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
from The Evening Mercury newspaper for Saturday Ev’ng,
Feb. 25th, 1899.
Pioneer Days in
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 ─
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
an instance of what can be accomplished by caution, Mr. Stirton told some
facts relating to the early history of the Scotch Block.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Garbutt, a Canadian, came from the
marnin’,” said the Irishman, “I’m looking for wark.”
you chop?” said Mr. Garbutt
shure, Oi can that.”
go in and take your breakfast. You will
have to work alone till noon for the men are away splitting rails.
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
“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.”
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.
following is an incident which came under Mr. Stirton’s
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
Mr. Stirton’s boy.”
“Whaat you saay ‘Howld on’ fur?”
going to throw that tree across our fence.”
do you knaw which waay it
will fall the way it leans, if you keep on that way.”
you coom oaver here and
let’s see ‘ow it’s done?”
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
said Mr. Card, in relating the story afterwards, “I’ve ‘erd
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stirton happened to be passing through the bush at the time, and to him the
woman called, “Come over here
there is danger. If you don’t want to
be killed, get out of there,” was the reply.
Rose lost his temper at Mr. Stirton for presuming to cast reflections on his
skill, and went on cutting the tree.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
Turner came to
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
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.
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
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.
was the first burial in
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.
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.
that dabber.” said Charlie. “Just look at that red-headed woodpecker.”
then the sapling fell, and if he had not moved smartly, he would have been
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”?”
Highlandman, turning to Mr. Stirton, said “Gott,
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.
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.
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
Mr. Herbert Fairbairn Gardiner
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