An Agricultural History of Kinmount
January 29, 2023
With a Cat and Dog
By Guy Scott
Times have changed. In the pioneer era, agriculture was one of the leading industries in the Kinmount area. Ontario, indeed, all of North America, was considered to be farm country. Most of the settlers coming to Kinmount came to become farmers, carving out homesteads in the wild bush. Some of these farmers were inexperienced arrivals fresh from Europe and raised on farms “down south.” Now they were seeking their own homesteads in the “back country.”
Agriculture was Ontario’s number one industry for many years. Many would argue it still is. The settlers moving to Canada had one main goal: acquire some land and start their own farm. The British colonial authorities had all of Ontario carved into 100 or 200 acre lots for farms. It was (correctly) estimated a settler needed 20 acres for a viable farm. Many pioneers made do with 100 acres; the smaller acreage being more easily handled and cheaper to buy. By the opening of the Kinmount area, lot size was standardized at 100 acres. Somerville Township, surveyed in the 1830s, contained 200 acre lots, but the rest of the area was divided into long hundreds: ¼ mile wide x 5/8 mile deep. The entire area was surveyed in advance of settlement. Lots along the Bobcaygeon Road were free grants: free to any settler who resided upon the lot for 5 years, built a log house & cleared 10 acres. After the 5-year period, they could receive the deed. All other lots were to be sold: price 80 cents per acre with 25% down payment, the rest due in installments. It was hoped the government would make money from land sales and scare off speculators.
The system was a failure. Many settlers simply squatted on their lots. Others made the down-payment and refused to pay installments. Speculators (usually lumbermen) filed bogus claims just to strip the pine off the lots before moving on. Realising the policy was not achieving the desired results of putting real settlers on the land, the Government of Canada passed the Homestead Act in 1868 making 100 acres lots free to true settlers once they fulfilled the settlement duties outlined above. Settlement boomed as pioneer farmers claimed every lot in the area worth farming, and a number of lots totally unfit for farming! Within 30 years, every piece of potentially arable land was part of a farmstead. Looking back today, it is unbelievable some of the fields these poor souls laboriously cleared in their rush to become prosperous farmers. Land totally unfit for anything but frogs or mountain goats was cleared and farmed to some extent. The hard work these gallant axe men did for land totally unfit to be farmed defies logic today.
What kind of land were they clearing? Hardwood forests contained the best land. Pineries or softwood patches were usually poor land and swamps, marshes and low (undrained) land was avoided at all costs. One old farmer maintained there was no poor soil, just poor farmers. While he may have had a point, many pioneer families were quickly disappointed with their new farms and moved on in search of ‘greener pastures.’ In the 1870s, the American Midwest was a popular destination, especially Michigan, Kansas, Minnesota & the Dakotas. After 1900, the Canadian Prairies became the Land of Opportunity for the farmer. Land was cheap, it was great farmland and the new Canadian Pacific Railway meant easy accessibility. A ‘settler’s boxcar’ could be rented and these cars, packed with farm machinery, livestock and potential farmers were a common sight leaving Kinmount Rail Station for Western Canada and a new start. Towns such as Kindersley, Kinley (Saskatchewan) and Coleville (Alberta) were founded by mass migrations of Kinmount farmers. Almost every local family had members who migrated ‘out West’ in search of better farmland. For years, Harvest Excursion trains would carry Kinmount farmhands to the Prairies where they worked harvesting grain for their family and former neighbours. One Furnace Falls resident said he could walk all day on the prairie and never leave farms owned by Kinmount neighbours!
How did these pioneer farmers make a living? The primary purpose of every new settler in the area was to be self-sufficient. Once they were established, the farm family planned to raise all their own food, and produce most of the items they needed. The first objective was to build a small shanty for a home and clear a few acres for cropping. Potatoes could be easily grown among the stumps, as well as such garden vegetables as cabbage, tomatoes and cucumbers. Turnips, mandels [mangels] and pumpkins were grown for winter livestock feed. Every farm had a turnip pulper. The first crop was wheat or grain. It was sown & harvested by hand was carried to the grist mill at Kinmount & turned into flour. Any surplus wheat had cash value in the marketplace if transportation was available. In pre-1880 Ontario, wheat was the #1 export crop and every farmer aspired to grow as much grain as possible. Cattle, hogs and chickens were added to the inventory as soon as possible, but they required shelter and winter food. The second building on the farm was a log barn. Oxen were the poor-man’s beasts of burden until enough capital was accumulated for that romantic symbol of the prosperous farmer, the team of horses! Once livestock were acquired, fences were needed. And the problem of winter fodder had to be solved. Tame hay was best, but you had to have your fields clear of stumps & have machinery to harvest large quantities of hay. Many early farmers used natural beaver hay to feed the livestock over winter. It was not as nourishing as tame hay, but more readily available and easy to harvest. A good beaver meadow was an advantage to any farm operation, and farmers often travelled miles to harvest beaver hay.
The only necessities they could not produce were sugar, metal items, farm machinery & luxuries like fancy cloth, tea, glasswares, tin wares, etc. The pioneer farmer hoped he could sell a few items of farm produce for cash (or barter) to acquire these items. Grain, cattle or pigs, eggs, milk and forest products were the items that had cash value. The local lumbermen were always buying hay, oats and pork or beef for their shanties. The pioneer farmer could also earn some extra cash as a teamster, moving supplies into the camps. The lumberman would also hire local workers as shantymen who worked the winter in the camps, returning to the farm in the spring. Work could also be found in the local mills, but working away from the farm created problems as well. Time missed on the farm meant that farm labours went undone. Prosperous farmers didn’t work away, but stayed at home to improve their operations. Maybe that is why so many Kinmount farmers worked away.
Besides cattle & horses, most farmers kept pigs. Pork was a bigger part of the diet than beef. It was easier to manage, cheaper to produce, could be fed on scraps and was easier to preserve. The pork could be salted, smoked, dried or canned. Pigs were ready for butchering in a few months and the smaller yield was easily consumed before it spoiled. Many pioneer farmers kept a few sheep for their wool. It could be processed on-site and turned into homespun. But commercial fabrics such as cotton were not very expensive and soon replaced wool. Sheep were also vulnerable to predatory wolves and they were soon discontinued on area farms. Chickens were also popular, both for eggs and meat. Eggs could easily be sold in town. They were easy to handle and there was always a market.
And speaking of farming ‘in-town,’ many towns-folk followed the farm way as best they could. Rare was the town house that did not have a vegetable garden. Any photo of backyards in the village will also reveal numerous small sheds, barns and buildings. These had a reason: they could contain chickens, pigs, horses and even a milk cow. Towns folk were not above practicing a little back-yard farming in the age when a lot of items could not be readily purchased in the local store. And if you wanted to move around, horsepower was all you had in the pre-motor car age. All these creatures required housing and food, further enhancing the farmer’s value. Until the Great Fire of 1942 demolished the business, Hopkins & Marks ran a feed store on the Main Street.
After many years of hard toil, the settler had improved his farm. Any arable land was cleared, stumped and fenced. The local farmer had advanced beyond the subsistence stage and was now producing products for sale in the local economy. Kinmount was not a grain-growing area, but had acquired a reputation for potatoes and maple syrup. Livestock raising, especially beef cattle was popular. Cows could forage on rough and uncleared land, were easy to handle and actually could walk to market. The local farmer could raise a crop of calves, born in the spring and sold in the fall to travelling cattle buyers. The cattle could forage all over the area, and often abandoned marginal farms were turned into (summer) cattle ranches. The good land was kept for hay or grain crops. Cow/calf operations were popular for the second generation of farmers. They required more fencing, but the arrival of page wire and barbed wire fencing solved the fencing issue.
The growth in livestock numbers led to the need for larger barns. Large amounts of hay were required to feed the herd through the winter. This led to the erection of numerous ‘large’ barns on the more prosperous farms Their massive hay-mows held tons of hay under cover, while their basements provided animal shelter over the winter. The big barns could also store grain, machinery, and whatever else needed inside space. Where the pioneer farmer stored his hay outside, the next generation insisted it be kept inside. Cattle were ‘tied-up’ inside the barn, and rarely allowed to roam free outside. The pioneer farmer had also kept a few milk cows for his own use. If they could sell milk to the townsfolk, a few extra dollars could be made. In the early 1900s, cheese factories and creameries (for butter making) sprang up all over Ontario. They transformed (surplus) milk into easily handled milk products. Kinmount had a creamery which made butter. As a result, many local farmers kept several milk cows and every other day, the cream wagon/truck would do the rounds collecting the milk. Again, a few dollars earned.
Haying became the main harvest operation for the farmer. Tradition called for the start of harvesting hay at the start of July, but many farmers waited for the 12th of July to cut hay. Most Kinmount farmers only cut 1 crop of hay, so they were never in a hurry to start. Horse drawn mowers and rakes were a big step forward from scythes and hand-rakes. But all hay had to be forked manually onto the wagon and into the hay-mow until the arrival of that marvelous invention: the hay baler! Tractors gradually replaced the noble horse as the source of power, although many old-timers wistfully clung to their traditions. There was something about the noble horse that tugged at the farmers’ heart strings.
Grain production gradually decreased as livestock production increased. Wheat was discontinued soon after 1900, and the grist mill in Kinmount was closed. Oats became popular since they were used for livestock feed. Where once the grain was cradled and threshed by hand, mowers and threshing machines soon made the grain harvest less labour intensive. The threshers were steam powered and did the rounds of the area, travelling from farm to farm. The owner was responsible for harvesting the grain, the threshing crew just separated the grain from the stocks. It took a threshing machine, a steam engine, a water tank (for the engine) and a crew in excess of 10 men to work this operation. The farm wife was responsible for feeding this horde of hard working men, thus the term ‘fit for a threshing crew’ became used for a large, bountiful meal.
As times changed, the number of farmers in the Kinmount area, and indeed all over the Ottawa-Huron Tract, dwindled drastically. The marginal farms were no longer needed in the age of big-business farms. Most area farms were simply abandoned: their fields cleared with so much labour, returning to nature from whence they came. The rail fences sank into the ground, becoming lower and lower with each passing decade. And the noble barns, once the pride of any successful farmer, are slowly disappearing, victims of age, neglect and Mother Nature. The Great Tornado of 2005 alone demolished 6 barns. Soon there will be very few left, and like the rail fences, the last link of our farming heritage will be removed from the landscape. Kind’a sad when you think about it.