Charlie the Tory

A Story of Pioneer Days


John W. Gilchrist


(A biographical note follows the article.)







Hoop splitting was the only trade in the settlement that had no opposition.  Like trappers, they kept distinct.  A peculiar instinct was required to select the proper grain in the ash to suit the requirements of the trade.   As the supply was greater than the demand, the greatest care had to be taken in the selection.  No remarkable skill was required in making hoops but to select the proper stock and dispose of the hoops when made required a remarkable kind of man.  This can easily be proved.  Charlie was for many years the only Tory in the settlement, and occasionally active and aggressive as well.  He took advantage of his business status as hoop maker to acquire political influence and a following.  All this too, without injuring his social standing in other respects.  He could make a “cheesit”, a small tub in which the cheese was placed for pressing, without any other tools but an axe and a gimlet, quite satisfied if he won the good graces of the housewife.  It was when making hoops that he asserted himself.






The season for hoop making was just after spring seeding when the mosquitoes were most active.  The trees selected were generally in a most inconvenient part of the swamp.  If accompanied by the owner, Charlie lost much time in making the selection, even examining the earth about the roots of likely trees.  Some said this was merely a ruse on Charlie’s part to make things unpleasant for the inquisitive.  However this may be, those who tried making and selling hoops without his assistance never repeated the experiment.  The hoops sold for cash, always a desirable commodity among pioneers and especially so just after seeding.  As all of this happened in the early forties of the last century, nearly every lot had ash, quite valueless unless Charlie made it into hoops.  As the market, generally in the vicinity of a flour mill, would only absorb a limited quantity per year, he carefully distributed the trade among those likely to be impressed by the superiority of his political opinions, and likely alive to the advantage of supporting a party whose single representative was so active in developing home resources.






The industry consisted in Charlie selecting newly arrived pioneers whose political opinions had not become established.  He arrived with his tools in time for breakfast, and announced his intention.  No one ever objected to any proposal he made about hoops.  If the owner were wise, he could avoid an unpleasant search through a primeval swamp by taking no part in the selection.  If the envious could be believed, it was always when he had assistance that the material was found in inconvenient places.  The owner assisted in felling the trees and cutting the trunk into sections, the lengths ascertained by Charlie through incomprehensible marks on his axe handle.  The owner should then depart as he objected to spectators. 


Besides retarding his speed and skill, they somehow prevented the expenditure of energy required to produce the perspiration necessary to foil the attack of mosquitoes.  So persistent were some that they would endure those insects in an effort to learn the trade secrets.  Charlie would then press his political opinions; few would endure the combination.  The timber was split from the heart into proper widths, placed on a firm, even surface, and the rings or growths parted by judicious blows from a mallet.  In a short time, hundreds of hoops were made and tied into bundles.  The bundles were packed to where they could be loaded on a wagon, the owner assisting and furnishing transport, and of course, board.






During all this time Charlie placed him in a position of equality and enviable prosperity by evenly dividing the proceeds, besides a parcel of cherished tea for the housewife.  This was repeated with other pioneers till the market was supplied.  Unlike most itinerant mechanics, he did not enjoy a relaxation on these occasions, unless a somewhat ostentatious exhibition of his wealth and political opinions could be regarded as such.  The hoop season over, he dropped back into something like obscurity, as in the other industries of a bush settlement he was not the equal of his associates in physical activity and strength.


He became a man of consequence in a most surprising manner.  He undertook a visit to Queen Victoria and actually got as far as Edinburgh and returned between two hoop seasons with more cash than he started out with.  That he did not accomplish the object of his journey even added to his notoriety, as he maintained he would try again, and having accomplished so much with the one attempt, what might not happen with another, supported by the experience gained in the first?






The impulse that led to this extraordinary event, and also to his adoption of such remarkable political views was occasioned by misfortunes endured in his first experience of the cares of landed proprietorship.  His capital was gone before he could join his relatives in Upper Canada, and he located in Lower Canada shortly after the rebellion.  His few neighbours were ardent sympathizers of the principles of Papineau.  As many of Charlie’s relatives had served in the highland regiments against the French, he could scarcely be expected to adopt their sentiments, neither did he, and suffered in consequence.  One elderly neighbour was friendly.  From him, Charlie learned how to split hoops and the use of tobacco.  This friend was a skilful and inveterate borrower.  One of Charlie’s most valued possessions was a large frieze coat with pearl buttons.  This coat his friend borrowed so often, that when Charlie wore it himself, the boys said, “There’s the Scotchman with Baptiste’s coat on”.  This was too much; he resolved to go.  He had established some legal claim on some property but was unable to dispose of it.  After an adventurous journey, he joined his friends in Upper Canada.






The intricacies of Canadian politics were incomprehensible.  His friends were ardent supporters of William Lyon Mackenzie, perhaps more because of sympathy with the name, not having immigrated in time to take a more active part.  After his experience with rebel sympathizers, how could he help regarding his friends otherwise than in serious error?  His active efforts to correct their opinions had no further result  than confirming his own.


As Charlie’s devotion to the Crown had been the indirect cause of his leaving property in Lower Canada on which he had established some claim, it seemed right that the Crown should do something for him in Upper Canada, there being plenty of unoccupied forest at that time.  This the local authorities seemed unable to do.  Though he presented himself as a lobby at Parliament, he could get no one interested.  It was then he resolved to bring his claims to the Throne.  He worked his passage to Glasgow and walked to Edinburgh.  In the delay that necessarily occurred, the close of navigation was in view.  Another difficulty had also to be considered.  In the ethics of the hoop industry, a splitter vacating his territory without an understanding with his fellow craftsmen is liable to have his territory occupied.  Not intending to go further than Toronto, Charlie had made no arrangement, and as his title in this matter was good, while the other matter could not be worse, he resolved to return and look after the hoops.






This practical proceeding was not in keeping with general character, however, and many believed that the postponement of the object of his journey was due to his natural gallantry in not obtruding his personal troubles on the maternal cares of a young queen mother.


Fortune favoured him in the return journey.  At the dock he rescued the young hopeful of a wealthy passenger from a watery grave, and was at once engaged as caretaker of the hopeful during the remainder of the voyage home.  This duty he performed so well that he received a handsome remuneration.  Strengthened in spirit by so much money, he made another effort about his property in Lower Canada.  He was warmly welcomed by his former French friend, in fact, all his former neighbours were pleased to see him.  This pleasant circumstance, however, Charlie attributed to a quantity of ship’s tobacco he had with him.   Political matters were still in chaos, and as he could do nothing about his claim, his stay was not long.  He left Lower Canada richer in experience and some undesirable bodily companions.  When out of view he selected a sunny place and carefully removed these insects from his clothing so as not to injure them, throwing them in the direction of his former neighbours.  This duty performed, he resumed his journey.


The settlement was overjoyed to see him again, and when he condescended to employ his mechanical skill in other directions, he did not need again to assume the cares of landed proprietorship.  As the settlement filled up, he lost the distinction of being the only Tory; but that was a small matter, he was the first one.






About the author


John William Gilchrist (1865-1942) was born in Puslinch and there, with many an attendant honour, he long resided, except for 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”, “Farmer’s 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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