The David Stirton Memoirs





The material for the following article was contributed by David Stirton and the article itself was composed by Kate Conway for the regular column, “Pioneer Days in Wellington”, which appeared in the Guelph Mercury newspaper in 1899.


Mr. David Stirton




Pioneer Days in Wellington


The Wheat Famine of 1835—History of the First Grist---

A Go Double Cart—The Irishman’s Barrel—A Pioneer Lunch


“Here’s tae us!  Wha’s like us!


To the kindness of Mr. Stirton, the Mercury readers are indebted for the following sketches.


The Wheat Famine of 1835


In August of 1835 came a severe frost that destroyed all the wheat crops north of Galt, except a few strips here and there at the edges of the fields in the shelter of the woods.  Following the frost came a wet season that caused the wheat to grow, so that it was impossible to secure pure flour.


Bread made from the grown flour would rise beautifully.  When lifted from the bake-kettle it was a fine, tempting looking loaf, but when set on the table, it would spread out like batter.  As a proof of its consistency, Mr. Stirton relates that when a handful of it was thrown at the wall it would stick there in a manner quite unexpected in bread.


From a farm of fifty acres in Puslinch, on which was raised a fine looking crop of wheat, not a single loaf of bread was secured.  Deacon Potter secured a large crop before the rains came on.  He had it ground into flour at Galt, drove it up to Fergus, where there was a new settlement, and sold it there for fifteen dollars a barrel.


Farther south, in Brant and Oxford, the failure was not so complete, but the high prices tempted those that had wheat to sell themselves short, and they too suffered in the spring.  Many are the tales related of the shortage of provisions.  Rice, potatoes, and pease-meal formed staple articles of food.




The First Grist


With the history of the first grist taken to the mill from this part of the country are woven some details of family history, full of interest and showing the struggles and difficulties which the early settlers met and overcame with boundless ingenuity and never-failing courage.


One family, of whom Mr. Stirton tells, made a start in the woods, as many another did, with very little cash.  The father was ill for six months with the ague.  Without being asked, a number of the neighbours gathered together, and without oxen, cleared and logged about two acres so that the mother and children were able to burn it.


The oldest son, a lad of twelve years, went up to Woolwich, now Pilkington, and worked for two weeks with “Yank” Millar to get enough wheat and the use of the oxen to sow the two acres which had been cleared.  The wheat was brought down on a crutch.  The lad contrived a wooden harrow with wooden teeth, of which he was afterwards so ashamed that he threw it on a pile of burning brushwood.  By the means of this primitive harrow, eked out by a liberal use of the hoe, the wheat was put in.


When the crop was taken from the fields there was no barn and the wheat was stacked.  A platform was made of basswood planks cut with an axe alone.  The bedclothes were hung around this platform to keep the wheat from flying away while it was being threshed out with a flail.  After being threshed, it was cleaned by riddles in the open air, the wind carrying away the chaff.  The precious harvest was then stored in the house, ready for the mill.


There was a little pepper-mill at Miller’s Creek to which a few bags were taken.  “A hen and a clutch of chicks”, said Mr. Stirton, “could eat as fast as that mill could grind,” so this grist was by some means to be brought to Erb’s mill, where stands the present village of Preston.


The extent and variety of the trading system is shown in the history of this grist.  The owners of the wheat had a fine lot of maple sugar which Jack Foster, a shoemaker, desired to purchase.  A Hielandman owed Foster for a pair of boots, and it was agreed that the Hielandman should take the wheat to the mill in payment of the sugar given to Foster.


Wheat was precious in those days and the owners thought it well to keep the hard-earned grist in sight.  One of the lads accompanied the Hielandman, who was charging twenty cents per bushel to carry it.  They had started down the Waterloo Road when the snow began to soften and the man was afraid of being caught in a thaw.  The precious fifteen bushels of wheat were unceremoniously brought back and dumped in Foster’s shoe shop.


Jack Foster was then strongly urged to fulfill his part of the bargain.  A yoke of oxen and a cart were secured and Tom Armstrong and the lad again started the wheat on its journey. 


The oxen were soft and unfit for the trip and fagged out completely on the return journey.  They lay down repeatedly, each time being raised by the drivers.  At last, they would not rise, but knowing the fear an ox has of a dog, the driver threw the dog at the heads of the oxen, and with a waul of fear, they lumbered up and went on.  By throwing the dog at the oxen some twenty miles on the return trip, the flour was finally brought to Guelph, from where it was carried home some five miles.


The history of the rest of that wheat is a story by itself.  There was still about eight bushels of it left.  It was decided to take it to Shade’s mill, the site of the present town of Galt, a distance of some twenty miles.  There were no oxen within miles, but a neighbour had a yoke of two-year-old steers.


“I had a little ingenuity in those days”, said Mr. Stirton, “and I contrived a go double cart.”  Now a go double cart is a thing that cannot be likened to anything in the heaven above nor the earth beneath.  The wheels were solid circular sections of wood cut from an elm tree.  In the centre of these wheels were cut square holes in which the axles were placed so that the axle moved with the wheel.  A crib was used for a body, the bed resting on the axles.  The marvellous structure was completed with a tongue, and with this vehicle and the steers, the father and the son set out for Galt, which by nursing the strength of the bit beasties, they reached.


It was the day of the raising of the first addition to Shade’s mill, but that raising stopped as if something had struck it, when steers, go double cart, and drivers appeared on the scene.  The men shouted and laughed as they examined the cart, while the owner and maker thereof calmly remarked: “Come up to Guelph to the woods and we’ll teach you something.”


The wheat was ground and the father and the son returned, spending a night in the woods between Hespeler and Preston.  With the axe, which was always carried on such a trip, they cut basswood branches, fed the leaves to the steers, slept soundly in the quiet woods and reached home the next day.


A half-witted Irishman named Edmundson, living in Puslinch, went to Preston and bought a barrel of flour.  He put a third of the flour into a bag, carried it home, returning for the second and third instalments.  He mad a fourth trip to secure the barrel, which he put over his head.  He lost his way, and some days afterward was found wandering in the woods near Puslinch Lake, still carrying on his head the barrel from which he stubbornly refused to be parted.


These are the days of electric cars and palatial hotels, but the glory still rests upon the pioneer days, when a lad thought nothing of setting out upon a forty mile walk through woods so silent that he could hear the beating of his own heart.  A bag slung over his shoulder held a large round loaf of bread, in the centre of which he had scooped a hole and inserted a piece of butter.  He had no thought of hardship as he ate his bread and butter and washed it down with a drink of water from the brook.




The article above appeared in the remarkable scrapbooks of Herbert Fairbairn Gardiner, volume 36, pages 215-219.  As of May 2003, the Gardiner scrapbooks could be viewed in the Special Collections Department of the Hamilton Public Library, Hamilton Ontario.


Mr. Herbert Fairbairn Gardiner




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