Rising to the Occasion

Facing a crisis was part of daily life for the settlers of these hills and they had no outside help to see them through. What they depended on instead was inner strength, creativity, resources at hand and good neighbours.

June 25, 2020 | | Historic Hills

Lake Ontario Shore, 1788
Lewis Horning observes a role model

Isabella and Peter Horning (parents of Lewis, the founder of Horning’s Mills in 1832) led their six children from Pennsylvania through New York State, heading for a new life in Canada. On the U.S. shore of Lake Ontario they loaded their supplies aboard a small skiff. The plan was for Peter and 13-year-old Lewis to sail it along the shoreline to Niagara while Isabella and the others walked on the shore in parallel. When a storm sank the boat, Peter had to walk to Niagara for help, leaving Isabella with her children – one a baby – camped on the shore. The rescue boat took weeks to arrive.

Mount Wolfe, 1851
Benjamin carries a bundle home

Benjamin Roadhouse wore a heavy fur coat for the long walk through the snow. He had set off to offer help and sympathy to Dugall Campbell whose wife had died delivering her tenth child. When Benjamin slogged his way back up to The Ridges, as the area where he lived in Albion Township was known, the new baby was swaddled inside that fur coat. Named Elizabeth after her mother, she was raised by Benjamin and Catherine Roadhouse until, at age 17, she became the wife of another neighbour, David Downey, and went on to raise six children of her own.

Erin, 1820
Nathaniel Rozell rests

Growing wheat was something early arrivers mastered easily; getting it ground into flour was a different matter. Until local grist mills were built, settlers had to carry their harvest long distances on trails too rough and narrow for horses or oxen. From Erin, Nathaniel Rozell, the first settler in the township, would have carried his grain to Brampton. Two 100-pound bags were typical for a trip, which was too much to carry on a neck yoke, so like other early farmers, Nathaniel would have carried one bag a mile or so, then “rested” as he walked back to get the other bag. He would repeat the process until he reached Brampton. Then he had to do it all over again to take the flour home.

Mulmur, c.1840
Using the resources at hand

Among all the trials of early European settlers, not the least was a concern about getting lost. Not only was the territory utterly new to them, but except for rivers and creeks, it was hard to establish reference points in the dense forest. Darkness contributed to the settlers’ fears, especially for those who had brought ancient myths about wolves with them from Europe. So metal tubs and iron kettles, anything that would produce a loud sound, did extra duty in every log cabin. Users could often be identified by the distinctive sound of the “locator” they used, according to Dufferin historian Adelaide Leitch. Among them was the bugle employed in Jeremiah Phillips’ home in Mulmur, or the bagpipes used by John Sinclair in Luther Township. (The pipes were allegedly particularly effective at scaring off wolves.) Pioneers used whatever was needed to bring the family home.

Caledon, 1821
Christian Cameron sets the tone

After a lengthy, disaster-filled journey from Scotland, Donald and Christian Cameron reached their lot near what would one day be Airport Road and prepared to spend their first night. In a hollow that Donald carved out of a snowbank, they lay on cedar boughs, wrapped in sailing canvas with their baby between them. Their isolation was total, their situation abject and their future bleak. In his memoirs written years later, Donald described the utter misery and hopelessness he felt as he and his wife pressed together to keep their tiny daughter warm. But then Christian’s words revived him. “Since Providence has provided us a lot in the wilderness,” she said, “we can go on without a house or shed.”

Near Mono Mills, 1830S
Billy fills the larder

Every family knew that by mid-November a store of food for the winter should include a pig, butchered and dressed. So Mrs. Hishen, a widow with an injured arm, was becoming anxious as she waited for the neighbour who had promised to do the job for her. Her fear became urgent when she heard piercing squeals from the shed that leaned against her little cabin. Inside, the pig, whose destiny was foreordained, had become trapped and broken its leg. There could be no more waiting, so she turned to the eldest of her two sons. Billy was familiar with the butchering process. He’d been watching, fetching and carrying on butchering day ever since he’d learned to walk, but this would be his first time in charge. Billy, who was nine years old, got it done.

Melancthon, 1870
Tom and Ed Ferris capture a thief

The man who stole a yoke of oxen one night from Tom Ferris’s pasture near Masonville probably didn’t realize one of them had a peculiar notch in its left front hoof. The mark made it easy for Tom and his brother Ed to follow the rustler’s tracks, first to Shelburne, then south to Farmington and on west toward Waldemar where they captured both the team and the thief. The culprit – he gave his name as Smith – escaped custody after a court hearing in Orangeville, an outcome that might explain why the Ferris brothers had relied on their own resources to recover the oxen.

Sheldon Creek, 1832
Joe Alexander walks

There were hardly any walking trails in Mono Township when Joe Alexander first came upon Sheldon Creek. For weeks he’d been scouting the township for a mill site and now he’d found it. The site was ideal, but first Joe had to walk to York (Toronto) to buy equipment, then walk to Hamilton for millstones. From there it was ox carts and fording of rivers and streams to Sheldon Creek. The mill that ran for the next 131 years got its start because Joe Alexander was willing to walk.

Rockside, 1832
Euphemia Rowan nurses

Cholera and smallpox. The very words struck terror in pioneer days. Ironically, the isolation endured by early settlers meant they were less susceptible to the virulent contagion of these two diseases, but many other diseases, along with injuries, were constant threats. Over a large area of southwest Caledon, Euphemia Rowan willingly responded to calls for medical help, and was known for readily putting herself at risk. Euphemia had been trained as a midwife in Glasgow, a background that gave her common-sense skills equal if not superior to the doctors of the day, many of whom still relied on 2,000-year-old medical principles established in ancient Greece.

Albion-King Town Line, 1883
Crawford gets it done

When a flash flood took out a small but vital plank bridge, Albion’s Deputy Reeve Crawford authorized an immediate rebuild at a cost of $70 to the township. The new bridge was completed in a head-spinning two days, but Crawford was censured for exceeding his authority limit ($10). His reported response – succinctly summarizing the pioneer spirit in these hills – was, “It needed doing and I did it.”

About the Author More by Ken Weber

Caledon writer Ken Weber’s best-selling Five Minute Mysteries series is published in 22 languages. Ken is also the Historic Hills columnist and puzzle meister for this magazine and has a loyal following here in the hills.

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Image courtesy DCMA P-1360

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