Clearing Trees: a Daunting Task for Settlers 

Clearing Trees a Daunting Task for Settlers as they worked to fulfill their obligations to claim land, but it was also a task necessary for clearing the way for roads in the newly settling areas of the colony.


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The Great Lakes Raconteur

This past Sunday, not only this area, but all of Ontario experienced terrible wind storms. 

As we sat in the relative safety of our homes tremendous gusts of wind wreaked havoc all around. At one point there was a loud CRACK and a huge limb fell from one of the giant maple trees on our front lawn. 

Later in the day news reports told of the carnage left in the wake of the storm. We were indeed lucky compared to some communities in the American mid-west. 

In our area there were reports of hydro poles being snapped in half like toothpicks, fallen trees blocking roads and power outages. On Sunday afternoon as I drove into Owen Sound the roadway was strewn with branches and large trees lay on the ground. Many of them had been snapped from their trunk as if they were only match sticks. 

The sight of large trees ripped from their ancient moorings made me think of this area when the first settlers arrived here, and I wondered if some of the larger fallen trees had been part of the original forests which blanketed this area in the 1840s. 

Certainly, the size of some of them suggested that they had weathered many storms over the decades only to succumb to this latest blast from Mother Nature. 

When the first settlers arrived in this region, they faced a daunting task. Part of the terms of the land grant required that they had received from the colonial government required the clearing of the land and the erection of a permanent residence. Journals and diaries from the era of the first settlers report of the land being densely covered by large trees. 

An example of the density of the forest in this region occurred about 1842 when Ezra Brown arrived here from Montreal. A tanner by trade, Brown proposed building a tannery in the small clearing which marked the settlement of Sydenham. The other inhabitants of the community which was located in the general area of 8th Street East, where the city hall and Farmer's Market now stand, were repelled by the idea of a "smelly?' tannery in their midst. 

Consequently, they forced Brown to locate his business a good distance to the north in the midst of the forest. 

The remote location, out of the sight and smell of the other citizens of the community, was in the general vicinity of what would become in later years the intersection of 10th Street and 2nd Avenue East. This was a distance in today’s Owen Sound of only two city blocks! 

The forests in the area were extremely dense and many early settlers often got lost when they ventured into the woods which surrounded the settlement. In order to aid travellers in finding their way to the clearing gunshots were fired to signal the location of the community. 

Many of the trees that blanketed the area were of tremendous size. Alan Ross in his wonderful book Reminiscences of North Sydenham described the size of some of the trees that met the blade of the settler's axe. 

Ross wrote that one tree was eight feet in diameter at the ground and seven feet in diameter at the stump. It was 90 feet in height and that a settler might find as many as three or four of these giants on one acre, along with all the other trees which covered his land. 

When I returned home Sunday evening, I set about to remove the fallen limb and branches from our large maple. Stirred with the idea of emulating the early settlers I was almost pleased that it was too large to drag away. I grabbed my axe I set about to chop up the huge limb into more manageable sizes. 

I chopped and chopped, but the limb refused to give up its pieces. Slowly I made headway, but aching muscles forced me to retire from my task before it was complete. 

Again, and again I have attacked that stubborn limb with my axe, but still it stubbornly refuses to give in. 

I was beginning to doubt my abilities as an axeman when at last I came upon the reason why it was so difficult a task. The axes used by the pioneers must have been of better quality than those available to us modern-day "lumber-jacks!"

A version of this article first appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times.

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