Roughing it in the bush, in upper Hastings County

A drawing of the "shanty" near Coe Hill where Anna and David Leveridge and their seven children lived: "Our shanty is a strange place, just a one roomed house, made entirely of trunks of trees, 12 ft. by 20, the trees just as they are felled, with the bark on," Anna writes to her mother back in England. "The floor is lumber, as boards are called here; two little windows, one at each end, and a door in the side facing south. That, dear Mother, is my present home…How different everything is from my past life." (Drawing from Your Loving Anna, University of Toronto Press)

A drawing of the “shanty” near Coe Hill where Anna and David Leveridge and their seven children lived: “Our shanty is a strange place, just a one roomed house, made entirely of trunks of trees, 12 ft. by 20, the trees just as they are felled, with the bark on,” Anna writes to her mother back in England. “The floor is lumber, as boards are called here; two little windows, one at each end, and a door in the side facing south. That, dear Mother, is my present home…How different everything is from my past life.” (Drawing from Your Loving Anna, University of Toronto Press)

A little while back I did a post about an afternoon drive that Raymond and I took up the Old Hastings Road, which runs north up the spine of long, narrow Hastings County from the so-called (even on the map) “ghost town” of Millbridge (note to mapmakers: people do still live in Millbridge!) to just south of Bancroft. If you read the post, you’ll learn how our drive turned a bit hair-rising, in that the Old Hastings Road is very old indeed, and gets little in the way of maintenance. (You can read more about the road and its history in an excellent article here.)

The Old Hastings Road as it looks today; the farm fields of the late 19th century are long gone, and the trees and bush have reclaimed the land. (Photo from Ontario Abadoned Places (ontarioabandonedplaces.com), which has an excellent post, with more photos, on the Old Hastings Road here.

The Old Hastings Road as it looks today; the farm fields of the late 19th century are long gone, the trees and bush have reclaimed the land, and the road itself is very rough indeed. (Photo from Ontario Abandoned Places (ontarioabandonedplaces.com), which has an excellent post, with more photos, on the Old Hastings Road here.

But what really sticks with me about that drive is the sense of loneliness and loss one gets along the road. It really is the proverbial trail of broken dreams. In the later 19th century, people – many of them from the “old country” – came to the still-forested, untamed northern parts of Hastings County. (The southern parts, from Belleville up to Madoc/Tweed/Marmora or so were already developed and, thanks to decent farmland, doing quite well). They were seeking a place of their own, land they could clear so they could have a farm and a livelihood for their family. And while at first the land looked promising, it wasn’t long before harsh reality sank in: the soil was thin because it was atop the Canadian Shield. Except for rare fertile patches, there was no good farming. And while through the years there were hopes that various local mining efforts might turn into something – the fact that it’s Canadian Shield country means that there are all sorts of interesting mineral deposits scattered around – they never did amount to much. The rough homesteads in the wilderness were abandoned; farmland that had only existed thanks to unbelievable amounts of sweat and labour – cutting down trees, picking stones – was left to let nature take its course once again. When you drive along the Old Hastings Road today you can see traces of what once was – old cemeteries here and there; fencelines among the forest – but the life that people once hoped and worked for is gone. And with it, their long-ago dreams.

"Your loving Anna" is how Anna Leveridge always signed her letters from "the Ontario frontier" (northern Hastings County) to her family back home in England. If you're interested in the history of Hastings County, I recommend the book as an excellent read.

“Your loving Anna” is how Anna Leveridge always signed her letters from “the Ontario frontier” (northern Hastings County) to her family back home in England. If you’re interested in the history of Hastings County, I recommend the book as an excellent read.

In response to that post, some Hastings County friends recommended a book that details the life of just such a family in that very place. It is called Your Loving Anna, and was published in 1972 by the University of Toronto Press. Though long out of print, it’s quite findable; I got my copy through ever-reliable abebooks.com, an awesome Canadian-based network of sellers of used and antiquarian books all over the world.

It is the true story of Anna Leveridge, an Englishwoman who was living an ordinary working-class life with her husband and six children in the early 1880s when their finances took a turn for the worse thanks to an unfortunate loan guarantee made by her husband, David. He took it badly, started talking about emigrating to one of the colonies, and one day just up and disappeared, leaving no word behind and without saying goodbye. A week or so later, Anna got a message from him saying that he was embarking for Canada and would send word when he could. So there she was, alone with six children (and pregnant with a seventh) and no income. Imagine!

Long story short, she did eventually join David in Canada, and more on that anon. She scraped together the money (with some help from him) to make the voyage with the children. They crossed the ocean, one young woman and all those children (seven by then), and after landing (probably in Montreal), they made the long overland trip by train to Belleville and then north to Madoc. And there David, who was living and working in the area of Millbridge, met them, and their new life began.

(Now, I just want to pause here to say that if my husband had left me with six kids and not even a word of goodbye, I too would rejoin him across the ocean in Canada. But only to seek him out and chop his head off with a hatchet, ideally a dull one.)

The book consists largely of letters that Anna faithfully wrote to her parents and other family back home in England. They are strung together with an explanatory narrative written by her grandson, a teacher, writer and amateur historian named Louis Tivy who was born in 1902 in the farmhouse that David and Anna eventually were able to build near the village of Coe Hill in North Hastings. (Tivy died the year the book was published.)

While there is less outright drama in the letters than one finds in more well-known works about pioneering in central Ontario in the 19th century – notably Susanna Moodie‘s Roughing It in the Bush and her sister Catharine Parr Traill‘s The Backwoods of Canada – that is probably deliberate. Reading between Anna’s well-written lines you can tell there was immense hardship in her life. It is also obvious, though, that she was the kind of person to put the best possible face on all things, a born optimist and a firm believer in God’s goodness and providence. And besides, she surely wanted to assure her “Dearest Mother and all” (as she always began her letters) that she and her family were all right, out there in the middle of nowhere far across the ocean from “England’s green and pleasant land.”

The letters tell of their first months in a rough one-room house near Millbridge, followed by their time further north, near Coe Hill, where David had managed to buy some land with a “shanty” (I think we’d call it a shack, but it was better than their first so-called house) on it. And then eventually they are able to build a real log house, albeit a very simple and basic one.

The life they led! Anna writes about the loneliness so often: “We are so far away from a church and school, shop and post office,” she writes of their first home. “Here, if we see a man at a distance, we all run out and watch him as if he were a rarity, and the children say, ‘Oh, there’s a man.’ ” She is so happy when they move further north to their shanty, because there at least they have a neighbour family that she can see from her window. She is so grateful for letters from home – “write to me as soon as you can, as having letters is the principal event of my life just now” – and for anything to read that her family sends: “I miss the reading so much. I wish I had brought some books.”

In the early days especially, before they have a garden or any animals, food is scarce. (“We don’t get very fat,” she writes in one letter.) And then there were the Canadian winters. And the blackflies and mosquitoes. And the endless days of hard, hard labour, clearing the land, planting and tending crops and gardens, and feeding and tending to a large family (another baby was born a few years after their arrival) and often to others: there is a harrowing passage in which Anna describes helping a neighbour through a miscarriage while the poor woman’s husband held “the light for me to see to do what was necessary.” (She goes on to tell her mother: “So, you see I happen with some strange experiences. If anyone had told me I should have to do such a thing, I should have thought it impossible.”)

One of Anna's letters home. Notice how she "crosses" – turns the page 90 degrees and writes crossways on top of what she has already written. Both paper and postage were costly for a family struggling to establish itself in the backwoods, and "crossing" was a common way to economize on both.

One of Anna’s letters home. Notice how she “crosses” – turns the page 90 degrees and writes crossways on top of what she has already written. Both paper and postage were costly for a family struggling to establish itself in the backwoods, and “crossing” was a common way to economize on both. (From Your Loving Anna, University of Toronto Press)

But they manage, due no doubt in large part to Anna’s hard work, determination and good cheer. Their fields and garden grow well in those early years, and she even wins prizes for her vegetables at the Coe Hill Fair (which is still going strong, all these years later). They acquire a cow and later other animals. The children grow up healthy and strong (though entirely lacking a formal education). Anna makes some money for the family by teaching local girls to play the organ, and by sewing for other families. There are happy times like community Christmas “socials.”

And you can tell from the letters that Anna delights in discovering the landscape and customs of her new home – like the fact that it is “very fashionable” in Canadian households to have china cups and saucers of many different patterns. (That fashion continued for many years. If you grew up in Ontario in the 1960s and ’70s – like I did, at the Manse in Queensborough – you’ll recall that almost every household had a collection of china cups and saucers, no two alike, for serving tea when there was “company.” I never thought anything of it until I read that passage in the book.)

There is one section that I particularly liked, encapsulating in not many words the hardship, the beauty of the new land, and the echoes of home that mean so much. Anna writes about attending church, a four-and-a-half-mile walk: “It was a nice day, and I enjoyed the walk. The hills were not so bad to climb now that the snow is off them, and the birds singing, the wild flowers peeping, and the cowbells ringing, made it all pleasant. We got there just as they were commencing service. The usual congregation was there, not forgetting the babies and dogs, one of which decidedly disapproved of our singing and set up a doleful howl. The service was nice, the old familiar words in that strange out of the way place seemed like the voice of an old friend speaking.”

Afterward, they are invited to a neighbour’s home for midday dinner, and Anna reports on her discovery of a delicious new thing: “We had a famous dinner, to which I did ample justice, my walk having made me ravenous. Stewed chicken, mashed potatoes, and custard pie, i.e., custard flavoured with ess[ence] lemon on a short crust, on soup plates, and the whites beaten up and put on the top. You had better try it, it was very good.”

Lemon meringue pie!

If anything could make a hard life in the backwoods of Hastings County just a little bit easier, I guess it would be lemon meringue pie.

28 thoughts on “Roughing it in the bush, in upper Hastings County

  1. There is a writer named Paul Kirby in Bancroft with a fondness for all local history who is having
    ‘Your Loving Anna’ finally reprinted. We have other titles that he has written or had republished available in Ormsby at The Old Hastings Mercantile & Gallery, and should have ‘Anna’ available next week. It is one of the most requested titles we hear about and we are very appreciative that someone has taken the initiative to make it available once more. You can find more info about Paul and his books at http://www.paulkirby.ca. (I hope this doesn’t sound too much like a commercial!) We love having things here available that deal with the history and heritage of ‘North of 7’. Our Pattison ancestors settled not far from Ormsby in the 1850s. Gary & Lillian

    • Gary, thank you so much for the link to Paul Kirby and his work! It’s fantastic that he has been able to bring Your Loving Anna back into print, and his other titles look equally interesting. (Yet another reason to go visit the Old Hastings Mercantile.) I have been intrigued by the story of Mary and Richard Aylward, hanged in Belleville, since hearing about them thanks to the Hastings County Historical Society newsletter. I think maybe Paul spoke to them on the topic recently. So his book on that subject is of particular interest to me.

      Hey, do you by chance have old letters from your Pattison ancestors, something recalling their early days in North Hastings? My goodness, they must have been among the very first settlers of the area – I imagine they had some tales to tell. And how wonderful that the Pattisons are still there, and working so hard to preserve and keep alive local history and community, all these years later!

      • Hi Katherine,

        Ernie is the keeper of all things historical along the Pattison line. We do have photos and there is a great book written in part by Annie Faul from The Ridge, where Ernie has his farm, and where the Pattisons ended up once they discovered that farming the Canadian shield was not all that practical. That book is a history of all the families that settled a ‘ridge’ of actual soil left behind in a glacial retreat, that encouraged the notion that farming was at least a possibility in the area. Annie & Perry Faul were one of those couples that were the centre of the community. They died a few years back and with them a little bit of what The Ridge community was all about. As a child I remember Perry giving Ernie and me twin haircuts, and us kids running after the recently beheaded chickens for the annual church supper. Who knew that chickens with no heads could run so far and fast. Pretty well all of this communities’ stories have been preserved in Annie’s book.

        Meanwhile Lillian and I have adopted the families and stories of nearby Ormsby to preserve… as well as the general store and two of the three original churches. Keeps us busy!

        And thank you for the link to ‘The Land Between’ series. I had not heard of it and now a copy is also on the way to Ormsby. Just another service of your wonderful writings! Thank you.
        Gary

      • “Once they discovered that farming the Canadian shield was not all that practical:” nicely understated, Gary! (I can appreciate it especially as someone whose family persists in the sisyphean pursuit of farming the Canadian shield, up in Haliburton County.) I believe you are the first person I have ever met (so to speak) who has actually seen (and chased) chickens running around with their heads cut off! Isn’t it nice to have memories of pillars of the community like Annie and Perry? Needless to say there were (and are) several of those in Queensborough.

        Is the book about The Ridge in print? If so, am I safe in assuming that it’s for sale at the Old Hastings Mercantile? My collection of locally-themed historical materials is growing by leaps and bounds!

  2. Katherine,

    Have you discovered the dvd entitled “The Land Between”? It was produced a few years ago, and documents the origins, history and geography of the lands and waters between the Canadian Shield and the St. Lawrence Plain. It is extremely well done, and fascinating for anyone who lives in, or has lived in your part of Ontario, Many local people are included in the story of this area. Your comment about the “trail of broken dreams” reminded me of the last section of The Land Between which describes the abandoned farms, neglected roads, and the ugly mine sites which also mark this beautiful area. The producers of the dvd live in Brantford and are now completing a dvd on the history of the War of 1812 events which took place here in Brant and Norfolk Counties.

    • We watched this series on TVO in late March/early April (Katherine, I think we mentioned it to you the day we came to lunch) yet I cannot find it when I search TVO video offerings. It really was an exceptional look at the area and changed my thinking a little about where I live.

      • Brenda, I remember you recommending the series highly, and I’m happy yo say that it will soon be in my possession. If other readers are interested, you can order a copy here.

    • Hi Collette! I had heard of this documentary series thanks to our friend Brenda, from Madoc, who recommended it highly – but I had not got around to tracking down a copy until this very evening, reminded and prompted by you and by Brenda. It should be winging its way to me as of tomorrow, and Raymond and I are really looking forward to watching it. Thank you so much!

  3. I enjoyed this entry about Anna, and it really made me think about the life they lived. A couple things struck me about the story – one was the dividing line between the two landscapes one encounters in s. ontario. . I’ve always been struck by how discernable that line is, and how quickly it changes. I’m not sure of Hastings Co. but if you drive up the 400/11 it seems to change within 2 or 3 minutes, somewhere north of Orillia.

    Also struck by how late the pioneering was, and how it created these weird juxtapositions of people’s living standards. Toronto had electricity a few years before Anna was sending her letters back home, yet for her it might as well have been 1783.

    And your comments about Anna’s can-do disposition made me think about the attitude one must need in that situation. She was no Sarah Frost, thats for sure. She was/is inspirational.

    • I know that dividing line north of Orillia! We used to live near Powassan and travelled 11/400 fairly often. There’s that big sweeping left-hand curve as you drive north, lined on both sides with high rock walls, and I always considered that my crossover point. It was such an obvious marker and such a welcome sight after the mania of The Big Smoke that my six-year-old son even commented on it!

      Katherine, I’m so glad you wrote about this because it’s prompted me to pick up Anna’s book at the library today, as well as Susanna Moodie’s ‘Roughing it’ for a second read. Then I think I’ll go on to Catherine Parr Traill’s book.

      • Funny you should say that, Brenda – I’m lining up the books of the Strickland sisters (Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill) for a fresh reading too. Both (as you probably know) lived in or not far from Hastings County, Susanna first in the Cobourg area (I remember as a cub reporter at the Port Hope Evening Guide/Cobourg Daily Star covering the unveiling of a plaque near her family’s homestead in Hamilton Township) in Northumberland County, and later in Belleville, in Hastings County. Catharine Parr Traill is associated with the Gore’s Landing area north of Cobourg on Rice Lake, and the Lakefield area in Peterborough County. It’s been many a year since I read those books, but I remember they were gripping.

      • I’m positivel INHALING Your Loving Anna tinight, and have brought both books of the Strickland sisters home from the library today as well. You’ve no doubt been by the Belleville house where Susanna Moodie ended up? Every time I drive west on Bridge Street, I think she must have been pinching herself every day to think of the luxury she’d landed in. The other book I enjoyed was Sisters in the Wilderness by Charlotte Gray, whose writing I like very much.

      • In fact I have not seen the Susanna Moodie house in Belleville, Brenda – didn’t know a place she had lived was still standing. Is it privately owned, or a museum? You’re right – after the hardship of her first years in Canada, she must have thought life on “the Front” quite luxurious!

      • Katherine, I think I might defer to our very knowledgeable friend, Lindi on that question. As far as I know, it’s a private home, but Lindi may have more information on its history since Susanna Moodie lived there. Here’s a link to a picture of the house and information about the historic plaque on the property: http://www.ontarioplaques.com/Plaques_GHI/Plaque_Hastings33.html

    • That is a very interesting point, Mark, the extreme contrast between the relative comforts of life in the much-earlier-settled south of the province, along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River – “the Front,” as I believe people called it – and the more northerly backwoods. You’re absolutely right that given the conditions Anna and her family lived in, it might as well have been a century earlier – except for the railways that were slowly making their way through, I guess.

      As for the contrast between the geography of the south and what happens once one hits the Canadian Shield, you are absolutely right. It is remarkable how fast the landscape changes. In Hastings County, east-west Highway 7 is pretty much the demarcation point, which is part of the reason for the common local phrase “north of 7.” “North of 7” kind of means “it’s a different place up there.” (I wrote a bit about the contrast in the Hastings County landscape here, among other places.)

      As for Sarah Frost – well, I admit I had to look her up. The first reference I found was this one, which explains she was a Loyalist from Connecticut who, to escape persecution from the American Revolutionaries, sailed with her young family to New Brunswick. The entry says she kept a diary, but it doesn’t give a strong sense that her entries suggest she was a complainer. Was she?

      • Sarah Frost was one of the more noteworthy Loyalists who came to Canada, if for nothing else than her very famous meltdown upon landing in NB. She was stunned at the absolute wilderness she was coming to, and what she had left behind. It was all too much for her, and she sat down and wept bitterly when she realized her new lot. This stands in contrast to Anna, who even a century later, responded to the pioneering life with vigor and positivity.

      • How many of us, under such circumstances, would be like Anna, and how many like Sarah? We all like to think we’d be strong and optimistic like Anna but … the wilderness of Canada must have been a terrible, terrible shock to many early settlers.

  4. I must read this book!! Can you believe she mentions the blackflies? Now I am missing my collected set of bone china – 12 different teacups and saucers – that I sold after moving out of my beautiful, old victorian in N. Andover.

  5. That should have been ‘tonight’ and I also meant to say that close friends of ours up north had a farm that was very near the Moodie property at Gore’s Landing, a farm that had been in the family since they first arrived in Canada. They had to sell it in the last few years because no one in the family was interested in taking it on, and it had got to be too much for our friends, who are enjoying a greatly advanced age now. It very nearly broke his heart to let that property go out of his family.

    • Is is so sad when properties that have been in families for sometimes hundreds of years have to be sold out of the family. That is what happened to Raymond’s family’s ancestral place in Quebec. Such a loss of connection!

  6. Your site is a fantastic endeavour Katherine. The hardships of the settlers can not be well understood in our time. The loneliness, illness and being cut off from all they had known. A friend of mine was cutting a mature dead tree in the Millbridge area. In the middle he found a horseshoe. One can only speculate about the story surround this.
    Paul McDonald

    • Thank you for the kind words about the blog, Paul! As far as the early settlers, I can tell that you have a real understanding of how incredibly hard their lives were. I wonder if any of us, who take for granted so many things that are, when you think about it, quite luxurious, would last a day in their shoes.

      The horseshoe in the old tree: wow. Wouldn’t you love to know the story behind it? One could make a novel, or a movie, about that. I hope it had a happy ending…

  7. Hi Katherine. I came across this blog while researching my family history. My great great great grandmother and grandfather are David and Anna. I visited the Leveridge farm once many years ago and am planning on making the trip there with my children some point this summer. My great grandmother lived in Coe Hill almost until the time of her death 18 years ago, and we still have many family members spread out across Hasting County. Thank you for your blog, it’s a great read.

    • Chris, I am absolutely thrilled to hear from a descendant of Anna and David Leveridge. Thank you so much for your comment here! Anna’s book made a huge impression on me, both as a history of early days in Hastings County and as a testament to one woman’s fortitude and grace under the most difficult of circumstances. If you are so inclined, I’d be honoured beyond belief to join you and your kids, even if very briefly, on your excursion to the Leveridge homestead this summer. How exciting it would be to have a photo of Anna and David’s great-great-great-grandson and great-great-great-great grandchildren at the place where they made their lives in Canada.

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