A Farmer’s Tasks in Winters Past: Some Reflections and Advice: Part 5 of 5

by John C. Carter


A Canadian winter was described by and used by authors for various reasons. Joseph Neilson wrote in his 1837 award winning essay, Observations Upon Emigration to Upper Canada, a very positive outlook of winter. He said; “This season of the year affords great facilities to the inhabitants of the country. The sleighing enables the farmer to transport his produce to market, and perform journeys to a distance with greater ease and facility, than could be otherwise done. The two or three months’ sleighing which we generally expect during each year, is hoped for by all, and dreaded by none, and seldom continues longer than is necessary for the business of the country. It is, moreover, a season in which pleasure and business combine-a season of hilarity and health.”

Cargill, Ontario
Credit: Kevin McKague, Cargill.

In 1844, American author H.S. Tanner wrote in his The Travellers’ Hand Book, that; “The length and severity of a Canadian winter is a heavy drawback on the country, and lays the farmer under serious difficulty and privations not experienced in countries where the climate is milder.” A hidden meaning in this message however, as Tanner was promoting settlement in Ohio!

The Reverend G.W. Warr in the 1847 emigrants guide entitled Canada As It Is, took a different stance. He suggested that in 1844 in Canada, it was an “open winter” which was not dissimilar to an ordinary winter in Scotland. He viewed sleighing as “a delightful mode of travelling,” and reported that farmers were not idle, as winter was a time for cleaning, chopping drawing home fire-wood, sending logs to saw mills, taking produce to market, and attending to livestock.” Warr had lived in Oakville from 1843-1846, and favoured immigration to Upper Canada.

Frederick Widder, Commissioner of the Canada Company, noted that a farmer’s winter avocations generally consisted of taking care of cattle and felling and cutting up of trees for firewood. In his 1854 book, Information for Intending Emigrants, he wrote; “But no prudent man ought to calculate on being doing anything in the open field after the middle of November or much before the first day of April.” With that said, he concluded on a negative note, saying that; “The winter is a season of idleness and enjoyment, a great portion of it being spent in amusement and visiting, to the manifest neglect of their farms and impoverishment of themselves and families.”

Main Street in winter, Cargill, Ontario
Credit: Kevin McKague, Cargill.

John Dougall in his 1860 Canadian Farmer’s Almanac, penned closing comments about winter and farmers. He wrote; “A sensible farmer will employ the comparative leisure of the winter season in useful and profitable undertakings. His time is highly occupied in the manufactories of those fertilizing materials, the product of the stables and stock-yards. He will look to the continued fertility of his land, and will therefore have well-considered and thoroughly-applied plans for the feeding as well as the cropping of his soil. His thoughts will be directed to procuring, as far as possible, the necessary supplies of manure upon the farm…He will find that labour here [on the farm], is time and money saved.” 

As a final note, in “Wisdom For Winter,” published in the April 1, 1861 edition of the Canadian Agriculturist & Journal, advice was given for both rural and urban readers: “Never go to bed with cold or damp feet. In going into colder air keep the mouth resolutely closed, that by compelling the air to pass circuitously through the nose and head, it may become warmed before it reaches the lungs, and thus prevent those sudden shocks and sudden chills which frequently end in pleurisy, pneumonia and other serious forms of disease. Never stand still a moment out of doors, especially at street corners, after having walked even a short distance. Never ride near the open window of a vehicle for a single half minute, especially if it has been preceeded by a walk; valuable lives have thus been lost, or good health permanently destroyed. Never wear india rubber boots in cold dry weather. Those who are easily chilled on going out of doors should have some cotton batting attached to the vest or outer garment, so as to protect the space between the shoulder blades behind, the lungs being attached to the body at that point; a little there, is worth five times the amount over the chest in front. Never begin a journey until breakfast is eaten. After speaking, singing or preaching in a warm room in winter, do not leave it for at least ten minutes, and even then close the mouth, put on the gloves, wrap up the neck and put on a cloak or overcoat before passing out of the door; the neglect of these precautions has laid many a good and useful man in a premature grave. Never speak under a hoarseness, especially if it requires an effort, or gives a hurting or painful feeling, for it often results in a premature loss of voice or a long life of invalidism.” Such was the sage wisdom provided from Hall’s Journal of Health for combatting the possible negative impacts of winter in cold climes.

Tapping maple trees on the farm (photo by Janet Cockerline)
Credit: Hugh Fraser, St. Catharines

These selected accounts give only a brief, chronological snapshot of winters and farmers in 19th century Ontario. They do however provide some insight into a farmer’s winter tasks from various primary documents, which portray first-hand accounts, recollections and remembrances. Visit your local library, archive or community museum to find more about the history of winter in your community. Period journals to consult include; The British American Cultivator, The Canada Farmer, The Canadian Agricultural Journal, The Canadian Agriculturist, The Farmer & Mechanic, The Farmer’s Advocate, and Scientific American.

Electronic sites to visit to find much of the information contained in this article as well as copies of the original titles include Canadiana online, and HathiTrust Digital Library. Many of the original publications noted, can be found and studied at the Toronto Reference Library.

Dr. John C. Carter is a director for Ontario Barn Preservation, and is a Research Associate, School of History and Classics, University of Tasmania. Please share with him any local accounts of farming in winter in Ontario that you have or are aware of. He can be contacted at drjohncarter@bell.net, and looks forward to receiving material from you.

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