The Uplands Community, 1880-1980

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Uplands Community 1880-1980

“…the District was very thinly settled…” quote from J.S. Cole

In the “horse and buggy days” travel was often difficult and time consuming and people rarely ventured far from home. Their world centered on their neighbourhood which was often limited to the area within about three miles from their residence. Women, especially, were confined to the immediate area of their homes. Men were far more likely to travel and occasionally made long treks on foot to purchase supplies. Several pioneer families handed down stories of their grandfathers carrying bags of flour long distances from a gristmill without either a horse or a mule to lighten the burden. During the many months of winter the trails were snow-bound and, in the spring, muddy. Under these conditions, women left their neighbourhood only two or three times a year to visit friends and relatives or to attend an event such as the Agricultural Fair or the July 1st Picnic at the Eagle Lake Narrows. Travel was sufficiently difficult so that it was not uncommon for visitors to spend the night rather than risk returning to their homes after nightfall. Logging bees, barn raisings, community picnics and protracted meetings were often two-day affairs for this reason. Travelers caught on the road after nightfall did not hesitate to turn into the first driveway they came upon where they were virtually assured of being offered space either in the house if they were “respectable” people or in the barn if they were labourers or strangers. Each community had its own school and school children usually were able to walk to school in about half an hour.

Due to a shortage of gospel ministers willing to serve in frontier areas, only three churches were located in the rural part of Machar Township before about 1940. This meant that some of the congregation traveled four or five miles to attend church. However these churches did not have services every Sunday. The ministers assigned to these churches were responsible for several parishes and in some years the minister’s post was vacant. The ministers traveled great distances, often on foot, to evangelize, visit the sick and to encourage their congregations. In the absence of a church building, services were held in different homes, usually once a month. Often the missionaries were seminary students on temporary assignment.

After the Eagle Lake United Church was built in 1884 a number of families attended services there if the weather and the roads permitted. The Eagle Lake United Church was the largest of the rural churches as well as the oldest. It was located near Eagle Lake east of the Narrows. It was originally intended to be a United Church serving both the Presbyterian and the Anglicans. However, the Anglicans withdrew from the church soon after it was built and in 1888 built St. John’s Anglican Church at the northern tip of the lake. A Methodist Missionary Preacher held meetings once every third week in a house halfway between South River and Sundridge. Some years later the Methodists erected a church near Hamilton Lake. Both the Methodist Church and the United Church were abandoned as the rural population declined. The Eagle Lake United Church was abandoned in the 1950s and the building burned in the early 1960s. St John’s Anglican Church is still an active parish. In addition to these rural churches, there were churches in the village of South River including Grace Anglican and Chalmer’s United Church.

In 1900 there were 101 households and 500 inhabitants in the Village of South River and 64 households and 315 inhabitants in the rural parts of the township. The population of the village were mostly employees of the large sawmill there and about a quarter of the population lived in rented houses, some of which belonged to the sawmill. In contrast, the rural population was largely free-holding farmers and only about ten percent of the farmers leased their farms from someone else. Ninety percent of the farmers owned one or two lots and worked the land themselves. In 1900 there were ten vacant houses in the township and a few men were beginning to accumulate land purchased from neighbours who had moved to town or gone west. About one-third of the farmers had some source of income other than their farm. Most of the farmhouses were single-family dwellings and were occupied by the owner and his wife and their children. About half of the houses had four or more rooms but about 25% were one- or two-room cabins. Families with four or five children and living in a one- or two-room house resorted to extraordinary means to meet everyone’s need for privacy. Quilts or blankets were hung up for partitions and children shared beds. Everyone put on bed gowns before going to bed. After the candle had been blown out, they wiggled out of their outer garments only after they were in bed.

Not all of the township’s rural residents were farmers. A person who did not farm headed twelve of the 64 households. There were four teachers, three full-time labourers, one cheese maker, one mason and one carpenter residing in rural Machar Township. Among the lodgers were two store clerks and a man who owned a sawmill. The Census of 1901 found 148 adults and 167 children in the rural part of the Township. Of those children 32 were registered in one of the three elementary schools. The village of South River had 248 children of which 159 were enrolled in school.

The Uplands Community: The Uplands of Eagle Lake

In 1900 the township contained six named communities in addition to the village of South River (then called Machar). Each community had a post office and most had a school. Four of the communities (Eagle Lake, Stewart Bay, Midford and Uplands) bordered on Eagle Lake. The community of Mandeville lay astride the Jerusalem Road that linked the Nippising and the Muskoka Roads in the northwest corner of the township. The community in the northeast part of the township was called either Bray Lake or Hamilton Lake or both. The school was located near Hamilton Lake but the post office was located nearer Bray Lake. Some of the students from the Hamilton Lake community attended school in Granite Hill on the northern border of the Township. Each of these six communities consisted of from eight to twelve households and in 1900 the four rural schools registered from ten to twenty students each. Soon after 1900 two more schools were constructed to accommodate the growing number of school-age children.

The community of Uplands was located just east of Eagle Lake on the ridge that extends north and south across the middle of the township. The ridge wraps around a large eastern bay of the lake and the area was known as the Uplands of Eagle Lake. The Uplands community was the Township’s first commercial centre. In 1900 the community was bounded on the south by the boundary road that runs between Machar and Strong Townships, on the west by Eagle Lake, on the north by the community of Midford and on the east by the Tyerman Marsh. By 1890 almost the entire township had passed into private hands. Prior to 1890 there were about a dozen households in the Uplands community. This number included John Armstrong who made cheese and Peter Shaughnessey who operated the Uplands store. By 1900 there were about 18 households in the Uplands community but by 1920 the number of households had decreased to less than 12. In 1920 most of the community’s surviving farms were on the high ground at Bunker Hill, Edward’s Hill, around East Bay and along the Eagle Lake Road to the Narrows.

Among the first settlers to claim land in the vicinity was John and Flora Campbell. They arrived from southern Ontario soon after the Township was opened for settlement in 1876. A few years later, when Flora’s younger brother, George Bow, claimed two hundred acres near the Eagle Lake Narrows, there were already a number of families living in the area. The Muskoka Colonization Road reached the Township by 1878. A merchant named Peter Shaughnessy arrived before the road was passable and entered a claim to two lots at the southeast corner of the intersection of the colonization road and the 2nd Concession Road allowance. Two years later, in 1880, Richard Cole and his sons cut a trail following the road allowance to Lots 12 and 13, Concession 3 on the eastern side of the Tyerman Marsh. Later that summer, a group of men followed the trail to the banks of the South River where they built a cabin on Lot 6, Concession 1. Others quickly joined these men, all seeking to homestead. In 1882 a merchant, Mr. Holditch, put in a small store facing the 2nd Concession Road allowance near the west bank of the South River. The J.R.Booth Company maintained a logging camp east of the South River and this provided a market for the store and for the milk and eggs offered by the settlers. In 1884 a sawmill was built near the store and in 1885 Robert Carter opened the town’s first general store.

The next year the Grand Truck Railway reached the site. The railroad built a station for freight and passengers, giving it the name of “Machar”. After the railroad began regular passenger and freight service to southern Ontario, the village grew rapidly. A large two-story hotel and restaurant called the Queen’s Hotel was built in 1887 next to the tracks. In that same year a large steam-driven sawmill was built above the dam that had been constructed by the J.R.Booth Company. By 1900 the town had six stores, 131 homes and 147 outbuildings. In 1902 the King Edward Hotel was built across the street from the Queen’s Hotel.

The Uplands Community: Country Crossroads Store

The presence of the railroad terminal shifted the economic focus from the colonization roads to the railroad. In 1895 the 2nd Concession Road that had been cleared by Robert Cole in 1880 was improved and renamed the South River Road. The road began at the village and terminated at the Muskoka Road about five miles to the west. For a few years it was the only road linking the settled areas of Machar and Lount Townships to the Machar Railroad Station. Peter Shaughnessey had put in a store at the intersection of the Muskoka Road and the South River Road sometime before 1895. He had also been appointed the first Postmaster in the Township and had officially named the settlement “Uplands”. Shaughnessey’s sleigh or wagon made regular trips to Rosseau or Magnetawan to purchase supplies for his store. He did hauling for other people and carried the mail before the arrival of the railroad. His crossroads store prospered and he became a relatively wealthy man. He was one of the organizers of what became the Eagle Lake United Church but withdrew from the building committee when it became clear that the church would not be built at Uplands. In the Census of 1901 he listed land holdings of 1100 acres, making him the largest landowner in the Township. He did not farm this land but leased it to other, younger men. He hired a female clerk to work in his store and a teamster to manage the cartage service. He served as the Reeve of the Township from 1902 until 1905 and was instrumental in having the Upland’s School relocated next to his store in 1902. He died in 1904 at the age of 67.

The community of Uplands had two crossroads stores. Peter Shaughnessy’s store was located at the intersection of the Muskoka Road and the South River Road. A second commercial centre grew up a mile north of the Upland’s Post Office at the intersection of the Muskoka Road and the 4th Concession Road. The 4th Concession Road (better known as the Eagle Lake Road) led to the ferry crossing at the Narrows of Eagle Lake. Practically all of the traffic from the northern and western parts of the township passed through this intersection. John Parks settled on land south of the 4th Concession Road and on either side of the Muskoka Road in 1881. In 1887 he had met the requirements of the “Free Grant and Homestead Act” and received title to the land. In 1890 he sold two small parcels to a widowed relative for twenty dollars. The widow, Jessie Parks, built a store on the two-acre parcel at the southeast corner of the crossroads and a house on a twenty-acre parcel across the road. Both buildings have long since disappeared but the stone foundation of the store building remains. This intersection was long known as Park’s Corner. On the north side of the concession road, Mrs. Little opened her farmhouse to travelers and this became known as Mrs. Little’s Boarding House. Jessie Parks ran the store at Park’s Corner during the 1880s and 1890s. In 1896 John Parks sold his share of the property to a teacher at the Uplands School and moved to Huntsville. The store may have been closed by that time.

The farms surrounding Park’s Corner were all settled in the 1870s and 1880s and have been farmed continuously since. The area is now known as Bunker Hill and remains the home of locally prominent families. Bunker Hill is on the eastern slope of the ridge that bisects the Township and the farms overlook the valley at Robertson’s Flats. The township road climbed straight up the eastern slope of the ridge and, until about 1950, the road was so steep it was impossible for some motorized vehicles to climb it. In the summer some automobiles had to climb the hill in reverse gear and in winter the cars could not get up the hill at all. When the Province of Ontario opened the Mikisew Provincial Park on Eagle Lake in the 1950s the road was rerouted to avoid this steep part.

The high land surrounding Park’s Corner proved to be the best farmland in the Uplands community. The ridge at this point sloped slightly to the south and east and was broad enough to contain pockets of deep, if sandy, soil. The settlers found that fruit trees and field crops were less likely to be damaged by early frosts on the hilltops than on the flats. Farmers on the hilltops planted orchards of apples, plums and butternuts and sometimes hops and grapes. In the winter the snow pack was not as deep and, in the spring, it melted sooner. Gardens could be planted earlier and continued to produce longer than those in the valleys where the frost gathered on cold autumn nights. In the summer the prevailing westerly winds swept the black flies and the mosquitoes away and the animals and residents on the hilltop farms escaped the annoying clouds of insects that plagued the low-lying farms.

The Uplands Community: The population declines

Between one-quarter and one-half of the pioneers who settled Machar Township before 1900 moved either west to the Prairies or returned to southern Ontario, often in their old age. Those who stayed died on their farms or in South River or Sundridge. The children who grew up on the farms left the area in overwhelming numbers. As a result, between 1900 and 1930, the number of rural farm households in the township decreased by 40%. Settlers continued to move into the township after 1900 (although in much smaller numbers) but their children too left the area. About 75% of the children of the settlers left the area once they were grown. This trend has continued and between 1930 and 1960 the number of households in the rural part of the township decreased by a further 30%.

The land rush that populated Machar Township proved to be a speculative bubble. The Provincial Government opened the land for settlement in response to intense land pressure in the settled parts of Ontario. However, soil science was in its infancy and the agricultural capacity of soil was judged solely by the presence or absence of large trees. Neither the authorities nor the settlers could have known that the region had little agricultural potential. In addition, the land was opened for settlement in 1875 during the depression caused by the Panic of 1873. The resulting depression lasted from 1873 to 1879 and caused many business failures, the closing of many industrial plants and the suspension of railroad construction. Hundreds of industrial workers lost their jobs and some of them decided to return to farming while they waited out the depression. They waited for many years for a return to prosperity. It was not until 1887, fourteen years later, that Canada fully recovered from the business slowdown caused by the end of the Civil War in the US.

In 1887 Canada experienced its first period of real prosperity since Confederation. The long period of price depression came to an end largely because of the high price of wheat. In response to the high price of wheat large numbers of immigrants arrived in Canada, mostly headed for the West to homestead on the Prairies. Between 1899 and 1916 the population of Canada increased over 34%. The village at South River literally boomed into existence with the arrival of the railroad in 1886. The railroad made it practicable to transport timber products to markets in southern Ontario and the prosperity of the township depended completely upon the sawmills and the railroad. But this prosperity had little effect on rural Machar Township. Despite the hopes of many farmers, the arrival of the railroad did not spark another land rush. Those who had hoped to sell their farms at a large profit were disappointed. The poor soil and the harsh climate prevented area farmers from competing successfully with farmers elsewhere. Hay, oats and root crops were more profitable in the clay belt northwest of Lake Timiskaming. Vegetables and fruit were more profitable in southern Ontario and grain on the Prairies. For 50 years the many sawmills in the area provided seasonal employment and a ready market for saw logs but, in the long run, competition from sawmills in British Columbia and the steady decline in the quality and quantity of the area’s saw logs doomed these mills. The children of the pioneers had little choice except to leave the farms and find work in either South River or in southern Ontario.

In 1881 Robert McDonald (nicknamed Pool) settled on Lots 19 and 20, Concession 3, at the northeast corner of the Muskoka Road and the 2nd Concession Road. His house was east of and downhill from Peter Shaughnessey’s store and home on Lot 20, Concession 2. Across the Muskoka Road was the farm of James Jones at Edward’s Hill. The house McDonald built was slightly uphill from a small stream that runs down the hillside from a large bog on the high ground to the west. The house overlooked a small valley on the shoulder of the ridge. By 1901 the neighbouring farmer to the east abandoned his cabin and sold his land to Alphonse Little, who lived with his parents at Park’s Corner. This left the McDonald farm as the only working farm between the Uplands Post Office and Cole’s Hill. After the death of McDonald, Stuart MacAlfie farmed the land followed in turn by Arthur Bow. The sandy soil was suitable for potatoes but by the 1930s the fields were abandoned and were being used as pasture and for hay. Occasionally a field was planted in potatoes. This kept the fields clear of trees and underbrush. After Art Bow stopped cutting hay from the fields, the forest trees gradually invaded the fields and by 1970 Pool McDonald’s farm was largely overgrown and had returned to forest. The house had completely disappeared except for the presence of a few old and overgrown yard plants.

In the 1920s Art Edwards came to the township to work as a butcher in the logging camps. He married the daughter of William Jones who had inherited the James Jones farm on Lots 21 and 22, Concession 3. This farm was at the crest of the ridge and overlooked and abutted Eagle Lake. Art Edwards purchased the farm from his father-in-law and raised his family there. In addition to the usual farming operation he raised sheep and sold milk. The teacher at the Uplands School usually boarded with the Edwards family and the school picnic was held on the Edwards property along East Bay. Art and his neighbour to the north, Henry Ervin, encouraged and sold meat, milk and ice to the tourists that were beginning to build cabins on the East Bay. They were instrumental in building the road that runs along the shore of East Bay. In 1936 Art marked off his lakefront property into a number of small lots and began to sell building lots to cottagers. When he and his wife Violet died, the farm was abandoned. The farmhouse has been moved off its foundations but remains near the original site at the highest point on the ridge and overlooking the lake.

The Uplands Community: The Uplands community disappears

By the 1930s all but three of the farms along the 2nd Concession Road west of Cole’s Hill had been either sold to Standard Chemical or were no longer regularly cultivated. Standard Chemical purchased many of the lots along the 2nd Concession Road west of Cole’s Hill during the 1920s at low prices. The company used cordwood as feedstock in its chemical plant. It purchased cordwood from landowners and also employed contractors to cut the wood on its own property. In the early 1930s one of these contractors built a camp for his workers across the Muskoka Road and a little downhill from the Uplands School. This was called the Walsh Bush Camp. The men employed to do the work were immigrants from Finland. They had originally landed in southern Ontario but came north seeking employment. At least twelve families of Fins came to live in Machar Township and several families remain in the area. The Walsh camp had small individual cabins for each family, a root cellar and a communal kitchen. In their spare time the men made and sold skies and sleighs. Some of these families later purchased farms in the area and found work in sawmills. The United Church minister who was pastor of Chalmer’s United Church and the Eagle Lake Church in the 1930s and 1940s reportedly learned the Finnish language from these immigrants.

Standard Chemical maintained the 2nd Concession Road (the old South River Road) as a winter road long after it had ceased to be useable in the summer. It was used to haul timber to the chemical plant in South River. The last inhabitants along the road lived on Lot 18, Conc. 2. They left the area in the 1940s. By 1970 their cabin’s roof had fallen in. After the farm on Edward’s Hill was abandoned the road in that direction also grew up in trees and a beaver pond covered the road to the Edward’s farm in the 1970s. The farms and the cheese factory along the Boundary Road had all been abandoned by 1930 except for the farm on Lots 15 and 16, Concession 1. Harvey Pinkerton Sr. purchased that farm from William J. Snow in 1925. From 1932 until 1952 he sold milk door to door from his dairy there. In 1952 Harvey Pinkerton sold the farm and moved briefly to Bunker Hill. The farm on the Boundary Road continues to be occupied as a residence.

The Uplands store closed sometime after the death of Peter Shaughnessey. By 1970 only traces of the foundation of the house and store remained. The Uplands School was closed in the 1930s and the children reassigned to the Hawthorne School some three miles north. Violet Edwards drove the children to the Hawthorne School in a car when the roads were passable. In the winter the children were transported by bobsleigh and in the spring they rode the family’s workhorses. Sometimes seven children rode the two horses to and from school. The school board sold the Uplands School as a residence to William McVittie. For many years, after the Edward’s farm was abandoned, the old stone school house converted to a cottage was the only building on the side road between the 4th Concession Road and the Boundary Road. The owner painted his name on a large rock at the corner of the old Muskoka Road and the Eagle Lake Road and the road was called McVittie’s Road until about 1970. This section of the Muskoka Road was kept open in the summer as a short cut to Sundridge but in the winter it is not ploughed.

In the late 1960s a German couple purchased Lot 21, Concession 2, and built a small cottage in the woods across from the old school. In 1970 a group of hippies from Toronto purchased Lot 19, Concession 2 and over the next ten years built a number of homes and cottages in the valley at the foot of the hill. In the 1970s Larry and Barbara O’Rourke built a retirement home on the site of Peter Shaughnessey’s home. Jack and Jean Ivans later purchased this house. In the late 1970s Carl and Barb Hann built a house on Lot 20, Concession 3 and in the 1980s Paul and Carol Fogerty built a home on Lot 21, Concession 3 on the west side of the Muskoka Road. The hippies cleared some of their land and experimented with various crops. They also installed a workshop and a sugar bush. In some ways and for a short time, the Uplands community came alive again.

The narrative continues at The purchase of Frostpocket, 1970

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