Photo from the album of J. J. Watson
“An Anecdotal Life of Sir John Macdonald”
by E. B. Biggar
About 1825, Hugh Macdonald gave up his business in Kingston and moved up the Bay of Quinte, to a point about 15 or 20 miles west of Kingston. The scenery of the Bay of Quinte is charming to the eye of a stranger. The long stretch of water which cuts off Prince Edward county from the mainland, and makes it almost an island, is free from the wild storms which beat upon the outer shores of the county; and the stranger sailing up these pleasant waters sees peace and loveliness on every hand. An ever varying panorama is presented to the eye: here a quiet bay, there a rocky bluff, again a reedy biyou, beyond a shelving shore, and anon an opening where a reach of water, long and winding, finds its way for miles and miles, making peninsula after peninsula of always varying size and aspect. At the present day these sylvan scenes are dotted with farm houses; and in summer the yellow grain fields, richly laden apple orchards, fields of clover or of buckwheat, whose creamy bloom exhales an odor more delightful than “all the perfumes of Arabia,” checker the landscape over, but at that time the shores, the distant hills, the rolling uplands and breezy heights were alike clad with dense groves of maple, oak, hickory, ash and other kinds of Canadian forest trees.
At the root, as it were, of one of these many tongues of land formed by the arms of the Bay of Quinte, was one of the settlements of United Empire Loyalists – those people who, in the American Revolution, “sacrificed their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” to maintain as a united empire Great Britain and her colonies. These settlers had been attracted by the beauty of the scenery and the rich soil, and, at the time we speak of, had in this particular neighborhood two small settlements, one around the village of Adolphustown, and the other along Hay Bay on the other side of this tongue of land. It was at Hay Bay that the Macdonald family fixed their abode. It stood by the side of the high road, about eighty feet from the water. The shore curved in gracefully from a far point of land down towards the house, and the clear waters, whether ruffled by the transient breeze, or in the calm of evening reflecting the distant hills across the bay, must have been a delight and an inspiration to the lad whose fortunes we are following.
The writer visited the spot in the summer of 1890. The waters of the bay, whether from the sinking of the ground or the rising of the water level, had encroached to within forty feet of the old homestead, while down on the farther side of this little bay, two dwellings that formed part of the homestead of Judge Fisher, their nearest neighbor, were now entirely submerged. A pleasant breeze was sending up to the shore little wavelets that chuckled gleefully under the logs and limbs of fallen trees that lay along the water’s edge. From one of these logs a solitary mud-turtle dropped off at our approach, and pushed his way through the reeds. Lady Macdonald, looking on the same scene a few years before, and noticing the same turtle, or its companion, sitting on the same log, made this quaint exclamation: --
“There! There is the very old turtle my husband used to shy stones at when he was a boy.”
But where is the homestead? It is gone.
Its dwellings down, its tenants passed away.
A crop of peas was ripening in the field which had enclosed the house. No trace of it was to be seen, till, going to an uneven spot of ground, the remains of the old foundation were to be made out, quite overgrown with pea-vines, weeds and grass. Here were the remains of the old cellar kitchen, that opened out towards the bay, and which was still but partially filled up with deposits of leaves and the washing so years of rains. A red willow had grown up in the middle of the cellar.
It was a clapboarded wooden house, painted red, with a wooden shingled roof, the west half of the place being used as a store and the east as a dwelling. The dimensions of the whole were 30 x 36 ft. Though the house was long since burned to the ground, a very accurate re-construction of it in print, reproduced here, was made by Mr. Canniff Haight for his book, “Country Life in Canada Fifty Years Ago.” Mr. Haight having often seen it before it had fallen. It was not built for the Macdonalds, but had been occupied by a man named Dettler.
A bumble-bee droned over the catnip that grew along the tumbled stones of the foundation, and its dreamy noise, and the clucking of the waters lulled the mind into a reflective mood, and set one to dreaming over the wonderful career and the complex changes that were wrought out in the life of the boy who played about this ruined wall and paddled in this limpid water hard by. These reflections were disturbed by a “caw caw” from one of the poplar trees that still skirted the shore, and looking up we beheld a crow gazing down in serious reflection on the scene. Ah! Grip! You here now, and were you here then? You, whose life must have spanned over the century, did you croak or prophesy at the home-coming of the school-boy who was to sway the destinies of Canada? And is this shattered tenement a type of the end of all human glory? This much, old Grip, is certain: Within a year the genius that took thy name was never more to excite the mirth of thousands with new variations of those playful sketches of the living face that looked up into his mother’s, sitting before this kitchen door!
AT SCHOOL AT ADOLPHUSTOWN
The years at Adolphustown were chiefly spent at school, Johnny for a portion of the time being sent back to Kingston. The wiry lad, with his sisters, Margaret and Louise, walked night and morning from Hay Bay to the school at Adolphustown, a distance of three miles. The school house was a little wooden structure, built by the original settlers, the U. E. Loyalists. Though the only one in the township, it was but sixteen feet long or thereabouts, with two windows on each side, filled with seven by eight inch window panes. The old school is now used as a granary, and near to it there still stands the oak tree- now grown to a patriarchal size – upon whose limb the boy used to swing with his sisters and their companions.
There was but one board desk in the school house, and that ran round three sides of the room. The teacher’s desk was at the vacant end, and a pail of water in the corner was about the only other piece of furniture in this temple of learning, which was presided over by a crabbed old Scotchman known as Old Hughes. Hughes had an adroit method of taking a boy by the collar and giving him a lift off his feet and a whack at the same time. The skill and celerity with which he did this was very interesting to all the boys, except the subject of the operation, and Johnny must often have enjoyed the exhibition, though he had no love for the chief performer, upon whom he played more than one sly trick. His school mates of this early day describe Johnny Macdonald as thin and spindly and pale, and his long and lumpy nose gave him such a peculiar appearance, that some of the girls called him “ugly John Macdonald.” One of them says he did not show any marked cleverness till later on, when he had got into the study of mathematics. He was not fond of athletics, or of hunting, or sport, although he was very nimble and was a fleet runner. He delighted, like most boys in the country, to run barefoot in summer, and often referred in after years, in his speeches, to this boyish pleasure. He was a good dancer, however, and was rather fond of the diversion. He also learned to skate in these days, and a school-mate, Mr. John J. Watson (of whom Sir John never in after years spoke without giving him the school boy title of “John Joe” , relates that one day, while a group of the boys were skating, he tripped up Johnny, who was a poor skater.
“What did you do that for?” demanded Johnny, as he scramble to his feet.
“Because I couldn’t help it, when I saw such drumsticks as yours on ice.”
Johnny made a dash after John Joe, but John Joe was a fleet skater, and sailed easily to a safe distance.
“I’ll visit you for this,” exclaimed Johnny, pointing the finger of vengeance at John Joe, and it was expected that John Joe would suffer for it afterwards. He did not, though for a time afterwards Johnny seemed to lose respect for him.
As a boy, John Macdonald was considered by many to be of a vindictive disposition and possessed of a violent temper. He certainly was a passionate boy, but if he ever possessed any vindictiveness, he must early have seen its danger, and learned to control both it a and his temper. His after career shows that in his dealings with his fellows his self-control increased with his years. Things that were put down by companions to vindictiveness might have had no worse a motive than the boy’s inherent love of fun and mischief.
On one occasion, when they lived at Hay Bay, his sister Louise, and her companion, “Getty” Allen, got into the boat, but forgot their oars, when Johnny, seeing the situation, shoved them out into the bay. The two girls screamed and scolded by turns, while Johnny laughed. His mother came down, and with half-concealed enjoyment of the scene exclaimed: -
“You wicked boy, what did you do that for? Suppose they upset?”
“Then I would go and pull them in,” and he waited for time and the evening breeze to waft them back to shore.
The family were apparently in good circumstances at this time, and were considered rather superior to their neighbors around. They were usually friendly and hospitable, but did not associate intimately with their neighbors, except in the case of Judge Fisher’s family. Margaret and Louise were both fond of music, and they had the only piano in this settlement. It had a small key-board, and legs almost as thin as the legs of a table, like the instruments of that time, and had a thin tone as well as thin legs. However, the music had sufficient charm to draw young visitors from many parts of the settlement to hear it. The sisters, besides being able to play, sang very well together, in part songs, the one taking soprano and the other alto.
Before the family returned to reside in Kingston, they lived for a year or two at a place then known as the Stone Mills – now called Glenora – just below one of the natural curiosities of the place, the “Lake on the Mountain.” Here Mr. Macdonald leased a grist and carding mill, the running of which was only an indifferent success. The old stone mill still exists, and its situation on the side of the steep bluff is still as charming and almost as wild as then. Game must have been plentiful at that time, but our hero delighted in neither hunting nor fishing, and the only hunting story handed down in this connection is one to the effect that the Van Black boys, returning from a hunt, saw John coming up the road. They had shot a crow, and in order to have some fun, they braced this crow up on a stump in the adjoining field, and lingered around till their young friend came up. One of them casually called attention to the crow, when Johnny begged the gun “to have a whack at it.” He fired, but the crow never as much as turned his head, and it was only the laughter that followed the second shot that led the young marksman to suspect a joke had been played on him.
William Canniff, of Toronto, gives a reminiscence [Kingston Whig] of their life at the Stone Mills. Young Macdonald was always full of fun, and delighted to play tricks upon his playmates. On one occasion he aroused the displeasure of one of his companions. The aggrieved boy, who was larger than he caught Johnny in the flour mill, and having laid him prostrate, proceeded to rub flour into the jet locks of his hair until it was quite white. When released the victim went scampering down the hill, laughing, and apparently appreciated the joke as much as the perpetrator.
At the election of 1882, Sir John ran for Lennox, and during the campaign came to hold a meeting in Adolphustown, the home of his boyhood. The ladies of the village and neighborhood turned out and formed an equestrian procession to escort him from the wharf to the house of Mr. J. J. Watson, one of his schoolmates. The sight of these ladies on horseback, and the crowds of people of all shades of political opinion who had come to welcome this man, was unique in the social or political history of the settlement.
Sir John made himself at home in the house of his early friend, with whom after many years of separation he sat down, and, throwing aside all thought of politics or ambition, became a boy again, and calling his friend, “John Joe”, and addressing Mrs. Watson as “Getty”, talked with schoolboy animation of those bygone days, when they played tricks with each other on the ice.
From the autograph album of Mrs. J. J. Watson
John A. Macdonald and Agnes Macdonald
visit Adolphustown June 17, 1882
Sir John A Macdonald’s Early Home
From “Country Life in Canada Fifty Years Ago”
By Canniff Haight Published 1885
Monument of Sir John A. Macdonald
South Shore Hay Bay, Adolphustown
SIR JOHN ALEXANDER
Born in Scotland, the young Macdonald returned frequently during
his formative years to his parents’ home here on the Bay of
Quinte. His superb skills kept him at the centre of public life
for fifty years. The political genius of Confederation, he became
Canada’s first prime minister in 1869, held that office for
nineteen years (1867-73 and 1878-91), and presided over the
expansion of Canada to its present boundaries excluding
Newfoundland. His National Policy and the building of the CPR
were equally indicative of his determination to resist the
north-south pull of geography and to create and preserve a
strong country politically free and commercially autonomous.
Historic Sites and Monuments board of Canada.
View of Hay Bay Church on the Bay Shore Road
Taken from the site of the Macdonald Monument 2006