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- Life in Canada Fifty Years Ago - 10/31 -


"The whited air Hides hills and woods, the river and the heaven, And veils the farm-house at the garden's end;"

when the frost silvered over the window-panes, or crept through the cracks and holes, and fringed them with its delicate fret-work; when the storm raged and howled without, and

"Shook beams and rafters as it passed!"

Within, happy faces were gathered around the blazing logs in the old fire-place.

"Shut in from all the world without, We sat the clean-winged hearth about, Content to let the north wind roar, In baffled rage at pane and door, While the red logs before us beat The frost line back with tropic heat."

The supper has been cleared away, and upon the clean white table is placed a large dish of apples and a pitcher of cider. On either end stands a tallow candle in a bright brass candlestick, with an extinguisher attached to each, and the indispensable snuffers and tray. Sometimes the fingers are made use of in the place of the snuffers; but it is not always satisfactory to the snuffer, as he sometimes burns himself, and hastens to snap his fingers to get rid of the burning wick. One of the candles is appropriated by father, who is quietly reading his paper; for we had newspapers then, though they would not compare very favourably with those of to-day, and we got them only once a week. Mother is darning socks. Grandmother is making the knitting needles fly, as though all her grandchildren were stockingless. The girls are sewing and making merry with the boys, and we are deeply engaged with our lessons, or what is more likely, playing fox and geese.

"What matters how the night behaved; What matter how the north-wind raved; Blow high, blow low, not all its snow Could quench our ruddy hearth-fire's glow.

* * * * *

O time and change! with hair as gray As was my sire's that winter day, How strange it seems, with so much gone Of life and love, to still live on!

Ah brother! only I and thou Are left of all the circle now-- The dear home faces whereupon The fitful fire-light paled and shone, Henceforth, listen as we will, The voices of that hearth are still."

CHAPTER IV

THE EARLY SETTLERS IN UPPER CANADA--PROSPERITY, NATIONAL AND INDIVIDUAL --THE OLD HOMES, WITHOUT AND WITHIN--CANDLE-MAKING--SUPERSTITIONS AND OMENS--THE DEATH-WATCH--OLD ALMANACS--BEES--THE DIVINING ROD--THE U. E. LOYALISTS--THEIR SUFFERINGS AND HEROISM--AN OLD AND A NEW PRICE LIST-- PRIMITIVE HOROLOGES--A JAUNT IN ONE OF THE CONVENTIONAL "CARRIAGES" OF OLDEN TIMES--THEN AND NOW--A NOTE OF WARNING.

The settlement of Ontario, known up to the time of Confederation as the Province of Upper Canada, or Canada West, began in 1784, so that at the date I purpose to make a brief survey of the condition and progress of the country, it had been settled forty-six years. During those years--no insignificant period in a single life, but very small indeed in the history of a country--the advance in national prosperity and in the various items that go to make life pleasant and happy had been marvellous. The muscular arm of the sturdy pioneer had hewn its way into the primeval forest, and turned the gloomy wilderness into fruitful fields.

It is well known that the first settlers located along the shores of the River St. Lawrence, the Bay of Quinte, Lake Ontario, and Lake Erie, and that, at the time of which I speak, this coastline of a few hundred miles, extending back but a very short distance--a long narrow strip cut from the serried edge of the boundless woods--comprised the settlement of Canada West as it then existed. Persistent hard work had placed the majority in circumstances of more than ordinary comfort. Good houses had taken the place of log cabins, and substantial frame barns that of rude hovels. Hard fare and scanty raiment had given place to an abundance of the necessaries of life, and no people, perhaps, ever appreciated these blessings with more sincere thankfulness or more hearty contentment. The farmer was a strong, hardy man, the wife a ruddy, cheerful body, careful of the comforts of her household. One table sufficed for themselves and their servants or hired help. Meat was provided twice and often thrice a day; it being more a matter of taste than economy as to the number of times it was served. Fruit was abundant, and every matron prided herself upon preserving and putting away quantities of it for home use. So that at this time the world was moving smoothly with the people. An immense track of wilderness had been reclaimed, and waving fields and fruitful orchards occupied its place. It may have seemed to them, and indeed I think it did to many, that the sum of all they could expect or even desire in this world had been attained; while we, who remember those days, and look back over the changes of fifty years, wonder how they managed to endure life at all.

It is true that the father, more from the force of habit than necessity, perhaps continued to toil in the field, and the mother, moved by the same cause, and by her maternal anxiety for the well-being of her family, still spent many a long hour at the loom. The son, brought up to work, followed the plough, or did battle with the axe, making the woods ring with his rapid strokes. And as he laboured he pictured to himself the building of a nest in the unbroken forest behind the homestead, wherein the girl of his choice figured as the central charm. The daughter who toiled through the long summer's day to the monotonous hum of the spinning wheel, drawing out and twisting the threads that should enter into the make-up of her wedding outfit, was contented and happy. The time and circumstances in which they were placed presented nothing better, and in their estimation the world had little more to offer than they already possessed.

It is more than probable that if we, with our modern notions and habits, could to-day be carried back into a similar condition of life, we would feel that our lines had fallen in anything but pleasant places. The flying years, with their changes and anxieties, like the constant dripping of water on a stone, have worn off the rough edges that wounded and worried during their progress, and only the sunny spots, burned in the plastic memory of younger days, remain.

The old homes, as I remember them in those days, were thought palatial in their proportions and conveniences, and so they were as compared with the old log houses. The latter often still remained as relics of other days, but they had been converted into the base use of a cow stable, or a shelter for waggons and farm implements during the winter. Their successors were, with very few exceptions, wooden structures, clap- boarded, and painted either yellow or red. The majority, however, never received any touching up from the painter's brush, and as the years rolled on became rusty and gray from the beating of winter's storms and the heat of summer's sun. The interior rarely displayed any skill in arrangement or design. The living rooms were generally of goodly size, with low ceilings, but the sleeping rooms were invariably small, with barely room enough for a large high-posted bedstead, and a space to undress in. The exterior was void of any architectural embellishment, with a steep roof pierced by dormer windows. The kitchen, which always seemed to me like an after-thought, was a much lower part of the structure, welded on one end or the other of the main body of the house, and usually had a roof projecting some distance over one side, forming "the stoop." In very many cases, the entrance to the spacious cellar, where the roots, apples, cider, and other needs of the household were kept, was from this through a trap door, so that in summer or winter the good wife had actually to go out of doors when anything was required for the table, and that was very often. It really seemed as though the old saying of "the longest way round is the shortest way home" entered not only into the laying out of highways, but into all the domestic arrangements. Economy of time and space, convenience, or anything to facilitate or lighten labour, does not appear to have occupied the thoughts of the people. Work was the normal condition of their being, and, as we see it now, everything seems to have been so arranged as to preclude the possibility of any idle moments. At the end of the kitchen was invariably a large fire-place, with its wide, gaping mouth, an iron crane, with a row of pothooks of various lengths, from which to suspend the pots over the fire, and on the hearth a strong pair of andirons, flanked by a substantial pair of tongs and a shovel. During the winter, when the large back-log, often as much as two men could handle, was brought in and fixed in its place, and a good forestick put on the andirons, with well-split maple piled upon it and set ablaze with dry pine and chips, the old fire-place became aglow with cheerful fire, and dispensed its heat through the room. But in extremely cold weather it sometimes happened that while one side was being roasted the other was pinched with cold. At one side of the fire-place there was usually a large oven, which, when required, was heated by burning dry wood in it, and then the dough was put into tin pans and pushed in to be baked. Sometimes the ovens were built on frames in the yard, and then in wind or storm the baking had to be carried out doors and in. Every kitchen had one or more spacious cupboards; whatever need there was for other conveniences, these were always provided, and were well filled. The other rooms of the house were generally warmed by large box stoves. The spare bedrooms were invariably cold, and on a severe night it was like undressing out of doors and jumping into a snowbank. I have many a time shivered for half an hour before my body could generate heat enough to make me comfortable. The furniture made no pretensions to artistic design or elegance. It was plain and strong, and bore unmistakable evidence of having originated either at the carpenter's bench or at the hands of some member of the family, in odd spells of leisure on rainy days. Necessity is axiomatically said to be the mother of invention, and as there were no furniture makers with any artistic skill or taste in the country, and as the inclination of the people ran more in the direction of the useful than the ornamental, most of the domestic needs were of home manufacture. I have a clear recollection of the pine tables, with their strong square legs tapering to the floor, and of how carefully they were scrubbed. Table covers were seldom used, and only when there was company, and then the cherry table with its folding leaves was brought out, and the pure white linen cloth, most likely the production of the good wife's own hands, was carefully spread upon it. Then came the crockery. Who can ever forget the blue-edged plates, cups and saucers, and other dishes whereon indigo storks and mandarins, or something approaching a representation of them, glided airily over sky- blue hills in their pious way from one indigo pagoda to another. These things I have no doubt, would be rare prizes to Ceramic lovers of the present day. The cutlery and silver consisted mostly of bone-handled knives and iron forks, and iron and pewter spoons. On looking over an


Life in Canada Fifty Years Ago - 10/31

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