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Singing not of
“arms and the man”,
but of progress
deemed and heritage effaced,
J. A. S. Evans records,
in well-crafted form, circumstances and events in the life of his great
grandfather, William Stewart, events warmly reassuring in their intrinsic
values, juxtaposed with an impersonal modern age, wherein fields of aggregate
now blossom amid former fields of grain.
Fittingly intoned with classic wistfulness, this delightful piece
yields no remorse for the reading.
The Road to Crieff
(from the Puslinch Pioneer, v. 15, issue 6, February 1991.)
Highway Six leads from
Hamilton to Guelph,
and if you have the time for it, you may continue north to Owen Sound.
In Puslinch Township, the Guelph-Hamilton stretch is still
called the Brock Road,
and there is a Puslinch tradition that connects it with Sir Isaac Brock, who
died at the battle of Queenston Heights
more that fifteen years before Puslinch was surveyed. The name rests on a mistake common in oral
history; the Brock Road
probably took its label from a surveyor who never got as far north as Puslinch,
and the connection with Sir Isaac is romantic embroidery. Nineteenth century surveys called it the Aboukir Road, but I
have never heard the name used. When I
was a boy in Puslinch, I called it the Brock Road, and so did everybody except
strangers who went by road maps, and the Brock Road it remains.
I passed the road sign marking the Puslinch
town line, crossed the CPR Toronto-Chicago rail line, where passenger trains
once stopped at Puslinch station, and turned left off the Brock Road on to the
Puslinch first concession. It was an
early June day, more than two years ago.
A conference at McMaster University had brought me from Vancouver
and after lunch I set forth on a pilgrimage in a Budget rental car. A farmer on his tractor in the field to my
right raised an arm in greeting. I was
vaguely startled. In Vancouver, we did not wave to complete
strangers. But I had been away too long;
when I was a boy in a similar field, I waved to cars that passed. They were emissaries from the outside world;
once upon a time, when my grandfather worked those fields, they might have
stopped to chat a moment, passing on news as they let their horses rest. Now strangers hurried past in a whirl of
dust, but farmers waved anyway.
I reached Crieff at the first crossroads. It is a tiny place; a plain brick church with
its churchyard, and a few houses.
According to the Annals of Puslinch, a local history published in 1950,
Crieff reached “the zenith of its historical achievement” about one hundred and
twenty years ago. It had two smithies
then, two stores, a hotel licensed to sell liquor, a shoemaker, a church with a
manse for its minister, and sundry dwellings.
There were some fifty youngsters to be educated. In 1874, Crieff built a new stone school for
them, selling their old one to the Sons of Temperance who moved it close to the
hotel which catered to the CPR navvies who were building the railway to Chicago. Four years later, the hotel burned down and
took the Temperance Lodge with it. The
church’s first minister, Rev. Andrew McLean, had died in 1873, and it was
almost two years before Crieff found a replacement. By the end of the decade, the manse was
empty; Crieff was sharing a minister with a larger Presbyterian congregation
with a fine stone edifice called Duff’s Church on the Brock Road. The long decline of Crieff had begun.
But Crieff in 1987 did not look shabby and
neglected. The Rev. Andrew McLean had
spent barely sixteen years at Knox Church, Crieff, before his death, but his older
son was Col. John Bayne Maclean, who founded the Maclean-Hunter Publishing
Company, and his younger one, Hugh, started the Hugh C. Maclean Publishing
Company, which became the nucleus of Southam Business
Publications. Floyd Chalmers, in his
biography of Col. Maclean, “Gentleman of the Press”, describes how the colonel
returned to Crieff in 1916 to bury his mother in the churchyard alongside her
husband, and was shocked at the neglect he saw.
He engaged Olmsted Brothers, North America’s
leading landscape architects of the time, to change all that. The citizens of Crieff were grateful and
overwhelmed. The manse where Col.
Maclean was born was empty, and the Knox
presented it to him as a gift. Painted
and remodelled, it became his country home.
From then until his death in 1950, the colonel was a familiar figure in
But at the Crieff crossroads, I turned my car
north to the second concession, Lot 23, rear
half. The stone house had the look of
neglect, and the barn was in disrepair.
The back fields had become a gravel pit.
The eastern boundary of the great Artemisia gravel belt runs from Caledon
Township to the centre of
Puslinch. The stony farms around Crieff
are finding a new use. They are
providing aggregate for the reinforced concrete that is changing the face of Hamilton and Toronto. “Puslinch Township”, concludes a survey done
in 1982 for the Ontario
Ministry of Natural Resources, “has significant possible resources of sand and
gravel and should be able to meet local requirements for many years.” The future of Puslinch as a gravel pit seems
William Stewart took up rear half of lot 23 in
1835, and made his first payment on it in that year. I still have his receipt and memorandum of
sale from the Commissioner for Crown Lands in Toronto, dated to January 9th. “Received from William Stewart the sum of
seven pounds ten shillings, being the first Instalment on the rear half of Lot No. Twenty three in the First Concession in the
Township of Puslinch in the Gore District, a Clergy Reserve, containing one
hundred acres etc.” The remainder was due in nine further annual
instalments. In fact, William failed to
pay on schedule: the receipt for the second instalment is dated to 1848, the
last three payments were made in a lump sum on February 27, 1855, and the crown
deed, with its Great Seal, was issued on January 7th, 1856. “Victoria, by the
Grace of God, etc. to all to whom these presents shall come... greeting. Whereas William Stewart of the Township of
Puslinch in the County of Wellington, yeoman, hath contracted and agreed to and
with Our Commissioner for the Sale of Our Crown Lands, duly authorized by Us in
this behalf, for the absolute purchase at and for the price and sum of
seventy-five pounds of lawful money of Our Province ... etc.” The farm was his at last.
He is almost a complete stranger to me, though
he was my great-grandfather. I have only
a few family traditions and some brittle documents with fading ink with which
to piece together his history. His
tombstone dates his birth to 1800, and tradition puts his birthplace at the
foot of the highest mountain in Britain,
Ben Nevis. He was a Gaelic-speaking Scot: when
his son Angus started school, he could speak only Gaelic, and was soundly
whipped by his teacher for this misdemeanour.
Yet, when William sailed to Canada, he brought with him at
least two of his school books. One was
An Introduction to Arithmetic, by James Gray, master of the English School
of Peebles, (late of Dundee), published in Edinburgh in 1810. On the flyleaf, in a bold hand, is written,
“William Stewart his James Gray in the year 1817...” The other was a little book of conversion
tables, much used, with various jottings on the back pages. One, badly faded, reads: “Wednesday, the 19th
Sept., 1832, died, my mother at 5 minutes before 1 o’clock, p.m.”
It was on July 12th of 1832 that the first case
of cholera in Hamilton
was reported. Hamilton’s only lawyer, Allan MacNab,
not yet a knight (that honour came in 1838) and not yet the laird of Dundurn Castle, which was to be restored as Hamilton’s
Centennial Project in 1967, bailed out all the inmates of the debtors’ prison,
and other prisoners were released, except one under death sentence. Otherwise it was certain that they would die of
cholera; as it was, both the jailer and his wife did die. The pestilence had spread up the St. Lawrence
and the Great Lakes with the immigrant ships: Quebec
were already stricken. A painting in the
Ottawa National Gallery by Joseph Legare expresses
the horror of the plague year better than words. It shows the carts taking away the dead in Quebec at night, under
the uncertain light of the moon, to be buried under a layer of lime. Smudge pots burn around the city square. One body lifts an arm in supplication. It was
not only the dead but the near-dead too who were taken for burial.
Hamilton in 1832 was still mostly swampy
land covered with coarse Indian grass and infested with the now-extinct Niagara rattlesnakes.
There were no immigrant sheds in the harbour for new arrivals, but early
that year, an old War of 1812 barrack was fitted out to give them temporary
shelter. By midsummer, the barrack had
become a pest house. It was probably
there that William Stewart watched his mother sicken and die. She was buried in a common grave for cholera
victims near the foot of Hamilton
Mountain. Years later, William was to point out the
site to his son Angus.
Why had he come to Hamilton that year, accompanied only by his
mother? Was he a dispossessed
crofter? And what did he do in the two
years that elapsed between his mother’s death and his purchase of a parcel of
land from the Puslinch Clergy Reserve?
He may have spent it in Hamilton:
in spite of the cholera, the settlement was growing. In 1833, it was incorporated as a town. The member for Wentworth, Allan MacNab, showed his faith in the future--in his case, a
heavily mortgaged one--by purchasing a property on Burlington Heights
overlooking the lake, a little more than a year after William Stewart watched
his mother die. There he began his new
mansion, Dundurn, to the plans of local master
builder and architect Robert Wetherell.
It may have been MacNab
himself who fathered the romantic notion that Dundurn Castle
was modelled after the MacNab family seat on Loch Earne in Scotland. It fitted the persona of an ambitious member
of the Family Compact, and it hinted at a close connection with the chief of
the clan, The MacNab himself, who had visited Toronto
a few years earlier, when Allan MacNab was young and
impressionable. The MacNab
had travelled in style: he came with a personal piper and a pair of bards. But the family seat on Loch
Earne that provided the model for Dundurn
seems to be a myth. At least, no one has
ever found it. But Wetherell’s
design for Dundurn has a special importance for art
historians. It is the earliest example of the Italianate style in North
American domestic architecture. And in
the upstairs hall, someone chose to decorate the walls with Pompeian First-Style
wall painting. Some ten years before, the largest dwelling in Pompeii, the
House of the Faun, had been excavated, and though its wallpaintings
are faded now after exposure to the weather for more than a century and a half,
when found, they presented a magnificent example of what archaeologists call
“First Style”: stucco painted to look like coloured marble panelling. The design of MacNab’s
castle was on the cutting edge of the future.
A dispossessed crofter did not move in MacNab’s circles.
But it is certain that William Stewart met and came to admire the thorn
in MacNab’s flesh, William Lyon MacKenzie,
who resented the privileged Church and schools of the Family Compact, all of
them represented by MacNab, who fitted so smoothly
into the ruling class. After the
rebellion of December, 1837, and MacKenzie’s defeat
Tavern, MacKenzie’s lieutenant, Samuel Lount, fled westwards, through Puslinch and spent a night
sheltered by William Stewart. At least,
so one of William’s neighbours said later.
William himself seems to have said as little as possible, and his Gaelic
speaking neighbours were loyal. Lount was captured before he got much further, brought back
to Toronto and hanged in the square before St. Jame’s
Cathedral, the seat of the Family Compact’s high priest, Bishop John
Strachan. There is some irony to the
fact that William Stewart’s down payment on his homestead went to endow the
Anglican clergy and its schools, for Puslinch was Clergy Reserve; in fact, it
was the first such Reserve land in the province to be sold. The Clergy reserves were abolished in 1854,
and it was the following year that William made the long-postponed final three
payments on his land in a lump sum. It
may not have been only shortage of ready cash that caused the delay.
The land required faith or desperation, or a
bit of both. The forest was hostile: an
enemy to be overcome. The corpus of
pioneer tales includes stories of settlers lost in it and found by friendly
Indians, men walking miles through it with sacks of grain on their backs to the
nearest mill to have it ground, men killed by trees falling vengefully upon the
creatures who would topple them. Winter
was unrelenting, when food grew monotonous and travel dangerous. One Puslinch settler, a black named Ben Bowlen, possibly an escaped slave who reached Canada by the
Underground Railway, froze to death in the early 1840’s as he hauled his wheat
with sleigh and oxen from his farm to Preston (now Cambridge). But it was wolves that roused the deepest and
the most primeval terrors. A reader that
was in use in Ontario
schools early in this century related a typical fearful tale. As a pioneer boy was making his way home at
nightfall with his cart and team of oxen, he heard in the distance the terrible
howl of the wolf-pack. He quickly
unhitched the oxen, mounted the near ox and whipped the team into a
gallop. They made it to the safety of
the barnyard just as the pack leader reached the oxen’s heels. For the settler,
death by mishap or disease was never far away.
But however frightened or homesick these Highland Scots settlers might be, for most of them there
was no return possible, and they set about taming their environment. “Until about the year 1830, the Township of
Puslinch was almost unbroken forest,” begins Presbyterianism in Puslinch, a
little volume published in 1899 to mark Puslinch Presbyterianism’s Diamond
Jubilee, for Queen Victoria had just made diamond jubilees popular. Five years after 1830, the Presbyterians
petitioned the Crown Lands Department for a land grant to use for religious and
educational uses. William Stewart walked
to Toronto to
present the petition. Clergy Reserves
had been granted to support the Protestant Clergy, which the powers-that-were,
not without reluctance, took to include clergy of the Church of Scotland as
well as the Church of England. The
Presbyterians got their land and built their church. What remains of the crown grant may still be
seen where Highway 401 intersects Highway 6; turn north towards Guelph, and on the right is the “Crown Cemetery”,
where William Stewart is buried with his wife Catherine McPherson. But except for his long walk to Toronto, William had
little to do with the Presbyterian congregation that petitioned for the
grant. In 1840, the Presbyterians of the
West Puslinch built their own log church at Crieff, much closer to the Stewart
farm, and sixteen years later, they were prosperous enough to afford a minister
of their own, who expounded the faith in long Gaelic sermons, followed by a
short service in English for those whose Gaelic was insecure.
Donald Dhu McPherson,
a widower with ten children, reached the Crieff area five years after William
Stewart bought his lot. He seems to have
been part of a McPherson tidal flow, for across the road from Donald Dhu lived Dune Bann McPherson, three of whose daughters
married sons of Donald Dhu. But Donald's eldest daughter, Catherine,
married William Stewart. She was only
three years his junior, though she outlived him by fourteen years.
I know her only from a
faded photograph of a very old woman looking, unsmiling, out of an ornate
frame. There is one other scrap of
evidence, William’s account book, where he jotted down his expenses year by
year, in English pounds until the end of 1859, and then in dollars and cents,
passed on to his son Angus. In the
1880’s, one expenditure appears regularly at two month intervals, in Angus’
handwriting; “For mother: 1 Gal. gin, $1.50.” The draft that Catherine drank at
bedtime to keep her aged heart beating during the night was not the local
whisky, though in the great days of Crieff, one Duncan Cameron Lohiel had brewed a liquor known as Kilrae which was
esteemed even beyond Puslinch’s borders. The gallon of the gin that Catherine
drank was worth a hired man’s wages for a week.
And it worked. She lived to
ninety-two and died only then when she started a fire by dropping a lamp and
suffocated in the smoke.
In 1906, the Historical Atlas Publishing Co. of
Toronto published an atlas of Wellington County. It was a commercial venture; subscribers paid
to have potted biographies of their families included, and consequently the
Puslinch Scots were not well represented.
But the paid biographies that do appear betray a quiet pride. These were success stories; the failures had
disappeared. The township maps showed
neat rows of lots, each with the name of an owner. Angus Stewart’s name now appeared on his
father’s farm; his brother Donald had the next lot west. The townships had a surplus population. William Stewart’s two daughters emigrated to Michigan and sundry McPhersons
and McNaughtons left the Crieff area for Manitoba. The church in Crieff where Andrew McLean had
preached his Gaelic sermons had been replaced by a smaller brick building, and
Gaelic had given way to English, although a Gaelic service continued to be held
in the vestry for a few of the older generation until close to the end of the
century. In the 1870’s stumping machines
were introduced, which finally removed the red pine stumps which would not
decay or burn, and the roots were upended along the borders of the fields to
form stump fences. The first settlers
had threshed their grain with a flail, and tossed it into the wind to remove
the chaff: the method had not changed greatly since the days of the Roman
Empire but now threshing outfits appeared, powered first by horses and then by
great steam engines that devoured wood and water. But the true badge of achievement was the
farm house built to replace the settler’s log cabin. Substantial, resplendent with barge board or
fret work on the eaves with grounds carefully tended by the farm wife, it
announced that the infrastructure of civilized society was now in place and the
days of the pioneer were past. Scots
liked stone houses. Stone was substantial,
it lent a manorial air to a family seat, and in Puslinch, it was singularly
Yet, the ambience of success that the
Historical Atlas purveys is an incomplete story. The settler who purchased his
lot could only guess what sort of land he would have when he cleared the trees
from it. The Pennsylvania Dutch, who
were more experienced than the European immigrants, looked for land where the
black walnut tree grew, for it liked good soil.
The Scots settlers felt more at home with rocks. But stony soil made indifferent farms. Scattered along the concession roads of
Puslinch one may still see a lilac bush grown wild, or perhaps a clump of
rhubarb or hops vines, and occasionally a stone chimney, all that remains to
mark a settler’s cabin. The settler
failed, sold out and moved away.
Why? Bad luck?
A husband who drank? There was
plenty of opportunity; in 1863, there were nineteen licensed taverns in
Puslinch. A wife who died in
childbirth? One farmer on the third
concession road came upon the skeleton of a woman and child as he was digging a
post hole. All that was left to identify
her was her red hair. Or was the land
which the settler hacked out of the forest too poor to support a family? The countryside keeps its secrets and the Historical
Atlas of Wellington
did not dwell on failures.
The Road to Crieff
(Part II, from the Puslinch Pioneer, v. 15, issue 7,
But the map of the township does
show a diverse group of settlers. The Highland Scots were in the southeast, though among them
was a pocket of German Protestants. To
the west were Pennsylvania Dutch, separated from the Scots by an English group,
and in the north were the Irish, both Protestant and Catholic. There was a Danish family and another from Alsace. They came for various reasons: the Dane had
been press ganged aboard ship in Copenhagen,
and had managed to escape while he was in an American port. A woman from Ulster
had married inappropriately, and her family had dispatched her to Canada along
with her unsuitable bridegroom. But
living together on the frontier rapidly rubbed off the ethnic differences, and
within a few years the settlers passed the ultimate test of toleration; they
were intermarrying. The exception was
the Irish, where the enmity between Protestant and Catholic went deep.
Until 1880, Patrick Downey presided over the
school in section three, in the heart of the Irish settlement, and even the
Protestants agreed he was a great teacher.
His enrolment reached as high as 104 pupils at one point. He had once studied for the priesthood, but
the temptations of the flesh intervened.
He married and had a family which he raised in the teacherage
on the school grounds. A rumour with a
Protestant source had it that he would slip across the road to the nearby
tavern during the noon hour recess, but his paedagogy
seemed not to suffer. There was another
rumour that when the Fenians raided across the border in 1865, and a call went
out for volunteers, Downey tossed his hat into the air and said he would
happily wade knee-deep in Protestant blood.
In 1880, the Protestants decided to have their own school. Twenty-one years later, the school inspector
condemned both the Protestant and Catholic school buildings, and economics
proved stronger than bigotry: both varieties of Irish joined to build a new
structure which continued to be known as Downey’s School as long as it was
used. It had one other distinction
too. It was red brick. It was the only
little red school house in Puslinch. All
the other sections, S.S. Nos. 1 to 12, had stone schools.
William Stewart’s son Angus, born when his
father was already 48, came to School Section No. 3 for his wife: a McWilliams
whose family came from Ulster, and she knew not a word of Gaelic.
The gobbet on the
McWilliams family in the Historical Atlas concluded, “As will be seen, the
McWilliams family are (sic) connected by marriage or otherwise, with some of
the best families in the county.” The
generation of McWilliams women who were still alive when I was a boy spoke with
genteel accents that I thought were unique, until I heard the same accents at a
high tea in the Beresford Arms Hotel, Armagh City, in a troubled part of
northern Ireland. Sarah Denny McWilliams
had purchased land in Puslinch at the age of 63. Her husband had succumbed upon arrival to
illness or old age, and was interred in a burial plot in Guelph, where eventually a skating rink was
built over his bones. Not even his prenomen is remembered, much less the reason why, at an age
when most men plan retirement, he chose the life of a pioneer in Upper Canada,
but one family memory has it that he had committed the ultimate social faux
pas: he had lost his money. The widow’s
son, Charles, carried on.
He is a more tangible figure. In 1842, he returned to Ireland for a
visit and kept a diary of his voyage, where he put down what he considered
important. The captain of the ship, which Charles neglected to name, was a good
man with a fine voice, and each day he held a church service where everyone
sang hymns lustily, especially the captain.
One day, a lady on board was thrown against the rail as the ship lurched
through a heavy sea, and expressed herself in unladylike terms, whereupon an
ordinary jack-tar rebuked her. Charles
overheard and approved. When he reached Ireland, he went to morning prayer at his old
church in Aughnacloy, where he noted with
satisfaction that an elderly parishioner heard a new voice raised during the
singing of the hymns, and remarked, “Charles McWilliams must be home from Canada!” Also, he noted that he gave some apples he
had brought from Puslinch to the rector, who exclaimed that these were truly
the golden apples from the Hesperides.
But it seems that Charles’ trip was for
business as well as pleasure. He seems
to have had an eye on some livestock, and while he was viewing a particularly
fine pig, his literary inspiration apparently left him. He broke off the diary and wrote no more.
It was Charles’ second youngest
child, Mary Ann, whom Angus married and took with him to Crieff, a long buggy
ride from her home. I still have one of
their wedding presents: a kerosene lamp with an enamelled base, badly
worn. And I have the piano that once
stood in their parlour, made by the Bell Piano and Organ Company of Guelph, Ontario. But both of them died before I was born, and
I know them only from faded sepia snapshots.
The stone house that Angus built was solid and respectable, not large by
the standards of its day, but with an air of permanence in a universe of assured
Perhaps the pictures deceive a little. This was
also a society of limited opportunity. Farmers’ sons with no farm to inherit
worked as hired men, saving their wages and hoping to put a down payment on a
farm, if a farm was to be had. The township
was becoming a land of emigrants. Women
had one proper career only: marriage. If
their fathers could afford to board them in a city, they might get enough
schooling to become teachers, and then would flit from one school section to
another, contending with the recalcitrance of their pupils and the prejudices
of the school trustees. But the final
goal was still marriage. The woman who got neither a husband nor any training
might stay at home, looking after the old folks, and after their death living
on in a few rooms reserved for her in the farmhouse by the terms of her
father’s will. She might do
housekeeping, or practical nursing.
Sometimes she developed “bad nerves”, an indefinable but quite
respectable ailment for spinsters past forty.
The Historical Atlas concluded its little essay
on Puslinch with a brief reference to Puslinch
Lake, and a four-line poem in its
honour by the principal of the Rockwood
Academy. There are, in fact, two lakes, a few
kilometres west of Crieff; the larger one covers about 260 hectares and has an
island in the centre, where a monastery complete with a monk was built about
mid-century. But the lake proved
unsuitable for the ascetic life or vice versa; in any case, Puslinch’s solitary
holy man moved away, and the monastery fell into ruins. The hotels and taverns around the lake fared
better, however, and the Historical Atlas predicted bravely, “As soon as
electric railways are in operation, it will undoubtedly become a resort from Hamilton and Guelph.”
A radial line to Puslinch Lake
was actually surveyed just north of Angus Stewart’s farm. Just about the time the Historical Atlas made
its brave prediction, Angus and his youngest daughter crossed the road one
summer evening to take a look at the surveyors’ stakes. As they examined this promise of a new
technological marvel, they heard a great rumble in the distance, and as they
watched, a motor car rushed by in a cloud of dust and stink. It was the first car either of them had seen
on the concession road. The radial line
to Puslinch Lake was never built, and within fifty
years the motor cars had terminated the light electric railways, and the rails
were being torn up. Another twenty-five
years on, and we were to regret their demise, but by then, it was too late.
Yet, at first, the
automobile was a smelly, noisy contraption, very destructive to the hats of
those venturesome ladies who rode in them.
Only farmers who were prosperous and very progressive bought them. A little filler that appeared in the local
newspaper celebrated the motor car’s capacity to assault the olfactory nerves.
Two little skunks by the roadside
As an automobile rushed by.
And one skunk watched with a
And a tear stood in its eye.
“0, why do you weep?” asked the
other skunk, “And why do you quiver and shake?”
“Because that smell,” said the
first little skunk, “Is like mother used to make!”
But automobiles were the future, and they soon
became common sights on the concession roads.
They were stupid contraptions, utterly deaf to commands that even the baulkiest horse understood.
One Puslinch farmer, who was using his bank barn as a temporary garage,
drove his new automobile on to the threshing floor, shouted "Whoa!",
and emphasized the command by tramping hard on the accelerator. The car lunged forward, through the front
wall of the barn and down on to the manure pile directly below. Angus Stewart was always careful to drive his
Model T Ford with his arms stiff. If it
developed any notions of steering itself in unauthorized directions, he was
prepared to wrestle it back into obedience.
But it was not only the automobile that ended
the society which the settlers had built.
Even more responsible was World War I, or the “Great War” as it was
known until World War II came along.
Every township has a grey monument
to the dead, with a long “honour roll”.
Puslinch’s monument, close by the township hall at Aberfoyle on the
Brock Road, shows a soldier standing quietly at attention, with his rifle by
his side. Canada, a country of some 8
million in 1914, put 625,000 men into uniform and lost 61,000 dead. One hundred and forty-seven came from
Puslinch and twenty-three of them died.
It was not unadulterated patriotism that
attracted the volunteers; in 1914, a soldier’s wages seemed not bad to an
able-bodied hired man in Puslinch, and there was the promise of adventure
thrown in! Still, in the one-room
schools of Puslinch, George V and Queen Mary looked down on the pupils from a
framed lithograph on the front wall, and since there was some reluctance to
throw out pictures of dead monarchs, King Edward and Queen Alexandra might
still look down from a side wall, and on the back wall there might be Victoria,
leaning on one elbow and looking with heavy-lidded eyes into the
distance. The Empire still mattered and
in some vague way, Puslinch felt a part of it.
It needed Puslinch’s support.
As the war dragged on, the enthusiasm may have
become more restrained, but by then, it was bad form to say so. Yet I was told of one man who decided to
volunteer in the last year of the war, for although he had not been
conscripted, his brother had been, and he thought he would keep him company. A white-haired militia colonel was at the
recruiting desk in the Guelph
Armouries. “Have you been called up
yet?” he asked. The young recruit said
not yet. “Well, go home and wait till
you are,” said the colonel. “I’m sick and tired of sending young men over there
and having them blown to pieces.” The
would-be recruit went home. A few months
later, the carnage was over.
At least the Great War produced unanimity among
the Puslinch Presbyterians. The next
trial did not. The United
Church of Canada arose in the mid-twenties
from the coalescence of Methodists, Congregationalists and such Presbyterians
as were willing to join. It is the only
uniquely Canadian church, with roots in Canadian soil and a theology for all
seasons. The Puslinch Presbyterians
voted on union in early January, 1925.
The vote must have had some of the qualities of the 1980 referendum in Quebec on
sovereignty-association. The Centennial
History of the Puslinch church notes that for the month before, over the
Christmas season, “community prayer and social meetings” were held in various
places, and they were “conducive of much good”.
A large portion of the congregation abstained from voting. Of those that did, only some twenty percent
opted for union, though among them was the minister which the Crieff church
shared with Duff’s Church on the Brock
Crieff weathered the schism
well. The year before the vote, on
Thanksgiving Day, there had been a special dedication service at the church;
Col. John Bayne Maclean’s landscaping project was
complete and people gathered to admire it.
The church where his father had preached had been replaced in 1882, but
his grave and that of his wife were in the churchyard, marked now by a slab of
grey granite. The following year, having
voted against union, the Crieff congregation gave the colonel the old manse and
its half-acre lot. Was there a trace of canniness in their gift, as they looked
forward to an uncertain future, with a new minister? Perhaps so.
The old manse was empty and falling into decay. The colonel made it his country home, and his
interest in Crieff continued until his death.
In the late summer of 1989, I returned once
again to Crieff. The fields were dry,
and the goldenrod bloomed yellow in the fence corners. The churchyard is still well-kept by the
standards of country churches, though it has declined greatly from the days of
Col. Maclean. A sign outside the plain
brick building announces “Rev. M. Anne Yee-Church Service, 9:45, Sunday School,
10:45.” The granite slab that marks the
graves of Rev. Andrew McLean (now spelled Maclean) and his wife also mentions
the deaths of their sons, Col. John Bayne, in 1950, and his younger brother,
Major Hugh Cameron, the year before, though both are buried in Toronto. The manse which Maclean restored and enlarged
had the flag of Denmark
waving lazily in the breeze, and a sign announces: “Sunset Villa Club: Danish
Association.” And on the nearby hill to
the west, the Crieff school still has a marker in the gable fronting the road,
declaring that this is School Section No. 6, built 1874, but it is now “Maclean
Hall” and is part of the “Crieff Hills Community Conference Centre”. Facing it across the road, in front of a
decaying stump fence, stood a sign announcing a new subdivision: “Grandmark Homes”.
And behind “Maclean Hall”, where the rolling hills disappear into a
tract of pine reforested a generation ago, another sign proclaimed the site of
a new conference centre.
I turned north and drove to the second
concession, to the homestead where William Stewart settled in 1835. The barn and the stone house had disappeared;
only the untidy remains of a cedar hedge marked where they had once been. A diminutive board nailed to a tree read “Warren
I continued westward along the concession
roads, where Highway 401 cuts ruthlessly through the old homesteads. Puslinch
Lake seemed shrunken; the
water level had receded a couple of feet from the shoreline. The summer was dry, new developments are
emptying the swamps and ponds in the township and covering them over with
landfill, and new drilled wells are tapping the water table. If the springs that feed Puslinch Lake
fail, that little body of water is doomed.
The middle-aged man behind the counter in the old Lakeview lodge, the
last remnant of the clutch of nineteenth-century hotels and taverns at the
lake, talked wistfully of the changes.
“We just piss away our water. We won’t live to reap the consequences,
but I hate to think what will happen to our children.”
I turned back, across the overpass that spanned
Highway 401, and left at the old Accommodation
cricket was trilling his love call by the roadside, somewhere among the dry
milkweed. I had not heard a song of a
cricket for years. Will there be room
for crickets, and butterflies and milkweed in the new southern Ontario of superhighways
and sprawling suburbia?
J. A. S. Evans
Department of Classics
The University of British
Please note: This article originally appeared in “The
Idler” magazine, the January & February 1990 issue.