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Pen Pictures of Early Pioneer Life in Upper Canada


THE old-fashioned country dance was a very friendly means of amusement, everyone present being of the same social standing. It almost invariably took place in the evening, after the wind-up of a logging bee, a raising bee, a husking bee, or a wedding, and usually lasted till the break of day. Often surprise parties were gotten up, the young folks going in sleigh-loads distances of five or ten miles to some friend's house, where they knew they would be made welcome, to have a dance. Nowadays the young people are generally dressed in their best attire, but in the olden time the folks were not so particular about their appearance, the men from the logging field often dancing in their shirt sleeves with the country lasses in their linsey-woolsey or striped woollen dresses. These dances in the olden time were usually called "sprees," and well they might be, for whiskey, wine and cider being freely supplied by the host, the young men very frequently became over merry from its effects. Often a dance was held in houses where there was only space enough to .move around, but, as there were no carpets to take up, the furniture was soon put to one side to make room. After the people became better circumstanced and more stylish, there was an annual ball held in the ballroom, over the driving-shed of the country tavern. This was usually a "swell" affair. In the olden time, just the same as now, the girls indulged in petty coquetries and the gentlemen in flirtations, and between the dances the couples could be seen sitting around in the shady places exchanging loving glances and whispered nothings, the girl, perhaps, sitting on her sweetheart's knee, for they made no show of affectation, everything being done in the spirit of true rustic simplicity. Music was furnished by some noted local musician, who generally played the fiddle by ear, a collection being taken up among the young men to pay him for his services. Above the noise of the dancing and the scraping sound of the fiddle could be heard the voice of the caller-off, as he shouted out: "Salute your partners," "Grand chain,"' Promenade all," etc. Waltzing not being popular, was very little known in the early days, the square dances being most in vogue, and amongst them being such dances as "The Soldier's Joy," "Money Musk," "Old Dan Tucker," "Pop Goes the Weasel," etc., many of which are still popular. The different kind of reels were the fashion, viz., the Scotch reel, the Irish reel, the four-hand reel, the eight-hand reel, etc., also jigs and hornpipes. Fagan, the poet, describes the different kinds of dances as follows:

With decent Irish jigs we beat the floor,
And practised hands would dance the old French four.
With jig and reel we made the shanty ring,
And those who could not dance would lilt or sing.
The name of polka then was never heard,
And only Jews would wear a lengthy beard.
But times are changed, and every year is worse,
And beardless boys, like Irish jigs, are scarce."

The Charivari (Shivaree).

Usually, when one of the boys in the neighborhood got married, a number of the young men would gather of an evening and serenade the young married couple. The musical instruments used were tin horns, strings of horse-bells, cow-bells, the horse-fiddle, tin pans, copper kettles, and anything and everything else they could find that would make noise enough. They would keep quite still until they got close up to the house, when all of a sudden the most unearthly music would strike on the ear of the guests.

There would be heard the shooting of guns, the grating of the horse-fiddle, the ringing of bells, the beating of tin pans and copper kettles, etc., together making the most discordant possible noise. They would keep up this horrible din till late in the night, unless the bridegroom came forth and gave them money or invited them in to partake of refreshments.

If the wedding party refused to treat them, they would often keep up the racket for three or four nights in succession. Occasionally some of the wedding party would resist the intrusion, and altercations would take place, which not unfrequently resulted fatally. In such cases the crime was generally condoned, nothing was done to the perpetrator, the law considering that a man who was killed at a charivari was a wanton trespasser who deserved his fate.

If the match happened to be an extremely objectionable one in the estimation of the neighbors, as, for instance, the marriage of an old man of eighty to a girl of sixteen, the boys would sometimes carry their depredations further than a mere serenade. They have been known to get on the roof of the house, place a board over the chimney, and smoke the wedding party out.

Brock Monument

If they carried their depredations too far, information was often laid against them by the offended party, and they were summonsed before the country squire, who usually imposed a fine on them by way of punishment. Although the charivari was a rough game, it was one of the social diversions of the young people in the early days, and without these diversions it was considered that life would have been dreary indeed. This form of sport has, however, almost died out, law- abiding people nowadays being opposed to such unlawful proceedings.

A description of the horse-fiddle might be interesting and instructive, as it is known only to the young people of the present day by name. A wooden wheel, three or four inches in diameter, with a number of slanting teeth cut into it, was placed between two pieces of hoard held in place bys wooden rod, which went through a hole through the wheel and boards, and extending a foot or two on both sides, served as a handle for twirling it. Another piece of flexible board was fitted in between the two boards in such a way that as the end which touched the cogs of the wheel was displaced by the turning of the wheel it made a rattling noise which could be heard half a mile away.

NOTE. —Mrs. Moody says the charivari originated among the French of Lower Canada.

The "Old Sorrel."

The enforcement of the moral law was very strictly insisted upon in the olden times. Those found guilty of infringement of the law had quick, summary justice dealt out to them by the people themselves, without the aid of judge or jury. The usual way of disposing of offending persons was to give them a rough ride on the "old sorrel," or, in other words, to give them a coating of tar and feathers and set them astride of a fence rail. Usually, once was sufficient, for, after plucking out the feathers and making himself presentable, the culprit would quickly decamp for parts unknown. This was the way they treated some of the Mormon apostles who went through the country fifty or sixty years ago trying to get converts to a system of religion which advocated polygamy, or a plurality of wives. The "tarring and feathering" process consisted in divesting the culprit of his clothing and covering him all over with tar made from the pitch got from the pine trees, and then rolling him in feathers, which made him resemble a bird more than a human being.

NOTE—The term, "Old Sorrel," was not used by the people generally.

The Spelling School.

Spelling schools were very common in the early days. The young people in the different school sections would meet on certain appointed evenings in the winter to have a match. Sometimes the match would be between different schools. Great throngs would gather to witness the contest, which always created a great deal of rivalry. The old people as well as the young took a great interest in these matches. It certainly was a good way to teach the young people the art of spelling, for, besides the gain in educational advantages, it afforded the means of enlightened amusement and diversion.

A captain was invariably chosen for each side, and he selected the spellers in turn, according to his knowledge of their proficiency. Many of the young folks, as a result of these matches, became expert spellers, and could often correct college-bred men in their orthography. The lists of words in the old spelling-books were almost as familiar to some of the boys and girls as were the letters of the alphabet. In order to spell down opponents it was necessary to hunt up the most obsolete and difficult words possible, and even then some of the spellers were almost invulnerable, unless they became worried or excited and forgot themselves for the time being. When they did misspell a word, they usually recognized their mistake as soon as they had made it and acknowledged the correction.

The Singing School.

Another valuable means of recreation and improvement was the singing school. The singing master was usually a young farmer, or some one selected from a near-by town, who, having had the benefit of some musical instruction, and being gifted with a good strong voice and a fair ear for music, took upon himself the duty of teaching the young people in the rural districts the art of singing by note, and in that way adding to his income. He generally had a class for three or four evenings during the week, and drove around in a cutter to his different appointments in the school houses and churches of the district. His efforts in drilling the young men and maidens in the musical art were not as a rule productive of very great results, for the majority of his pupils at the end of his term of lessons knew very little more about principles of harmony and the reading of music by note than they did at the beginning. How- ever, they had their money's worth in the fun and enjoyment of a not unhealthy employment of the mind. Usually these classes were patronized only by the younger class of people, and in the absence of the old folks the former made good use of their term of liberty, and although the singing master brought all the dignity and authority of his position to bear upon his work, he at times found it no easy matter to keep the young people under control. The singing master was quite usually a most imposing personage, as he stood on the platform and with a piece of chalk in hand, drew the musical staff on the blackboard, putting the notes here and there as he saw fit, with the necessary flats and sharps at the beginning, or bit his tuning fork, and listened to its vibrations as he sang out, "Do, re, mi, fa, sol," and started the choir of singers off on some piece of music, flourishing his baton in the air as he beat time for the singers.

An entertainment was generally given at the end of his term of lessons, the receipts of which were handed to the singing master, the fees from the scholars not always being sufficient to remunerate him for his services. Fifty and sixty years ago, before the days of coal oil lamps, the young people carried candles and candlesticks with them to singing school, the girls vieing with each other as to who could bring the prettiest candlestick.

Pop Corn, Nuts and Apples.

During the long winter evenings the children would frequently gather before the fireplace and amuse themselves by popping corn and cracking nuts. The "pop" corn is a variety of corn with a small ear and small kernel, and i raised only for the purpose of popping. In the fall of the year it is taken off of the stalk, the husks pulled back and tied in a loop at one end of the ear; a number of ears are then bundled together and hung up till winter to dry. A small handful of corn after being shelled is put into a frying pan or spider, covered up and held over the hot coals in the fireplace. After constant shaking for a minute or two, the kernels swell and burst and till up the pan with white feathery particles. The nuts, which were gathered in the autumn and spread out to dry in the shed or loft, are brought in. With hammers, flat-irons or stones they are divested of their shells and the meaty particles extracted and eaten. By way of variety there was always a pan or basket of apples for all to help themselves to—in fact, a basket of apples was generally left specially on the table for eating, it being a common custom to partake of some fruit before retiring for the night.

Brock's Monument


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