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Muskoka Settlers Adapted To Bush Farming by Changing Just About Everything

Article by J. Patrick Boyer

For centuries, Muskoka has sustained people whose relationship with the land and evolving farming practices are a testament to human adaptability.

 For a period to the 1860s, for instance, the face of Muskoka farming was communal. Families dwelling in log homes near water cultivated beans, squash, corn, potatoes and other crops in surrounding clearings, following traditional practices with seeds, planting, watering and harvesting. They added meat from nearby forests, fish from adjacent waters. Shallow lakes rimmed with “wild rice” bushes they harvested from canoes, storing the abundant grain for winter eating. Other bushes and ground plants yielded berries enjoyed in season, and also dried for winter.

 These holistic practices for farming and sustaining life, embedded in Ojibwe culture, meant sharing with each other and with nature what the Creator of both made possible. Farming, food preparation, hunting and fishing followed methods transmitted through teaching and doing, from generation to generation.

The Obajewanung villagers alongside the Baisong Rapids, and other Ojibwe families at island farms on the adjacent lakes, adapted with change. When iron and steel tools became available through trade, they were incorporated into traditional practices. When the government forcibly relocated them in the 1860s from ideal Muskoka lands to Georgian Bay, they adapted their practices to rocky and less hospitable Parry Island, persevering against the elements and, ultimately, overcoming debilitating government controls that impeded farming.

The settlers displacing the Ojibwe were also government pawns. They arrived in Muskoka along government-built colonization roads to claim “free” land the government offered as incentive to move into the territory and “owned” a rectangle of it marked out by government surveyors. After 1868, they acquired ownership doing what the government required of them, under the Free Grant and Homestead Act, by cutting away the trees, building a home and cultivating the land.

 This new wave of settlers hoped to cash in on a promise the government and its immigration agents were aggressively promoting through speeches, advertisements in American and British newspapers, and the booklet Emigration to Canada: The Province of Ontario, distributed widely in 1869 to publicize Muskoka’s glowing agricultural prospects. Prospective homesteaders, like people today buying lottery tickets, fanaticized how their 100 acres of “free” land would be a ticket to personal self-sufficiency.

Settlers loathe hypocritical and exploitative fees

Loggers had already begun moving like irregular armies through Muskoka’s deep pine forests. For 10,000 years, since the last ice age, these woods smoothly carpeted the Canadian Shield’s rugged rocks and ravines. Everywhere on these clear-cut lands, thin soils began eroding. Newly exposed bedrock blinked at sunlight for the first time in millennia.

Into the 1870s, loggers felled the giant white pines by axe, for although the concept of a cross-cut saw was known, improvements in blade design and construction were needed before saws could be used with success. When that day arrived, pairs of men would saw all day, one at each end of the blade, cutting high enough to not bend, sparing their backs. Since logging in winter was not only free of blackflies but atop several feet of snow, that left Muskoka thick with solid, pitch-filled stumps three or four feet high which lasted for decades, some still visible in sections of Muskoka, today. 

Homesteaders and loggers hacked out countless clearings across Muskoka’s forested landscape. The place was piled with logs, littered in slash and dotted by brush piles. Logs awaited winter roads when teams of horses could pull them to rivers, to float downstream in spring to saw mills where the water’s plunging power had been harnessed to spin the circular saw blade and make needed lumber.

Homesteaders used their first several 100 logs to build a cabin, barn, shed and outhouse. The other logs were surplus. Georgian Bay Lumber Company and other lumbering concerns created a market for these logs by paying homesteaders $1 per thousand feet for logs dumped on the river but helpful only to settlers close to a logging road or river.

However, the Free Grant and Homestead Act stipulated all pine trees on a settler’s property belonged to the Crown. Government foresters roamed Muskoka counting all stumps to levy royalty fees, trees cut by homesteaders the same as pine timber taken by lumber contractors. To government, a stump was a stump was a stump. Prized revenue from the hinterland was extracted from the irate settlers. Their land might be free but not what was on it.

Such a contradictory government policy was one thing struggling homesteaders were loathe to accept. Their bitterness over this unexpected financial imposition erupted into a “timber dues protest.” They impressed upon A.P. Cockburn, Muskoka’s representative in Ontario’s legislature and a major lumberman himself, they were not logging companies levelling virgin stands of white pine, pocketing money and leaving a clear-cut wasteland like he and other lumber barons. As pioneer settlers, they were working hard to clear trees for farms, as required by government to qualify for their “free” land. Imposing stumpage fees, they said, was both hypocritical and exploitative.

Destroying Muskoka crops of white pine

The legislature amended the Act to resolve the standoff. All pines would remain Crown property but royalties for felling them no longer applied, if a settler clearing his land used the wood for a dwelling, fencing or fuel. That gave settlers something they could accept.

Hundreds of Muskoka homesteaders used the “fuel” loophole by burning their logs. In a staggering waste of exceptional wood, another consequence of government policy, log burning became standard practice for homesteaders anxious to begin farming. Large burns proved a quick “solution,” and not only for splendid logs. Everything else – from the slash, brush and chips, to deadwood on the forest floor – would be incinerated, too. 

A “burn” was no campfire but a blast furnace with intense heat that took on a combustion force of its own, a firestorm. Creating one took real know-how. Like barn raising, a burn required help of experienced neighbours. They piled up tree trunks like a loosely built log cabin, creating rows of hollow squares in the clearing. They threw inside all nearby easy-burning softwood slash, mostly pine, hemlock, and cedar. Other boughs and winter-dried branches from hardwoods, such as maple and oak, were piled on top of these squares, like roofs. In the twilight, the clearing now resembled a primitive village.

 Next, they arranged more of the brush into windrows between the log structures, using treetops, lighter boughs and underbrush. They found a place for everything, mixing evergreen and hardwood so the burn would catch in the dry needles and then take hold in the solid wood. The piles also had to be loose enough, and set cross-wise, so the wind could fan the flames.

Veteran homesteaders, impassive and waiting, said nothing – hoping to enjoy a spectacle. Sections of Muskoka had been heavily burned over by rampaging forest fires and that was a feared consequence of the “burn.” After an hour or more, a forceful explosion swooshed upward with a roaring blast. The updraft turned the entire clearing into a single, noisy inferno. Flames raced high into the sky, burning embers and black chunks of wood ascending with them, as if shot from a cannon. For hours the noise and heat roared from the opening in the forest. At dusk the biggest charred logs were still smouldering. Another Muskoka homesteader was a giant step closer to having a field to plant.

For many, without stump-filled clearings burned out, first plantings were around the stumps, using pointed sticks as tools to open the ground for seeds.

Farmers kept busy harvesting boulders

Many homesteaders used more durable oxen rather than horses for the strenuous work of expanding their fields, removing stumps and tilling ground. Most then had to adapt to another hurdle.

Cramped farm fields, cleared of forests and free of stumps, next began to sprout rocks. Seasonal ploughing and winter’s frost worked boulders to the surface. Homesteaders spent time harvesting, not vegetables but stones. Their horses pulled, not wagons loaded with hay to sell to a livery stable, but stone-boats loaded with rocks to the edge of their fields.

Field stone became a handy building material – piled up as barriers at the perimeter of fields, for walls of root cellars and wells, and constructing barn foundations. But many settlers had a surfeit of large stones and the effort hauling them off the field was so great they made mounds throughout their fields, a series of rock pile islands. On some farms after several years, these piles resembled taunting grave markers, monuments in the burial ground of a homesteader’s earlier aspirations. Those who persisted just quipped, if asked what crops they had, “I’m growing stones!”

Pioneers’ hard work and heartbreak suggested to some that Muskoka should never have been promoted for agricultural development but the late 1800s was hard for those settling the Prairies where buffalo grass roots tangled for six feet down, or dry sections of Australia which withered every crop. Thomas McMurray, who promoted Muskoka settlement, offered settlers “practical experience” guidance, but it was for what he plainly called “bush farming” – and they came.

Muskoka was filling with pioneer farmers. By 1877, Macaulay Township, out of which Bracebridge grew, was all taken up except for five of the most marginal lots.

Adapting well to “bush farming” realities

The notion that bountiful crops were impossible in Muskoka all depended on the farmer, the farm and the produce in question.

Muskoka suffered from a narrow idea of what constituted “agricultural production.” By adapting to Muskoka’s potential for crops, homesteaders outdistanced farmers from Simcoe to Middlesex counties with bountiful yields of maple sugar, maple syrup, wool, lamb and mutton, tan bark, logs, and mixed-farm production of vegetables, fruits, chickens, eggs, pork, and milk products, including butter and cheese.

Formation of agricultural societies in Severn Bridge, Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, Baysville, Huntsville and Rosseau helped develop better strains of crops, newer techniques in animal husbandry and improved yields. Their fall fairs, by establishing well-attended public venues for farmers to display their animals and produce, and farm wives their baking and sewing, encouraged higher quality produce and better bred livestock. Fostering competition, the fairs also advanced household arts in baking, pickling, making preserves, churning butter, sewing, quilting and knitting.

Muskoka Agricultural Society officers displayed prize-winning produce from fairs in all sections of the district at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition, Ottawa’s Central Canada Exhibition, and fairs at Owen Sound and Barrie.

“It was difficult,” wrote agricultural society president James Boyer to his wife Hannah from Toronto, “to make some of the CNE visitors believe that grapes (Lindley or Rogers No. 9), some bunches of which weighed 1¼ pounds each, were grown in the open air of Muskoka.” One of the samples of wheat grown on light, sandy soil in Macaulay was sold at the CNE’s close to an American for $1, “a very good price.”

“Our Duchess apples are not beaten by any that are exhibited prizes. Both the Globe and the Mail wanted to be paid to puff our exhibit, but we refused to pay them one cent.”

Muskokans would not adapt to hard-bitten reporters, either.

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