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Pen Pictures of Early Pioneer Life in Upper Canada


Box Stove

THE country store. was in many respects a departmental store on a small scale, for a well-equipped store contained a little of everything. On one side were to be seen shelves well filled with groceries, crockery-ware, and a few patent medicines, such as blood purifiers, painkillers and liniments; on the other side, a well assorted stock of dry goods, including prints, woollens, muslins, calico, cottons, etc. At the back, a lot of hardware, comprising nails, paints, oils, putty, glass, and garden tools, as well as an assortment of boots and shoes—from the tiny copper-toe to the farmer's big cowhide. In the hack room, at the rear end of the store, were to be found barrels of sugar and New Orleans molasses, crates of eggs, and tubs of butter and lard. With this miscellaneous mixture—tea, coffee, dry goods, codfish, and boots and shoes—the odor of the country store was truly a composite one, and trying to the olfactory organs of the visitor. The country merchant was usually a man in good circumstances, for he was obliged in most cases to give a year's credit, the farmers paying their bills in the fall of the year, after the "threshing" or the "killing"; their only source of revenue at any other time being from butter and eggs, which their wives took to the country store, usually once a week, and exchanged for store goods. Perhaps there was no more popular place of meeting than the country store. After the day's work was over, it was customary for many of the men in the neighborhood, especially the farmers' hired men, who had no other place of amusement to go to, to gather here. Even if they did not have occasion to buy anything, they would drop in for a few minutes to while away the time; hare a chat, see someone they wished, hear politics discussed, and generally learn all the latest news. The society of the country store had a peculiar fascination for many of them, for there generally happened to be some one there who was gifted with the faculty of cracking jokes, telling funny yarns, or interesting stories; besides it was a comfortable place, especially on the long winter evenings, when they would gather around the big box stove, lounge on the counters, sit on the boxes and barrels, puff away at their pipes, chew tobacco, and chaff one another to their heart's content. I am sorry to say many of them were as uncouth as their habits, and language was often used that was neither polite nor edifying; still this can be said to their credit, they generally managed to show a respectful air if a lady or clergyman entered. Occasionally there would be heard a loud "whoa :" at the door; soon after which some big, burly farmer might be seen entering, with a long riding whip in his hand, pants tucked into his boots, and long coat reaching to his heels. While he asked for a pound of tea or a plug of tobacco, some rustic from behind the stove would call out, "Good morning, Sam! How are the roads up your way?" and sundry other questions pertaining to the neighborhood.

Usually the post-office was located in the country store, and this brought a still greater diversity of people together. They would flock in about the time the mail was expected to arrive, wait patiently until it was distributed, and then file out one by one. in the early days, before the temperance movement began, whiskey being cheap, it was common for country stores, who also sold it, to keep a barrel of it, with a faucet attached, and a glass for the free use of customers.

The Wayside Blacksmith.

The wayside blacksmith was a useful personage in the olden time, his services frequently being called into requisition, for besides having to shoe the horses and to make the iron part of the rude farm implements, he made nails for the carpenter's use, made and repaired the logging chains, made the garden and other tools, such as hoes, rakes, spades, axes, hammers, etc., and did sundry other odd jobs for the farmers. Travellers frequently sought him out to have a lost shoe replaced on their horses or to have breakages to their vehicles mended. His shop was located at some prominent point, usually the county crossroads. Here would collect on rainy days the farmers to get their odd jobs done. Meeting so many people from near and far, he was usually well posted on the news of the surrounding country and district, and the farmers knew if they wanted to find out what was going on in the country roundabout they were pretty likely to find it out in the shop of this son of Vulcan. On the soot-begrimed walls of his place of business were posted bills announcing an auction sale, a bailiff's sale, or a notice of some breechy steer that was lost, strayed or stolen.

The Country Peddlar.

The peddlar, with a pack on his back, was a frequent visitor to the backwoods settlements in the early days. His display of goods was the only sight many of the children got of the stock of a store. Their imagination led them to believe that he was a very rich man to own such a valuable lot of goods, and really it was surprising what a vast number of articles he could get into his pack. When he displayed his goods he would cover the table and chairs around him with his stock. There were needles and pins, horn combs, hooks and eyes, spools of thread, buttons, handkerchiefs, ribbons and tapes, as well as a few toys and picture books. The children would look on this display with wondering eyes and would beg their good mother to buy something for them. Usually something was wanted, after which this itinerant merchant would gather his stock of sundries together and pass on to another house.

The Itinerant Shoemaker.

In the early days the families were usually large, it being a common thing to find fourteen or fifteen children in one family. The reader can imagine what it would cost to clothe such a family according to modern methods. In those early days, however, people were trained to be economical-.---in fact, they were obliged to carefully exercise that virtue. To be sure leather was cheaper then than it is now, and shoes were made to wear longer. To save expense, it was customary to buy a hide, or get a hide of leather tanned and engage a shoemaker to come to the house to mend and make up shoes for the entire family. In fact, there were what might be called itinerant shoemakers, who made it their business to go round among the people periodically, usually in the fall of the year, and do this kind of work. Some few of the farmers tanned their own leather and made their own shoes and those of their children. Many of them could not afford to provide more than one pair of shoes in a year for each member of their family. It was customary in the rural districts for the children to go barefooted from early in the spring till late in the fall, and occasionally men might be found who did the same. Amongst the early German settlers one hundred years ago wooden shoes or clogs were worn more or less. Specimens of these shoes are to be found now among the people, kept as curiosities.

The Country Squire.

The magistrate, or justice of the peace, upon whom it devolved to settle disputes among the people in the country districts was usually called "squire" and was known by that title for miles around. He was quite an important personage in the community in the olden time. It was quite a common sight to find the yard in front of his house filled with people attending a trial. If he found that the case to be tried was of too serious a nature for him to pass judgment upon, he would have the case remanded to a higher tribunal. At these rustic magistrate courts were to be found all sorts and conditions of men. As might well be surmised, it required considerable judgment and tact to deal with so many conflicting cases and classes, especially with the foreign element, many of whom understood the English language very imperfectly. In the early days the squire was also the conveyancer and the petty lawyer of the neighborhood. He drew up the wills, deeds, etc., for the people. Many of them also went to him to be married, when a minister authorized to marry did not live convenient in the neighborhood. For many years the magistrates of the district met every three months at the "quarter sessions," and with one of their number as chairman performed the judicial work of the district. At the quarter sessions they granted the privilege of marrying, kept the peace of the district and sometimes even had a jury for trying cases.


The modern nuisance, the professional tramp, said to be the outcome of the American civil war, presumably by the soldiers thrown out of employment looking for work, and the hard times succeeding, was unknown in the early days of settlement. There was then work enough for all. and therefore no necessity for going far from home to obtain it. There were very few beggars and consequently no need for county poor houses; the people who were sometimes compelled to beg being cripples and old people of both sexes, who had no homes and were unable to work. There were very few of these, and they were nearly always strangers. Occasionally men with sticks over their backs and bundles on the end, might be seen going along the road, but they were usually people on a journey (for many people travelled on foot in those days, there being no railways and few public conveyances), or perhaps they might be foreigners recently landed in the country looking for work among the farmers. During haying and harvest time men from the new settlements could be seen going by on foot to the older settled parts of the province to work, and in that way earn money to maintain their families until they could raise sufficient on their own uncleared farms to keep them. Occasionally there might be found persons who made their living by begging. It is said there was a man in Waterloo county years ago who begged enough to buy a farm. The people in the early days, being more hospitable and unsuspecting, may have been more easily imposed upon than the people are now, for if a stranger came to their houses in the evening lie was given a night's lodging and breakfast, for which they would not think of taking money, even if the guest were able to pay. To be sure there were not the vagabonds in the shape of tinkers and umbrella menders then as now.

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