An 1861 Account of “A Week’s Ramble in the Woods North of Bobcaygeon”
March 13, 2023
The Bobcaygeon Road at Minden, circa 1900
Today it might seem strange that a century and a half ago, many people moved onto farm lots on the edge of the Canadian Shield in the hope of making a living through agriculture. Driving up Road 121 between Kinmount and Minden or Highway 35 from Minden to Dorset, not many people look out of their car windows and think, ‘If I owned that land, I would plow it up and plant a good crop of wheat!’
Hindsight can be 20/20. Today we can look back and see how many of the farms failed, but the social pressures of the day were very different than they are today. Expectations are a lot higher today. Up to the nineteenth century, when agriculture was mechanized, varieties of crops and breeds of livestock were improved and artificial fertilizer was invented, occasional famines were common in most of the world. Though farming was a tremendous amount of work, it was arguably a better profession than working in the factories—where employment standards were fundamentally different than today. In Britain at the time, tenants or farm labourers did much of work, and to be an independent farmer meant a degree of prosperity. There were far more people in Britain looking to farm, than there were plots available, and for those who were not wealthy, emigration was perhaps their best chance of working for themselves. In the age of the Great Famine (or as we call it the Irish Potato Famine), there was a much greater incentive to look for something better.
As many Britons invested what little money they had to cross the Atlantic, they were faced with a choice to remain in their own realm (Canada) or move to the republic next door (the United States). The case for staying in Canada was often advocated on the basis of politics, and then they would have many choices of where to settle in the British dominion. In the 1860s, the government of Canada West (Ontario) had noticed that settlement seemed to stall on the edge of the Canadian Shield, near the Kawartha Lakes. To encourage settlement further north, it built colonization roads to open up the edge of the Shield for agriculture. The Bobcaygeon Road, running north from that village, through Kinmount, Minden and Dorset, was one of the best known.
At the same time, the Prairies were being transformed into farm lots, and it was becoming popular wisdom that land was better out west. But the remaining lots in Ontario presented an alternative. Then as now, newspapers had a vested interest in promoting economic development, and at that time, attracting more settlers was something that just about everyone could agree would bring prosperity to the local business community.
Just about everything that was published framed farming on the Bobcaygeon Road in the rosiest terms possible: The quality of the land was superior; the beautiful waters were filled with fish; mill sites that were sure to bring prosperity could be acquired for next to nothing; and if a traveller along the road thought that the ground looked stony, it was only because the road was built on high, hence stony ground… the land further into the woods was of course better. Farming in Kinmount, Minden, or even Dorset, was portrayed as a the means to become a prosperous, independent farmer. By this time, it was often necessary to compare the region to the prairies, which were much better known.
By the 1860s, south central Ontario was no longer a principal centre of immigration for the continent as a whole, but as long as some emigrants could be persuaded to come, the new communities would develop, and it would benefit the established business communities further south. Some did succeed in making farms on the edge of the Canadian Shield, working in an era when farming was not yet mechanized. Many of the farms would subsequently prove unsuited to mechanized farming, others found that the soils that had been built up under thousands of years of forest growth deteriorated quickly once the land was cleared. As the years passed, many of the farms returned to forests.
One example of the local publications from the period that encouraged settlement on the Bobcaygeon Road:
A Week’s Ramble in the Woods North of Bobcaygeon
Originally Published in the Ontario Observer (Port Perry) November 21, 1861.
Monday – I traversed the front and front and east side of the Township of Verulam which lies on the north side [and south side] of Sturgeon Lake on the west side of the Bobcaygeon Road and joins the village of Bobcaygeon on the northwest. The land in this township is of a superior quality, being chiefly composed of a clay loam with a large quantity of limestone, but which in very few instances interferes with the operations of the industrious farmer. The Township is settled by a mixed population and is in a very prosperous condition.
Tuesday— My attention was directed to the free grants to actual settlers on the Bobcaygeon Road. This road commences at or near the Village of Bobcaygeon and runs north between the counties of Peterborough and Victoria, and crosses in its course the clear and healthy waters of the Burnt and Gull Rivers and innumerable other smaller streams of pure and limpid spring waters.
Wednesday – I travelled in company with the obliging Government Land Agent R[ichard] Hughes, Esq., of Bobcaygeon who is most indefatigable in the work of exploring and selecting good and productive farms for the emigrants.
Thursday – We started northwards from the Village of Minden which is a Government Reserve and will be sold by public auction on the 23rd of November in lots from an acre and to a half acre at an upset price of from $50 down to $20 depending on size and situation. The farm plot is situated on the Bobcaygeon Road in the Township of Minden at the junction with the Gull River and extends some distance on both sides of the said river. It has every appearance of a healthy situation and is in every respect calculated to be a place of much importance. There is no doubt that in the course of 4 or 5 years it will be established. The County Town of that new County which is within half a mile of that town plot, as is now laid out is one of the best water powers I ever saw. The supply of water is inexhaustible and the power more than equal to any amount of machinery that can be erected for years to come. The water in the river above the Falls is so situated that it can be brought into a flume at a trifling expense compared with that on small rivers in the Western part of Canada.
The water power is presently owned by a gentleman of the name of Cummings who is now engaged in erecting a very large flour and saw mill three storeys high. He intends to have it completed and in operation this coming winter. Permit me to join in the settlers in their oft repeated wishes for the success of Mr. Cummings’ noble enterprise. Although there are several grist and sawmills on the line of the road, yet the settlement is increasing so rapidly that there is ample room for others.
Friday – We went as far north as the junction with the Peterson Line, then east to the two lakes Little and Big Bush Nock [Boshkung]. From personal observation, and information from the surveyors and reliable sources, I am fully satisfied that this northern section of country will in a few years become wealthy and populous. On our return to the Village of Bobcaygeon as to the suggestion of my trusty pilot, Mr. Hughes, who never appears to feel fatigued as long as there is anything of interest to be shown, we visited the beautiful Falls on Burnt River, situated 2 ½ miles in a north easterly course from where the River crosses the Bobcaygeon Road [at Three Brothers Falls]. Mr. [William] Casey, who is in every respect well adapted to forward the settlement and progress of the new country own the neighbouring mill privileges. On my asking how much he would take for one of them, he replied frankly, ‘I’ll give it for a mere nominal sum to any man who will build an axe, furniture or woollen factory so as to benefit the settlers,” adding “try and find me such a man.” Allow me to say to those who may think of engaging in any of the foregoing branches of business that I do not know of a better opening. The country is selling fast, the land and timber around is of a superior quality, in consequence of the natural advantages both as regards water power and rotation and Mr. Casey’s determination to push it forward. I have not the slightest doubt that in a few years it will become a town of no small importance. I would here suggest that the name North Briton be given to the place as soon as the mills commence operation and that it may be called North Briton Mills. After having partaken of some refreshments and giving our friend Mr. Casey, a hearty shake of the hand, my faithful pilot, Mr. Hughes, led the way homeward.
The general appearance of the country, the land on both sides of the Bobcaygeon Road, with few exceptions, looks very rough and stoney, the limestone predominating. On close examination I found that the road for some reason was run on the highest point of land, consequently the most stoney. I invariably found that only a short distance on either side of the road there is good land. Allow me here to advise those who may hereafter go to this neighbourhood in search of land not to be afraid to go into the woods as I did, most agreeably disappointed (pleasantly surprised?).
The crops on the Bobcaygeon road, having personally examined all the different kinds of Spring crops raised on this road and its vicinity during the previous year, I am prepared to say are a good average crop and superior in many instances to those grown in the western section of Upper Canada. The soil seems admirably adapted to the luxuriant growth of wheat, oats, potatoes, etc.
I may safely say that I never saw people look more healthy in any country, not even excepting Ireland. The settlers all along the road and vicinity speak very encouraging of their success. For instance, when asked the question ‘how are you getting along, they invariably answer with energy “I am doing first rate.” Then they proceed to tell the story of their early settlement.
Those who settled on the roads first would say ‘only three years ago I came here with barely a dollar in my pocket, a wife and a family of from three to ten children, as the case may be, now I have 25 acres cleared and under crop and a good comfortable house and barn built. Some settlers have as many as 45 acres cleared and good comfortable dwelling houses and barns erected on them. And then they will add ‘I had to work on the Government roads at first to get money to buy flour and other necessaries for my family, but now thank goodness I am able to remain on my farm which will be a home for myself and family and now I feel independent.
Others, although they have only been here two years, and some but one year, say that they are getting on well and speak encouragingly of their prospects. One person, an Englishman, who moved in last spring and settled near the Gull River with a family of ten children and to whom my attention was drawn by seeing so many fine healthy children running around his shanty and to whom after the customary salutations had passed, I remarked that he must have a great amount of moral courage to come so far back in the woods with a large family. He replied in style which clearly proved that he had not suffered from those summer diseases which afflict the Western settler, namely bilious fever, fever and ague, etc. A man is always courageous when he is doing well for himself and his family. Then addressing the Crown Land Agent, he said, all I want now is to get 100 acres of land for each of my boys. Mr. Hughes, the Land Agent, replied that he would be happy to render him all the assistance in his power.
After bidding our interesting friend a hearty farewell we proceeded onward fully satisfied that prosperity never fails to crown the efforts of such men. On my return to the Village of Bobcaygeon, I was surprised when looking over the County Land Agent’s book which shows the number of people that are daily moving to this section of the country to observe the names of so many who are well acquainted with a great many parts of Canada but prefer this part for its pure and healthy atmosphere, rich and productive soil, at only 70c per acre, large and beautiful lakes and rivers of pure and wholesome water which abound with fish of the best quality and of great variety such as maskanonge [muskie], salmon, speckled trout and whitefish of a superior quality, together with all the minor grades which abound in these waters. They are easily obtained and are a staple commodity of everyday life. When laying all these matters I was forcibly led to the conclusion that with so many natural advantages and a fair share of perseverance and industry exercised by the settlers, this part of the country will shortly become what nature intended it to be, the pride of Upper Canada. I am pleased in pointing out to the immigrant where he may find a cheap and permanent home.