An Owen Sound pioneer, A.M. Stephens provided us with a story about his early years helping to carve out a community in this part of Georgian Bay.
This is Thanksgiving weekend. Usually, this column would focus on how our ancestors celebrated Thanksgiving. However, I would like to illustrate the ordeals faced by the first settlers in the area. Afterall it is because of the fortitude and tenacity of Owen Sound pioneers that this region was developed.
Once arriving in the Owen Sound area the new settlers were faced with innumerable hardships, but due to perseverance and perhaps, faith, many remained to create the foundation of this community. Getting to this area in the first place was an ordeal in itself and this week I am going to detail for you the exploits of one of Owen Sound's pioneer settlers, A. M. Stephens.
Mr. Stephens has left to us valuable recollections about his experiences in this area. In 1840, he had worked clearing land in the Arthur area and although he liked the area he "did not like the idea of settling so far inland". About this time he heard stories about the exploits of Charles Rankin surveying in the Owen Sound area and about the opportunities to settle on the shores of Georgian Bay.
Early in 1841 Stephens went to Arthur and joined a work crew which was about to set out clearing a route, which one day would be Highway 6, to Owen Sound. As the work was arduous at the best of times, Stephens wrote, the foreman of the crew "did his best to discourage me by describing the nature of the work I should be required to do".
Not being easily discouraged, and needing the money to help in establish himself in the Owen Sound area, Stephens trudged fifteen miles through the snow carrying a fifty pound pack as well as an axe and a blanket. He joined the crew where Mount Forest is now located.
Stephens described his fellow workers as follows:
"Our party numbered twelve besides the foreman, all being smokers with one exception. We carried a flint, a supply of spunk wood and a pocket-knife. The latter we used for striking fire to light our pipes, and to cut our tobacco, bread and pork. Taking the party as a whole I am forced to admit that it did not possess, to any great extent, either piety or polish, but it did contain a few specimens of genuine manhood."
Each day began with breakfast completed before daybreak. The noon meal was prepared by the crew cook, who brought the meal to the crew as they worked. This meal, like breakfast and dinner consisted of bread and pork and "was often frozen" before it could be eaten. The crew managed to clear about four miles a day. It was the duty of the cook and two helpers to break camp each day and set up again at a place where it was likely that the crew would end its work at nightfall.
The crew's living accommodations were meagre at best. The cook and his assistants would each day clear away the snow, build a pile of logs, and spread a tent, "which was like the half roof of a house. They would then gather hemlock boughs for bedding."
The cold, snow and sparse living conditions were not the only hardships that the crew endured. The Owen Sound pioneer, Stephens related an experience which he encountered while crossing the Big Saugeen on a timber jam that was covered with snow.
"...somehow I found myself up to the waist in water. From my best recollection of the event the situation was more enjoyed by my companions than myself. I lost no time in getting to the bank of the river where I emptied the water out of my boots, stood with bare feet in the snow while I wrung my socks, and then pulling on boots and socks, went to work."
When the crew was seventeen miles from Owen Sound they ran out of food. It was decided that they would trek to Owen Sound and let the work be completed at a later date. They trudged through ever increasingly deep snow. As night fell they were still a long ways from their destination. They came across an Indian sugar camp where they ate a supper of boiled snow, pork fat and two partridges which the foreman had shot during their trek.
In the morning they made the final few miles into Owen Sound where the sight of smoke coming from the chimney of Mr. LePan's house caused Mr. Stephens to comment "if ever a heart jumped for joy mine did then". He was about to begin his life as one of the first Owen Sound pioneers.
As we sit down to Thanksgiving Dinner let us not only give the usual thanks for what has been placed before us, but for hearty fortitude of those Owen Sound pioneers who struggled and succeeded in creating the community which we all know so well!
This story of an Owen Sound pioneer first appeared in a Thanksgiving tribute in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times.
For further information about the Owen Sound pioneer, A.M. Stephens, please see my book, Owen Sound: The Port City and check out the local section in the Owen Sound library.
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