More and more I find myself having nothing better to do than to drink tea and watch our street, idly noticing who is out and about and who is not.
Keeping tabs on the passing parade.
“Shanty tramps” once were a common sight on rural roads. The potato tucked in a corner of this fellow’s “turkey” was placed there to anchor the carrying strap.
It’s been 75 years since I last kept so close a watch on traffic. In the Dirty Thirties (I do keep harping on those times, but they shaped me) our amusements were all homemade, from scratch, and one game that my brothers and I invented was “collecting” car licence plates.
From our place we could see for half a mile both up and down the public road, and the first one to spy the plume of dust signalling another approaching car ran for a close-up look at the licence plate.
At first, the object was to see who could score the most provinces and states. Then, when new sightings of those tailed off, we began recording the different letter combinations prefixing the numerals on Ontario plates. In those days, car owners received a new set of “markers” each year, and the pair of letters preceding the numbers was indicative of the issuing office. For a while — perhaps only during the year when our competition raged most fiercely — plates issued in Parry Sound bore the prefix JR. Legging it all the way from the barnyard to the roadside only to register yet another dirt-common JR was a big disappointment.
Going back still farther, to when homesteads were being newly carved out of the Parry Sound bush, and traffic on the rural road system was sparse, the passing scene was even more closely watched. Just seeing a sleigh or wagon come and go provided a distraction in a humdrum day. Who is it? Where are they going, and why? Might they even stop here?
It connected the settler, however fleetingly, with the world lying beyond his lonely clearing. I remember an old-timer, who had arrived in the Dunchurch area as a child of early settlers, recalling one memorable day when no fewer than “three rigs” (or was it six) passed through the community.
The passing parade might even make the local paper, as an item in the March 30, 1899, edition of the North Star illustrates. In his or her weekly submission, the paper’s correspondent for “South McKellar” reported, “Two shantymen and a Jew peddler passed through here last week.”
South McKellar embraced the Hurdville vicinity, thinly populated and hardly the most fertile ground for a news correspondent to cultivate. Needing a line or two to pad the week’s column, the scribe remembered those nameless itinerants and tossed them in.
And I’m glad that he or she did, for such seemingly minor details paint human faces into the otherwise mundane landscape of history.
“Jew peddlers” (often as not men of Assyrian or Lebanese, or for that matter Scottish, extraction) regularly patrolled our rural roads in those times. Mostly they got about by buggy or cutter, although some of them trudged the rural byways on foot, carrying huge packs on their backs. They targeted two demographics, farmsteads lying along the road, and lumber camps scattered in the backwoods.
At a farm, the peddler dealt mostly with the housewife, who, from what I’ve heard, usually welcomed his arrival. When he spread his wares — items of clothing, an array of “notions” related to sewing and mending, patent medicines, and so on — on the kitchen floor, she was sure to find something that she needed and could afford.
The peddler’s lumber camp clients were exclusively male and his trade mostly clothing: woollen socks and mitts, horsehide outer mitts, heavy-duty underwear, and mackinaw pants. Jackknives and pocket watches also sold well in the camps.
The passing “shantymen” glimpsed by the South McKellar correspondent would be loggers outbound from lumber camps where they had spent the winter. They would be identifiable by their dress — mackinaw jacket and trousers and moccasin-like “shoepacks” for footwear — and by the “turkeys,” sacks containing extra clothing and other personal effects, slung over their backs.
These men might also have carried axes. His axe was as special to a professional lumberjack as is his instrument to a classical violinist. A keen-bladed axe “hung” just to the user’s liking made the day’s work easier, thus many loggers brought their own to camp in place of trusting the house brand.