1881 books provide unique glimpse of local agriculture

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.


One of my favourite sets of books is the 1881 report of the Ontario Agricultural Commission.

In the spring of 1880 the provincial government appointed 18 men to a panel to review the state of agriculture in Ontario and make recommendations for improvement.

The commission conducted hearings in 17 towns, including Fergus and Guelph, and circulated questionnaires to every township in the province.

The final report, published in February 1881, runs to 563 pages, as well as four volumes of appendices and testimony.

Detailed information on each county is found in Volume II, which includes 20 pages on Wellington, much of it in tables.

The agricultural landscape of 1881 would appear unfamiliar to us in 1999. About a quarter of the fields still had stumps scattered across them, and 15% of the land was covered by first growth timber: beech, maple, elm, cedar, balsam, hemlock, basswood and ash. Cedar rail fences dominated the landscape, but there were some fences made of brush or stones. Guelph Township had a small amount of wire fencing.

Only about one-third of farm dwellings were considered to be first class, built of brick, stone or wood. The balance consisted of log houses and small wood houses. The proportion of brick and stone houses would rise dramatically in the decade following the publication of the report.

Spring wheat topped the list of grain crops, claiming 14% of the cultivated land and an average yield of 12.5 bushels per acre. Oats followed, with 12% and 35.5 bushels, followed by barley (9% and 26 bushels), peas (9% and 21.5 bushels) and fall wheat (6% and 20 bushels).

Very little rye was grown, and today’s dominant crop, corn, was not raised at all. There were significant crops of potatoes (1.5% of the land) and turnips (4%). Hay was taken from 14% of the land, with an average of 1.5 tons per acre, and 16% of the land was reserved for pasture.

All the above are average figures for the county as a whole. As might be expected, there were major variations among the townships.

Settlers began filing into Erin and Eramosa in the early 1820s. Minto and Luther, the last to be settled, were barely a quarter century old in 1881. The northern townships, obviously, had the most rustic appearance, with a third or more of fields filled with stumps, and Luther was still in the pioneer stage, with only half the land cleared at all.

Board fences, usually made of hemlock, were used in several townships. In Peel, where cedar was uncommon, farmers used hardwood rails to fence their fields. Underdrainage in fields had made its appearance here and there in 1881 in Nichol, Pilkington, Guelph and Minto Townships.

Virtually all farmers reported using machinery for seeding and harvesting. The exception again is Luther, where only 40% had machinery. It is obvious that Luther was attracting poorer settlers, who were attracted by cheap land, and the opportunity to build a homestead.

New settlers traditionally planted spring wheat because it usually commanded a good market and brought quick cash to the farmer. Luther led Wellington in spring wheat, with 25% of its land. Luther’s yields, averaging 15 bushels to the acre, exceeded those in the south, where 10 to 12 bushels was typical.

The root crops, potatoes and turnips, were most popular in Nichol, Pilkington, Guelph and Eramosa. The well-known potato industry in the Hillsburgh area had not yet developed. It depended on the railway for transportation, and the line through Hillsburgh only came into service as the 1881 Agricultural Report was being written.

All townships reported orchards on most farms, usually in the range of one-half to one acre in size. In Luther it was noted that “not many bearing yet, but a large number planted.” With orchards of this size, it would appear that most farmers planted fruit trees for their own use, with a surplus for additional cash income.

There was little in the way of unusual crops. West Garafraxa reported some plantings of carrots, and there were some plantings of flax in Maryborough.

Other than hemlock and a little cedar, the remaining forest lands consisted of hardwood, which was being used for firewood. The very desirable white pine was long gone.

Only Maryborough reported exports of cordwood, but we know from other sources that there were shipments from other townships. The export of cordwood had been a major business less than 10 years earlier; in 1881 it was very much on the decline. Some townships reported that some wood was used for building purposes, but most construction timber had to be imported.

The Agricultural Commission heard testimony from 155 leading farmers and experts across Ontario. Eleven of these resided in Wellington (plus an additional four from the Agricultural College), a greater representation than for any other county.

All came from the central and southern parts of Wellington, which was considered by the Commission to be the centre for cattle and sheep breeding in Ontario.

They were: John Hobson, Guelph Twp. (stock farming); Fred Stone, Guelph Twp. (Herefords); Thomas McCrae, Guelph Twp. (Galloways); George Rudd, Eramosa (Devons, Cotswold sheep); George Hood, Guelph Twp. (Herefords, Southdowns); James Hunter, Alma (Durhams) (*note, Durhams are now more commonly known as shorthorns); J.S. Armstrong, Eramosa (Durhams, cattle feeding); James Anderson, Puslinch (Southdowns); John Watt, Salem (Durhams, Cotswolds); L. Parkinson, Eramosa (Leicesters); and Peter Rennie, Fergus (stall feeding).

To a man, these practical farmers spoke of the benefits of raising good pure-bred stock. John Armstrong, for example, stated that “a Durham grade steer at two years old, if he was properly fed, would bring over $80, while a native steer, of the same age and on the same amount of feed, would bring perhaps $40 or $50. It costs as much to raise one as the other.”

The Ontario Commissioners heard much discussion on the merits of the various breeds of cattle. Durhams, or shorthorns, were preferred by several of Wellington’s cattle breeders. James Hunter of Alma said that he “Considers the Durham ahead of all other pure-bred cattle. I consider them best adapted for improving the common stock of the country.”

Mr. Armstrong echoed this opinion: “I think the Durhams are the most profitable animals we can import into this country.”

Thomas McCrae of Guelph Township offered a contrary opinion in favour of Galloways, based on the fact that they could gain more weight on less feed than other breeds. McCrae considered them the hardiest of breeds, and their lack of horns made them easier to ship.

Unlike stock raising, the dairy industry was not well established in Wellington in 1881. There were seven cheese factories in the county, four of them in a belt from Drayton to Harriston. Cheese was a rapidly expanding industry. The first cheese factory opened in Ontario in 1864, and within a decade the industry established itself, based in Oxford and Hastings Counties.

There was no commercial butter making in Wellington, but the Commission urged producers across the province to build them in order to compete on the overseas market against American and Danish markets. The butter exported from Canada at the time, made by individual farmers, was meeting buyer resistance due to poor quality.

The Commission considered flax one of the new special crops. It was grown only in Wellington, Waterloo, Perth and Oxford, largely by German farmers. Flax fibre found a ready export market to the United States and to domestic rope and bag manufacturers.

Livingston’s oil mill at Baden purchased flax seed. This would become a larger crop over the next two decades, with linseed oil mills at Stirton and Elora. But that was still in the future in 1881.

From a perspective of 120 years it is easy to fault the first settlers for squandering the timber resources of the county in a generation. We can also admire them for engaging in commercial agriculture without the modern tools of effective fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. The only real weapon against insects they had was Paris Green, an arsenic compound, potentially as dangerous to humans as to the pests.

The Commissioners realized that the worst pests and weeds were all imports to Canada. They are all still with us.

A new arrival in 1881 was the Colorado beetle on potatoes. First spotted at Sarnia in 1872, it had conquered the province in less than a decade.

The Ontario Agricultural Commission report is by far the best snapshot we have of agriculture when it was still the dominant activity in Ontario.

The Commission wanted to build up the agricultural sector further, particularly with increased productivity, and what today we would call value-added activity (processed products rather than straight commodity exports).

I have spent many an idle hour with this report. Over the years I have picked up copies of three of the five volumes for my own collection. I have my eyes open for the remaining two.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Feb. 15, 1999.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015