The Recollections of James Douglas Ramsay of Killean




The seemingly straightforward and cheerfully presented recollections of James Douglas Ramsay ultimately reveal themselves to be nothing less than an astonishing tale of triumph over adversity.  Thrust by their father’s blindness into the roles of men, at the ages of 13 and 9, Archie and James Ramsay succeeded in raising their father’s family and paying off the mortgage on their Killean farm.  Even more remarkable is James Ramsay’s determination not to allow the challenges of his childhood to diminish his character, but rather, in his own words, he grew strong through adversity, and indeed, his recollections reflect a life of both accomplishment and enjoyment.


A tribute to James Douglas Ramsay, as it appeared in the Hespeler Herald newspaper, is appended.






The Recollections of James Douglas Ramsay of Killean


It is impossible for any of us to go very far back in the history of his or our family.  So, in attempting to give or leave to my children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, a story of my life, I shall merely go back a generation or two.


Our Ramsay ancestors were of Norman-French stock, the original spelling being “De Ramezay”.  Father always claimed a relationship to the Dalhousie Ramsays and called the farm where I grew up Dalhousie.


Our family gave a Governor-General to India, Andre James Ramsay.  Another of the family became Governor-General of Nova Scotia and founded Dalhousie University in Halifax.  Several generations ago, our ancestors lived near Roslyn near Edinburgh and for what reason I have not learned, moved to a farm called KilKeddan near Campbelltown in Argyleshire, where they were tenants of the Duke of Argyle.  This tenancy was “three nineteens” or fifty-seven years.


When my father was six years old, grandfather became security for a relative who had an iron industry in Glasgow.  Bankruptcy resulted and a loss of several hundred pounds beggared grandfather and the family moved to Johnston in Argyleshire.  Here, father carried bobbins in a cotton factory at a very early age.  After a number of years in Johnston, the family returned to the old homestead in Kintyre.






My grandfather, Archibald Ramsay was born in 1765 in Scotland and died in his eighty-ninth year.  Father spoke of him as a man of massive build, six feet, five inches in height, and at his death had a mass of almost black curly hair.


My grandmother’s name was Christina McLean.  She too was large and strong and died in her seventy-ninth year, shortly before the death of grandfather.  They had a family of fourteen, five boys and nine girls.


Of my father’s brothers, Donald died of cholera at Quebec in 1832, and Archie of cholera at Hamilton in 1834.  Norman located on lot 7 in Puslinch Township but was found dead in the snow on his own farm in 1854.  Edward died in infancy in Kintyre, Scotland.


Alexander, my father, was born in 1808, and after the family returned to the old homestead in Kintyre, he worked among the farmers until he had earned enough money to pay for the passage to Canada for his father, mother, three sisters and himself.   This was in 1842.  In 1832, as mentioned above, father’s brother Norman had emigrated to Canada and located on lot 7, north half, Gore of Puslinch Township and built thereon a log house and log barn.   This was the first home in Canada of father’s folk until his sisters were married.  Shortly after, father bought the south half of lot 7, Gore of Puslinch and while clearing the land, built on it a log house and a log barn.  Father used to tell of the hardships of those early days.


His only food while cutting down the heavy timbers was oatmeal cake, which his mother baked and which he carried with him, buried under the snow and when hungry, ate beside a fired stump.






Father’s sisters were married as follows:  Ellen married Dugald McLarty; Christine married John McAlister and after his death, Thomas Heritage; Barbara married James Hogg; Charlotte married Andrew Gibson; Jean married Matthew McPhatter; Agnes married John McLean.  The other girls died in infancy.


My uncle Norman, with whom the family resided upon emigrating from Scotland, was found dead in the snow on his own farm in 1854.  He had been to Puslinch Lake and was thought to have suffered a weak spell while returning.   On his death, father’s sisters and their husbands took action at law for a division of Uncle Norman’s property and won; this, in spite of the fact that my father had worked for them, brought them here and kept them here until they were married.  My father had saved over $600, which he intended to divide among the three sisters that he had brought over, Barbara, Charlotte, and Jean, if they allowed him to have Uncle Norman’s farm to support his aged parents on.  My aunt Barbara told me that she got $40 as her share after court costs and lawyers’ fees were paid.  Many years ago, on a Sunday afternoon, I heard Andrew Gibson, Charlotte’s husband plead with my father for forgiveness for the wrong that they and he had done, a forgiveness that my father, in his nobility, granted.


After the death of grandfather and grandmother in the middle 50’s, my father felt free to marry, for up to that time he felt it was his duty to care for his parents and his sisters.


He met and married Jane Pursell, who with her mother and sister Mary, had come to Canada in 1852 from Campbelltown, Kintyre, Scotland.  Her father’s name was Edward Pursell, who died in Campbelltown, Scotland in his twenty-sixth year, of small pox.  Grandmother Pursell married James Hogg who later removed to Puslinch Township, where on the second of August 1863, grandmother died and her death is my earliest memory.






And here, because it may be of some use in the future, I shall give the birth dates of the family.



Birthdates of the Ramsay family




April 8th, 1857.




August 16th, 1861.




July 26th, 1863.




August 8th, 1865.




November 8th, 1869.




July 8th, 1871.




August 19th, 1873.




July 29th, 1875.




April 11th, 1877.




October 24th, 1878.




Father died in 1890, 83rd year.

Mother died in 1927, 87th year.

Christina died in 1877, 27 days.

John died in 1898, 20th year.

Alex died in 1939, 74th year



Now, I know that you would like to know a little about myself, so I shall try to tell you, as briefly as is fitting, and when I have completed my story, the half of it shall not have been told.







I was born on August 16th, 1861, in what became the province of Canada West.  Canada, at that time, consisted of Lower Canada and Upper Canada or Canada West.  This condition existed after the Rebellion of 1837 in Upper and Lower Canada and was brought into being by the Act of Union of 1840 and which lasted until 1867 when by the British North America Act, confederation began.  The great Civil War brought about a very dangerous situation between the United States and Great Britain, hence the need for a union of the scattered British colonies.


Canada, at the time of my birth, had an area of 360,000 square miles, now 3,750,000 square miles and a population of 350,000, now, in 1943, 11,500,000.  Then, a few scattered areas, now, a great kingdom, reaching from ocean to ocean and from sea to sea.


Some of my earliest memories are of the homecoming of some of our relatives in 1865 from the American Civil War, as they told of battles fierce and wild as Chicamauga, Chatanooga, Antietam, Fort Donelson and many others and the names of Lincoln, Lee, Grant, McLellan were very wonderful to my childish ears as I sat on my father’s knee and looked with wonder at these men who had fought, were wounded and had spent many months in prisons.  War seemed glorious to me then.  Now the thought of it is abhorrent to me.


Other very early memories are of the death in 1863 of my maternal grandmother, and in that same year, I have a mind picture of the frame of a new bank barn.






Very early in the 1860’s, I remember my father, a good-looking middle-aged man with a brown beard, driving up the lane in a sleigh.  He had a beautiful team of horses, Prince and Jean.  How proud I was of him and them!


Then came father’s blindness from cataract, Fenian raids, Confederation, the purchase of the Great West, and added to these and many other events, were the arrival in the home of two new brothers and a sister.


A very interesting memory of that time occurred when Archie and I, he then twelve and I almost seven, walked to Galt to celebrate the first or second Dominion Day.  When we arrived at the entrance to the large park, where the CPR station, yards, and other streets now are, Archie became violently ill and we started right back home.  Every little way, he would lie down and tell me that he was going to die.  Finally, we did get home, after walking ten miles and having no celebration or anything to eat.


Because of my father’s blindness, he rented the farm to William McIntyre, a neighbour, at $100 per year.  He paid the rent for 1869 but refused to pay it for 1870.


We took back the farm and Archie, then thirteen, and I, nine, took charge and entered into the poverty, hard work, and hardships of many succeeding years.






Archie had attended Killean school for some time and he told of classes and strappings and I had nightmares in which Sandy McIntyre was chasing me and I was scared stiff and refused to go to school at Killean.  However, one morning in May 1869, without breakfast, which I had refused to eat, with father on one hand and Archie on the other, they led me across the fields, where we met the dear old man.  I did not fear him anymore as he gave me half an apple.  At noon, the big girls chased me and kissed me and before winter came, I had learned to read and spell well and was promoted to a book called the “Sequel”, the first page of which contained a picture of a big cross looking bull.


Little did I think then that I would one day be a teacher in that school.


My memory is full of happenings and pictures of that time in my life, among them of successful and unsuccessful operations on father’s eyes, of the sad death by the roadside of Sally McQuillan, of the passenger pigeons passing over the arch of the sky in countless millions, now extinct, of political discussions in the old home about “John A.” and “Geordie Broon” and the other Fathers of Confederation, of the poor and needy, who were always fed and warmed by my dear, dear mother.  I wonder now how wonderful she was, milking, baking, cooking, sewing, spinning, knitting, scrubbing, churning, and all without a murmur or complaint.  When I look back across the vale of time, I begin to realize how wonderful she was.  I cannot put in words all she was to me.  I inherited much from her and tried to honour her in my life.






In the winter of 1870-1871, when I was not yet ten years of age, I spent part of the winter with an old sorrel mare, attached to a whiffle tree and chain, hauling railway ties out of the swamp to be cut into proper length and used on the Galt-Berlin railway, pretty hard work for a boy of that age!


I recall that we got 35 cents each for them and that Archie and Murdock McLean teamed them to Galt.  We had Murdock for a number of winters to help with the teaming of cordwood and sawlogs.


In 1871, Archie, then fourteen, and I, ten, began a stern battle, which was to last more than ten years, to pay off a mortgage of $2100, with interest at 6%, and to feed, clothe and send to school the younger members of the family, a heavy task and load.


At that time, there was no farm machinery and the hay was cut with scythes, the grain by cradles, and the binding was done by hand.  I recall that Archie, then fifteen years of age, cradled 18 acres of wheat in five and a half days.  This grain, I gathered into sheaves and father, in his very limited sight, bound the sheaves.  Archie was, of course, older and much stronger than I, and after working with him all day mowing, I felt as if I must break and give in, but I am glad to say that I never did.  I don’t think he realized my condition.






During the 70’s, I got brief snatches of school as I helped to team cordwood or cut it and helped on the farm all summer.  Had we no amusement or fun?  Yes, we had.  Fishing on wet days, an occasional picnic, Queen’s birthdays, barn-raisings, dances, for Archie had learned to play the fiddle and I accompanied him to the dances at which he was playing and soon learned to dance quite well.


For years, he and I were like David and Jonathan, always together in work or at play, but chiefly the former.  He was a stern taskmaster but always a just one and I owe him much.  He put iron into my soul and body.


The 1870’s were very hard years for Canadians.  Times were very hard on everybody, work was scarce, and prices were very poor for what people had to sell.  As a sample of prices, Archie and I took a sleigh load of pork to Guelph, which was sold for $4.50 per cwt (hundredweight).  We teamed one hundred cords of softwood to Goldie and McCulloch’s in Galt, for which we got $2.60 a cord and out of this we paid the McQuillans 60 cents a cord for cutting.  In 1879, I helped to make cheese in the cheese factory at Clyde operated by “Geordie” Scott.  The cheese wholesale in Toronto was sold for 5.25 cents per pound and my own wages were $13 per month and I had to cook my breakfast and supper.


But even with all these low prices, we were gradually paying off our mortgage.






In 1879, the Credit Valley Railway, now the CPR, was being graded across our farm.  For the land required, and twenty apple trees and our well and pump, we received over $350.  But we didn’t get a cent of it.  Mr. Turnbull, who held the mortgage on our farm, took every cent of it and this made us very angry.  So angry, in fact, that we paid off the balance of the mortgage in the next two years.  One of the happiest days of my life was when Archie and I brought home to father and mother, the deeds and other papers, and we had accomplished what we set out to do.


There were many, many other events of the 1870’s of great interest to me but probably not to those who read these lines, as for example, the Franco-Prussian War, the Commune which followed it, the addition to our family of five, three brothers and two sisters, and the death of little Christina of whooping cough, when she was twenty-seven days old, also the addition of Manitoba, British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island to the Dominion.


After the closing of the cheese factory at the end of August 1879, I carried water for the gang of navvies then grading the Credit Valley Railway, at 75 cents per day and on the second of November went back to school and accompanied Tillie McKellar to Guelph, where on December 16th, 17th, we wrote on the entrance examination.  I was successful but she failed, I am sorry to say.






I entered the Galt Grammar School on the second of March 1880 and on the advice of my parents, wrote at Guelph in July for a Third Class Certificate and failed, along with four other boys from Puslinch schools.  The only successful one was Robert Galbraith, later public school inspector for north Wellington, now retired.  His first school was S.S. #7 Puslinch, which I attended as a pupil and later as a teacher in 1886-7-8.  As the Galt Grammar School had a half-day session on Wednesdays and Saturdays for part of those four months, I walked 10.25 miles per day, six days per week, not a short walk on hot days at mid-day.


I attended the G.C.I. again for a short time in 1881, but left at Easter as I felt that it was too much to ask Archie to give me $2.00 per week to pay for my board.  I made up my mind to earn my own money and then go back to school.


With this end in view, I went to Ingersoll where grading was being done on an extension of the Credit Valley Railway, from Ingersoll to St. Thomas.  For a time, Jack Stuart, Peter Decker, Dan and Duncan McLean and I kept batch in a house on King Street and later the two first named and I tented on the bank of a creek, three miles west of Belmont in a highland Scotch settlement.  The three of us lived on an average of $2 per day.  The wages for a 10-hour day was $1.25.  I cannot in this brief story tell you of the many amusing and interesting happenings.  There were over one hundred men in the gang and the doings, especially after payday, were very amusing.  My chum was a John McDonald, a Roman Catholic and one of the finest gentlemen I have ever known.  He was there on the same hunt as I, earn enough money to go back to school.  As we shovelled side by side, we discussed Euclid, mathematics, British and Canadian history, and so the day seemed shorter, the work less hard.  Years later, I met him at a teachers’ convention in Fergus.  Both of us had won out.  He died at St. Mary’s at the age of 83.  He was older than I.






The early 1880’s were busy ones for me.  The winter of 1880-81 was spent with Angus McLellan in a contract with Jaud Turnbull to cut sawlogs and cordwood for him.  This necessitated a walk of 2.5 miles each morning and the same home each night.  I often reached the woods while the stars were still shining.  Angus and I averaged a $1.20 a day all winter.  After supper, I took part in debates in the school at Clyde on nine successive Monday nights.


From that time till my retirement as section foreman at Streetsville Junction, to go back to school, I was employed by the CPR.  I was, according to Roadmaster Eugene Murphy, the youngest foreman in the system and according to him, “ a d----d good one”.  But I realized there was no future for that sort of work or position.


I entered the Galt Collegiate on the 7th of January 1885 and in six months succeeded in passing the third class examinations, which, with three months at model school at Galt, qualified me to teach for three years.


I felt honoured when asked by the trustees of S.S. # 7, Puslinch, to become its teacher, the school which I had so irregularly attended.  My teachers there had been Alexander McIntyre, Hugh A. McPherson, and Alexander Gilchrist.  The last named taught me.  The others heard me recite.  I owe Mr. Gilchrist much that I cannot repay except in kind remembrance.






The three years that I taught at S.S. # 7 Puslinch were very happy and successful ones.  The average attendance was forty-five.  I had not a single failure in either Promotion or Entrance examinations.  Of the success of my first entrance class, the Galt Reformer, then published, had this to record, “One hundred pupils wrote at Galt, of whom twenty-nine passed.  Thirty-three wrote at Ayr and one passed, while the record of S.S. # 7 Puslinch, with five passed, is worthy of the highest praise.”  I sent four but was credited with five.  I found that the extra one, a Miss Clellan, belonged to Sheffield.


In all my schools, I never met a kinder, more loyal or more co-operative or ever cleverer lot of boys and girls.  Inspector Craig spoke of the school as one of the best in the South Wellington inspectorate.  I have many happy memories of that dear old school.






Town Mourns Passing of Beloved Citizen,

James D. Ramsay

(from the Hespeler Herald newspaper for October 23rd 1947.)



Hespeler this week paid final tribute to one of her most illustrious citizens — the beloved former principal of the public school — James D. Ramsay


Scarcely anybody ever referred to him as “Jim”.  His pupils called him “Mister” — and there was a lot of respect in that simple title.  But most times he was known as “J. D.”, and only a stranger failed to identify him by that affectionate contraction of his name.


“J. D.” was a man of considerable stature by any standards.  He called himself a teacher, for that was his profession.  Some people might refer to him as an educator, but “J. D.” was more than that — he was a builder — a man who built character in his students.  He made men out of schoolboys and ladies out of pig-tailed girls.  He looked beyond the schoolbooks to the days when his pupils would take their places in the world, and tried to instil in them some of his own integrity, some of his own honesty and character, his humour, and his love for his fellow man.


The son of pioneer Scottish parents who settled in Puslinch and the Gore because the rugged land reminded them of their native hills and dales, J. D. Ramsay was born in Killean.  A farm boy, he got his early education in the little Scottish community, and then turned to his farm chores.  But the desire for more education burned strongly — and his schooling did not satisfy that desire.  For some years, he worked as a section hand on the Canadian Pacific Railway to earn the needed funds to go on to higher learning.  Then, already a grown man, he went back to school — the famous Dr. Tassie’s Grammar School at Galt.


With his love for learning, it was only natural that “J. D.” should turn to teaching as his life work.  And teaching was a work that he loved — a work that he performed remarkably well.  It was not to him a routine job of trying to teach children the mere humdrum stuff that was in schoolbooks — but a richer, fuller opportunity for him to tell his youngsters of many things and many places, to teach them the art of living.


He taught his first class at the Lake School, and a couple of years before the turn of the century he came to Hespeler, where he was to teach until his retirement.  For 31 years he served this community as principle of the Hespeler public school, retiring after 45 years of service in 1931.


“J. D.” wasted no time in becoming part of the community.  He served as a member of the village council for two years and was one of the men who were responsible for the incorporation of Hespeler as a town back in 1901.  With his appointment as principal of the school he felt that he could not seek elective office in the community but his interest in municipal affairs by no means stopped.


Few men in the town’s history have contributed more in time and service to municipal affairs.  For many years he was a member of the public library board, and was one of the moving spirits in the establishment in Hespeler of a Carnegie Library.  A member of, and chairman of the Parks Board for many years, his foresight and efforts were to a large degree responsible for many parks in town.  His advice and counsel were sought and highly valued on many other municipal problems.


“J. D.”, in his religion, was a sincere and devout Presbyterian.  In politics, he was a very staunch Liberal, always prepared and welcoming the opportunity to uphold and defend the policies of his party.


Of his immediate family, one daughter, Mrs. N. Walford, of Toronto, and two sons, Alex, of Grand Rapids Michigan, and Scott, of Hespeler, survive to mourn his loss.  His wife predeceased him.


The late Mr. Ramsay had not been in good health for some time.  His last official appearance at a community function was during the last Old Boys Reunion when he welcomed many of his old pupils back to the school.  Sine then he had failed rapidly.  He had been in a coma for several days and passed away quietly on Saturday evening.  He was in his 87th year.


The funeral was held on Tuesday afternoon from St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church to Hespeler Cemetery for interment.  Reverend W. Weir, B.A., conducted the ceremony and the pallbearers were his six nephews, Alexander Ramsay, Gordon Ramsay, Oswald Ramsay, William Ramsay, Douglas Ramsay, and J. Gordon Ramsay.


The kindliness and friendliness of the man had won “J. D.” thousands of friends.  To the many hundreds of his former pupils, now scattered around the world, he will remain one of the brightest memories of the hometown.  Hespeler has lost one of her finest citizens.