Pioneer farming 1855 – 1870’s

Land purchases

On Nov. 10th, 1855, James bought lots, 26 on Concession 4, and 26 on Concession 5, of Kincardine Township from Henry Stanley. (Registered as School Sale 2257 & 2265 ).  At that time Lot 26 in Con IV (50 acres) was in tax arrears, while lot 26 in Con V (100 acres) had been paid in full.  Henry Stanley had previously acquired these lots from the crown on April 21st 1853 and had been unable to fulfill the conditions of purchase over the two years.  James purchased these two lots for a sum of two hundred and fifty pounds “comprising in all one hundred and fifty acres.”  The sale indicates that Henry Stanley was illiterate as he signed the agreement of sale with his “X” mark.  Most likely he was one of the earliest English pioneer settlers who unwittingly bought the land without appreciating the difficulties he would have in meeting the required conditions of sale.

Ferguson farmstead Lot 26 Con. V

Ferguson farmstead
Lot 26 Con. V

The Ferguson homestead was established on Lot 26 Con. V which was adjacent to Sideroad 25.  The lot to the south of the Fifth Concession was also cleared and farmed.  The Penetangore River flowed westward through the hamlet of Bervie to Kincardine on the shore of Lake Huron.  The entire township was originally covered with a dense old growth mixed deciduous forest.

The response to the Crown land sale program of 1854 witnessed the arrival of hundreds of new settlers.   Although wilderness lots were still selling at 12 s 6 d / acre, some original purchasers like Henry Stanley found this to be an opportunity to cash in on the higher market value for lots nearest Durham Road.   It is interesting to note that the money James paid to Henry Stanley for land in 1855 was about two and a half times more than Henry had paid two years previous.

James’ decision to purchase land in 1855 was astute.  He had avoided the great temptation to buy wilderness lots the previous summer during the largest land rush sale of crown lands in the district. It seems clear that James had sufficient resources to hold out until he found lots in a geographic location most favourable to him even though he payed a much higher price for the land.  Besides, it is likely that Henry Stanley had already built a shanty on the property and had begun to clear some land.  With improvements, James could make the dwelling suitable for his family.

Land clearing was an arduous job

Land clearing was an arduous job

The two adjacent concession lots he bought were a mile north of the intersection of the Durham Road and Sideroad No. 25.  Here the small hamlet of Bervie had been established in 1852, as an overnight stop on the local Penetangore to Hanover mail route.  Bervie was situated where surveyed crossroads intersected a headwater stream of the Penetangore River.  Although it was not navigable, the small stream had the potential as a mill site. It is quite possible that James mused at the future possibilities of establishing a sawmill at this location.  Clearing his farm lots would provide considerable timber for the mill if he could eventually acquire enough funds to invest in the necessary equipment.

Techniques of land clearing involved the slash and burn method.  After trees were felled and logs removed, the area was set alight to remove as much forest rubble as possible.  The carbon of the charred remains was turned over into the soil by hand.  The remaining tree stumps were removed as time permitted but in the early years seed crops were planted among the remaining stumps.  Buck saws, axes and  the muscles of men and oxen were the tools of the day.

The response to the Crown land sale program of 1854 witnessed the arrival of hundreds of new settlers.   Although wilderness lots were still selling at 12 s 6 d per acre, some original purchasers like Henry Stanley found this to be an opportunity to cash in on the higher market value for lots nearest Durham Road.   It is interesting to note that the money James paid to Henry Stanley for land in 1855 was about two and a half times more than Henry had paid two years previous.

Early dwellings

There were two types of dwellings that settlers constructed.  A rather low and slightly angled flat-roofed log shanty covered with bark could be erected in a short time.   The gaps between the bark-covered logs were filled with cedar splints and clay.  It had one door and a single-pane window.   The homemade door had a latchstring on the exterior.  This was the kind of dwelling that served as the squatter’s home in the first few years that James and Fanny lived in Kincardine.   It was also the type of dwelling into which the Fergusons would have moved into when they bought the land from Henry Stanley in 1855.

Old log shanty

Old log shanty

However, the first summer on the new homestead would have seen James constructing a larger one-storey dwelling complete with hip roof and attic.  An 1860 affidavit identifies that his house was sixteen by eighteen feet.  The cabin was built from hewed logs which had been stripped of bark and shaped by broad axe to reduce the gap between each coarse of logs as they were placed upon each other.  Chinking which filled the remaining spaces between logs was made from horsehair, and mud.  The roof was finished with shingled cedar shakes.  Windows were larger than those of the shanty, with a back as well as a front door.  Partitions divided the interior into several rooms.  Collected field stones served to create a fireplace and chimney.  All materials, except for window glass would have been collected and prepared for use by James from the forest resources on his property.  This type of log cabin became the characteristic dwelling of the Bruce homesteaders.

Second generation log cabin

Second generation log cabin

The site of the dwelling on a property was usually determined by close proximity to water.     Most forest lots of 150 acres were generally well drained by small brooks.  Other fields featured small depressions that held pockets of water during the spring runoff season.  Even today three such depressions, now forested, lie within the fields of James’ original farm.  Eventually as technology and development progressed the second-generation homes were usually situated one or two hundred feet back from the concession road and provided with water from a drilled well.

Several exterior features marked the typical farmstead dwelling in early Bruce County. A grindstone used for sharpening the axes was an absolute necessity for all settlers. It was rigged up alongside the cabin with chopped cordwood for the fireplace.  Other vital implements included the plough and harrow, which were carefully maintained and protected from the elements. The plow consisted of one or more iron blades fixed in a wooden frame, drawn by oxen.  At first it was used to tear up the roots lying buried in the newly cleared land and later for cutting furrows in the soil and turning it over to prepare for the planting of seed. The harrow consisted of a heavy frame set with teeth or tines that were dragged over plowed land to break up the clods of soil, remove weeds, and cover seeds.  The most skillful and enterprising of early homesteaders made their own ploughs and harrows and only needed to purchase the iron blades from a blacksmith.

Early barns and stables were quite primitive.  Once the log cabin was built, the original shanty might serve as the first enclosure for the oxen or cattle during the winter. The most useful beast of burden in the early settlement years was the slow but patient and stronger ox. The high-spirited horse with more delicate legs was less suited to the arduous tasks of pulling out stumps and navigating the rough muddy sleigh roads of the 1850’s.  In fact there were only three teams of horses in the village of Kincardine in 1856 and not a single farmer in the vicinity owned any.

Satellite image of the Ferguson homestead in Kincardine Township

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The satellite image of the Ferguson homestead   was carefully examined from a variety of   altitudes on the google map website.  At an  adjusted eye altitude of 340 meters, distinct linear markings can be observed among the plough furrows.  The shape and size indicate that they represent the location of old buildings, quite possibly the original site of James log cabin.  The location of these two sites, yet to be investigated, are shown in red.

The slow process of clearing forest involved chopping, logging and burning.  This work was all necessary before the ground could be plowed and planted.  For most homesteaders the time between the felling of the first trees and the reaping of his first harvest could not be accomplished in one season.  The family had to have sufficient finances to be able to lay up a year supply of foodstuffs.  This was a period of high risk for both budget and health.  Careful planning and long hours of hard backbreaking work had to be employed to keep the “wolf from the door” although a bounty on wolf scalps fetched $6.00.

Screen Shot 2013-02-08 at 12.22.31 PM_2Yet for James the risks associated with this initial phase of homesteading was minimized by the purchase of a resale lot where a shanty dwelling already existed and where some forest had been previously cleared to allow for planting during his first summer season of occupancy.  James forethought paid off and enhanced his chance of success.  The family likely moved from Kincardine into their shanty on Con 5 lot 26 in the spring of 1856 after the birth of their fourth, child Sarah Elizabeth Ferguson, on Jan. 11th, of that year.

The summer of 1856 saw numerous development activities both by the Commissioner of Public Works for Bruce County and by James for his family.   Improved port docking facilities were made at Southampton, navigation lights along the coast were installed and a customs office initiated in Southampton.  As for Kincardine, its landing facilities remained inadequate but roadwork continued to expand the grid pattern of concession and side roads.

This was James, first season of homesteading.  His expenditures would have included purchase of at least one ox, possibly a plough and harrow, as well as seeds to begin subsistence planting of some staple crops such as potatoes and turnips and perhaps oats.  Most likely Henry Stanley had not been able to clear any more than a few acres in previous years.  James’ priority was to plant a variety of crops to create a cache of foodstuffs for his family to use during the following winter.  Spring field preparations likely saw some tree stumps removed and improvements to existing cleared acreage but for the most part the fields remained pitted with numerous tree stumps.

The second priority during the initial season was the construction of a log cabin to replace the small shanty.  After all the family now included 5 children all under the age of 10 years. An adequate family shelter during winter months was essential.  The season was a challenging one with meeting the goals of creating both a food cache and shelter for the family during the winter months. Further to this was the arrival of James’ and Fanny’s sixth child, Thomas Ferguson, on Aug. 11th, 1858.

The Stavation Year  1858/59

The following two years witnessed considerable accomplishments.  The log cabin was made secure and finished.  Cleared lands became proper fields.  However, the summer weather conditions of 1858 were a severe setback for all homesteaders. No rain fell in the area between June 23rd and August 11th, the very time when planted field crops needed the nurturing moisture to flourish.  For most farmers the attempts to harvest were futile.  Many homesteaders, whose priority had been land clearing, found themselves with insufficient cache of foodstuffs from previous years to carry them through the winter.  1859 was referred to as the “starvation year” when several lost their lives.  The deprivation likely extended to the Fergusons as well.  Once source I found reports the death of an infant, baby Ruth in either 1859/60.

Recognizing the distress, the Bruce County Council developed a plan of action.   To relieve the situation it created a debenture of eight thousand five hundred pounds “for providing means to relieve the destitution, existing and increasing, in the county of Bruce, and to supply a sufficiency of seed grain and provisions for the inhabitants, prior to the ensuing harvest.”  [Vie. Chap 7. Passed March 26th, 1859.]

The proportion of money allocated to the different municipalities varied according to the amount of distress experienced.  Kincardine Township received 5,400 pounds.  The terms of relief provided five bushels of seed grain to each ratepayer at a rate of one shilling and three pence per bushel over cost price.  This amount could also be paid by exchange for roadwork to be completed by the ratepayer.  Each ratepayer was also entitled to receive an allowance of breadstuffs not exceeding fifteen pounds per head.  They were required to make a declaration explaining the nature of the case and relief that was required.  So dire were the lack of foodstuffs that additional relief was furnished with the assistance of the Grand Trunk Railway.  The company reduced its freight rates 50% on grain and provisions sent to the Huron counties.

Fortunately the tide of despair was greatly relieved by a very good harvest in 1859.  The return of hope marked the beginning of a new decade of continued development and prosperity for Bruce County.  On Sept. 5th, 1860, James filed an affidavit that certified his family occupied a house on Lot 26 Con. V and that 12 acres of land had been cleared and was cultivated.  On Nov. 6th, his farm was formally registered and paid in full.  His patient plan to acquire the land on his own terms, and not succumb to the previous land rush sales of 1851 and 1854, had worked.  His family was secure.

However the fluctuation of crop yields continued.   The harvest of 1861 was much below average but once again was met with sympathetic administration by the crown.  Although farmers were required to remit the accumulated interest of their lands up to the end of the year, they were provided with a five-year extension of the term for payment of the remainder of the purchase price.  In response James saw this as an enterprising opportunity and made application for a Crown Deed to Con 5 Lot 29.  (This was the lot that James would later turn over to his twenty-one year old son, Thomas Ferguson, in 1879.)  In addition, a grant was provided to the county for significant road improvement and extensions to assist farmers with the chore of getting their crops to market.

Expanding Enterprises:  1860’s

1862 saw another good year of grain harvest but the success only served to highlight the lack of suitable conditions to transport the crop to distant markets before the grain began to sprout.  Once again the County Council responded  by offering a financial bonus to entice railway companies to extend a line into the county.  However, it should be noted that the site of James’ farm lot was in one of the more advantageous locations.  He was less than a mile from the Durham Road which was the most direct and well maintained wagon road west to Kincardine or east to Walkerton.

The focus of work during the early 1860’s seems to have been associated with the development of the other lot of land that James had purchased from Henry Stanley in 1855. Since this lot was in arrears to the Crown when James acquired it from Henry, James had to assume the same responsibilities and obligations to the Crowns as other homesteaders.  By 1863 James eldest son David 15, Robert 14, and William 10.  Together the boys became important assets and assisted with the plowing and planting on the homestead lot and also with the clearing of land on the other lot across the road.  So successful were their efforts that on Oct. 24th, 1865, a formal affidavit certified that 46 acres of land, on Lot 26 Con 4, had been cleared.  On Jan. 5th 1866. James was able to obtain full rights of ownership  Recognizing the limits of his labour, and need to focus attention on his own homestead, he then leased Con 4 lot 26, to William Collins who worked it for the next 21 years.   1865 was also highlighted by the birth of another son, Francis George Ferguson, on June 13th.

James’ calculated planning during the 1850’s paid off in many different ways.  By the mid 1860s it had become apparent that many homesteaders were accumulating arrears in annual payments as agreed at the time of purchase in the land rush sales of 1851 and 1854.  On Oct. 23rd, 1868 the Commissioner of Crown Land announced that it was his intention to enforce payment on all arrears by March 2nd 1869.  Alarmed settlers scrambled to make outstanding payments of all claims held by the Crown against their lands.  Many had to mortgage their farms as a result.  Interestingly, there is no record of outstanding payments of lands held by James Ferguson.  Once again he had kept the “wolf from the door”.  His financial situation was secure enough to hire twelve year old Agnes Jordan as a house worker to assist Fanny with the youngest children and with household chores such as cleaning and meal preparation for the young men.

The Pioneering Spirit  –  1870’s     

By the mid 1870’s many sons born to the fist homesteaders, were approaching adulthood.  Like their fathers they were looking for opportunities to acquire their own farmlands.  Some young men stepped into their aging fathers shoes and continued to manage the home homestead and to expand land holdings.  For others, the youthful sense of adventure seemed to set their path for the future.  Learning bush skills, clearing land, logging, plowing, seeding and harvesting, as they had from their fathers, imbued them with a sense of self-confidence in their abilities. In addition, they recognized the importance that brotherly neighbors played in strengthening the chances of successful homesteading.  The settlers’ spirit of offering mutual assistance was one of the key factors that helped all to endure the difficulties of the early years.  The necessities of life were shared, implements were loaned, day labour was exchanged, logging-bees and barn raising-bees were shared activities that strengthened the sense of community and provided better security for all.  Even if the natural good-heartedness of individuals abated the difficulties in facing the natural conditions, prompted co-operation among the backwoodsmen of Bruce County.

It is not surprising that in 1875 The Bruce Mutual Colonization Company (BMCC) was formed.  At a meeting held at Southampton on April 16th, 1875, the following objective of the company was set forth:

“That from the experience we have had as settlers in the county of Bruce, we believe the system of settling by the formation of a colony is attended by less hardships and privations than many of us endured in the early settlement of this county; ; that being anxious to plant a colony in the province of Manitoba from the county of Bruce, immediate steps be taken to further this project, and that a suitable location be made as speedily as possible.” 

In the context of today’s youth one might find this a rather startling goal.  Instead of repeating the trials and tribulations of forefathers, why not build upon their success by sharing and expanding their enterprises where they were first established?  This option would provide for a continuation of family relationships and support for the next generation.  Yet by its vey nature the BMCC hoped to open up new settlements. Their experience as children of original homesteaders, their acquired skills, and youthful naivety seemed to drive them to follow in their father’s footsteps, albeit as a collective group in distant lands far from home.

Although James eldest sons were not directly involved with the BMCC, the above provides a context to explain why sons David and Robert shared these same sentiments and eventually headed westward to homestead.

In the book “Toil, tears & triumph” of settlers in Kincardine Township we learn that in 1869, David Ferguson, then 21, was operating a sawmill at Bervie.  It is unclear if he was the owner or part owner who actually built the mill. It may have been that James had invested some money in the purchase of saw milling equipment.  Likely the Fergusons constructed a dam to create a pond which would feed the water through a raceway to the water wheel.  The construction may have taken a year or so to complete and if so would have been started about 1867/68.

Sawmill activities were an essential pioneer industry.

Sawmill activities were an essential pioneer industry.

James also held the Crown Deed to Con 6 Lot 21 in 1870 and after some logging he sold it to John Shewfelt in 1872.   (Macfadyen website)  No doubt the sawmilling venture was an ideal location for James and his neighbours to convert their logs into timbers and planks for the construction of barns, stables and improved dwellings.   In the same year James’ son, twenty-two year old David, married Ann Elizabeth Hunt on Feb 16th, and took up residence at a farm lot near Kinloss in Bruce County.  By 1878, after the birth of 4 children, David decided to take his family and journey to the plains of North Dakota to farmstead.  Like his father before him, he too wanted to venture to new areas of cheap land to provide for his growing family.

In 1874, James’ second eldest son Robert, married Margaret Jane Fisher at Bervie.  She had been orphaned at the age of seven as a result of her parents’ deaths of tuberculosis. Margaret was raised by her older sister. Upon hearing of the relationship, Robert’s father, James, opposed the marriage because of the fear that Margaret would suffer the same end as her parents.  Despite this the couple eloped on July 15th and acquired a farm in nearby Ripley. Between 1875 and 1880 three children were born, including Thomas Francis (1875), Emma, (1877) and William James – Jim (1879). However, Margaret Jane’s health began to fail and, upon the local doctor’s advise, the couple considered moving to a drier western climate.  This along with the slow pace of clearing land, and mounting debts, caused them to seek the drier weather of the western plains in 1881.   Two years later their son, Robert George, was born on Sep. 12, 1883 on a farm in South Joliette.  Eventually George would become a doctor and would crusade against tuberculosis in Canada.

The challenges of pioneer farming

Although the acreage of cropland significantly increased in Bruce County during the 1870’s, it was not without its challenges.  In 1870 an infestation of potato bugs destroyed the crop. In 1871, a heavy frost in late June, took its toll on the year-end harvest.  Extensive bush fires in that year also destroyed considerable cropland and many dwellings.   The summer of 1872 produced a bumper harvest in the autumn.  However, that joy was met with tragedy when James’ wife, Fanny, died Dec. 11th, of that year.  The cause and circumstances of her death are unknown at this time.  The burden of household chores and meal preparations fell to his sixteen-year-old daughter, Sarah Elizabeth.  James continued to retain the services of housemaid, Agnes (Francis) Jordan, who had been working for the family for several years.  On Jan. 12th, 1876, Sarah left the family to marry John Bruce Hunt of Kinloss.  As dependency on Francis Jordan’s domestic services increased over the following years, so too did the affection between her and James.  Much to the chagrin of many family members 62 year old James married 19-year-old Francis in Walkerton on Feb. 22nd, 1875.  A year later Francis gave birth to their first child, Samuel.  He was the first of what was to become James’ third family, of eight children.


The first public school in Kincardine was established in 1851, the year James and Fanny arrived.  Their eldest sons would have been eligible to attend in 1856 after the family had established residency at the farmstead.  However, it is unlikely that either David or Robert attended school in their childhood years.  The road conditions made it impractical for James to take the children the ten miles to  and from school by an oxen pulled sleigh.

Even in these early days, settlers with young families recognized the need for formal education for their children.  However, many felt it was beyond their powers to do anything to address the problem that poor roads presented.  Nevertheless, the need remained, and by the late 1860’s, a few rural schools were established.  Settlers, including James Ferguson, willingly contributed their time and efforts in the construction of these schools.  On Aug. 2nd, 1876, James sold a half-acre plot of land at the southwest corner of his farmstead at Con. V Lot 26, for $60.00.  It was to be used for the construction of public school SS #13.  The first building was framed timber. Later in 1904 it was bricked and remained in use until 1966, when it was closed and dismantled in favour of the new central school.

Once again poor harvests of 1876 left many farmers with an insufficient supply of wheat to meet the needs of their families.  However, the following few years produced excellent harvests.  Farming interests were advanced with the introduction of “The Grange” organization into the county of Bruce.  The Grange Lodges enrolled members who were engaged in agriculture. Their objective was to advance the interest of the farmer by encouraging closer relations with manufacturers and doing away with middlemen.  It also promoted the interchange of ideas and strove to promote common interests such as the   mechanization on the farms.  In 1879 self-binding reapers were used for the first time during the harvest season. Word soon spread as to their efficiency in harvesting the grain.  No doubt that within a year or two James Ferguson acquired his own machine as well.

Self binding reaper

Self binding reaper

The Ontario census of 1881 for Kincardine Township reports that James and his wife, Francis Jordan, had three young children, Samuel 5, Martha 4, and Frances 2.  Also living in the house were two male children from James’s previous marriage to Francis Hunt.  They were Thomas 22, and George 16.  James continued to profit from his enterprises during the 1880’s. On June 3rd, 1883, he leased a lot from William Collins.  James likely grew wheat and oats on the land and made good use of his self-binding reaper during harvest.  He may also have logged any remaining portions of woodlot as permitted by William Collins.  On Jan 21, 1886, a third son John was born to Francis Jordan and in 1891 a forth daughter Margaret was born.

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