Old Stories of Kinmount’s McMahon Family
February 3, 2024
A Flood on the Bobcaygeon Road at Kinmount, 1928 - About the time William John McMahon was visiting
By Ted Thomson
Edited by Guy Scott
The McMahon Family moved from Cavan Township to Ewan (on the Galway Road) in the 1870s. William John McMahon arrived in Galway Township with four sons, who all claimed 200 acres each under the Homestead Act (1868). The McMahons moved to Saskatchewan around 1911. The eldest son was William James McMahon. He resided along the Galway Road for 40 years before moving to Perdue, Saskatchewan. The ‘Dirty 30s’ or the Great Depression hit the family hard, and he and his wife ‘retired’ back east to live with his eldest daughter Eliza Switzer at White Lake. William James died in 1947 at the age of 87. His great-grandson Ted Thomson recorded some of his ‘tales’ of life at White Lake.
William James loved to ‘spin’ stories to anyone willing to listen, and especially to the city slickers who visited during the summer months. These vacationers seemed to congregate at the Switzers, especially around meal time. After meal time there would be the opportunity to engage in conversation with William James, which he loved—especially if the conversation involved religion or politics. He loved to debate, or in his own words ‘to agree.’ Grandpa Switzer subscribed to at least three daily newspapers: the Toronto Globe, the Toronto Mail and Empire, and one of the Ottawa papers. As well he subscribed to the Family Herald and the Weekly Star, which were rural-oriented publications. William James had failing eye-sight and ‘selective’ hearing problems. Despite this, he read the various papers from beginning to end. I was intrigued by how close he held the paper to his face. He wore eyeglasses to read, but I suspect they were only of the ‘drug store variety.’ His memory was phenomenal and his mind sharp and clear. Great Grandpa had many stories relating to his own and his son Frank’s physical strength.
“Now my son Frank was a strong boy. He was so strong he could stand inside a cauldron kettle, grab it by the lugs, and lift himself right off the ground!!! Heh, heh, heh!” The listener would be in awe of this story, and I am sure believed it, until with sober second thought would realize the impossibility of what they had heard.
“Now I had a trip line when I lived at Ewan. This trap line for mink, muskrat or beaver was laid out along the shore of Swamp (Crystal) Lake. When I had to tend the trap line, my son Frank would go with me. Prior to one such trip, he said his snowshoe was broken. As I was already late getting started, there was no time for me to help him fix it, and Frank was very upset with me because I wouldn’t wait for him. Well, I put on my snowshoes and left to begin my rounds. After about an hour on the trail, I was beginning to get awfully tired—my snowshoes seemed to be terribly heavy, so I stopped to rest, and lo and behold, there was Frank; he had been riding on the back of one of my snowshoes for over an hour! Heh, heh, heh!”
The 12-mile trip (White Lake) to Kinmount was a fairly simple trip during the few months when the roads were passable for an automobile, but for the long winter months from November through May, the roads were only passable by horse and cutter, or by sleigh pulled by a team of horses. There were times when the trip to town had multiple purposes—grocery purchasing and having the horses shod at the blacksmith shop in Kinmount. The trip each way would take 2 hours. The team driver would sit on a wide plank placed across the box frame. A buffalo robe, thrown over the knees of the driver, was the only protection from the severe cold—sometimes 30 degrees below zero. Any passengers could burrow into the hay or straw thrown in the sleigh box behind the driver—or if they were lucky, there may be another buffalo robe or horse blanket to help ward off the cold. Even then the driver may be forced to disembark and walk behind the sleight box, and letting the horses continue on auto-pilot. By doing this the driver could get warmed up a bit. It was often a long, cold drive, and a real test of endurance, but that was necessary for survival.
It was well known that if mention was made of an impending trip to town within earshot of William James, he would want to go, no matter what the weather conditions were. He insisted on riding up front (shot gun) beside the driver. While the driver may find it necessary to walk behind for a spell to warm up, William James sat tight! Upon arrival in Kinmount, after sitting for up to 2 hours sometimes in minus zero temperatures, he would stand up, putting his hand over the edge of the sleigh box, propel himself over the edge, land squarely on his feet, and walk into the barber shop, which was always his first stop. People marvelled at his agility—he was nearly 90 years of age at the time.
His second purpose in town was to have a ‘schooner’ of beer at the hotel beer parlour, while he waited for the long, cold ride home. At some stage he would go to the grocery store and get stocked up on chewin’ tobacco for himself, and licorice candy pipes for me. I always awaited with great anticipation his first visit after he had made a trip to town. He would keep the treat in a white candy bag in his vest pocket and dole one out to me each time I visited; no doubt quite frequently! Those licorice pipes were shaped like a curved smoker’s pipe with little red candy beads on top.
The plugs of tobacco were always a source of aggravation for his daughter. On the other hand, it was a curiosity to me. When he found the build up of tobacco juice in his mouth required disposal, he would go to the kitchen stove, lift a lid, and do his best to hit the hole with a stream of tobacco juice. As his eyesight was not good, his aim was not always accurate, and part of the stream would hit the stove top, and sizzle and sputter to extinction. This would upset Grandma immensely, but didn’t seem to stop the habit.
Although hard liquor was a rarity, and its use frowned upon, it was common practice to have a bottle on hand for medicinal purposes. Grandma kept a bottle of this ‘medicine’ on hand to dole out to William James, a shot at a time, on a daily basis. This practice may have been the forerunner of today’s routine of one low-dose aspirin a day to help with poor circulatory problems, or in the lowering of blood pressure. She kept this bottle of ‘medicine’ in a cupboard in the kitchen, but eventually William discovered the hiding place and decided he needed an increased dosage on occasion. It was noticed that the medicine was disappearing more rapidly than it should. William James was confronted and gave neither a negative nor positive reply, but rather his trademark heh, heh, heh. She then relocated the medicine to a shelf leading to the cellar, but discovered later that he obviously found the new location. The treatment was then ended. It seems clear that when it came to important matters, his eyesight and hearing may have been much better than was thought.
On political matters, he and Great Grandma Sophia seemed to have opposite loyalties. It may have been a bit of a game he played to get a reaction from her. They were always eager to vote, and never missed an opportunity to do so. Having no transportation of their own, they were reliant on family to get them to the poll. I heard my dad comment it was a useless undertaking, because if they voted the way they sounded, they would be cancelling each other’s vote. It may well be it was only a game he was playing, because he liked to ‘argie’ and they may have voted the same way after all.
Kinmount Fair was an annual one-day event and was a must for everyone for miles around. One of the feature events was harness racing on the oval track in front of the grandstand. Each year a prize was awarded to the couple who had been married the longest—perhaps $5.00. William James and Sophia were winners every year! He was always prepared to give an “acceptance” speech from the little building across from the grandstand. This being before the era of P.A. systems, the only amplification for projecting his voice was by a device called a bullhorn. He began his speech with great volume and enthusiasm: “Ladies and Gentlemen—I was born in the year 1582…” and stopped, flustered by the mistake. Once the crowd picked up on the error, there was a ripple of laughter, which threw him off stride in delivering the rest of his speech!
William James’ frequent references about son Frank’s physical strength had an essence of truth. On one occasion he did carry a 100-pound bag of flour on his back for the 12 miles from Kinmount to White Lake!