Building the Sideroad


John W. Gilchrist



(A biographical note follows the article.)









“They came in their corduroy breeches,

They came with their doubts and their fears;

They came with the frogs in the ditches,

To welcome the old pioneers.”





The author of this once popular song has been charged with overlooking the detail that there could scarcely be ditches for the frogs till the pioneers made them.  But poets have first to consider their rhymes, and in the remainder of the song were just and fair to the “vanguard of a new nation”, a matter that prominent writers often ignore.






The sideroad is quite modern in one respect---the poet did not know that there was any other kind of corduroy except that used in breeches.  He would be disillusioned if ever called on to assist in laying a section of corduroy through a swamp.  This was the first process of the slowest, most toilsome and exasperating form of road making.  Logs, 10 inches and 12 feet long were laid side by side till the swamp was crossed.  The finest of the brush was laid on the logs to hold the muck thrown from ditches dug at the ends.  The frogs could then “pipe up”.   Where corduroy was required the ground was, of course, soft and boggy, and the work had to be done without the assistance of faithful oxen.  The logs were carried or rolled by the pioneers, often quite a distance, by reason of the size required, cedar if possible, but the heavy black ash had often to be carried over the worst kind of footing.  As nearly two dozen of these logs were required for every rod, some idea may be attained of labour as well as the unrelenting persistence required to cross a long section of swamp, and most of it voluntary; at any rate there could be no cash reward, as there were neither townships nor township councils.  The leading or trunk roads were built by capital in some form, but between these there are now many groups of counties as well as townships where almost the entire roads were built by the voluntary labour of the early pioneers.  The scattered remnants of primeval forest remaining can suggest to some degree what that labour meant when all was wilderness.






There is a sharp distinction between a concession and a sideroad that yet exists.  In a regularly surveyed township, all lots come to the concession, while only the fifth lot or so is divided lengthwise by the sideroad.  Thus every owner had a direct motive in opening the concession and getting somewhere.  The hardest work was done by “bees”, later organized into statute labour; and though much faithful work was performed under the latter method, it never stirred the same vim and enthusiasm as a “bee”.  Vigorous men, who never thought of time or energy at a bee, would carefully calculate the hours and labour when working under statute labour.  Besides, the boss of the bee was expected to set an example of untiring industry and activity, while the legally appointed pathmaster was inclined to be content with merely supervising.  The service of an active man and an inspiring example would be lost.






On the sideroad, conditions were different.  At first, there was no pressing necessity to open them.  The adjacent owners, usually about four, could get to the concessions, and there were bush roads connecting, and when opened, an extra boundary fence would be required.  Men are alive who assisted at the opening of many of them.    The crooks or winds were caused by large trees.  Axemen, who took a delight in felling a large tree at the regular height, could scarcely be brought to chop one off level with the earth.  So the time-honoured joke that the bend was caused by not wishing to disturb the jug and its precious contents can be “placed on file”.   Oxen were superior to horses at tearing up the tangled roots and stones on high ground.  They could easily be taught to exert their vast strength and go very slow.  Few teams could be trained to this, and the clumsy whiffletrees were another inconvenience.  At best, holding and guiding the wooden plow and the cast iron scraper was strenuous work on man and beast.






About the author


John William Gilchrist (1865-1942) was born in Puslinch and there, with many an attendant honour, he long resided, excepting brief stints in Guelph and St. Catharines.


Young John Gilchrist was a natural athlete and participated in many sports.  He trained with the 11th Field Battery, rose to the rank of Captain, and during World War I, he was an instructor at St. Catharines.  Mr. Gilchrist was an outstanding marksman, winning the prestigious Paterson trophy in Ottawa in 1897, and representing the Canadian Bisley team in England on several occasions.


Socially, John Gilchrist, with his beloved violin and large repertoire of popular songs, was always in great demand.  During his later years, he assisted Colonel John Bayne Maclean in assembling and displaying the remarkable collection of antiques at the Maclean Museum in Crieff.   Mr. Gilchrist’s excellent model of the Crieff Church may still be viewed at the Wellington County Museum & Archives.


As a writer, he contributed widely to newspapers and other publications such as “Rod & Gun”, “Farmers’ Sun”, and “Weekly Fun”.  Mr. Gilchrist’s work was well received, noted for combining a compassionate sense of humour with a wealth of stories on early days in Puslinch Township.







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