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Economics of North Victoria County, Ontario Canada

The block of territory formed by the seven northern townships is thus seen to be a rugged tract of glacial rock. The southern two-fifths is made up of Paleozoic limestone of the Black River series, pitilessly scraped and scoured by the Ice Age and even yet lacking more than a thin mantle of soil, except in stream valleys. The remaining three-fifths of North Victoria lies within that vast granite region, which is known as the "Laurentian peneplain," a low, table land of primeval rock on which streams have etched countless depressions and left innumerable rounded hills and ridges. On this area Dr. A. P. Coleman, the venerable Professor of Geology in the University of Toronto, has rendered the following verdict: "The combination of kames (hills of sand, gravel, and boulders) with pure sand deposits, through which rise hills of the harder Archaean rocks, makes a region entirely unsuited for agriculture and useful only for forest growth. The result of glacial action north of the Paleozoic rocks has been the formation of poor soils deficient in lime and often in clayey constituents."

Not a Mining Country

The forms of activity in which the people of North Victoria have sought to engage are three: mining, farming and lumbering. It will be instructive to take these industries one at a time and consider their past and their prospective development.

Mining enterprises have always colored the dreams of the settlers, but the dreams have never endured in daylight. Laxton township once had its gold rush and the ruins of an abandoned mine may still be seen on the west shore of Big Mud Turtle Lake, not far from Norland. Mineral rod men and amateur assayers also vouched for gold on Lot 1, Concession XI, Somerville township, adjacent to the Bobcaygeon road and four miles south of Kinmount. Still another gold strike was reported from Lot 25, Concession XII, Dalton township, along the Black River, about six miles below Ragged Rapids. Silver, nickel, iron, and copper were likewise objects of a faith which, among many back woodsmen, remains unshaken to this day.

For critical outsiders, however, all debate was permanently set at rest by a survey made in 1892 by the Federal Department of Mines. Iron pyrite was found in great abundance but there was not even a trace of gold. Silver and copper were also utterly lacking. Iron ore, occurring in granite veins, was found in hundreds of places, especially in Digby and Dalton townships. The heaviest deposits were near Smudge Lake, in Digby. In no case, however, were the findings sufficient to be of economic value. The presence of nickel in Somerville had already been recognized and the abundance of pyrrhotite, its customary concomitant in the great Sudbury deposits, had led to frequent comparisons of the two areas. A careful examination of Somerville, however, showed that no parallel existed. The ores at Sudbury had occurred in great diorite intrusions near their contact with granite or with the stratified rocks of the district, which were of Huronian age, while those in Somerville occurred as impregnations in bands of gneiss belonging to the Grenville series. The two sets of deposits were thus quite different in mode of occurrence and probably in age and what had been proved to be true of the former could not be taken for granted in the latter. Careful assays from every known deposit in the township confirmed this conclusion. Nickel was present ' but in such minute quantities as to be of no economic value. The most promising discovery of the whole survey was a small vein of pure molybdenite in Digby on Lot 16, Concession VII, four miles north of Head Lake. The somewhat rare mineral allanite was located on Lot 25, Concession XII, Dalton township. In neither case, however, was commercial development warrantable.
The overwhelming conclusion to be drawn from the report of the official survey is that little mineral development may ever be looked for in North Victoria.

Farming a Precarious Calling

The status of farming in the granite area may be inferred from Professor Coleman's report on its soil. In the limestone area conditions are slightly better, for the chemical composition of the soil is more favorable, but there is seldom sufficient depth for crops except in the flood plains and terraces of the valleys of the Burnt River, Corben Creek, Gull River, Talbot River, and Head River. These more propitious sections are, however, very limited.

Most of those who took up land in North Victoria were attracted by its forest resources more than by its agricultural possibilities; and all depended on the forest for such temporary prosperity as was theirs. Fully seventy-five per cent of the lots were patented when the patentee had the right to all timber including pine. The potential wealth of this timber was considerable but when this disappeared the settler had to fall back on farming on poor land. Even then, so long as lumbering thrived in nearby areas and provided a home market for farm produce, the backwoods agriculturalist could raise enough potatoes, oats, hay and meat to make a living. The final extinction of local lumbering spelt failure for many farmers. A region of non-agricultural soils was called on to compete, unaided, in more distant markets for farm products, and much of the area could scarcely raise enough to keep its inhabitants alive.

The results have been a slow tragedy. Many of the younger and more enterprising men moved out. Many others would have followed, but could not, because of poverty. Even today the movement goes on and in 1920 a general migration from the Kinmount section to Kapuskasing, in New Ontario, was planned.

It will be noted that while South Victoria reached its maximum population in the early eighties, North Victoria, being settled much later, did not attain. the peak until about fifteen years later. Since then it has declined rapidly. The loss since 1901 has been 1222 or more than one-quarter of its population. Further, while in South Victoria the decrease in population has meant a reduction not in the number of farms but in the number of people occupying them, in North Victoria farms have been completely abandoned, often without finding any purchaser.

The condition, too, of those who have remained is often pitiable. There are, of course, occasional good farms along the valleys in the front ranges, but in some of the remoter sections the pressure of stark want is bringing about much social degeneracy. Physical and mental defectives are becoming commoner and moral disintegration often calls for the intervention of the Children's Aid Society. The fault in these matters does not lie with the people but with the conditions under which they attempt to secure a livelihood. The original settlers were an energetic, hard working, resourceful people, sprung from the finest pioneer stock in the older counties of Ontario. But in many cases they now face an impossible proposition. The amount of energy expended in trying to make a living in this area has been enormous ,and if applied under half tolerable conditions would have shamed by its achievements the self satisfied prosperity of more favored regions. The modern urban dweller with his shortened hours and extended relaxations cannot imagine the dreary hopelessness of trying to wring agricultural returns from soil that is good only for forest. Even the hard working farmer of South Victoria would find it hard to realize the extremities endured in the northern townships. As a minor indication of conditions it may be mentioned that in one section of Somerville the school tax alone, irrespective of all other levies, is 52.8 mills on the dollar. When we remember that the school tax in Lindsay is only 13.3 mills, we may realize how these northern farmers are bleeding themselves white in an attempt to provide their children with education. The simple truth is that the land, treated as farming country, will not support them.

At the present time dairying is the chief farm industry. In the granite region the only crops are hay and oats and there is a struggle for each farmer to get enough of these for his own use. As the number of cattle that a man can winter is controlled by his summer crop and as a dry season means poor crops on the shallow, sandy soil, natural meadows and marshes are sought out and all available marsh hay harvested. Rough grazing land is fairly plentiful and is a distinct aid to dairying and ranching. Many farmers in South Victoria now pasture their herds each summer on abandoned farms in North Victoria and bring them home to winter on ensilage, a system which permits more intensive and profitable farming in the south. The dairying industry now supports two creameries, one at Coboconk and one at Kinmount. Improved methods of farming, such as more deliberate manuring of land and rotation of crops, would doubtless better many parts of North Victoria, but by far the greater portion of the region is utterly unsuited for agriculture.

An Era of Lumbering Now Past

Lumbering was the supreme industry of earlier times but is now moribund through the sheer blind improvidence of those who took part in it. The record of carelessness and wanton destructiveness left by many who made their fortunes in North Victoria sixty years ago is a reproach to our race that will be hard to remove. It can, however, be palliated by an intelligent administration of the ravaged wilderness which has been left to our generation.

In 1850 all of North Victoria was covered with primeval forest. Of this original sylva, fully two-thirds was magnificent white pine and the other one-third pure hardwood, chiefly maple and beech. From 1850 to 1880 the forest was slashed away in reckless fashion. The coniferous areas especially were cut practically clean in the process of lumbering, although only the largest and choicest trees were utilized. The commercial output, even down through the seventies, ran into tens of millions of feet . in sawlogs and unrecorded harvests of square timber, yet the potential value destroyed in the younger trees was probably far greater. On the most glaringly non-agricultural soils no thought was ever given to a future forest crop; no saplings were left to replenish the region; and fires, kindled by carelessness or ignorance, swept away even the seedlings that might have redeemed the slaughter.

The results are very evident today. Illuminating figures for Somerville township , are on record in a survey report made by the Commission of Conservation. Only 27.3% of the township consists of cleared farm land; 61.9% is burnt over land; and a scant 10.8% is forested. Of this latter fraction, about one-ninth, or 1.3 % of the whole area, is coniferous forest, (cedar, balsam, swamp, spruce, and tamarack), and the other 9.5% is hardwood and mixed forest. All of this wooded remnant has been pitilessly culled over and little of real value left. No forest containing sawlogs remained.

For this northern region as a whole the Commission reported that the white pine had been all but annihilated and the other trees of the area more or less severely culled; and that the pineries had
been burnt over at least once and in most places several times. Nearly two-thirds of the pine grounds had been burnt over two or three times and were beyond natural recuperation. The fire not only consumed what scanty young growth had been left after lumbering. Where the soil was thin, especially along the rock ridges, it destroyed the humus enirely. It also burnt up all seeds of the white pine, and, as fortuitous reseeding from adjacent pineries was limited to the distance that cones could fall and roll, almost all natural reforestration had been established by the wind blown seed catkins of poplars and birches. As a result, 57.3% of the present forested area was now poplar and another 33% hardwoods.

Reforestration Needed

A definite policy of reforestration would seem the part of wisdom. We have already seen that mining has no future and agriculture a precarious outlook in North Victoria. In seven townships there are tracts comprising more than two hundred square miles which have been classed as waste land, available for reforestration. Much of this land will be replanted by natural means, but with trees of inferior value. All areas, however, stand in constant danger of fire, and unless the administration of such tracts is taken over on a large scale, preferably under municipal management, no adequate fire protection can be hoped for.

A more detailed discussion of this problem will be undertaken in a later chapter. It will suffice here to suggest the value of profiting by past mistakes and of seeking by prudent stewardship to reestablish the ruined prosperity of half a county. There is no reason why the bulk of these northern townships should not constitute forest reserves that might be drawn on in perpetuity and add greatly to the permanent wealth of the county.

A Resort for Recreation

Nor is material gain the only argument in favor of a rehabilitation of North Victoria. Because of the pace of modern urban civilization the forests have become increasingly important as recreation grounds and as sanitary and health resorts. Even now our county affords a magnificent field for the sportsman and camper to range over. There are some sixty lakes in the Northern townships, varying in size from tarns of a few acres in the Longford granite to the blue expanse of Balsam Lake, nine miles in length and five in breadth. The altitude, in no case less than 840 feet above sea level, ensures cool summer nights even when Toronto swelters most desperately. But under a system of forestration and forest protection, every year would add to the beauty and healthfulness of these northern resorts, until we could point with pride to what would be not only perennial sources of revenue but regions of natural paradise where the ailing and the over wrought might find rest and healing.

Recapitulation

Such then is North Victorian territory where the spoliation of a glorious forest has left a waste devoid of minerals and barren under the farmer's toil, yet where the future holds the hope of valleys roamed by hundreds of grazing herds, of forests tended and profitable, and of a refuge sought continually by the weary and heavy laden.

Victoria County, Ontario Canada Centennial History, Watson Kirkconnell M.A., 1921

Victoria County


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