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FARMING AMONG THE ROCKS: AGRICULTURE IN THE LAURENTIANS

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Women working the fields, Mille Isles, c.1930. (Photo - Courtesy of Sandra Stock)The earliest nineteenth century settlements of the Laurentians were intended to be agricultural, in spite of the unpromising terrain and the very short growing season.
There were two major thrusts of pioneer farmers into the hills. The first (1830 to 1860’s) were mostly Irish and Scots emigrants that arrived from Montreal via barges up the St Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers, disembarked at Carillon, and seeing the good rolling country already farmed around St. Andrews East (Saint-André-d’Argenteuil) and Lachute, initially were optimistic about their land grants further into the bush.

The second major population movement started a bit later by French speaking, native born farmers from the adjacent north shore regions above Montreal. This was to become a huge internal migration when the famous Curé Labelle,“Le Roi du Nord”, started the push for northern expansion in the 1870’s to1890’s. His motivation was partly to stem the growing flow of French-speaking Catholics to what was perceived as the corrupting world of the New England textile mills in the United States. Also, Labelle was competitive by nature and didn’t like to see all that crown land going to the” newcomer Anglo-Protestants”. In reality the English-speaking emigrants were a very mixed lot – the majority were Irish Protestants but there were also Irish Catholic settlements like St. Columban (very early, 1830’s), and along the Rouge River and into the Laurel and Lost River area, mainly Highland Scottish settlers, many of whom spoke Gaelic.

Not all these settlers came from an agricultural background either. Especially among the Irish, many were skilled labourers and even city tradesmen. The Irish Potato Famine of 1845 had devastated the whole economy of Ireland in the towns and cities as well as on the farms. Many formerly prosperous people lost their livelihood and saw a new beginning in Canada. This lack of former farming experience may not have been all that important in reality as the extremely harsh climate of the Laurentian Mountains required a very different approach from the balmy and mostly treeless Irish countryside. Potatoes, for example, only gave one crop a year in the Laurentians, not the three that had been possible in Ireland.

Settlement followed the rivers – the Rouge and the North and then their smaller tributaries. These rivers were not navigable for very long stretches, but served as guides for the first trails along their banks. Official surveyors, under the leadership of Augustin-Norbert Morin, the minister for colonization in the government of Lower Canada, portioned out this wild and uneven landscape into long, narrow, neat, mathematical ranges and lots like the gentler, flatter St. Lawrence plain.

The pioneers trekked in on foot, as it was impossible to bring a horse through the thick trees and the many swampy sections. There was also nothing to feed large animals until crops could be produced. There were no wheeled vehicles in the more remote areas until the 1870’s at least as there were no real roads. Heavy loads were hauled by travois or what was locally called a stone boat. Roads have always been challenges in this area, even today. Until a sod house, or dugout into the side of a hill, could be made the newcomers slept in tents beside the lakes and rivers, in the dark, deep forest full of unfamiliar, and probably frightening, flora and fauna.

The first crops were barley and root vegetables as these are hardy and good keepers over winter. The trees were cleared with axes and the logs were used to build houses and barns. The ashes of hard wood trees like maples and oaks were made into potash that was taken to larger towns like Lachute or St. Jérôme and served as a source of cash to buy various necessities. Small domestic animals like pigs and chickens were kept, and, as more pasture was made available, sheep, cows and finally the farmer’s friend, the horse, could be added. Hunting game and gathering wild fruits and berries supplemented the diet. Native plants like crab apples, raspberries and especially blueberries were abundant but labour intensive to amass and preserve for the long winter.

The tilling of the land was done mostly by hoe as there are so many rocks, and, at first, because there were the stumps and remnants of trees in the fields. Fences were made from the smaller fieldstones and then heightened by cedar rails. Many of these old boundary lines still remain, many now surrounded by a second growth forest like the one from which they came.
Throughout the Laurentians, farmers could never really prosper beyond a subsistence level if they depended solely on agriculture. The development of the lumber industry with the coming of railways provided more lucrative employment at the mills and winter lumber camps. Many settlers, especially of the second generation, who had started as farmers, left the farms and worked full time with forestry. This work was hard but seasonal, with often-lengthy breaks at certain times of year. This was unlike farming which was, by comparison, “twenty-four/seven” and perceived as rather dull, with the farm family essentially trapped in the daily rounds of feeding and tending animals and doing repetitive chores.

Haying, Morin Heights, c.1930s. (Photo - Courtesy of Sandra Stock)By the 1890’s, the Laurentians were becoming less isolated and in the summers, middle class people from Montreal started coming for vacations away from the city. This initiated a new form of farm economy – the boarding house-farm. These were, from what we read and know of this period, almost without exception run by women. In Morin Heights, for example, these establishments were referred to as “Mrs. Charlie Seale’s” or “Mrs. Annie Kennedy’s” or just a family name, “Watchorn’s Farm” or “Campbell’s Farm”, with the presiding CEO always a woman. At this period, and well into the 1950’s, there was a strong cultural, almost religious, belief in the moral, as well as the physical, health benefits of the countryside as opposed to the town. Clean air and water and locally grown food, the so-called “simple life” of country people and the contact with animals and plants were viewed as morally improving, particularly for children.

Many of the farms that were located close to lakes benefited the most from this new influx of visitors. The farms provided dairy products, eggs, fresh chickens and vegetables to the part time residents. Also there were many specialty items that arrived weekly by horse and cart and later by truck from traveling vendors: butchers, bakers, fish sellers and so on. These arrivals were always greeted with interest and viewed as rather antique and quaint by people from the cities. However, by the 1960’s, the easier access to stores, facilitated by family cars and better roads, eliminated both the traveling salespeople and the local farm dairy businesses. Also, by this period the Laurentian economy had become much more diverse and many young people found work in other sectors such as the tourist trade, construction and service industries. Many farms ceased operation altogether and much of the original land had been, and was being, sold as building lots.

Since the terrain was so difficult, so full of rocks, swamps and steep hills, the mechanized large-scale farming of the twentieth century was impossible for the Laurentians.

Some areas, considered as in the Laurentians, most notably Lachute and its district bordering the North River, continued to prosper agriculturally. The moderating effects of the Ottawa and North River basins, plus the smoother, better soil was an advantage. The Argenteuil Agricultural Society, established in 1826, has held the Lachute Fair every summer, making it one of the oldest farming events in Canada. The emphasis in recent years has tended to be on family entertainments and the display of special breeds of animals like Percheron show horses and fancy types of fowls. Historically, the Lachute Fair did encourage participation from farms throughout the Laurentians but now, due to changing conditions and the dwindling of the family farms, has mutated into more of a local carnival and community celebration.

A few other, exceptional, more level, areas, such as the plain around Arundel, have managed to remain partly agricultural. In Arundel, where eighty percent of the municipality is still zoned for agriculture and forestry, the situation is presently changing. The only farms that are really doing well are the organic operations, not the traditional (mainly beef) farms. The organic farms cater to a growing demand for specialty produce very often for restaurants and health spas. One farm like this has done well with harvesting elk antlers (renewable-no harm to the animals) for natural medicines. Others provide a direct market and a farm visit experience for the public. The old belief of the restorative and healthful influences of anything close to the natural world still holds its attraction.

References: Morin Heights Historical Association collection: photos, Gail Lister Kilpatrick, Sandra Stock.