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Farming, Home Life, Transportation

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It is noted in The Settlement of Huron County by James Scott that the population of Ashfield Township in 1840 was 266; in 1850 it was 682 and by 1861, it had grown to 2,617. When I was born in 1899, Ashfield had been almost completely cleared of forest and almost every 100 acres was occupied and contained a home and barn. Mixed farming was the order of the day. The power on the farm came from horses. There were no tractors. There were portable gasoline engines on some farms that were used for chopping grain, cutting straw, sawing wood and similar jobs. Threshing was done with steam engines. They first were drawn by horses from place to place but most were what was known as tractor engines and were self-propelled.

About the time of WWI (1914), gasoline tractors made their appearance in Ashfield. Bob Nelson had the first in our locality. He used it for threshing. It was a two-cylinder John Deere and used fuel oil for fuel. It was a real efficient machine and was used for many years.

Prior to steam, horse power was used and consisted of two or more long poles attached to a centre gear. The horses were hitched on the outer ends of the poles and driven round and round. The gears were connected to a drive shaft which propelled the machine to which it was attached. I only recollect seeing one of these in operation at James Johnstone’s place, across the road from where we lived. It was used to cut straw for cattle feed and bedding.

Horses were also used for cultivating the land, plowing, sowing and cutting the grain with binders. Before the binders came into use, a swather was used and the grain had to be picked out of the swaths and tied by hand. I have seen these machines but never saw them at work. Before them, the pioneers used cradles and these had to be used by hand. They had a blade like a scythe attached to a cradle which when swung through the grain, gathered the grain which was spread in rows and later gathered up and bound into sheaves that were tied again by hand. The bands were made by taking two wisps of grain and twisting the ends together. Then they were swung around the sheaf, bound tightly, twisted again, the ends tucked under the band and your sheaf was complete. This made quite the tidy sheaf. These were later stooked, the same as grain cut with a binder. Threshing was a co-operative job between neighbours. Each helped the other in the early days.

Ploughing was done with horses (or oxen in pioneer days) and a walking plough. With this method, one to one and a half acres a day could be ploughed, depending on the hardness of the soil and your team of horses. Two furrowed gang ploughs were used, then the riding plough with one or two furrow and horses. Ploughing was usually done in fall. Come spring, the land was worked with discs and harrows and a seed drill was used to sow the grain.

Before the turn of the century, the hay was cut with a scythe. The horse drawn mower was used. The hay was raked and coiled with pitch forks. These had to be built so the rain could be shed. A neighbour, Jack Bowler, had only log barns, one for storage, a cow barn, horse stable and four pig pens and hen pens. He always needed help and we needed help to fill the silo so we exchanged help.

The first homes of the settlers were made of logs. Later, wood frame, brick and stone were used. There weren’t many log houses left at the start of the 1900s but there were a few. These were quite comfortable. The ceilings were quite low, both downstairs and upstairs. They were heated by the wood cook stove and box stove. No indoor plumbing was available in those days and the outdoor privy was standard equipment. These were a favourite target for Halloween pranks, especially against someone who was not too popular with the youngsters.

Log homes were substantially built by notching logs at the corners. They were about the same thickness for the full length of the house and chinked with slabs of mortar. Some were boarded on the outside and others were not. Many happy families were raised in these homes and many good times were had dancing, playing cards, etc when the only means of entertainment was what was created within the home or local community.

Equipment and utensils in country homes changed very little until the introduction of Hydro into rural areas. Even when we were married in 1924, we had a wood cook stove. Later we burned coal. The women did all their own baking, including bread. Housewives vied with each other as to who was the best cook in the neighbourhood. This was always recognized by threshing gangs (15 to 20 men) in the fall of the year when they went from place to place helping each other get the threshing done. The ladies helped one another too and always a few small children came with their mothers.

The farmer’s wife in those days had a busy life. Besides cooking and raising a family, she made her own butter from ripened cream (from the farm’s milk supply) in a dasher or revolving churn. Of course, this again was hard labour, both running the churn and mixing the butter. The buttermilk was used for baking and drinking. This we also did after we were married.

The family wash was also done by hand. The wash tub and scrub board were the first equipment available. The tub was set on two chairs if you didn’t own a tub stand. The wash water was heated in a boiler on the wood stove and then poured into the tub. Mostly the well was outdoors and the water had to be hand pumped into pails and carried indoors. The clothes were immersed and scrubbed by hand on the wash board. The soap used was also homemade. I can’t tell you the process but it was made from fats and lye outdoors in a sap kettle over an open fire and was very efficient as a cleaner. The job of scrubbing clothes on a washboard was a strenuous one, both on the back and knuckles of the hands. Later on, the washing machine relieved some of the drudgery of wash day but it still had to be hand operated and the water heated on the stove until Hydro came along to do this work mechanically (there were also hot water attachments on wood stoves to a hot water tank after Hydro came and installed water pumps).

In my younger days there was one room in the house known as the parlor. Today we call it the living room. The thing that made it different then was that it was scarcely used except when company came. Since money and good furniture were hard to come by, we youngsters seldom were allowed in the parlor. It contained a couch or settee and special rocking chairs. Since there was no central heating, a wood stove or coal heater was part of the furnishings. These stoves quite often had a mica front and with a fire burning inside, presented a pleasant glow in the room, often making it look warmer than it really was. A coal oil lamp hung in the centre of the ceiling. These were quite colourful in design and gave good light around the room. In most homes, an organ or piano was part of the parlor furniture. In those days, neighbours did a great deal of visiting amongst themselves and the organ got a great deal of use to create entertainment during these visits and at house parties and dances which occurred frequently. Card parties were also quite common. Visits and parties were the only means of entertainment in the country in winter time when the only transportation was by horse drawn cutters and sleighs.

Another special room in the house was the spare bedroom. Here a bed was kept for visitors when they came from a distance and it was too far to make the return voyage in one day. This bed had a feather tick made from goose or duck feathers. Over it were flannelette sheets, a wool blanket and the fancy homemade quilts that neighbours had come in to make. Also featured were the embroidered pillow cases trimmed with crocheted lace of 3-inch width. These beds which looked and were real comfortable, were also sometimes in rooms that were not too well heated. Very often the hostess would place bricks warmed in the oven and covered with a woolen cloth in the bed awhile before bedtime to have the bed warm when the visitor was ready to retire. If the bed and room had not been used for some time, they were cold, damp and clammy. To this I can vouch because on several occasions while on R.O.P. inspection work, I had this very experience. There being no running water available, the old fashioned toilet set was always on the washstand in the spare bedroom. To say the least, your morning wash was quite invigorating with the cold water that had been placed in the pitcher the night before. I wonder if those who complain about conditions today ever stop to think about the hardships that existed in the first quarter of the 20th Century in the country.

Conditions changed very little in the farm home until after Hydro came along the side roads and concessions of the townships after the First World War (1914-18). During the Second World War (1939-45), Hydro came to Curries Corners, Ashfield Township. Hydro was just about to come in when we left Ashfield. Three subscribers were required in a mile before a line would be built and not everyone thought at that time they could afford or needed it, therefore it was slow coming. We had bought a Delco System (second hand) and had electric lights in the kitchen before we left the farm.

It was while in Ashfield that we heard the first radio. Pete had got a set with ear phones. We used to go to his place and listen to the “Grand Old Opera” from Nashville. I also remember the first telephone line being built along our road in Ashfield. It was known as the Dungannon Rural Telephone Co. The fellows building the line were staying at Jas. Johnstone’s across the road from us. They put in the Row Grant, ours and Johnstones line first. The first call we put in was to Grants and I remember trying to figure out just how the thing worked.

Another job done by the farm housewife was the making of homemade bread. I do not profess to be a baker but the procedure went something like this: The flour (often made from home grown wheat taken to the local flour mill and ground into flour) was put into a bake dish, warmed and mixed with yeast that had been gotten ready from yeast cakes. This mixture was put in a large bread pan (about the size of a small tub), wrapped up in quilts and allowed to rise overnight. Early in the morning, the housewife would get up and mix this again and later put it in the smaller bread pans where it was allowed to rise again and then put in the oven to bake. This was quite a chore but when baked was most delicious, especially when fresh and spread with good homemade butter.

One of the great changes in my lifetime has been the means of transportation. The days of the oxen had passed in Ontario when I was a boy but I have seen them used in Nova Scotia, France and Thailand. Even before the oxen in Ontario, the first pioneers did much of their traveling on foot from place to place for supplies. Canoes were used on rivers and lakes. I sometimes wonder how many people would do this today. After the oxen, came the horses which were the means of local transportation when I was a boy. The single buggy, the democrat, the phaeton and the wagon were the vehicles pulled by the horses.

As the country opened up, the steam railways were built to connect the different towns. These carried on until after the Second World War. The diesel engine replaced the steam (coal burning) engine as the means of power to pull the trains. Today the steam locomotive is only a museum piece in Canada. As cars and buses became common and comfortable, the passenger travel on trains became less and less profitable and convenient and except for the odd cross-country passenger train, this means of travel has disappeared and the local railway stations have nearly all been torn down. At one time, there used to be two passenger trains each way every day except Sundays. Now there are none.

After the First World War, trucks started to be used as a means of transporting products of all kinds. The gravel roads gave way to pavement on our main highways. Trucks turned from gasoline to diesel, became larger and larger and today are almost the size of railway freight cars. Good roads and good cars have made the difference. It is wonderful to know we have lived in a period of time when we have seen and experienced all these changes.

Today (1970) many of our young people have become militant against what they call the establishment. They are protesting against everything and everyone. They want to change things to suit themselves but do not say just what these things are. I suppose this same restless feeling was the reason our pioneer forefathers left the old lands in Great Britain and Europe to come to Canada. In the old country, under the feudal system, the landlords owned everything and the tenants who did all the work had no hope of ever having their own home and land so when the opportunity arose for them to come to a new country to own something for themselves, they were willing to work hard and make sacrifices to gain it. Young people today may find that they too will have to make some sacrifices if they hope to achieve their wishes. If they would only read about and understand the hardships the pioneers – their forefathers – endured, they would be much more appreciative of what they have today.

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Thank you Ken for adding this piece of writing. I always find it interesting to read about the every day lives of our ancestors, and love to collect little snippets of history on farming and housewives. I added a link to this Free-Space from my Free-Space Our Farm. Regards, Karen.
posted by Karen (Jensen) Carter