Duncan Fraser Macdonald, Parry Sound pioneer and man of many parts, always did enjoy spicing his personal diary with the day’s gossip.
Then in1875, when he married Isabella George, daughter of T. W. George, keeper of the district jail, he was brought closer to the seamy side of Parry Sound life.
Recently, I read Macdonald’s diary for the year 1877, combing out entries dealing with crime and calamity. Because he often was employed deep in the woods cruising timber, Macdonald’s diary provides an incomplete sampling of goings-on about town. But when home, little of a sensational nature escaped his notice.
Just two weeks into the year, disaster enters the picture. The diary entry for January 13, 1877, includes the terse note, “Shear’s house near Manitouwaba Lake burnt and two children perished in it.” Wintertime house fires, mostly caused by overheated stovepipes or poorly constructed chimneys, were an all-too-frequent occurrence.
On February 7, Macdonald “Attended D Court, the largest ever held here.” Why he went, he doesn’t say, but he seems on occasion to have been called upon to help his father-in-law deal with difficult clients. The next day’s entry mentions “3 birds in the lockup.” In Macdonald speak birds (or canaries) meant public drunks, perhaps due to their habit of expressing their feelings in song.
The rest of February passed with nothing more sensational than the poisoning of a couple of the town’s dogs, but tragedy followed on March 8, when “James Ellis was killed by a tree out in Foley.” Violent death stalked the lumber woods of the day.
On March 27, Macdonald noted the arrest of a Parry Sound man for wife beating, ending the entry with “We caged the poltroon in the cells.” The following day the culprit was “tried and sentenced to six months in gaol with hard labour.” Justice was nothing if not swift.
Spring brought the start of the sawlog drive, as hazardous a job as toiling in logging camps. On April 20, “P. Bolger was drowned in the Seguin River on the Guelph Lumber Company’s drive.” Nine days later, down at the mouth of the Seguin, there was a “Big fight among the pea soups on the Red Bridge.”
Each log drive’s arrival turned loose gangs of men with dollars in their pockets and, sometimes, with bones to pick. For months to come, eruptions of public drunkenness would keep the cell doors clanging in “Fort George,” as Macdonald jokingly called his father-in-law’s redoubt. On June 7, for example, Macdonald noted “Two canaries on the drunk, one in the lock-up,” followed the very next day by “Two more canaries in the cage today.” Such drunk and disorderly cases commonly drew fines of one dollar plus court costs.
Alternative entertainment to that provided by the Parry Harbour hotels were few, but an annual, week-long religious “camp meeting,” conducted under the pines where Waubuno Road now descends from Waubeek Street to the Big Sound shore, provided some variety. Lumberjacks whiling away the slack summer season swelled the ranks of those gathered to enjoy a fiery brand of Methodist preaching larded with a strong Temperance theme.
The 1877 meetings began on August 22, were “in full blaze” by the 24th, and broke up on August 28. On the 29th, “Howard was tried today with whiskey selling.” I don’t mean to imply a connection with the just ended camp meetings.
Considering Parry Sound’s position on the farming frontier, it’s not surprising that Fort George corralled a cattle rustler or two. August 8 saw the jailing of a man “for cattle killing,” and on October 29, another fellow “was brought in today for cattle stealing and killing.” Summary justice again prevailed; the latter was tried the following day, convicted, and sentenced to prison in Barrie.
The Waubeek Street campground made the news again on September 25, when “young Newton” was “shot” there. With ill intent? Kids playing with guns? A hunting accident? Fatal or non-fatal? Typically, Macdonald leaves us to wonder. Because no archived copies of the Parry Sound North Star for 1877 exist, there’s nowhere to seek further information.
Activity heated up in the remaining weeks of the year. On November 13, the court handed one fellow a month’s hard labour, while another received three years in the penitentiary, although in neither case does Macdonald explain why. The following day, another citizen was sent to prison “for stealing tools on the PSL [Parry Sound Lumber Company].” Logging tools belonging to the Parry Sound Lumber Company were die-stamped with the letters PSL, identifying marks that would be difficult for a thief to obliterate. Today, such branded tools are “hot” in a different sense. Recently, I sold some PSL-marked pieces to Dean Harris of Harris Furniture & Antiques, who has a nose for Parry Sound collectibles.
On November 24, Macdonald again whets our interest then leaves us dangling with the terse observation, “A ruction at the Fort yesterday.” Christmas brought only a momentary pause in the action. On Boxing Day, “The Norwegian got 30 days for wife beating,” and December 29 saw some country lads “in court for fighting, 2 of them in the lockup.”
However, the year closed quietly, allowing Macdonald to conclude his diary entry for December 31 with “All’s well and serene on the Seguin.1877 fare thee well!”