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Experiences of a Backwoods Preacher
Chapter IX. Storms and Snowdrifts

WELL, what is a snowdrift? The doctor may say it is the grave of a dead snowstorm. The poet will tell you that it is the downy bed in which the storm-king puts to rest his sleeping children. The thin-blooded rheumatic will say it is that which gives him the heaviest chills and the sharpest pains. The wash-woman will declare the snowdrift gives her nice soft water long after the sunny days of spring have melted the snow off the buildings and the fields. If you ask the mischief-loving boy, that stands peering through the fence, and making faces at that other boy that pretends to be hoeing the corn, he will turn and look at you and then give his suspenders a hitch and say, “I like snowdrifts, I do. It is that that gives me the last snowball of the season, and it allows me to take all that remains of itself to wash the faces of Molly and Jennie, as they go tripping to the woods to gather the April flowers. Yes, I like snowdrifts.’' The snowdrift, like almost everything in this world,has its friends and its foes. The aspect of a snowdrift is affected by the standpoint from which it is viewed. To contemplate it from the inside of a comfortable room, with the thermometer ranging among the sixties, gives rather pleasant ideas of it. But to one wading up to his middle in it, with the thermometer down to ten below zero, there will not be much enjoyment. In the one case there is a feeling of security mingled with a sense of the beautiful. In the other there is a sense of increasing weariness along with the consciousness of possible danger. Few things have a prettier look than a grand drift of pure white snow on a bright sunny day. The glistening brightness that dazzles out in all directions might lead an inexperienced beholder to imagine that it was a thing of more than summer warmth. But to the experienced eye it has a different look. To such the impression made is, that however striking and pretty the thing may be, as an object of sight, it is, after all, like the oration of Bob Ingersoll at his brother’s funeral—very brilliant, but very cold.

I know something of snowdrifts, both by theory and by practical experience. Theoretically, it is simply congealed water that has been carried by the wind and left in a convenient place till spring comes. Then it is ready to do its part in getting up a flood to take away somebody’s bridge or break up someone’s mill dam. Practically, it is like the cold looks and freezing tones of some people in the world—a good thing to keep away from, unless one had a high fever and would be the better of a little cooling.

Some of my experiences with snowdrifts were of a character calculated to wake up a man’s energy if he had any of that quality that is so necessary to winter life in many parts of Canada. Others were sometimes a little risky. But I never was much injured, though I was often incommoded by coming in contact with them. It was during my four years’ travel on the district that I found most difficulties with them. I had often to meet appointments twenty or thirty miles distant from each other, and bad roads and stormy weather were not valid excuses for failing to meet them. I never missed an appointment on account of roads or weather. But sometimes I had hard work to get to them.

A Day of Needless Fears.

I found myself one time in the town of Kincardine. On Monday, after the Quarterly Meeting, it began to snow and drift, and for three days and nights the storm raged with relentless fury. My next work was at Invcrmay. This was forty miles distant from where I was. The snow piled up and filled the roadways from fence to fence. The Port Elgin stage did not come on Wednesday nor Thursday, so that there was no mail from the north for two days.

On Friday morning I started out from James Ballantine’s, telling him that if I could not go through I would come back. It was still blowing a gale, but the snow had ceased to fall. When I sot out of the town and reached the Saugeen road that runs north from Kincardine to Port Elgin, I soon found that the storm had overdone its work. The snow being a little damp, it was so packed by the wind that for a good deal of the way a horse could walk on the top of the drift, and not sink deeper than to the fetlocks, and the cutter did not sink the thickness of the runners.

But I also found that when the horse did go down it was no child’s play to get him up again. In his efforts to get up he was almost sure to get one of the shafts over his back. Then I must unhitch and draw the cutter away so that he could get up. This I did a number of times that day. But all day present difficulties did not trouble me so much as the dread of one that I imagined was before me. Three miles from Port Elgin the road consists of a deep cut through one of those gravel-hills so common in some parts of the country. If that cut should be filled with show it would present an impassable barrier in the way of further progress. My great anxiety was to reach that place before dark. To do that I drove all day without stopping, except to give my horse a pail of water at noon. About dusk I came to the scene of my expected trouble. To my surprise I saw that all my fears had been utterly groundless. There was not a drift to be seen. The same wind that left such heavy piles of snow in other places, had carried it through the cut. I was reminded of the advice given by some one, which is, “ Never cross a river till you come to it.” I made up my mind that in future I would not wallow through a snowdrift till I reached it. About seven in the evening I got to Port Elgin and went to old Mr. Bricker’s for the night.

Over Covered Fences.

Next morning after my day of groundless anxiety, I started in good time for Invermay. I had to go a long way around, as the shortest road was said to be entirely blocked up. I started out a little behind the stage. I had gone but a short distance when the track went into the fields and continued for nearly two miles over fences, and through door-yards, and barn-yards, until I began to wonder if all the fences had been burned up, as they were nearly all entirely hidden from sight. The road to Invermay was a crooked one. As I went on I found that the track was better broken, until I left the main road. Then there was no track at all since the storm, and I had eight miles yet to go. However, I reached Invermay and drove up to the house of J. \V. Dunn just as the members of the Official Board had organized for business under the impression that the presiding elder was somewhere stuck in the snowbanks.

A Four-Mile Drift.

On the tableland between the valleys of the Bighead ‘ and Beaver Rivers there is a splendid piece of farming country; but any one who has travelled over this territory, along the fourth line of the township of Euphrasia, in the winter time, will agree with me that it is a wonderful place for snowdrifts.

The distance from “Grier’s Rock” to the margin of “Queen’s Valley ” is about four miles. On both sides of the road there are clearings all the way. I have often seen this roadway full from side to side, so that the fences were covered in and in many places entirely out of sight. Teams going in opposite directions can pass each other only at the gates of the farmhouses. When two teams are meeting, the one that comes to a gate first must stop and wait for the other to come up. I have had many a tussle with the drifts as I went from Meaford to my work south of there. On one occasion I was going up the hill at Griersville. The road is cut down into the rock thirty feet or more, and only wide enough for two teams to pass. There had been a heavy snowstorm, and the road was filled up on one side ten or twelve feet deep, so the top of the snow looked like one side of a steep roof.

As I was going up my horse got off the beaten track and into the unpacked snow on the lower side. He rolled over on his back and turned the cutter upside down. When he stopped rolling he was lying in the acute angle where the inclined plane at the top of the snowdrift met the perpendicular wall of craggy rocks. I only escaped being in the same position with the cutter on top of me by throwing myself out on the upper side as it was going over. When I got on my feet and saw the condition of things, I concluded the commercial value of my horse at that moment was an unknown quantity. If he commenced to struggle he would be almost sure to knock his head to pieces against the sharp corners of the rocks. I saw that the only chance was to keep him still as he was until help should come along from some direction. I got to his head and by caressing and talking to him I managed to keep him pretty still. It was not long before I saw teams coming. A lot of men and some women were in the sleighs. When they came to the foot of the hill the men left their teams in the care of the women, and came to help me. Shovels were got and the snow dug away, so that in a little while all was right again. After all was over an old farmer by the name of Abercrombie said to me, “ Sir, when I came up and saw the fix your horse was in I would not have given fifty cents for his life. He is the coolest horse that I ever saw in trouble, and you are the coolest man that I ever saw have an animal in danger.” I said to him, “ You must remember that coolness is catching. The man that keeps himself cool can generally control his horse.” No harm was done only in the loss of time.

Missing the Way.

I was once going from Singhampton to Horning’s Mills in the middle of winter. I had my daughter Anna with me. The roads were badly drifted. We had not gone far from Singhampton when we came to a place where the snow was piled up from six to eight feet on the roadbed. On one side was a piece of bush. The horse soon got down in the snow. I took the girl and carried her oil the drift and set her down by the root of a tree, while I got the horse and cutter down from the pathless ridge of snow in which they were partially covered over. I led the horse over old logs and fallen trees for a distance of twenty or thirty rods till we came to a clearing; then we went across two farms, throwing down the fences in our way. At last we came into a barnyard, where we found a man feeding stock. He told us that we had missed our way and had been on a road that had not been used for some time. He put us on a better road, where a track had been broken through the fields, out to another line where there was more travel.

After we had gone a few miles we came in sight of a man and team with a load of saw-logs. The road was very sidelong where he was. All at once the load capsized, and the one horse fell and the other rolled clear over it, so that the near horse was on the off side and both were lying on their backs with their legs flying in the air like drum-sticks. When we came to the place I let the girl hold my horse and went to help the man. The horses were very restless, and their owner was somewhat frightened. Two men came from the opposite direction, and with their help we soon got the horses on their feet. On a close examination it was found that not a cut or scratch could be seen about them. The man stood and looked at the horses and then at the sleigh for a few moments; then he began to swear like a drunken sailor. After a little I said to him, “My friend, that is a queer way of returning thanks for the safety of your property.” He answered, “Well, I know it is not just the thing, but sometimes when a fellow don’t know whether to laugh or cry it seems easier to swear than to do either.” We soon got to the parsonage at Horning’s Mills, and put up for the night with Mr. Will, who was then stationed there.

Bad Harness and Saw-logs.

The next day was very cold and clear. In going through the township of Amaranth we overtook a man with a load of saw-logs. He had a good team and a heavy load, but his harness was old and rotten. The road was drifted full from fence to fence, and the beaten track was a succession of ridges and hollows. In drawing the load out of one of the “pitch-holes” the horses broke their harness. When we came up to the place I saw that there was no chance of getting past until we got to a cross-road fifty or sixty rods ahead.

I never did like to pass anyone on the road, and not try to help him, if he was in trouble. But in this case I could not have done so if I would. Again I gave my daughter the lines and went to help the man. His trouble now became mine as well as his. While he toggled up the harness, I got some rails from the fences and fixed them as pries to help lift the load out of the hollow. After several attempts we succeeded. But we had gone but a few rods when another difficulty met us. The road became so sideling that there was great danger of the load turning upside down, as was done the day before. To prevent this we took a fence rail and made a temporary lever of it by fastening one end of it to the lower side of the sleigh, while the other end reached out some ten feet into the road on the upper side, the rail being placed crosswise of the road. On the end of the lever I perched myself like a squirrel on a limb. The driver stood on the upper side of the load and managed the team. We found by one riding on a sleigh-rail and the other on a fence-rail, we could keep the load right-side up. We got to the cross-road, and I drove on and left the man with the bad harness to himself.

Soon after we came to Mr. James Johnston’s in Garafraxa. When we went into the house, Mrs. Johnston assisted my daughter in taking off her wraps. She found that both of her ears were frozen as hard as a piece of sole-leather. She had neglected to attend to herself while looking after the horse. When I asked her if she did not know that her ears were freezing, she said: “I felt them getting very cold, but I did not say anything, for I thought there was trouble enough just then without me making matters worse by complaining.” She was one of the uncomplaining kind. But now she is where frozen ears and chilled bodies are unknown, safe in the home beyond the tide.

Snowdrifts Versus Wedding Bells.

Twelve miles south of the town of Meaford is the home of the Gilray family. One of the daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Gilray was to be married on a certain day to a young man living in Meaford. I was engaged to perform the ceremony, assisted by a brother of the bride, Rev. A. Gilray, who lived in Toronto. Two days before the day of the wedding was one continued snowstorm. The roads were badly drifted before, but the addition of two days’ steady snowing and drifting made them almost impassable. Knowing all about the “four-mile drift” on the fourth line of Euphrasia, I did not attempt to go by that road. But, instead, I went by Thornbury, and up the valley of the Beaver River. This was nearly twice as far, but it was not so much drifted. By starting early I reached the place in good time.

When I arrived neither the groom nor the Rev. Mr. Gilrav had reached the place. The hour fixed upon for the ceremony came. A number of guests assembled, but nothing was seen or heard of the expected parties.

Meanwhile the would-be son-in-law and a few select friends were floundering in the drifts of the “beautiful” that impeded their movements. They soon became aware of the fact that time was flying, while they were going at a snail's pace. Old Time relentlessly refused to wait, even for a wedding party. And the thought that the swift-winged hours, as they sped on in their unchecked career, seemed to mock the slowness of the anxious plodders through the snow, was almost enough to drive an ardent lover and an expectant bridegroom out of his senses. But Mr. D. Youmans was not the sort of a man to be thrown into despair by a little delay, but no doubt he would have been pleased to send a short message to Agnes, saying, “I am coming,” if he could.

At last, after long hours of delay, the party arrived at the old homestead, where a lovely, blushing bride-elect awaited one of them, and the best productions of the farm and the grandest achievements of the culinary art were ready for the whole of them.

But the unpleasant moments of suspense were still to be prolonged. The reverend brother had not yet made his appearance, and every one felt that to proceed without him would be about as unpleasant as it would be for a farmer to bind up a sheaf with a handful of nettles. After waiting another hour a sort of council was held and the conclusion come to was to the effect that either i\lr. Gilray had been detained in the city, or else the train in which he travelled was blockaded in the drift somewhere. After due deliberation, it was decided to go on. with the ceremony. We did so, and just as we came to the conclusion of it, Mr. Gilray came in, just in time to join in the congratulations. It was an awkward moment. We all regretted the affair. It would have been difficult for any of us to tell, at that moment, whether congratulations for the happy couple, or commiseration for the disappointed brother, were uppermost in our mind. But all concerned accepted the situation with as good a grace as possible. No one was censured, for no one was to blame. Years afterward I met Mr. Gilray in the village of Streetsville, where 1 went to hear him lecture. We had some talk about old times, and among other things mention was made of his coming too late to the wedding.

A Day to be Remembered.

One morning I started from Mount Forest to Mea-ford. The mercury was about twenty degrees below zero. I had no idea that it was so cold until I was on the road. When I got to the town of Durham, I turned east towards Priceville and Flesherton. About four miles from Durham, I came up to a lot of children on their way home from school.

Among them were two little midgets that were crying piteously as I came to them. A half-grown girl and a big boy were trying to help them along. I stopped and enquired what ailed the little ones. I was told that they were freezing. I also learned that their homes were one and a-half miles ahead. I said, “It seems to me that their mothers acted very thoughtlessly to send such small children so far on such a day.” The answer that I received was, that in the morning they got a ride to the school, and their mothers did not think it was so cold.

I filled my cutter box full of the smallest of the children. The two little girls being my special care, I covered them all up with the robes and drove on. Soon the crying ceased. In a little while everything was changed. Instead of sighs and whimpers there was laughing and singing. Before parting with my little friends, I had the most cheery and jolly load of juvenile humanity that it had ever been my lot to carry.

When we came to the place where I had been directed to let the children off, they scattered in different directions, and scampered to their homes. I went on feeling more pleasure than I should if I had conferred a favor on the greatest man in the country. The day was so intensely cold that when I got to Priceville, I was so nearly frozen that I was forced to stop at the hotel and warm. That was a thing that I had never done before, nor have I done it since. I could stand it as far as a horse ought to go without feed any day in the year, but that day was too much for me.

Teamsters Badly Beaten.

From the Black Horse Corners in Kinloss, I once drove to Paisley and Invermay, through one of the worst snowstorms that I have ever seen. The snow was deep before, but it had now been storming furiously for twenty-four hours, with no signs of an abatement. I started about eight in the morning. The storm came from the north-east, so that I had to face it. Nobody was on the road. I only met a man and a dog on the road that day. At that time there was a great deal of teaming of salt and lumber on the old Durham road. In going twelve miles that day, I passed eight loads of salt and nine loads of lumber that had been left sticking in the drift, while the teamsters had found shelter for themselves and their horses in the houses and stables of farmers along the road until the storm should cease.

When I reached the Flora and Saugeen road, I thought it somewhat strange that on such a leading thoroughfare I could see no symptoms of a beaten track; but so it was. However, I turned north and after a hard tussle with the immeasurable heaps of snow that covered the road in some places to the depth of nine or ten feet, I reached the corner at the “Dutch Tavern.” Here I had intended to get my dinner and feed my horse; but I went in and looked around a little. I came to the conclusion that if the kitchen and dining-room were any relation to the bar-room I would not be able to eat much. So I got some oats and fed my horse, and went without my dinner. I found here three men and a couple of women and two span of horses blockaded by the storm. They were going to Ainleyville, now called Brussels, and the road that I had just passed over was the way they wanted to go. On my telling which way I came, the landlord told me that the road had been abandoned two weeks before on account of drifts, and the teams, including the stage, had gone another way; but the blockaded travellers took courage and started on their way. They said if one man and one horse could come through, surely three men and four horses ought to go through. I told them they could do it if they made up their minds to go through.

Before they started, one of them proposed to give three cheers for the old man who had made a track for them. I told him to keep his cheers, for he would need all of them before he reached the next corners, a mile and a-quarter ahead. I do not know how they got along, as I started one way and they the other.

I reached Paisley at seven p.m., and stopped at a hotel, got a good supper, went to bed, and after a comfortable night, got breakfast and then wallowed through the drifts to Invermay, which was eighteen miles distant. I got there in time for the Quarterly Meeting.

The Will Makes a Way.

From Listowel to Mount Forest there was no great amount of travel at the time that I was presiding elder of the Huron District. In the winter it was often very difficult to go from one place to the other. On one occasion I started from Listowel after a heavy storm of snow and drift. When I got to where Palmerston now is, I turned north towards Ilarriston in the township of Minto.

The track here was entirely hidden b}7 the recent fall of snow. It looked as if there was no beaten road ; but my horse was accustomed to snowdrifts, and by letting him take his own way he would keep on the track pretty well. When I had gone about half a mile from the turn I met two men with a horse and a broken cutter. They were both walking. One was leading the horse and the other going ahead and making a track; but instead of being on the road they were dodging in and out of the fence corners. I at once made up my mind that they were city gents who knew but little about driving borses in deep snow.

When I came up one of them spoke to me and said, “I say, old man, where are you trying to go?”

“Well, sir,” I answered, “I am intending to go to Mount Forest by way of Harriston.”

He replied, “You may just as well turn back, for you cannot go through.”

“What makes you think so?” I asked.

“We have just come from there and know all about it,” was his answer.

“Well, sir,” I said, “I am an old man, as you can see; I have gone through a great many snowdrifts in my time, and I have never yet turned back on account of supposed difficulties before me.”

“There is nothing like a determined will,” said the stranger. “Go ahead and perhaps you will get along all right.”

“Sir,” said I, “somewhere I have read that a good motto is found in. this, ‘Go as far as you can, either find a track or make one,’ and I know of no place where this applies with greater force than in going through snowbanks.”

We parted, and I went on my way and they on theirs.

A Message that Never Was Sent.

When I was a boy I got into the habit of saying “ I. can’t ” when I was told to do anything, no matter how easy it might be to do it. My mother often tried to break me off the habit, but she failed in doing so.

One day I was going with my father to the barn. Beside the path lay a stick of firewood about a foot thick and thirty feet long. My father had in his hand a switch that he picked up as he was coming along. When we came to the log he told me to take hold of the end of it and lift it. As usual, I said, “I can’t,” but before the words were fairly spoken he gave me three or four cuts across the shoulders with the whip that made me wince. “Now,” said he, “just take hold and try to lift it, or you will get more of this,” shaking the switch at me. I took hold of it, and to my utter astonishment lifted the end a foot or more from the ground. The secret of this was found in the fact that a stone was under the log near the middle, so that the ends nearly balanced. Whether this was by design or otherwise I never knew, but it furnished my father an opportunity to give me a lesson that has been of use to me in more ways than one.

One winter I found myself at Orangeville Quarterly Meeting, after an absence from home of over four weeks. Saturday and Sunday were very stormy. On Monday morning the storm was still raging, with no appearance of cessation. I had intended to start for home that morning. I was staying at Mr. Abiathar Wilcox’s, about half a mile from the village. The day was so rough and the roads so badly blocked up that I concluded to take the advice of this kind family and not attempt to go until the storm was over and the roads opened.

I wrote a copy of a telegram to send home in these words: “Stormbound at Orangeville; home when storm ceases; quite well.” With this in my pocket 1 started to the telegraph office. When going through the gate at the road I recalled the counsel of my father after I lifted the end of the log, which was, “Never say you can’t until you try.” I turned back and went to the stable and harnessed my horse, and in less than ten minutes was on the road. After a three days’ battle with snowdrifts I got home to Meaford in safety with the message that never was sent still in my pocket.

A Frost-bitten Official.

From the “Black Horse” Corners in Kinloss to Kincardine on Lake Huron is twelve miles. In the winter time this is frequently “a hard road to travel.” With the mercury below zero, and the wind going from forty to fifty miles an hour, persons facing toward the lake need to be well clad or they will suffer from the cold; and even then “Jack Frost” will sometimes steal through unsuspected openings in their habiliments and leave his icy touch on their ears or cheeks or noses.

On one occasion the Rev. J. M. Simpson, who was then presiding elder, and myself, had been holding missionary meetings at Kinlough and Kinloss. We had a stormy night at the latter place, so that very few came out to the meeting. We put up for the night with Mr. and Mrs. John Hodgins. When we got up in the morning we found that the night had left behind it one of the wildest days that we had ever seen. It was Saturday, and our Quarterly Meeting at Kincardine was on the next day. There was no help for it—we must face the storm. As we were about starting Mrs. Hodgins said to me, “You must not freeze Mr. Simpson on that cold road. You have been over it so often that you have got used to it.” I replied that he had only one to look after, while I had two—myself and horse.

We started out about 10 a.m., and of all the days that I have ever experienced that was one of the worst. When we got about half way I asked Mr. Simpson if he was cold. He said he was not, and we went on. As we came nearer the lake the storm seemed more severe. We both got cold, and concluded to stop at the house of Henry Daniels and warm, but when we came to his gate it was entirely snowed up. Then we thought to go on and stop at William Purdy’s on the next side line, but the snow was so blinding that we passed that without seeing it. We concluded that we were a lone: while in reaching the side line, but when we found where we were it was inside the corporation of Kincardine and almost home.

Next morning when I met Simpson I could not keep my face straight while I looked at him. His face had the most comical appearance of anything that I had seen of the kind. Wherever the frozen snow had touched, it had left a mark. His face looked as though some one had taken the skin of an Indian and cut it into round pieces ranging from five to fifty cents in size, and stuck them on in grand confusion all over it from top to bottom. When I had laughed at him for a while, he asked me if I had looked into the glass yet since we came home. When I did so I found that I had been making merry at my own likeness, for my face was about as spotted as his. I had been doing what people often do, namely, criticise in others what is most like in themselves. Some of the people said that we were queer looking specimens of clerical dignity and official importance.

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