigrants sailed from many ports of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Sometimes the trip was made in three or four weeks; but often, through contrary winds or rough weather, three or four months passed before the vessel sailed up the St Lawrence and landed the newcomers at Montreal. Hardly half of their difficulties were then overcome or half of their dangers passed. If they were to find their new locations by land, they must walk or travel by slow ox-cart; if they journeyed by water, they must make their way up the St Lawrence by open boat, surmounting the many rapids in succession, poling the boats, pulling against the stream, at times helping to carry heavy loads over the portages. Their new homes in the backwoods were in townships in the rear of those settled by the loyalists, or in unoccupied areas lying on the lake-fronts between the four districts referred to as having been taken up by the loyalists. Then began the settlements along the north shore of Lake Ontario and of Lake Erie, and the population moved forward steadily. In 1816 the total population of the province was approximately 100,000; by 1826, according to returns made to the government, it had increased to 166,000; in 1836 it was 374,000, and in 1841 it was 456,000. The great majority of these people, of course, lived upon the land, the towns being comparatively small, and the villages were composed largely of people engaged in agricultural work.

This peaceful British invasion contributed a new element to the province and added still further to the variety of the people. In one township could be found a group of English settlers, most of whom came from a southern county of England, near by a township peopled by Scottish Lowlanders, and not far away a colony of north of Ireland farmers, or perhaps a settlement composed entirely of people from the vicinity of Cork or Limerick.

These British settlers brought new lines of life, new plans for houses and barns, new methods of cultivation, new varieties of seed, and, what was perhaps of most influence upon the agricultural life of the province, new kinds of live stock. Even to this day can be seen traces of the differences in construction of buildings introduced by the different nationalities that came as pioneers into the various sections of the province—the French Canadian constructed his buildings with long, steep roofs; the Englishman followed his home plan of many small, low outbuildings with doors somewhat rounded at the top; the German and Dutch settler built big barns with their capacious mows. These latter have become the type now generally followed, the main improvement in later years being the raising of the frames upon stone foundations so as to provide accommodation for live stock in the basement. It would be interesting and profitable to study carefully the different localities to determine what elements have contributed to the peculiar agricultural characteristics of the present day. In this connection the language also might be investigated. For instance, to the early Dutch farmers of Upper Canada we owe such common words as ‘stoop,’ ‘bush,’ ‘boss,’ ‘span.’ To the early British settler these were foreign words. When the oversea settlers came up the St Lawrence they were transported from Montreal either by ‘bateau’ or by ‘Durham boat.’[2]

Special reference must be made to the live stock introduced by the British settlers. This was one of the most important elements in the expansion and permanent development of the agriculture of the province. The British Isles have long been noted for their pure-bred stock. In no other part of the world have so many varieties been originated and improved. In horses, there are the Clydesdale, the Shire, the Thoroughbred, and the Hackney; in cattle, Shorthorns, Herefords, Ayrshires, Devon, and the dairy breeds of Jersey and Guernsey; in sheep, Southdowns, Shropshires, Leicesters; in swine, Berkshires and Yorkshires. Many other breeds might be added to these. Poultry and dogs also might be referred to. The Britisher has been noted for his love of live stock. He has been trained to their care, his agricultural methods have been ordered to provide food suitable for their wants, and he has been careful to observe the lines of breeding so as to improve their quality. In the earliest period of the settlement of the province live stock was not numerous and the quality was not of the best. Whatever was to be found on the farms came mainly from the United States and was of inferior type. The means of bringing in horses, cattle, and sheep were limited. The result was that field work at that time was largely done by hand labour. Hunting and fishing helped to supply the table with the food that to-day we obtain from the butcher. When the Britisher came across the Atlantic he brought to Upper Canada his love for live stock and his knowledge how to breed and care for the same. The result was seen in the rapid increase in the number of horses, cattle, sheep, and swine, and the placing of the agriculture of the province on a firm basis for future growth.

By 1830 the population had grown to about 213,000, practically all located on the land. In that year there were only five towns of 1000 or over: namely, Kingston, 3587; York (Toronto), 2860; London, (including the township), 2415; Hamilton (including the township), 2013; and Brockville, 1130. The returns to the government show that of the 4,018,385 acres occupied 773,727 were under cultivation. On the farms were to be found 30,776 horses, 33,517 oxen, 80,892 milch cows, and 32,537 young cattle. It is interesting to note that oxen, so useful in clearing land and in doing heavy work, were more numerous than horses. Oxen were hardier than horses; they could forage for themselves and live on rough food, and when disabled could be converted into food. They thus played a very important part in the pioneer life. There were no improved farm implements in those days: the plough, the spade, the hoe, the fork, the sickle, the hook, the cradle, and the rake—implements that had been the husbandman’s equipment for centuries—completed the list. With these the farmer cultivated his lands and gathered his crops. With two stout hickory poles, joined together at the end with tough leather thongs, a flail was made with which he threshed out his grain on the floor of his barn.

The earliest pioneers raised some flax, and from the fibre made coarse linen fabrics, supplementing these by skins of wild animals and the hides of cattle. With the introduction of sheep by the British settlers wool became an important product, and homespun garments provided additional clothing for all the members of the family. Seeds of various fruit trees were planted, and by 1830 the products of these seedlings supplemented the wild plums and cherries of the woods and the wild raspberries that sprang up in abundance in the clearings and slashes. By this time every farm had one or more milch cows and the farmer’s table was supplied with fresh milk, butter, and home-made cheese. As the first half-century of the province was drawing to its close, some of the comforts of home life began to be realized by the farming community. The isolation of the former period disappeared as roads of communication were opened up and extended.

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