My recent column about life on the farm, based on quotes from a 70-year-old diary and titled “Hard Winters and Harder Times,” drew comments from readers who enjoyed the piece.
Pocket watch lost on the Macfie farm and ploughed up again many years later.
Photo by John Macfie
Nothing inspires a writer like favourable feedback, so I’m returning to the source, this time using not my own diary but one kept in the 1930s by my older brother, Don. Incidentally, it was Don who, by example, started me writing things down, a habit I’ve yet to overcome.
Those daily diary entries, made in school scribblers, were brief and to the point, and my intent today is to expand upon some randomly selected lines from Don’s journal.
“October 25, 1938: “I ploughed all day…. Ploughed up an old watch that Dad had bought in France.”
Don was doing our annual fall ploughing.
Next spring, the turned-over soil would be disked, harrowed and planted to grain or root crops. Steering a walking plough behind a plodding team of horses could be boring work, so when that watch turned up in a furrow it must have struck a spark of excitement in Don’s day.
Although working when lost, the timepiece’s crystal and enamel face had been smashed by the calk of a horse shoe or some farm implement, reducing it to just a relic with an intriguing back story. Dad had received it as security for a one-dollar loan to a fellow soldier who never redeemed it. The fellow boasted that he picked the watch from the vest pocket of a French citizen who, on a crowded railway station, fell for his ruse of pointing to the sky and shouting, “Regardez! an airplane fight!”
Easy come and easy go. Anyway, that timepiece was too fine an example of the European watchmaker’s craft to be carried in the bib of a Parry Sound farmer’s overalls.
October 13, 1938: “Jack, Jim, and Frank got the cows at Otter Lake. They got lost…. It was about 8 p.m. when they got home. I made a fire in the fallow and waited about two hours for them to come out.”
Our pastures always were eaten bare by late summer, after which our cows, following the morning milking, headed deep into the forest to forage in a rock-ribbed burn where succulent vegetation carpeted the bottoms of the gullies. And each afternoon when school let out, we youngsters set off to hunt down the herd and chase them home for the evening milking. What with false starts (tracking usually proved futile, and cowbells clattering in a deep gully could be deceiving, if heard at all), the chore could last hours.
But that mid-October experience topped them all. I can still feel the flush of pride as we followed all nine or ten cows out of the dark forest into the welcoming light of Don’s bonfire, our footsore and famished state momentarily forgotten.
November 22, 1938: “Dad and I…got a load of 22-foot [cedar timbers] on the wagon for township culverts. The binding pole let go and hit Dad on the head and dizzied him. The horses ran away with him and the load and ran up against some basswood stumps and broke the wagon tongue. Jim and I took a piece of timber over to Alex Harvey to make a new one, at night.”
Dad always employed a limber ironwood spring pole to maintain tension on the wrapping chains he used to bind such loads firmly in place. This time, the small end of the bent pole was carelessly left touching the ground. When Dad seated himself atop the load and ordered the team to “Get up,” a rear wagon wheel ran over the tip of the pole, jerking the butt from the twisted front binding chain and directing it with the force of a coiled spring at Dad’s head. Accident-prone yet surprisingly resilient, he would brush of the “dizzying” as nothing. Instead, he would fret over that broken wagon tongue until a replacement, shaped and fitted out by the nearest blacksmith, was bolted into place.
February 8, 1939: “…. Jack and Jim and I walked to Dunchurch at night and there came up an awful storm. Jack and Jim nearly played out walking home.”
The general stores in Dunchurch remained open late on Wednesday and Saturday (this was a Wednesday), drawing folks in from the countryside to shop and mingle.
For us youngsters, it was a seldom-missed opportunity to “hang around” with our own kind. There might be a small grocery order or a gallon can of coal oil to carry home, but socializing was the main objective. But in severe weather the pleasure came with a price tag.
May 22, 1939: “We went to Parry Sound and saw the Royal train go through. Didn’t stop.”
I’ve written before about the family piling into our 1929 Chevrolet and, with great anticipation, driving to town to watch a special train whisk King George VI and Queen Elizabeth through Parry Sound. Suffice it to say here that Don’s terse closing comment doesn’t half express the crowd’s disappointment, after waiting in the darkness for what seemed like hours, at not getting even a glimpse of the royal couple.
Never mind, I brought home a lasting souvenir of the occasion, a King George VI Canadian penny squashed by the wheels of the train as the sleeping Royals sped past the station.
I’ve just fished that oval wafer of copper from a box of old coins, and there, scratched on its face with the tip of my jackknife, is the memorable date, May 22, 1939.
It would not likely happen today, and not just because the Canadian one-cent piece itself is destined to disappear from our lives. I’m writing this on February 4, 2013, the very day the Canadian mint ceased distributing the coin to financial institutions.