The changes that have occurred even in this comparatively old settled county within the experience of men yet alive and active are well illustrated in the experience of one well-known resident of Richmond township, - Mr. James McConnell, near Roblin village. Mr. McConnell is not a native of the county, having been born and reared in Ireland. He came to this country when a young man, sixty-two years ago, in 1837, and has resided here ever since. As he has an excellent memory and well recollects nearly every incident of his experience of the past sixty years, the changes that he can relate of the occurrences of that time seem somewhat marvellous in the light of today’s experience. We do not pretend to be in possession of anything like a complete history of his experience, but will merely relate a few of the facts giving indication of the changes that have occurred within the period of his manhood.
The Matter of Travel
A trip from Ireland to Canada is now a matter of a few days, and barring seasickness, which does not occur to every one, it is counted on as a week’s pleasure and recreative excursion. It was very different sixty-two years ago, however. though Mr. McConnell’s trip out did not appear to have been an unusually long or rough one, yet it required twelve full weeks to come from Ireland to Kingston, and that, too, by steamer, we believe, or at least a considerable portion of the way. Ten weeks and four days on an ocean vessel to Montreal and one week and three days from Montreal to Kingston. A traveller today spending as many days as it then required weeks to accomplish the same journey would feel he had just grounds of complaint for delay. And if one tenth as many hardships and discomforts had to be endured there would be much grumbling in consequence. The steamer that brought them into Montreal at that time had three sailing ships in tow up the St. Lawrence, which was not an unusual experience at that time. Probably for every one steamer that then arrived from the ocean at Montreal there were ten sailing ships. Then the trip from Montreal to Kingston, by the easiest route of ordinary travel, involved a good deal of time, fatigue and expense. That was long before the days of fast railway trains, or of any railways at all, or of even passable wagon roads. The summer route between the two cities, which is now such a popular holiday pleasure trip of but a few hours, was then via. the Ottawa river up to Bytown (now the city of Ottawa) and from there through the Rideau canal to Kingston. A week for that round about journey then would have been considered pretty expeditious travelling. The Rideau canal had then been completed but a few years and no other route of steam water communication up the St. Lawrence had then been protected. The present spacious St. Lawrence canals had hardly yet been even dreamed of. Steamboats were scarce and small. Nearly all freight, was brought up in “Durham boats” - large lumber barges, and these were usually in tow of the steamers. The steamer on which Mr. McConnell passed through the Rideau had nine of these loaded Durham boats in tow. The canal locks were then so small that only one vessel could pass through at one time, and so awkwardly constructed, compared to the present improved locks, that each vessel required some time for lockage. To get through from By-town to Kingston in a single week, under the circumstances, was considered not a bad or slow passage.
By-town was then but an insignificant back-wood village, principally of log houses and a few small dwellings and business places of rather rough stone, Probably no one then even dreamed of living to see the day when it would become the magnificent capital of the Dominion of Canada, a territory extending from ocean to ocean, that it now is, and with all its immense manufacturing and other industrial interests. Kingston was then a small town, “not larger than Napanee now is,” with little to keep it up but the fact that it was the headquarters for a considerable number of British soldiers, on whom some thousands of pounds were expended from the Imperial treasury.
Hard Times Then
When Mr. McConnell reached here, in 1837, the country was just in the throes of the noted Mackenzie Rebellion. Such was the political excitement and the uncertainty of affairs that business was almost entirely at a standstill. The immigrants who arrived and even the laboring classes residing in the country could scarcely find employment at all, and those who did so found it all but impossible to get their hard earning in money. Hundreds, like Mr. McConnell, were glad to work for their board and lodgings and they were by no means of a luxurious character at that. He was glad to work for more than a year on such terms, and many others were not as well off.
Fortunately land was cheap and abundant and fuel could almost anywhere be got for the chopping, but the land was not yet cleared and to get it in any shape for raising bread stuffs required a large amount of both labor and time. Living was very plain in those days, but few people complained of dyspepsis or of nervous derangements.
It was about that time that the macadamised road was first commenced between Kingston and Napanee. It was the first road of the kind, we believe, that was thus built, as a government enterprise in the province. It was then intended as a link of a regular government highway right across the then inhabited section of the province, along Lake Ontario shore from Kingston, at the foot of the lake, to York (now Toronto) and thence on to Dundas, at the western extremity of the lake. The road was then, and long after, popularly known as “the York road” or by others as “Dundas street,” indicating its destination.
It is said that one object of the Government at the time was to afford work and wages for the many hundreds of immigrants then recently landed, who had no other means of labor and wage earning. It is said, however, that the immigrants themselves saw very little of the tens of thousands of dollars thus paid out from the Imperial treasury. Along the line from Kingston in this direction numbers of the enterprising and fairly well-to-do farmers took jobs of sections of the road and then gave employ to hundreds of the new-comers at stone breaking, (that was all done by hand), paying the poor fellows by their board when thus at work. Even at that rate many of them were thankful to get any such means at the time of keeping the wolf of hunger from the door. The times about “thirty-seven” were long remembered by all classes in this province as troublesome times indeed. Fortunately they did not last long, though for years and years thereafter nearly every small farmer and land owner knew well what it meant to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow.
Enlisted as a Volunteer
The country was then full of commotion and rumors of war. Volunteers for the active Militia were nearly everywhere called for, among the young me. Mr. McConnell volunteered and was enrolled in a Militia company from about Napanee and its vicinity, and spent six months of the winter of 1837-38 in the soldiers’ barracks at Kingston. these yet untrained volunteers were not called upon for active duty “on the front,” where several real bloody engagements took place. The trained soldiers from the regular ranks were sent out for that purpose and the volunteers were on guard at the Kingston barracks, along the streets and outskirts and around the penitentiary, which was then in operation as a prison but was not yet walled in with stone walls, as now. It was guarded day and night by barrack soldiers. Every place about the “town” - it was not a city till long after - was carefully guarded as many feared an uprising against the governments, which had made itself so unpopular among many classes. No one seemed quite sure how wide and deep that feeling of disaffection had spread.
Among the officers of that militia company were the following men, - all of whom have now passed away, but they were well known and stirring patriotic men in this locality at that time; and nearly all of them are well represented by respected descendants here today:
Captain, James Fraser, Esq., of Fredericksburgh; Lieutenant, John McGill Detlor, who afterwards moved to Tweed, where he lived and died; Ensign, Charles McGreer, of riverside, near town; Adjutant, William Sills, of Fredericksburgh, who afterwards moved to Thurlow, where he lived and died; Sergeants, Thomas Moyle, of Richmond, father-in-law of Uriah Wilson, M.P., Wm. Templeton, father of the editor of THE BEAVER, and others of that stamp. four members of the Oliver family, Richmond, were in that company; so were several of the Kimmerleys, and other well known young men of those days.
It was while the company was on duty at Kingston that the celebrated battle of the Wind Mill was fought at Prescott, and a number of the American prisoners were brought in who were hanged at Kingston for the part they took in attempting to invade and capture Upper Canada at that time.
Early times in Richmond
It was after the excitement of the rebellion was over and the militia had been disbanded, that Mr. McConnell settled on a lot of land just north of the Salmon river in the vicinity of where the village of Roblin now stands, and where he has ever since resided. That section appears to be one of the old and well cultivated sections of the township now, with excellent cultivated farms, but it was then an all but unbroken wilderness, with only a log shanty erected her and there by some of the adventurous pioneers. It seems all but increditable that a man yet active should have had a hand in clearing away the first underbrush from what is now one of the old and well travelled thorough-fares. There was not then even a direct road from Napanee to where the village of Roblin now stands; no bridge across the river there, no mill in existence and hardly a dwelling house.
Farther down the river, where Forest Mills now is, the elder Archibald McNeil had already erected a saw mill and a small grist mill. there were no mills along the river farther up, we believe, where Roblin, Croydon, Tamworth and other thriving places now stand. Mr. McNeil was among the early and very enterprising lumberman and mill owners of this county. The grist mill was built there as early as 1832 and one has been in operation in the locality ever since; the saw mill was probably built at a still earlier date. Mr. McConnell and others of his locality were in the habit of putting their grists of a bushel or two of grain on their shoulders, or on a hand sleigh in the winter, and thus trudging their way to mill, bringing home again their grists of flour in the same way. Customers often came in that way for miles and were thankful for the convenience of a grist mill so comparatively near and easy of access. He and others were in the habit of carrying all the way in from Napanee, on their shoulders, their bags of salt, tea, groceries and household necessities, a dozen miles of more, and did not deem it a very hard day’s journey to walk into town and back again the same day, loaded on their shoulders the little stuff they might have to sell and back again what they had purchased. There were no stores nearer them.
About Roblin and Locality
It was not until years later that mills sprang up where the apparently old village of Roblin now stands. We have it from other sources that the first dwelling erected there was a small log shanty by Chauncey Windover. He was among the pioneers and he and his family are yet well remembered.
Wolves and other wild animals were so numerous that sheep could not be kept or even cows and calves for some time. At times it was a dangerous risk to have any of the family venture outside of the log shanty at night for fear of being attacked by wolves. On one occasion Mr. T. Alexander, one of the pioneer neighbors, was going through the woods with his ox team and cart from Forest Mills, and when about half way a pack of hungry wolves began chasing him. The oxen well understood their danger and ran for dear life; he laid himself in the bottom of the cart box for his own personal protection, while his team kept up the run until they reached Mr. Windover’s door where he jumped out and secured help to drive the hungry beast off. such stories seem hardly creditable now, but we have good authority for believing that many of the early settlers had similar thrilling experiences.
The late Mr. Ezra Spencer was one of the first mill owners and business men at Roblin, - known for years as “Spencer’s Mills,” and his sons are among the well known business men there today.
Old Time Prices
The prices of household necessities in those early days were something simply marvelous to us. Sugar sold at a shilling (20 cents) a pound, and a fairly good quality of tea from a dollar upward; cottons and cloths were proportionately dear, and so was salt. On the other hand butter was worth about six pence (10 cents) and cheese could hardly be sold. Mr. McConnell remarks that when he got farming it required two pounds of butter to buy a single pound of sugar, while now a single pound of butter will easily purchase six pounds of a better quality of sugar, “and yet farmers now talk about hard times and hard work.” But he adds: “Few of them really know what hard times and hard work means.”
THOMAS W. CASEY