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




from The Evening Mercury newspaper for Saturday Ev’ng, Feb. 25th, 1899.


Pioneer Days in Wellington


Stirton a Representative Chopper ─ Principles of Chopping ─ The Making of the Elora Road — Few Accidents in the Early Days — The Irishman’s Experience — Six Men and a Tree — Is Your Shanty Alright? — The Death of Archie Turner ─ Chopping Bees.


Chopping formed a great part of the work of the early settler.  In fact the main business of his life was the converting of the forest into ashes.  The cutting of trees in the present time is a little job in comparison with the large areas felled by the pioneers and a peculiar feature is that the great work of the early days was done with a twentieth part of the accidents.  Accidents from chopping have lately been an everyday occurrence, five or six a year have been reported in the last ten years in the public press.


Everyone will readily appreciate Stirton’s statement, that, while not given to boasting, he may lay claim to being a representative chopper.  He did little or nothing but chop for many successive winters, and logged many summers, and he is vain enough to think that he has levelled as many trees as any man of his acquaintance.


Mr. Stirton’s very extensive experience enables him to give some views in connection with the causes of the extraordinary state of affairs, revealed in these frequently recurring accidents.


Chopping, though sometimes spoken of by the ignorant in a sneering way, is like any other labour, and when properly done is managed according to certain fixed principles.  There stands a “mite” of humanity, alone in the wilderness of the forest, no other human being in sight or hearing.  Beside him stands one of the giants of the woods, lifting its head perhaps a hundred feet above the insignificant man, and boasting a diameter of five or six feet.   The man has in his hand an axe, but a small implement, and he stands there studying how to control this immense mass of matter.  A chopper, quite as much, nay more, than a skilled workman in any art, requires a clear brain to enable him to apply certain fixed principles, while practice enables him to overcome unexpected difficulties, which may arise from time to time.


I was much impressed with Mr. Stirton’s observation that the chopper with the necessary requisites of clear brain and knowledge of principles went to his work from day to day with as much unconcern as he sat down to his breakfast.  “He does not,” said Mr. Stirton, “consider whether he will be safe here or safe there.  He knows where he is safe and acts without hesitation.”  It occurred to me that this is a principle that applies to life generally as well as to chopping.  Ignorance and assurance are a deadly combination, but knowledge and consciousness of danger are characteristics that carry a person safely and successfully through a life, not only of chopping, but of the many difficulties of public life.


But, to return to Mr. Stirton’s story, he went on to say that the first consideration involved in felling a tree is where it is to lie so that it may be followed by others, so as best facilitate the conversion of the whole forest into ashes.  The chopper must set his brain to work, so that the accumulation of felled trees may be in a mass that the fire may demolish in the most effective way.  Nature does her share, but the strong point of a good chopper lies in his being able to force the trees together, and, in doing this, he proves conclusively that the being is the master of this immense mass of matter.  He is not hampered by any fear of endangering his life.  He takes no thought of that, knowing that he is master of the situation and that the danger may and shall be avoided by ingenuity.


In these days, when so little is to be done, an accident seems really unnecessary, in view of the fact that so much was done, with few accidents, by the early settlers, guided by their brains.


As an instance of what can be accomplished by caution, Mr. Stirton told some facts relating to the early history of the Scotch Block.


There were some twenty-five families of the party who had gone to La Guayra, but being deceived in the South American scheme, they came on to Canada, arriving in the fall of 1827.  It is Mr. Stirton’s purpose to give, some time in the course of his reminiscences, a complete history of this party, a matter that has never previously been detailed in full print.


It was one of Mr. Galt’s projects to settle all these people together, and the district assigned to them was land lying along the present Elora road.  They were instructed to clear, to their future homes, the road which was surveyed from the market house in Guelph to the town line in Pilkington.


The workingmen of these families numbered from twenty-five to thirty, and they were instructed to begin from the present site of the Wellington Hotel.  The road was thirty-three feet wide, and the trees were to be cut, according to Mr. Galt’s orders, flush with the surface of the ground.  This unusual and impractical method of felling trees multiplied the cost of the road about ten times, but it was accomplished as ordered.  Every tree, large and small, was removed, and this entirely by handspikes, there being no oxen in the country at that time.


These men worked every day from the first of September to the middle of December, and during all this time, while this difficult work was being accomplished, not a man was hurt by a falling tree or a rolling log.  It is worthy of note that this work was so safely and successfully put through by greenhorns from the old country.


In these days, native born Canadians, who can swing an axe in cutting a little bit of kindling wood, go recklessly into the woods and drive an axe at random into the timber with no idea of the consequences.  They are ignorant of the first principles of chopping and think the subject not worthy of serious consideration and thus court accidents.


Mr. Stirton suggested that when the farmers are about to cut wood, they should secure a man accustomed to throwing timber to direct the work, and thus possibly reduce the unnecessary accidents to those occasioned by the sharpening of a saw.


Sometimes the choppers make an incision in front and cut the balance with a crosscut saw.  This does away entirely with the principle of throwing a tree, as the top of the tree and its connection with the root control the direction in which the tree will fall.


Mr. Stirton said it was usual to cut two-fifths into the calf of the tree on one side towards which it was to fall, and then the back should be cut the same way, but it should not all be cut off the stump, otherwise the chopper removes the connection that controls the falling of the tree.


If the chopper takes the precaution of going two steps to one side and two steps to the rear, he is just as safe as if he were in the next township.  A chopper should never throw a tree amongst standing timber.  The falling tree bends the limbs of the standing trees, and when these are relieved from the weight of the lodged tree, there is inevitably a shower of limbs into the clearing.


Carefulness is the essential in safe and expeditious chopping, and with proper care a chopper, possessed with the idea that he is master of the situation, may throw any monster of the forest without a thought of danger.  Mr. Stirton observed that the ignorance of the mechanic from the old world begot caution, but the ignorance of the native Canadian oftentimes begot recklessness.


Even in the hard slavish life of the early settlers there were incidents that enlivened the human mind and tickled the sense of humour, which was by no means lacking in the sturdy pioneers.


Thomas Garbutt, a Canadian, came from the county of York and settled in the township of Peel.  He was in need of choppers and employed anyone who came along.  He had secured a dozen when an Irishman came along.


“Good marnin’,” said the Irishman, “I’m looking for wark.”

“Can you chop?” said Mr. Garbutt

“Oh shure, Oi can that.”

“Well, go in and take your breakfast.  You will have to work alone till noon for the men are away splitting rails. 

So the Irishman took his breakfast, saying meanwhile that anyone could chop. The men agreed with him that anyone could chop, and presently he departed with his axe.  At noon he related his experience.

Bhoys,” he said, “yez were talkin’ that anyone could chop.  Oi tell you, yez are mistaken.  It isn’t anny one that can chop, but just a very smart man.  Oi tackled the first tree Oi saw,  and when Oi persaved it movin’, Oi started to run.  Now Oi’m light on the fut, and Oi did my best at the runnin’, but, cliver as Oi am, before Oi got out of the raich of it, the top of it grazed my breeches.”


The front of a falling tree isn’t just exactly the place most people would choose for a foot-race, but the Irishman lived to tell the tale.


The following is an incident which came under Mr. Stirton’s personal observation:


In the year 1832 came the first strong immigration to this part of the country.  Before that, the incoming settlers were nearly all poor, but those who came in 1832 brought with them considerable means.  Some of them were gentlemen’s sons, who didn’t do much good for themselves or the country, but the majority of them prospered fairly well.  Among the families who came at this time was that of Mr. Card.  Mr. Card had four sons, ranging in age from twelve to twenty years, also a brother-in-law.


Mr. Stirton recalls their first attempt at the work of clearing the farm.  The six men secured an axe apiece and came marching up the road, a sight to see in their old country garb.  Each wore a slop or outside shirt made of duck and magnificent with braiding.  Their high low shoes, coming halfway up the leg, were regarded with scorn by Mr. Stirton’s little brothers, then children of seven and ten.


The boys, guiltless of high low shoes, or any shoes at all, in fact, with both extremities exposed to the weather, saw the formidable looking party.  They got into their own field, and, keeping close by the fence, they eyed the movements of the Card party with the keenest curiosity.  The six men selected as the object of their attention a tree that stood within a few yards of the line fence separating the Stirton farm from that of the property just purchased by Mr. Card.


The men looked the tree all over, up and down, as if uncertain whether the top or bottom was the place to begin operations.  First, two or three of the men took a hack or so apiece at the tree, then the rest of the party whacked at it in a promiscuous way, evidently without any vestige of method in their madness.


The shrewd little fellows were watching these feckless operations and one said, “They’ll throw that tree on our line fence, sure as you’re there, they will do that,” so one of them called out, “Hold on there!”

“Whoa bea you?”

“I’m Mr. Stirton’s boy.”

Whaat you saayHowld on’ fur?”

“You’re going to throw that tree across our fence.”

“ ‘Ow do you knaw which waay it will fall?”

“It will fall the way it leans, if you keep on that way.”

“Will you coom oaver here and let’s see ‘ow it’s done?”


The youngsters went over and, despising the work accomplished by the six men, they started in on a new field of operations.  With patience and common sense, for the tree was inclined to fall on the fence, they succeeded, by angling it, in throwing it clear of their father’s land.


“Well’, said Mr. Card, in relating the story afterwards, “I’ve ‘erd in England that one buoy is a buoy, and two buoys isalf a buoy, and three buoys be worse than no buoy at all, but ‘ere’s two chillun can laarnalf a dozen men.”


The next incident that Mr. Stirton relates is of a different character, though it occurred on the same property.  Mr. Rose was one of the first La Guayraian party.  He was a respectable man, quite highly educated, but entertaining bigger notions than his neighbours on some points.


The situation, style, and the very dimensions of the houses of these settlers had been prescribed by Galt.  Mr. Rose, desiring to have something to distinguish him from the common herd, decided that his house would not be a log house of the orthodox style and shape, but it would be a shanty.  His neighbours were satisfied to construct their houses of any logs available, but Mr. Rose elected that nothing but cedar logs should go into his house.


As much as possible it was to be in every respect unlike that of anyone else, so at great cost for the hauling of the cedar logs from long distances, he, at last, erected a fine large shanty in the heart of the bush.  None of the surrounding trees had been cut, merely enough space for the shanty itself having been cleared.


Mr. Rose’s family consisted of his wife and two young children.  His wife’s connections lived on the opposite side of the road, on the farm which belonged to the late Robert Blyth.  Mr. Rose wished to clear some land about the house and the men from the opposite farm came over.  The women also came over to spend the day with Mrs. Rose, so that there were in the house on that day the grandmother, four daughters and three children.


As Mr. Rose began to chop a tree quite near the house, one of the daughters came out to inquire the propriety of remaining in quarters which might be dangerous.  Mr. Rose replied with a haughty sneer, that he knew what he was doing, and certainly was not going to throw a tree on his own house.


Mr. Stirton happened to be passing through the bush at the time, and to him the woman called, “Come over here Davie, and tell us if you think there is any danger.”


“Certainly there is danger.  If you don’t want to be killed, get out of there,” was the reply.


Mr. Rose lost his temper at Mr. Stirton for presuming to cast reflections on his skill, and went on cutting the tree.


Now, Mr. Rose had a theory that by leaving one side strong he could draw the tree around.  This particular tree happened to be hollow, and when he perceived the timber was brash, instead of changing his plan, he continued until he cut it through on the side next to the shanty, on which it fell, smashing it as flat as a pancake.  Had it not been for Mr. Stirton’s timely warning, the women would doubtless have remained in the house and could not have escaped being killed.


Mr. Rose, instead of being grateful for their escape, fumed and stormed, declaring that he had cut the tree all right, whereupon Mr. Stirton dryly said, “Do you think your shanty is all right?”


I often wish, in the retelling of these stories, that I could put on paper the expression, the perfect mimicry, and the irresistible laugh that add so much to the spoken words.


But in the following little story I wish that I could reproduce the feeling with which it was told.  It is a story to which one listens with dim eyes and quivering lips.


Archie Turner came to Guelph in the fall of 1827. “I remember well”, said Mr. Stirton, “the night of his arrival”.  Whenever teams came up the road, everyone, hoping the newcomer would be from their part, ran out to meet them, asking, “Where are you from?”  As Archie Turner drove up and was so greeted, he said: “It’s nae difference.  We’re a” Scotch and Irish.”


So proficient a chopper did Archie Turner become, that it was the custom to send for him to superintend all the difficult chopping for five or six miles around.  He settled within a mile of Guelph, on the farm now occupied by Mr. Kenny, dairyman.


On the 17th March 1828, he lodged a small tree into a larger one.  It was the custom when a tree was so lodged to cut the supporting tree, the chopper trusting to be able to run clear of both of them.


Mr. Turner saw that the large tree required some weakening and cut it accordingly.  As soon as the large tree began to move he ran to clear it.  There had been a fresh fall of about two inches of snow, and Mr. Turner jumped into a heap of brushwood and before he could rise the tree fell on him.


At the usual time his wife came to the door to call him to dinner.  He did not come and she called and called until seized with a fear that something was wrong.  She took her child, an infant of six weeks, on her arm and went to look for him.  The sight that met the young wife’s eyes was her husband lying in the brush heap with his head all crushed and bleeding.  She sat down beside the mangled body, gathering into her lap the poor crushed head, and was so found hours later by some of her neighbours.


This was the first burial in Guelph, and as the cemetery was not yet cleared, he was buried in the Market square, south of the present gun-shed.  The grave was enclosed with a rail fence, which stood for many years.


Mr. Stirton mentioned chopping bees as another feature of pioneer life, but these were not of very frequent occurrence as a bee to chop was one of the most unfortunate and foolish projects.  Chopping required care and caution, and when more than two were working it took the rest all their time to take care of themselves.


Among the settlers of 1832 was one Andrew Hewitt, a farmer in the old country, who bought the property afterwards known as the Vale farm.  He wanted to give the neighbours and newcomers a jollification, so he got them all to a chopping bee.  Some went for fun, but found later that there was not much safety in their fun.  Twenty or thirty men, with an axe apiece, gathered together for fun and levelling trees are an aggregation calculated to come to some serious end.  Mr. Stirton, then a youngster, was sent to represent the family.  He was not taking much active part, but was watching the exhibition with a Highlandman and Charlie Holliday, a boy from across the road.  A green chopper began to hack at a sapling nearby.


“See that dabber.” said Charlie. “Just look at that red-headed woodpecker.”


Just then the sapling fell, and if he had not moved smartly, he would have been struck.


“You stupid ass,” he shouted.  “You didn’t cry look out.”  Don’t you know the first thing to learn in chopping is to cry, “Look out”?”


The Highlandman, turning to Mr. Stirton, said “Gott, Davie, it’s dangerous to be safe here.  We’ll gang awa to some quiet corner by oorsels.”


The bee ended in the usual way.  There were a few trees felled, as Tom Knowles said, “hither and over”, but the whiskey provided was appreciated to the full, in more senses than one.


In the sketch of last week, it was a mistake that Mr. Stirton was credited with the making of the go-double cart.  The owner of the steers was the owner of the cart, and Mr. Stirton does not wish to infringe on any one else’s patent, even that of a go-double cart, made some seventy-one years ago.


Kate Conway





The preceding article appeared in the remarkable scrapbooks of Herbert Fairbairn Gardiner, volume 143, pages 27-29.  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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