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Religions Life in Pioneer Times, Victoria County, Ontario Canada

The teacher, with his slender learning, commanded considerable respect, but the preacher had even greater prestige. Certainly he earned it. Churches were very few and very scattered. His circuit might extend for scores of miles through the half settled wilderness, and over this he would travel on horseback all week long, struggling through bog holes and fording unbridged streams along the narrow trails. Services would be held in churches, school houses, taverns, log cabins, anywhere that a few devout folk could be gathered together.

The Methodists were in the majority among the population, and to this denomination no gathering could compare in importance with the camp meeting. Each summer all the adherents in a district would gather in some dry, open grove for .a week of prayer, singing and exhortation. Tents and shanties would be put up and fitted with rude tables and beds. A rostrum was built for the preacher and rows of logs set out before it as seats. The light of their evening bonfires flared and flickered over a strange scene the preacher shouting from his platform, the penitents groaning on the seats just below him, and the elders flitting about on the watch for symptoms of contrition amongst the remainder.

Then, even as today, there were many ill balanced intellects eager to espouse fantastic doctrines. In 1842 a New Englander named Miller began to teach that the world would come to an end on February 15. 1843. The belief spread like wildfire among the weakminded of the United States and Canada. Farmers burnt their rail fences as firewood, confident that their usefulness would soon be past. A convert near Port Perry gave away a 100 acre farm and all its equipment. Sarah Terwilligar of Oshawa made herself wings of silk and jumped off the front porch, expecting to be caught up to heaven. But the choicest anecdote comes from Port Hoover, Concession A, Mariposa, on the north shore of Lake Scugog. Here a man named Hoover brooded over the Millerite gospel until he gradually fancied himself superhuman and above natural laws. He therefore announced. in the autumn of 1842, that he would walk on the water from Port Hoover across Lake Scugog to Caesarea, a distance of about five miles. On the day appointed, hundreds of Mariposa pioneers gathered at the Port Hoover wharf to watch the attempt. Hoover seemed to have a sudden weakening of faith, for he fastened a wooden box on each foot; but as even this failed to hold him up, he waded out and hid behind one of the piles of the wharf. The urgent demands of the crowd finally brought him back to shore, where, amid the hoots of small boys, he made this explanation: "My friends, a cloud has risen before my eyes and I cannot see. I cannot walk upon the water today while this cloud is before my eyes. Soon it will be announced when the cloud has been removed, and then I will do it." But his spectators never assembled again.

An Early Tragedy in Ops Township

Doctors were almost unknown in these times, ,and ailments were given home made treatment by mothers or grandmothers, who prepared their simple remedies from such plants as the spikenard, blood root, catnip, tansy, smartweed, plaintain, burdock, mandrake, elecampane, spearmint and mullein. But in the case of serious diseases and epidemics, as when cholera swept the country in 1832 and 1334, herbal remedies were of no avail.

When death entered the pioneer home, the situation was often exceedingly tragic. Conant tells of a man who moved into Ops township in 1838, bringing with him his wife and two very little children. His tiny cabin and clearing were five miles from the nearest neighbor, but when he fell ill the very first summer, his friends followed his blazed trail in, harvested his crop for him, and then departed. Winter came. The cabin was snowed in. Wolves howled at the very door. At last the sick man died. His wife sought desperately to give him proper sepulture but the ground was frozen hard, and to cover him only with snow would merely feed the wolves. Finally she rolled away some backlogs that were piled beside the house, dug a shallow hole with a mattock in the softer ground beneath them, hid the cherished corpse, and rolled back the logs above it to keep it inviolate. Then she walked with her children to the nearest settlement.

How Grist Mills Grew to Villages

Villages grew up in time, and were almost always the direct consequence of the establishment of a grist mill. These mill sites comprise nearly all the important centers of today. In 1825, William Cottingham built a mill on Pigeon River and so founded modern Omemee. In 1828, William Purdy dammed a rapid on the Scugog River, and established Lindsay unawares. Bobcaygeon has grown up around the mill built by Thomas Need about 1833, and Fenelon Falls owes its origin to a mill erected there in 1841 by Messrs. Wallis and Jamieson. To such grist mills came. the pioneers with their crops. Saw mills were soon added, and a growing trade in lumber succeeded the earlier indiscriminate destruction of the forest. Stores, taverns, and a few artisans settled about the mill. This little hamlet was then the natural location for churches and schools as they came. And so, unconsciously, the mill grew to a hamlet, the hamlet to a village, and perhaps the village to a town. But for the first beginnings we must look back to the mill and the water-power that made it possible.

The Beginnings of the Trent Canal

The beginnings of the Trent Valley Canal date from the early days of lumbering. This project has been subjected to much criticism and , not a little ridicule; but while it was a pitiful failure in accomplishment and was completed half a century too late, the original conception was masterly. The inland townships were covered with magnificent white pine. Existing transportation to the great outside markets was exceedingly expensive, and as a result the timber was cut in a deplorably wasteful manner. A canal system connecting these forest resources with the outside world would have permitted more conservative logging and milling, and far larger profits both to lumbermen and to the government, and would have made it possible to manage the lumber business for perpetuity. Local canal traffic and trans-Ontario traffic would probably have been very limited. Certainly they will be so in the future. But the advantages accruing to the lumber trade would have been a full and permanent justification of the Trent Valley project. It is part of the constant tragedy of human incapacity that the canal was finally completed at a time when the timber had practically disappeared from our borders.

Surveys for the canal were made in 1833 and 1835, and the cost estimated at $933,789. Work was commenced in 1833 but soon languished. By 1843, locks .had been built at Bobcaygeon and Lindsay; and by 1853 such local steamboats as the "Woodman" of Port Perry and the "Ogemah" of Fenelon Falls were carrying lumber to Port Perry, whence it was teamed to Whitby. The "Woodman" was the first boat to make the trip, and old settlers have said that when her steam siren first raised the echoes on Sturgeon Lake they ran to corral their stock, mistaking it for the howl of a wolf pack. But with the construction .of the Bobcaygeon and Lindsay locks, canal building ceased for nearly four decades.

The First One-third Century a Pioneer Era

The ancient Greeks often treated three generations as equivalent to a century. Such a division of the centenary under discussion is strikingly apt and felicitous. The periods 1821-1853, 1854-1887, and 1888-1921, each roughly one-third of a century, have certain aspects of development which distinguish them clearly one from another.

The years ending in 1853 are distinctively the period of pioneering. The thought and activity of the county had been almost entirely taken up with the struggle against the forest. Events in the outside world had, indeed, been momentous. An oligarchy at York had almost succeeded in ruining the province in spite of its remarkable natural resources. This pernicious misrule, which had driven 80,000 Canadians across the American boundary in the years 1830-37, was at last revealed to the British government through a pitiful little revolt. Following the investigations and report of Lord Durham, the two provinces were united in 1841, and fully responsible government granted by 1848. But by these developments the little backwoods community was not greatly touched. Its attention was concentrated on the immediate tasks of settlement.

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Victoria County


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