A lively and entertaining look at early Ontario history.
This is the illustrated history of the Great North Road. In 1870 the author's great-great uncle James Macfie, a middle-aged bachelor of Scottish birth, crossed Georgian Bay from Collingwood, Ontario, to the fledgling village of Parry Sound, where he found work with a crew clearing a wagon road into the hinterland. Ten years later, the author's grandfather Frank Macfie followed his Uncle James up that road, forging the second link in a chain of events that led eventually to this book.
The path these pioneers followed was known as the Great North Road (also called the Great Northern Colonization Road), one of a score or more colonization routes that, beginning in the 1850s, the Ontario government pushed into the rock-ribbed southern flank of the Precambrian Shield to admit agricultural settlers. It was Man against Nature in its most primary form -- bareknuckled roadbuilders and homesteaders attempting to transform a rugged landscape containing the most ancient rock on the continent.
Most of the land proved unsuitable for crops, but a great many families settled along the road nonetheless, and they and their descendants created some of the province's most proud and picturesque communities along Georgian Bay. This fascinating book is filled with stories and photographs the reveal a little-known aspect of Ontario's history.
John Macfie was born on a farm in Ontario's Central Parry Sound District in 1925 and received his formal education in a one-room schoolhouse. He worked in the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources until his retirement in 1981. His previous books include Parry Sound Logging Days and two volumes of Now and Then: Footnotes to Parry Sound History. He lives in Parry Sound, Ontario.
In 1870, James Macfie, a middle-aged bachelor of Scottish birth, crossed Georgian Bay from Collingwood, Ontario, to the fledgling village of Parry Sound, where he found work with a crew clearing a wagon road into the hinterland. Ten years later, my grandfather Frank Macfie followed his Uncle James up that road, forging the second link in a chain of events that led eventually to this book.
The path these forebears of mine followed was the Great North Road (also variously called the Great Northern Colonization Road, the Northern Road, or simply the North Road), one of a score or more colonization routes that, beginning in the 1850s, the government pushed into the rock-ribbed southern flank of the Precambrian Shield to admit agricultural settlers. The circumstances of my twice-great-uncle James Macfies coming to Parry Sound are somewhat hazy. In a memoir composed in 1935, my grandfather speculated as to why his uncle was deluded enough to come out to try his luck in Canada when he had a good job [as an inspector of fisheries off Scotland's west coast] at home," and concluded, "no doubt there was a woman at the bottom of it." James's brother William had preceded him to Canada, filed papers on a homestead lot near Collingwood, Ontario, then returned home and signed over his claim to James. On reaching Collingwood, James found someone else occupying the property, which perhaps had been forfeited for non-performance of location duties, so he boarded a steamer and forged on to the new frontier, Parry Sound.
Some 40 kilometres north of Parry Sound, the blazed route of the Great North Road broke clear of a rocky and swampy stretch to enter a relatively level, deep-soiled tract treed by maple, birch and hemlock. A strong component of hardwoods in the forest makeup was taken as an indicator of good soil beneath, and it was here, on Lot 49 of Concession A of the Township of Flagerman, that James Macfie threw down his government-issue axe and shovel and staked his homestead claim. A decade later, in August 1880, my grandfather, a 30-year-old marine engineer newly returned to Scotland after a lengthy tour of duty with a rice-growing concern in Burma, decided to visit his father's brother James in the wilds of Canada. Legend has it that, after reaching Parry Sound and trudging what he calculated to be the right distance up the Great North Road, Frank stopped at a shanty to ask where he might find the homestead of James Macfie. The settler replied, See yon man cradling oats just over our line fence? That's Jimmy Macfie." Frank walked on and waited until the harvester's round of his field brought him to the roadside, then hailed his uncle.
Having nothing more pressing to do at the moment, Frank elected to stay on for a few months to help his uncle enlarge his small clearing, and generally improve upon the rude circumstances -- his home was just a rough shanty and his means of getting about was a jumper pulled by one of his cattle -- in which he found him. One day late that winter while they were chopping a fallow, the pair undertook to fall a large yellow birch tree. The clumsy approach to this difficult task, by men hailing from the treeless west coast of Scotland, can be imagined. After carefully studying the great tree's form and stance (as Frank would recall later in life) they agreed on the direction it was naturally inclined to fall, then set about chopping into the base of the trunk, one man working from each side. But they had failed to weigh the effect of one extra large, diverging limb, and as the birch began to topple it pivoted unexpectedly on the stump, changing the course of family history by striking James in its fall and fracturing his thigh. Frank thus found himself obliged to extend his excursion in Canada while he cared for his invalid uncle and his few livestock, and the stay became permanent.
Forty-five years later, in 1925, I was born on that farm, and during my formative years the Great North Road was the road to everywhere. I still regularly drive a 50-kilometre section, now incorporated into Provincial Highway #124, that links Parry Sound and Dunchurch, so I know it as well as anyone. However, I could not have produced this book without much help. A good deal of the background information is derived from notes and tape recordings I made during half a century of interviewing descendants of the pioneers. I made considerable use of material in the Parry Sound Public Library and the West Parry Sound District Museum, and the microfilms of the Parry Sound North Star. I also drew on the resources of the Ontario Archives, which holds collections of Duncan F. Macdonald's letters and photographs, and on archival material held by the United Church of Canada. An old friend and retired land surveyor, Hannes Hietala, ferreted out archival records that I would never have discovered myself. A number of previously published works sensed as valuable sources of quotations and background information. These include: Muskoka and Haliburton, 1615-1875 by Florence B. Murray, Guide Book and Atlas of Muskoka and Parry Sound Districts by W.E. Hamilton, McKellar Memories by Evelyn Moore, History of Northern Parry Sound District by Everett Kirton, Along Memory Lane with Hagernian People compiled by the Dunchurch Women's Institute, God's Country by Rev. John Firmin, By Northern Lakes by Rev. W.W. Walker and Star Gazing by Laura Knight Heidman. I am also indebted to Albert Langford for allowing me to quote from the diary of his father, Percival, and to the Whitestone Historical Society and Michael Powell for letting me use snapshots and poetry from the photograph album of Michael's father, Gordon Powell. The photographs of recent vintage are largely my own, while earlier images were borrowed from numerous private and public sources. Wherever possible I have assigned credit lines to contributed pictures. But for the generosity of the many people who agreed to share their memories and photographs, this book could not have been published. Not least, I thank my daughter, Elizabeth, for proofreading and editing the manuscript, and my wife, Joan, for her suggestions, her proofreading during production of the book, and for her infinite understanding and tolerance while I neglected normal duties in order to focus on illuminating the path of the Great North Road.