A Tale of Pioneer Life



John W. Gilchrist


(A biographical note follows the article.)






Jamey’s family was endowed with industrial activity which they could not have inherited directly from him.  His assertion that he had brought his family from the Old World to improve their condition in the New could scarcely be accepted.  His ambitious family had brought him.  As this was his only attempt at vainglorious untruthfulness, no harm ensued.  He did not require to be untruthful to be interesting, he was interesting enough just as he was.  He must have had some authority over his family in the land of his birth as with a few tools he brought a fiddle with him, an instrument regarded with small favour by his practical family till they learned of its popularity in the pioneer settlement.






  Jamey could only play three tunes, but as one of these was the ever popular “Soldier Joy”, which he played with such spirit as to cause other deficiencies to be unnoticed.  To play this classic air properly requires three strings, the first string being the most important and the most easily broken.  Neither could a substitute be provided as was sometimes attempted with the other strings.  When without the first string, as he generally was, Jamey would only play the two other minor selections.  Finally it dawned on his admirers that this was a subtle hint to provide a first string; and as this was the only recompense he expected, eager efforts were made to keep him supplied.  There were difficulties, however.  A long journey was required, altogether too long for a man of Jamey’s leisurely disposition.  Those who were obliged to make the journey always brought back a string, but mistakes were often made and the community had to suffer for the annoyance and disappointment of Jamey having an oversupply of strings not required and no first string to play “Soldier Joy”.  When he had a complete set of strings he played so assiduously as to soon wear out the first string.  This led to the practice, when a string was procured, of first warning the neighbourhood so they could assemble and listen to “Soldiers’ Joy to their hearts’ content before Jamey could wear out the string for his own private enjoyment.






Then the fiddle began to develop the annoying malady of becoming disconnected with itself.  Glue was even more difficult to provide than a string and much harder to remember and Jamey, always patiently ingenious, was forced to the expedient of wooden clamps and pitch.  Though this had a collective effect on the fiddle, it so injured the tone that the instrument became scarcely audible.  Some of the young men used to sail on the Great Lakes during the summer.  To secure entertainment for the long winter evenings they presented him with a fiddle and more than a reasonable supply of first strings.  Though not altogether disinterested, their thoughtfulness touched Jamey so deeply that he confessed a serious defect in the bow, hitherto entirely unnoticed. 


The stick or shaft was perfect but the hair was from an ordinary animal.  Proper hair required conditions of horse life not likely to be secured in a bush settlement, but if provided he would assure his benefactors that his music would be worthy of the new fiddle.  When the resourceful sailors overcame this final difficulty it was expected that Jamey would enlarge the variety of his selections, but this he never did.  He claimed that the musical vigour with which he performed his three selections might be lessened by adding to them and anything that would endanger the marvellous skill in playing Soldiers’ Joy was not to be considered.






His audience was easily satisfied, too well pleased with anything that would lift the forest loneliness from their hearts to become critical.  Many a pleasant evening that otherwise would be gloomy enough was inspired by Jamey and his fiddle.


Jamey was very skilful with some tools, especially a knife, but his skill was negatived  by a utilitarian patience that caused him to finish the most simple article much more elaborately than was at all necessary.  So persistently patient was he that he could scarcely finish a rake in time for use.  Until they took the matter into their own hands his hustling family never had a rake apiece.  It was not idleness or want of application, but an overparticularness that delayed the completion.  A promise of a fiddle string when the article was completed only served to increase his zeal in unnecessary polishing and scraping.  He had a monopoly on wooden articles that required to be steamed into shape.  Until roads were opened the simple castings for the early plows were often “packed” to where needed and the woodwork made and fitted by some local handy man.  For ploughing among fresh roots a good hold, termed “purchase”, was required on the handles.  None could imitate the serviceable curve Jamey could steam on the handles. 






He could make a turkey wing cradle if given unlimited time and the complicated curves of his snaths, the long handle of a scythe, were marvels of symmetry and grace if allowed to finish them to his own satisfaction, which he always preferred.  The only impatience he showed was with those who were satisfied with what was “good enough to do”.  He would not be hurried, and those who came in a hurry often went slowly away, charmed by his actions and conversation.  His nature was open but in one direction it had a strong element of reserve.  No one ever learned from him the process of steaming wood.  Articles inquired after were either not begun or “in the mould” and not to be even looked at.


The first winter, Jamey endured hardship owing to the log house being hurriedly and inefficiently “chinked”.  Believing that his sufferings might undermine his constitution, he adopted a new and astonishing remedy.  The first sunny spring day he was seen on the sunny side of the house reclining under a mountain of clothes.  To anxious enquirers he stated that he was not really unwell, he was thawing the winter’s frost out of his bones.  This process he continued each spring till he discovered a better means of restoring his health and adding to a very moderate income.  This occasioned the longest journey he ever attempted since coming into the forest, but it was eminently successful.






The land in his district contained boulder stone, often far too many, as pioneers learned to their sorrow.  Jamey’s journey was for the purpose of learning how to convert these boulders into lime, an article much required about log buildings.  As these boulders had to be removed from the land anyway, he managed to induce his industrious family to assist or rather to do most of the work of building a small lime kiln, under his direction.   The trade secret about a lime kiln was the arch under which a fire was maintained the proper period of time.  Like the steaming, Jamey kept this knowledge to himself.  The enterprise was a success from the first and the income, though small, was constant and very desirable.  His charges, though very reasonable, like toll-keepers, he demanded coin of the realm.


Once prepared, there was not much hard labour about burning a kiln, though it required continuous attention for two or three days and nights, the heat serving to thaw Jamey’s bones.  Competitors or imitators did not succeed.  The excellence of Jamey’s product and his attractive personality brought the trade his way.  Talented poets and writers have given us charming descriptions of maple sugar making.  When everybody made sugar, the boiling of a kettle of sap was an insignificant affair to the spring burning of Jamey’s lime kiln.






Young and old gathered, the forest gloom was dispelled by the brilliant yellow glare of the kiln fire, the woods rang with merriment or re-echoed the inspiring strains of Jamey’s fiddle.  He had no need to court popularity but his patience in playing for novices while learning the intricate steps still further endeared their hearts.  Even Allan Piper condescended to attend these gatherings, the superiority of his musical attainments precluding all thoughts of jealousy.  When the amateur dancers had acquired sufficient expertness, he finished their education with the pipes, believing that this desired condition could not be attained by such an insignificant instrument as the fiddle.


Thus Jamey lived and thoroughly enjoyed the simple life till long past the Psalmist’s allotted span.


(This article was published Wednesday August 4th, 1920.)






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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