The Old Path


John W. Gilchrist


(A biographical note follows the article.)







A few scattered remnants of primeval forest still remain in the locality worthy of being called a bush.  At any rate, trees yet thrive that must have been respectable trees eighty years ago, for a very few of these remnants of such, a path may be easily followed.  Large trees have been removed, sunshine let in, and the usual result of impenetrable growth of underbrush.  But for some reason it does not take growth on these narrow paths, though it does on more modern ones.  Even the evil-disposed thimbleberry has to bend over to annoy the passer-by, does not take root in the path itself.  Rare, close observers among the present generation notice this, and are surprised to learn that some of these paths were the main and only highways to the nearest business centre.






That the first of everything that went to make pioneer society passed over these paths.  Even the immigrant himself, family and goods, passed over these paths to his square of wilderness, often acquired by chance at the nearest land office.  That they existed before the first settlers arrived does not seem likely in this locality.  Indians did not make them.  Many of the early settlers never saw an Indian.  Neither did the wild animals.  The one in view wound diagonally across the lots over a dozen miles, so would be of little service to the first surveying parties, had it existed.  Its direction caused its early abandonment.  It led through growing grain when the clearings widened, but out of the grain season, the path and its branches were used by pedestrians long after the sleighs and wagons were obliged to follow the new roads.  They are now completely obliterated in the open fields, but to follow one through a piece of woodland has a strange charm that no regular road seems to have.


The early clergymen spared no effort or exposure to visit those who required their services, but wedding parties had to go to them, at least they always did.  If some of these old trees could speak a language we could understand, and tell us their emotions when Allan Piper and his cheery music first led his light-hearted little procession past their roots!  But the trees won’t talk.  Even the pioneers themselves in fireside stories of later times did not relate many things about these paths that some of the present generation like to know now.






The emotions of a young man who, after seasons of discouraging effort, acquired a mastery over the axe and selected to build a corner of some modest log building, the first time he would go home over the old path with his manly breast stirred with manly feelings.  The sailors, after facing the season’s winds and gales of our Great Lakes three quarters of a century ago, coming home with real money to put the family on a financial basis.  And, too, dejected young men, after many weary journeys to distant towns, and still more weary, fruitless search for work, had to come home.  Work for money was not always to be had in those days either, no matter the need or eagerness of the searchers.  The proud possessor of his first yoke of oxen drove them, sometimes not very skilfully, over these paths.  The first cow and the first clucking hen and her setting of eggs, generally acquired by such labour and self-denial.  There were compensations, too, the joyous young women going to town, generally in pairs, with the first basket of eggs or rolls of butter.  It can yet be shown where a young woman saw a bear, and used to be related with zest, the bear’s eager efforts to get away from her vigorous screams.  Encounters with wild animals along these paths were rare and not very impressive.  But in winter howling bands of wolves were impressive enough, though they generally avoided buildings.  Had the wolves known they would have been safe enough; very few of the first settlers had or knew anything about firearms.  However, the stump of a tree, out of which a bear was shot with a marble, can still be shown.





Perhaps the most talked about incident befell Allan Piper himself.  He was playing royally at the head of a wedding, as usual.  The path led over a bog, over which some logs were placed that an interfering rain had caused to float without attracting his notice.  He slipped off a floating log into the mire.  Though never in the least danger and promptly rescued, the incident was humiliating, and the behaviour of some of the younger ones was not what it should have been.  The party had still a long way to go and were quite weary, and all signs of levity gone before Allan struck up again.  Whatever the winds of these paths to avoid natural obstacles, and there were many in this locality, they always came close to the first dwellings, and must have been a great relief to the aged immigrants.  Most of these were parents and arrived too late in life to adjust themselves to such a great change; and added to lonesomeness and homesickness, in summer, were the intolerable heat and insect pests of a small clearing.


One vigorous old lady kept to the path whenever she felt impelled to make a journey.  Why she would hold her basket over her head and wade through wet grain reaching to her ears that could be avoided by very little extra effort was never satisfactorily explained by local philosophy.  The actual damage would be trifling, but straws would be bent to tangle in the long fingers of the cradle.  As she was believed to possess occult power, she was allowed to go her way.  Others caught going through standing grain could be sure of a severe reprimand at least.






As the settlement filled up, there were many occasions for meetings.  Gathering, either singly or in small groups, to erect the first church and the first school would be interesting enough.  The quiet, unobtrusive man who did not shine at industrial gatherings, yet by persistent application often had the largest clearing and harvest would have satisfactory reflections occasionally while journeying.  Most of the gifted experts required the stimulus of competition.  Working alone to these was often irksome.  Their clearings did not always widen in proportion to the energy and skill displayed at a bee. Where streams were crossed, almost indestructible bridges were set up.  Some of these yet remain.  Though often having an abutment in the centre of the stream, these bridges were quite narrow and never furnished with a railing, yet no accidents can be charged against them.  No untoward circumstance is remembered against these old paths.  Even the Canada thistle did not make its appearance till the regular highways were opened.  As the subject has merely been touched upon, perhaps a quotation from a great writer would be excusable:  “To the memory of conquerors who devastate the earth, and the politicians who vex the life of its denizens with their struggles for power and place, we raise sumptuous monuments; to the memory of those who, by their toil and endurance, have made it fruitful, we can raise none.  But civilization, while it enters into the heritage, which the pioneers prepared for it, may at least look with gratitude on their lowly graves.—Goldwin Smith.






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”, “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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