John Muir

John Muir, the legendary naturalist, who promoted the idea of protected nature spaces, spent time in Ontario and I went to help find evidence of his stay in the Owen Sound area.

john-muirJohn Muir

The press release said: “Join the search for what may be John Muir’s teacup.”  

Historical research requires a lot of “digging”. I spend hours each week plowing through old newspapers, journals and other information in the quest to find more information about whatever topic I am currently writing about. However, the quest to find John Muir’s teacup requires another form of “digging”!

"Digging" for John Muir's Teacup

A team of archeologists and volunteers are excavating two small sites to find more information about the famed naturalist, John Muir. The focus of the search for artifacts is in a picturesque setting called Trout Hollow on the Big Head River near Meaford.

Muir was a conscientious objector to the American Civil War. He came to Canada and his travels brought him to the Meaford area in 1863. Here he found work at a sawmill operated by the Trout family. He lived in a small cabin on the shores of the Big Head River, a short distance from the mill. His stay in the area was brief. It is suspected that he returned to the United States in 1865.

Local history buffs had known the general location of Muir’s cabin, but it was a stroke of luck that led them to what is believed to be the exact site of his home. In 1998, Robert Burcher, and Connie Bresnahan, a PhD student from Alberta, who was studying Muir’s time in Canada, were participating in a hike sponsored by the Canadian Friends of John Muir to publicize the fact that Muir had lived in the area. When they were passing through Trout Hollow Burcher noticed pottery shards sticking out from the side of a ground hog’s hole.

Later, that day, at a presentation about Muir at the Meaford Opera House, Burcher and Bresnahan showed the shards to Peter Stork of the Royal Ontario Museum. Stork authenticated them as being from the mid-1800s. This led to further exploration in the vicinity of the ground hog’s hole and a nail, spoons and other artifacts were discovered.

A committee was formed to explore the site in more detail. Burcher said that they approached the owner of the land, Ron Knight, and they were pleased to find out that he was very interested in history. In fact, Burcher said that when the head of the committee first met with Knight he was surprised when Knight opened his wallet and pulled out a quote from Muir!  

Burcher says that Muir’s time in the Meaford area was probably important in his development as a naturalist. John Muir was a deeply spiritual man and was a member of the Church of Christ. Coincidentally, the Trout family, for whom he worked, were also members of that church. Burcher feels that the combination of the natural beauty of the region, his spirituality, and an industrial accident which he suffered a few months after he left the area may have led Muir to becoming a great proponent of the naturalist movement. Unfortunately, not much remains of Muir’s written recollections of his time in the area. It is believed that his papers were in the mill when it burned down.

The group involved in the dig are members or friends of a group known as the Canadian Friends of John Muir. They are naturalists, amateur historians and archeologists who have come together in the quest to find out more about Muir. Two professional archeologists, Jim Molnar of Lions Head and Jacqueline Fisher of Hamilton, are directing the operations. At first the project was funded by members of the group, but more recently other sources have come forth to finance the dig.

In order to find out more about Muir’s time in the area they have to “dig”. This requires hours of moving earth in the quest for the tiniest artifacts. There are no backhoes or even shovels to move the dirt. Instead the crew uses small trowels and screen sifters. The work is arduous but there is excitement in the air as no one knows what the next scrape of a trowel will reveal!

The pottery shards led Burcher on a personal quest. He spent weeks at museums in Ottawa and Toronto trying to identify the pattern on the shards. Finally, he was able to make an educated guess that it was blue and white earthenware from Staffordshire, England. The design was probably created by Miles Mason who created patterns for several companies from 1800 to 1862. If the bottom of the cup is found it most likely will bear the company stamp of M. Mason; G.M. & C.J. Mason; C.J. Mason & co.; or Ashworth & Bros. The pattern is derived from a drawing of the eruption of Mount Etna in Italy.

The dig will cease on Saturday after another heritage walk through the area takes place. Burcher says that anyone who wishes to join the walk this Saturday should go to the Meaford harbour between 8:30 and 10:00 am. From this point buses will take participants to the starting point of hike. Who knows someone might find the missing pieces to John Muir’s teacup!           

For more information about John Muir and his impact on the creation of the National Parks in the United States check out this short trailer about one of my favourite documentaries The National Parks: America's Best Idea by the best documentary maker, Ken Burns,

This Article originally appeared in the Owen Sound Sun Times.

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