Smithville, Ontario – Early Life

Richard Griffin had a good sized family, eleven children, and must have a good sized house to accommodate them. He built what was in those early days considered a large cabin. It was made of logs as lumber up to this time could only be made with the whip saw and the crosscut. The logs were cut out of the forest, notched, and put into position, log upon log, until the side walls were completed. The cracks between the logs were filled with a sort of clay mortar. The building was long and narrow and of very few rooms. The main room contained the big open fireplace, was living room, dining room, kitchen, and for a time, bedroom as well. After the log walls were completed the fireplace was built, the chimney being constructed of sticks and clay which were replaced later by stone and motar. The roof was made of poles covered with bark and stuffed with moss and clay. A few pieces of crude furniture made by Ned Griffin, along with some few things which had been brought with them across the border, comprised the furnishings of the new homes. The few boards which they required for various purposes were obtained laboriously by the use of whip-saw and crosscut. Pioneer homes in a wooded country are usually built in a clearing, nearly every tree, and in many cases the last tree, being cut down about the buildings. With forest all about them one can readily understand the desire of the settler to build his home where he would have as it were, a breathing space, room to stretch, and to get a full view of the sky. The tendency is now the opposite, with the wide stretches of open country we build our homes among a cluster of trees, and if trees are not available we grow them. Thus through all the history of mankind we find his tastes his demands, and his resources vary and are subject to constant change as one period ushers in another. Walnut logs went into the walls of some of the dwellings of those early days that the builder of this generation would pay dearly to obtain. Choice timber was piled and burned in order to clear the land—of timber they had an abundance, of workable land they had none. It is sad to note in our day that our timber lands are fast disappearing and unless the reforestration and conservation policy of our Governments are carefully adhered to, we shall have a forestless country.

The first home of Smithville was now sheltering its first family. Soon, however, sons and daughters of Richard Griffin chose homesteads of their own and settled down, the forerunners of a sturdy race and a prosperous community. During the four years previous to the coming of the Griffins, namely 1783 to 1787, settlers had been coming in and the British Government had kept commissioners at work enquiring into the claims of the Loyalists. $15,000,000 was paid them in indemnities besides the land grants, implements and supplies of food which were issued. In many cases grafters, or human, I should say inhuman parasites, who should have distributed harrow teeth, logging chains, etc., without cost to the settlers, charged them outrageous prices for these much-needed supplies. By this time, 1787, the Government was expecting the settlers to depend upon their crops and resourcefulness, which, together with the assistance already received should enable them to carry on. It was at this time that the settlements were called upon to endure the greatest hardships in their whole history. In 1787 the crops, meagre at best considering the amount of land under cultivation, failed almost completely.

Those who had not stored up a little provision were faced with starvation. This was in the lake region and as the Government had undertaken to feed the people for three years only, many were now facing a year with scanty food to sustain life. This was known as the hungry year. The people were forced to live upon anything that would sustain life. Plants, roots and the buds of trees were gathered carefully and eaten. Plants that the livestock would eat were considered safe for the settlers. Anything which contained nourishment was used for food. Roots,plants and nuts were mixed with a sort of bran which made a gruel, fish were obtained from the creeks, and while game was plentiful, ammunition was scarce, and was used sparingly. In those days they had the game and in our generation we have the ammunition, but the gap of time cannot be bridged and so the law of supply for a particular period says, that each period has its limitations, and rightly so. If all the possible needs of a generation were supplied, for what would they strive? Every bee in the hive of society would be a drone. And so God has ordered supply according to need in His own best way. It was a sad year for the early settlers and it was a long time before they recovered from the sufferings endured for the want of proper food. Some of the people died from under nourishment. But a brighter day was dawning for them. 1788 saw the wheat heads filling out plump and full and the brave hearts took courage, for they could see the end of their sufferings. Thus we see how fortunate was the preparation of the Griffins in that they brought a year’s provision and some livestock with them. These hardships were spared them, and they were able to keep strong bodies to perform the strenuous work that their first year in Canada demanded. During the first year in the history of Smithville the Griffins were the only residents. Their first thought and labor was to clear sufficient land on which to grow some crops. The first method used was to dig the trees out by the roots, a hard and difficult but effective means of clearing the land. Deer and wild turkey were plentiful and furnished many a tasty meal for the hard-working pioneers. Some of the early settlers used a brush harrow to work up a small patch of land, so that the seed might take root. Others used a three-cornered wooden harrow in which wooden pegs were driven. With these crude implements the land was merely scratched over the surface, but the soil was rich and crops grew, in spite of adverse conditions of cultivation. At a later period the Government sent out iron harrow teeth and log chains to assist the settlers in the cultivation of the land and in hauling the timber. These were much prized implements and were of much greater value than land, which exchanged hands for a trifle. The crops grown were Indian corn and wild rice. The women learned the art of tanning from the Indians and were able to make the deerskin soft and pliable, and many a garment was made from these skins. Crude moccasins were worn on the feet, and though ill-shaped, were warm and comfortable. As soon as leather was available, every man made shoes for his own family. These were shapeless but comfortable. The women gathered the stalks of the wild rice along the river bank and braided this straw into useful hats and bonnets which were truly a work of art. Light, serviceable, and of neat appearance, they served the need of the time as well and perhaps better, than the millinery creations of our own day. At a later period they raised their own flax, and hemp and crude handlooms and spinning wheels were made.

The clacking loom and humming spinning wheel could be heard in every cabin. Coarse linen was woven and blankets of hemp. Most of the summer clothing was made from the home-grown flax, and these garments were light and strong. The tow or waste product of the flax served a useful purpose, being made into rope and halters. Men’s trousers of linen were said to wear like iron and the tablecloths and towels served a useful purpose. These thrifty people worked from sunrise to sunset at their regular daily tasks and then, after the evening meal, the spinning wheels were put in motion, and before the open fire-place mother and daughters worked on the family wardrobe in order that all might be comfortably clad. Their light at first depended largely upon the glow from the fireplace. They also made a crude candle in the following manner: several strands of cotton warp were twisted together, this was placed over a kettle of hot grease which was poured over the wick or dipped; this was allowed to cool and more grease was added until the candle was large enough to serve their purpose as a means of light. Several years later the candle moulds came into use and were as welcome to the average household as a grand piano is today. To strike a light they used a flint, a piece of punk and a steel, striking the flint with the steel produced a spark which ignited the punk. The first matches which were sold in Smithville were retailed at 10 cents each,—it is more than likely that smokers of that day used a coal to light their pipes. Ontario wolves being fond of Canadian sheep, made it difficult to produce wool, but after a time some wool was produced. In the spring the men sheared the sheep and the wool was carded by hand and made into rolls, which the women of the household spun on a large spinning wheel into woollen yarn. This was then woven into full cloth, from which the garments were made, thus the whole process from shearing the sheep, and planting the flax, to the finished garments which they wore, was the result of the skill of their own hands, and was an achievement of which they could be justly proud. By this time some wheat was grown on the few patches of cleared land, and the happy harvesters with sickle in hand went forth to cut the first crop of golden wheat on Canadian soil.

Compared with present methods of harvesting this was a slow method of cutting grain, but from whatever angle we consider the life and time of these early settlers, we find that their wants and needs were more simple and fewer than our own. We also find that the ability to supply practically all their household needs lie within their own powers. In our own time we can scarcely live a day without a hundred needs being supplied directly or indirectly by others. The great cause of anxiety, unhappiness, and frenzied endeavour is the multiciplicity of needs, the complex nature of our social structure, and the growing tendency of all classes to demand more pleasure, more leisure, more comfort and luxury. Take for example the up-to-date house-furnishing establishments whose show-rooms contain hundreds of different pieces of furniture, some useful, some ornamental, and some whose usefulness or beauty we cannot discover. In every other establishment supplying the present demands of men, (I say ‘demands’, as many of them are not needs), we find the same supply catering to every need, wish, and whim of modern man. The grain was threshed with a flail, every grain being carefully gathered and on the first windy day they proceeded to clean it. As there were no fanning mills at that time a blanket was fastened to two poles and the grain thrown against the blanket. The grain dropped to the ground and the chaff blew away.

The next process was to grind the grain and the first method used was to crush it between two stones, a slow and unsatisfactory way. Soon the “Hominy Block” was introduced, which was made as follows: A hardwood stump four feet through was selected, in the top of which a hollow space was burned, large enough to hold about a bushel of grain. Here the grain was pounded with a wooden ‘Plumper’ Sometimes a stone on the end of a pole or ‘Sweep’ took the place of the ‘Plumper.’ The Hominy Block being unsatisfactory, many of the settlers carried their wheat on their backs, down the Twenty shore to the lake and thence to Niagara Falls, where a windmill was operated. This was a long and hard journey, and required some thought and planning before it was undertaken. The grain was carefully cleaned and placed in a bag, to be carried on the back during the long journey by foot. The wife would prepare a hot wholesome meal for the men, a sort of bread cakes were baked to supply them with food on the journey. Arriving at Niagara Falls the miller’s wife would bake enough cakes out of the grist for the return journey. Soon, however, these grists were taken on horseback through a trail to Niagara Village where a grist mill was in operation.

Smith Griffin, the enterprising business head of Richard Griffin’s family, had not forgotten the millstones brought from the American Colony, and he now proceeded to build a tread mill, Smithville’s first industry, built by the man after whom the village was named. We shall hear more of Smith Griffin later on. Farmers who brought their grists to Smith’s mill to be ground were required to furnish the necessary power to turn the stones by putting their oxen on the tread mill.

The year 1788 saw a good harvest and the despair and suffering of the hungry year were dispelled. What a change has taken place since those early days of our Forefathers—a failure of the scanty crops meant almost famine. The land which then contained a few scattered farmers sowing a few pecks of wheat, has become the greatest wheat exporting country in the world. The exportable surplus of wheat on August 192.2. of the principal exporting countries of the world shows Canada with a surplus of 312,000,000 bushels, United States, 305,000,000 bushels; British India, 37,000,000 bushels; Agentina, 20,000,000 bushels; Australia, 33,000,000 bushels, and other countries 29,000,000 bushels. These figures do not include the wheat used by these countries for home consumption.

These men who cut down the forest, opened roads, and pioneered the Canadian wilderness, are the men who made possible this achievement of our Canada of today among the wheat exporting countries of the world. They gave us, however, a greater heritage than wheat—(Bolsheviks can grow wheat)—they gave us a race, sturdy, strong, and loyal, the strength of the British race wherever it is found.

Up to this time, 1788, there were no new settlers in Smithville, but the following year four more families came, one of them bearing the name of Myers, who lived at St. Anns at a later date.

In 1790 eight more settlers came and in 1791 the McColloms came, settling along the north creek on the old McCollom homestead, on which the late Jasper McCollom, a descendant, lived.

Up to this time there were scarcely any roads. The streams were the only highways with here and there a bridle-path, or bush trail. It was often miles to the nearest neighbor, and through forest. The common hardships made these people as brothers, as they had a warm feeling of comradeship, and a settler never asked a fellow pioneer for help without receiving it. There was a feeling of neighborliness, a code of honor a hospitality, the ethics of the pioneer days that has never been equalled or surpassed.

About this time began the system of ‘bees’ or ‘frolics.’ There were ‘chopping frolics,’ ‘logging bees, “building bees,” framing bees,’and ‘husking bees.’ When a new homestead was to be raised, along the roads and blazed trails came the men of the neighborhood. On such occasions they made merry and feasted on venison, wild turkey, wild fruit pies, and smoking Johnny cake. And what appetites! No one has such an appetite in our day.

We do not breath the aroma of pine-scented forest, with the crisp snow banked to the sill of our sleeping room window; the air cold and frosty. In 1790 there was from four to five feet of snow and Lake Ontario was frozen over. At such occasions as bees and frolics, the dishes used were usually of wood, being made of white poplar. Little by little these wooden utensils were replaced by pewter, purchased from time to time from Yankee peddlars.

In summing up the life of the very early settler, we may conclude that he lived a life almost entirely self-contained. Equipped with axe, sickle and flail, with spinning wheel and iron kettle, he and his wife grew the wheat, corn and potatoes, made the soap, the candles and the maple sugar, the deerskin shoes and homespun cloth. They had little to buy or sell. The barrels of potash and pearlash, leached out from the ashes of their hardwood forest clearing, were the chief source of ready money. Transport was very limited. The blazed trail was followed by the corduroy road, built of logs and the most bumpy road that was ever travelled. The pack-horse was followed by the lumbering stage, over these roads. Currency was very limited and barter was the rule. Such were the conditions existing when our forefathers laid the foundation of our native village.