History, Our Work
Changes Through the Generations: A History of a Family Farm in Lambton County
Curated by Margaret Devin
April 20, 2022
Margaret Devin has condensed this story from her extensive research into family and farm history. Margaret writes:
I continued my mother’s family genealogy research, utilizing letters she had received, her recollections of family and farm life lore along with my communication with siblings, cousins and long-time neighbours. I searched cemeteries, death certificates, land titles, church and census records, accumulating a wealth of information some of which required deductions in terms of time lines. As my siblings and I are the last generation of my grandfather to experience living on a farm, I wrote a book entitled: Devin Homestead History to ensure the farm's history and farm life experiences would be preserved for the next and future generations. This story is a summation of our family history and farm life from the pioneer days of the first generation through to the fourth generation.
My great grandparents, James Devin and Mary McCauley, immigrated to Canada from Northern Ireland in 1853 settling in Oakville (treaty lands and traditional territory of the Mississaugas, Neutral, Huron-Wendat and Haudenosaunee) initially before becoming tenant farmers in Trafalgar Township in Halton County possibly by 1855/56. By the mid 1870s James and Mary had relocated with their nine children to Dover Township in Kent County setting up once again as tenant farmers. From her oral research, my mother learned that it took them two or more trips by horse and wagon to transfer all their belongings. On September 30, 1879 James purchased 50 acres of land in Sombra Township, Lambton County for $1000.00. His family homestead would eventually span four generations in a direct family lineage living on and working the land.
The homestead lay between two sandy knolls to the east and west and consisted of a log cabin and cow shed. There was still much land needing to be cleared. A team of oxen was used to plough the cleared land. Within less than a year of purchasing his farm, James died at age 54 from congestion of the lungs. My grandfather, Hugh, the youngest in the family, was just ten years of age. The older sons continued to clear and work the land.
Hugh became the next steward and owner of the homestead. According to family lore there were three barns on the homestead at one time. A two-storey frame house was believed to have been built around the late 1890s or early 1900s. The log cabin was torn down and its timbers were used to construct a milk house near the farmhouse. Eventually there would only be one barn remaining on the farm, a drive shed for machinery, a chicken coop, a brooder house, a granary and an old kitchen converted to house pigs in addition to the milk house.
When drilling for water gas was struck instead. According to oral history, the farmhouse was outfitted with gas lights until one day water and mud trickled from the lights. The resulting water well was very deep and the water cold and refreshing. There was also a cement-topped cistern east of the farmhouse which collected surface water. During Hugh’s tenure of ownership, he relied on horse and buggy, horse drawn sleighs and a demi-cart, known formally as a democrat, for transportation.
My father, Tom, the youngest son of Hugh and Nell, continued farming the homestead after his father’s death in 1939, becoming its owner by 1944 on the death of his mother. Work horses were still being used to work the land and threshing bees were still very much a part of the rural scene. Marrying in 1941, my mother cooked using a wood burning stove, washed clothes with a scrub board and wash tub and ironed clothing after heating the iron on the wood burning cook stove. She often said that you can have your good ole’ days!! The cook stove provided an alternate function as incubator for the runts of the pig litters. A piglet was kept in a box near or on the open oven door keeping it toasty warm.
The first hint of change in farming lifestyle was in 1943 when my father purchased his first vehicle, a Model A Ford for $50.00. By 1950 he had purchased his first tractor, a V.A.C. Case, known as Tom’s T.P.J./Tom’s Pride and Joy. He also bought a plow for the Case at the same time. Many of the horse drawn farm machines were converted to be pulled by tractor: the wagons, binder, disc, dump rake, four wheeled manure spreader, hay mower and go-devil. As our farm was not tiled for drainage until 1981, my father dredged field ditches using the go-devil, a wooden triangular structure with an iron point. It was weighted with granite rocks found embedded on his property. The field ditches enabled the water to run off the land to the nearby municipal drains bordering the property. He borrowed his neighbour’s corn seed drill and corn binder. The corn binder bundled the corn stalks with twine which were then manually set on end forming teepee like structures called corn shocks. My brothers enjoyed tunneling into the base of these shocks. During the winter, my father knelt on the cold ground husking the corn by hand using a leather hand corn husker. Initially loose hay was stored in the mow using a trolley hoist and track system as well as stored outside as a haystack using a gin pole.
Change continued with farming practices. My father borrowed his neighbour’s hay rake and hired him to bale his hay as well as straw, once combines replaced threshing machines. With the purchase of a combine, hopper wagons, grain augers, and a hay elevator many hours of labour were lessened but the workdays lengthened as lights on the tractors and self-propelled combine enabled my father to work well into the dark of night. Farming with work horses was relatively slow paced in comparison as the animals needed to rest. Crop rotation, leaving a field in fallow to rejuvenate and applying manure, were eventually replaced with an increasing reliance on costly manufactured fertilizers. Labour intensive hoeing by my brothers and I and cultivating weeds were replaced by spraying with toxic chemicals. In time the water from the well became undrinkable.
In 1959 to 1960 a one-storey house was constructed where the milk house once stood and where my mother’s vegetable garden grew. The next construction phase began in the 1970s with the construction of a sheet metal sided machinery shed in 1973 followed by a lean-to extension to it in 1977 providing shelter for the yearling cattle. A metal grain bin was installed in 1979. In 1963 my father purchased an additional 100 acres he had been renting. An additional 50 acres he had been working in a partnership deal with his uncle for many years was also eventually purchased by 1964.
The Devin homestead farm had been exclusively a mixed farming operation for generations consisting of cattle for cream production initially with mostly Durham Shorthorn with some Holstein, converting to beef with Hereford and Black Angus cross cattle, hogs, as well as chicken and geese in the early years. The animals and fowl were free to graze and range in the fenced pastures and yards. During the cream production years, the cows were milked by hand while my father and brother Den sat on hand-made wooden stools. In 1981 the homestead farm became solely a grain farm operation. Crops consisted primarily of soybeans, wheat, corn and barley. No longer having animals as a meat source, we had to purchase meat at grocery stores thereby reducing our self sufficiency. As most farms converted to grain crops, the pastureland disappeared and with it the habitat for birds such as the bob-white/quail, bob-o-link, and killdeer.
Changes occurred in the local rural community too. The regular monthly visits of the Watkins Man, the Rawleigh Man, the Tea Man and the Fuller Brush Man discontinued. No longer were we kids provided with brightly coloured plastic comb samples from the Fuller Brush Man. The last peddler to fade away into oblivion was the Bread Man whose weekly visits were much anticipated by my brothers and I, not so much for the bread but to feast our eyes on his van’s large drawer holding an assortment of cookies and doughnuts! All the one roomed schoolhouses in our community closed in June of 1964. My father and all but his youngest child attended our one roomed school which was built in 1879. Only my eldest brother graduated from that school. The rest of us were bussed to one of the two central schools that were built to replace the one roomed schools.
In 1982, the old oak tree that had stood for generations since pioneer times in our front yard died and was felled. It was estimated to be 129 years old and had a circumference of 6’2”. That same year, my father died of a massive heart attack. His was the last generation to make a living from a small family farm. He had experienced the transition from slow paced farming using work horses to a faster pace using tractors and from a mixed farm operation to specialized farming. Modern farming was becoming highly technical, specialized, less manually laborious and expensive.
My brother Den took over the reins of the farm work as well as working at other establishments to supplement his income. He tore down the old drive shed and the kitchen of the two-storey farmhouse and built a small storage shed. When he suffered his first heart attack in his 40s, neighbours helped harvest his crops. He rented out the property while recuperating. In the fall of 2000 Den planted wheat for the first time using the no till method but did not live to see the successful outcome of his wheat crop. He died suddenly at his home on the farm in 2001. With his untimely death at age 55, a farm auction was held and on December 31, 2002 the Devin homestead farm was sold to a great, great grandson of James and Mary from their eldest son’s family line, thereby continuing a 5th generation and more than likely a sixth generation owning and working the homestead property.
In 2009, the unoccupied one-storey farmhouse became a victim of arson. All that remained amid the rubble and ashes were the cement front steps, the wrought iron railings, the solitary chimney and many memories. Memories of a rural way of living that I feel very fortunate to have experienced. Once the remaining sheet metal machinery shed, the metal grain bin and the old wooden barn, the sole remaining structure from the early years, are demolished, the old Devin homestead will be unrecognizable from the surrounding farmland, suffering the same fate as many of the once small family run farms of an era long past.
Author Bio: Having grown up in a rural setting, I have a very strong connection to nature. After graduating from Western, I headed westward to explore Canada working in Regina and Edmonton. Since then I have toured all the Canadian provinces, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories and am presently residing on our acreage in Parkland County, Alberta, enjoying once again the beauty and comfort of nature in a rural setting - still very much a "country girl" at heart.