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- Life in Canada Fifty Years Ago - 6/31 -


trap so as to catch the cunning beast. Many stories have I heard trappers tell of tricks played by Reynard, and how he had, night after night, baffled all their ingenuity, upset the traps, set them off, or removed them, secured the bait, and away. Another sport more largely patronized in the spring, because it brought something fresh and inviting to the table, was night-fishing. When the creeks were swollen, and the nights were calm and warm, pike and mullet came up the streams in great abundance. Three or four would set out with spears, with a man to carry the jack, and also a supply of dry pine knots, as full of resin as could be found, and cut up small, which were deposited in different places along the creek. The jack was then filled and lit, and when it was all ablaze carried along the edge of the stream, closely followed by the spearsman, who, if an expert, would in a short time secure as many fish as could be carried. It required a sharp eye and a sure aim. The fish shot through the water with great rapidity, which rendered the sport all the more exciting. All hands, of course, returned home thoroughly soaked. Another and pleasanter way was fishing in a canoe on the bay, with the lighted jack secured in the bow. While there its light shone for a considerable distance around, and enabled the fishers to see the smallest fish low down in the clear calm water. This was really enjoyable sport, and generally resulted in a good catch of pike, pickerel, and, very often, a maskelonge or two.

Early in the spring, before the snow had gone, the sugar-making time came. Success depended altogether upon the favourable condition of the weather. The days must be clear and mild, the nights frosty, and plenty of snow in the woods. When the time was at hand, the buckets and troughs were overhauled, spiles were made, and when all was ready the large kettles and casks were put in the sleigh, and all hands set out for the bush. Tapping the tree was the first thing in order. This was done either by boring the tree with an auger, and inserting a spile about a foot long to carry off the sap, or with a gouge-shaped tool about two inches wide, which was driven into the tree, under an inclined scar made with an axe. The spiles used in this case were split with the same instrument, sharpened at the end with a knife, and driven into the cut. A person accustomed to the work would tap a great many trees in a day, and usually continued until he had done two or three hundred or more. This finished, next came the placing and hanging of the kettles. A large log, or what was more common, the trunk of some great tree that had been blown down, would be selected, in as central a position as possible. Two crotches were erected by its side, and a strong pole was put across from one to the other. Hooks were then made, and the kettles suspended over the fire. The sap was collected once and sometimes twice a day, and when there was a good supply in the casks, the boiling began. Each day's run was finished, if possible, the same night, when the sugaring-off took place. There are various simple ways of telling when the syrup is sufficiently boiled, and when this is done, the kettle containing the result of the day's work is set off the fire, and the contents stirred until they turn to sugar, which is then dipped into dishes or moulds, and set aside to harden. Sometimes, when the run was large, the boiling continued until late at night, and, although there was a good deal of hard work connected with it, there was also more or less enjoyment, particularly when some half dozen merry girls dropped in upon you, and assisted at the closing scene. On these occasions the fun was free and boisterous. The woods rang with shouts and peals of laughter, and always ended by our faces and hair being all _stuck up_ with sugar. Then we would mount the sleigh and leave for the house. But the most satisfactory part of the whole was to survey the result of the toil in several hundred weight of sugar, and various vessels filled with rich molasses.

[Illustration: NIGHT FISHING IN THE CREEK.]

Now the hams and beef had to be got out of the casks, and hung up in the smoke-house to be smoked. The spring work crowded on rapidly. Ploughing, fencing, sawing and planting followed in quick succession. All hands were busy. The younger ones had to drive the cows to pasture in the morning and bring them up at night. They had also to take a hand at the old churn, and it was a weary task, as I remember well, to stand for an hour, perhaps, and drive the dasher up and down through the thick cream. How often the handle was examined to see if there were any indications of butter; and what satisfaction there was in getting over with it. As soon as my legs were long enough I had to follow a team, and drag in grain--in fact, before, for I was mounted on the back of one of the horses when my nether limbs were hardly long enough to hold me to my seat. The implements then in use were very rough. Iron ploughs, with cast iron mouldboards, shears, &c., were generally used. As compared with the ploughs of to-day they were clumsy things, but were a great advance over the old wooden ploughs which had not yet altogether gone out of use. Tree tops were frequently used for drags. Riding a horse in the field, under a hot sun, which I frequently had to do, was not as agreeable as it might seem at the first blush.

[Illustration: SUGAR MAKING.]

In June came sheep-washing. The sheep were driven to the bay shore and secured in a pen, whence they were taken one by one into the bay, and their fleece well washed, after which they were let go. In a few days they were brought to the barn and sheared. The wool was then sorted; some of it being retained to be carded by hand, the rest sent to the mill to be turned into rolls; and when they were brought home the hum of the spinning wheel was heard day after day, for weeks, and the steady beat of the girls' feet on the floor, as they walked forward and backward drawing out and twisting the thread, and then letting it run upon the spindle. Of course the quality of the cloth depended on the fineness and evenness of the thread; and a great deal of pains was taken to turn out good work. When the spinning was done, the yarn was taken away to the weaver to be converted into cloth. As I have said before, there were no drones in a farmer's house then. While the work was being pushed outside with vigour, it did not stand still inside. The thrifty housewife was always busy. Beside the daily round of cares that continually pressed upon her, the winter had hardly passed away before she began to make preparations for the next. There were wild strawberries and raspberries to pickle and preserve, of which the family had their share as they came, supplemented with an abundance of rich cream and sugar; and so with the other fruits in their turn. There was the daily task, too, of milking, and the less frequent one of making butter and cheese. The girls were always out in the yard by sunrise, and soon came tripping in with red cheeks and flowing pails of milk; and at sunset the scene was repeated. The matron required no nurse to take care of the children; no cook to superintend the kitchen; no chamber-maid to make the beds and do the dusting. She had, very likely, one or two hired girls, neighbours' daughters. It was quite common then for farmers' daughters to go out to work when their services could be dispensed with at home. They were treated as equals, and took as much interest in the affairs of the family as the mistress herself. The fact of a girl going out to work did not affect her position. On the contrary, it was rather in her favour, and showed that she had some ambition about her. The girls, in those days, were quite as much at home in the kitchen as in the drawing-room or boudoir. They could do better execution over a wash tub than at a spinet. They could handle a rolling pin with more satisfaction than a sketch book; and if necessity required, could go out in the field and handle a fork and rake with practical results. They were educated in the country school house--

"Beside yon straggling fence that skirts the way,"

with their brothers, and not at a city boarding school. They had not so much as dreamed of fashion books, or heard of fashionable milliners. Their accomplishments were picked up at home, not abroad. And with all these drawbacks, they were pure, modest, affectionate. They made good wives; and that they were the best and most thoughtful mothers that ever watched over the well-being of their children, many remember full well.

Country life was practical and plodding in those days. Ambition did not lure the husbandman to days of luxury and ease, but to the accomplishment of a good day's work, and a future crowned with the fruits of honest industry. If the girls were prepared for the future by the watchful care and example of the mothers, so the boys followed in the footsteps of their fathers. They did not look upon their lives as burdensome. They did not feel that the occupation of a farmer was less honourable than any other. The merchant's shop did not possess more attraction than the barn. Fine clothes were neither so durable nor so cheap as home-made suits. Fashionable tailors did not exist to lure them into extravagance, and the town-bred dandy had not broken loose to taint them with his follies. Their aspirations did not lead into ways of display and idleness, or their association to bad habits. They were content to work as their fathers had done, and their aim was to become as exemplary and respected as they were. It was in such a school and under such masters that the foundation of Canadian prosperity was laid, and it is not gratifying to the thoughtful mind, after the survey of such a picture, to find that although our material prosperity in the space of fifty years has been marvellous, we have been gradually departing from the sterling example set us by our progenitors, for twenty years at least. "Dead flies" of extravagance have found their way into the "ointment" of domestic life, and their "savour" is keenly felt. In our haste to become rich, we have abandoned the old road of honest industry. To acquire wealth, and to rise in the social scale, we have cast behind us those principles which give tone and value to position. We are not like the Israelites who longed for the "flesh pots" they had left behind in Egypt; yet when we look around it is difficult to keep back the question put by the Ecclesiast, "What is the cause that the former days were better than these?" and the answer we think is not difficult to find. Our daughters are brought up now like tender plants, more for ornament than use. The practical lessons of life are neglected for the superficial. We send our sons to college, and there they fly from the fostering care of home; they crowd into our towns and cities-- sometimes to rise, it is true, but more frequently to fall, and to become worthless members of society. Like the dog in the fable, we ourselves have let the substance drop, while our gaze has been glamoured by the shadow.

Early in July the haying began. The mowers were expected to be in the meadow by sunrise; and all through the day the rasp of their whetstones could be heard, as they dexterously drew them with a quick motion of the hand, first along one side of the scythe and then the other; after which they went swinging across the field, the waving grass falling rapidly before their keen blades, and dropping in swathes at their side. The days were not then divided off into a stated number of working hours. The rule was to begin with the morning light and continue as long as you could see. Of course men had to eat in those days as well as now, and the blast of the old tin dinner-horn fell on the ear with more melodious sound than the grandest orchestra to the musical enthusiast. Even "Old Gray," when I followed the plough, used to give answer to the cheerful wind of the horn by a loud whinny, and stop in the furrow, as if to say, "There now, off with my harness, and let us to dinner." If I happened to be in the middle of the field, I had considerable trouble to get the old fellow to go on to the end.

I must say a few words in this place about "Old Gray." Why he was always called "Old Gray" is more than I know. His colour could not have suggested the name, for he was a bright roan, almost a bay. He was by no means a pretty animal, being raw-boned, and never seeming to be in first-rate condition; but he was endowed with remarkable sagacity and great endurance, and was, moreover, a fleet trotter. When my father began the work for himself he was a part of his chattels, and survived his master several years. Father drove him twice to Little York one winter, a distance of over one hundred and fifty miles, accomplishing the trip both times inside of a week. He never would allow a team to pass him. It was customary in those days, particularly with youngsters


Life in Canada Fifty Years Ago - 6/31

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