My Uncle Fred (Dad F) sold his farm back about 1958. This was the original home place, the farm he’d inherited from his father, Thomas Forsyth. The impression I gleaned over the years was that Dad’s health was bad after the war and he couldn’t keep up with the work, so first Mom left, then he came and joined us in the city.
He did, however, retain one quarter section —160 acres — a couple of miles south of the farm; this was rented to neighbours as pasture. After Bob and I were married, I longed to make a “sentimental journey” back to Pathlow and Dad mentioned this land he still owned. So we made a stop there just for anyhow.
We parked our car by the side of the road, got out and looked around. Tall grass grew in a small clearing — this would be where the renter pastured his cattle — but most of the quarter was covered with native poplar. A spindly tree every meter, or thereabouts.
We’d driven up on gravel roads, past miles of fertile fields, but my mind went back to the original settlers, who maybe got off the train at Melfort, seventeen miles NE. For those who came later a road of sorts had been made but the first homesteaders would have wandered through the trees or followed creek banks until they came to the part that matched the land description in their hands.
And there they stood. Maybe wearing a backpack, with an axe hanging from their belt. Thinking, “Okay, start chopping. Clear this land and build a farm.”
Back around 1908 Thomas Forsyth, born in Glasgow, Scotland, a coal miner heretofore, carved his farm out of bush just like this; he called it Hillside Farm because the house and buildings were perched on a rolling upward slope. The Vances would have faced a similar situation when they arrived at Spy Hill, SK. A few farms had been wrested from the bush, but most of the land was forest, except where creeks meandered through it.
Thankfully clearing the land wasn’t the daunting prospect our forefathers faced when they landed in Oxford County. Our grandfather Allen didn’t face chopping down maple trees a meter thick – or even two – like his father Sam had to fell when he moved up to the Listowell area. Old timers in Ontario talked of a time when you could travel the trail from Kitchener to Sarnia without ever seeing the sun because there was such a dense canopy of spreading maple branches overhead. Can you imagine launching into those woods with an axe?
I’ve read that the Scottish settlers who came to Nova Scotia on The Hector were taken out into the old-growth maple forest and told, “Here’s your land, you just have to clear it and build yourselves homes.”
They’d never seen the likes back home in Scotland, where trees were thin, scrubby things. They were afraid of those monster trees and gloomy forests. A lot of the would-be farmers made their way to the towns and became servants and laborers.
Today we see fields of waving grain — because those who came first were willing to start swinging their axe.