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People, History, Our Work

Improbable Pioneers in Cottage Country

Curated by Lori Scott

October 12, 2022

I, Lori Scott, met my great grandmother once, in 1963. Being young at the time, I hadn’t known that she, Ellen (née Dixon) Teece, had written about her adolescence homesteading in Muskoka. At 91 years old, she thought it would interest future generations to learn about early settlement life. Her sister Alice’s version of their adventure tales was recorded by her daughter Rose Hough in 1973. I have fused their memoires to tell this chapter of our family history. At its heart is the story of pioneering in an unknown frontier.

William and Maria Dixon left England on a sailing ship in 1870 with their belongings, five children, Ellen and Alice among them, and the promise of the new Dominion of Canada. Ontario had opened Muskoka to thousands of aspiring and improbable British settlers willing to clear and farm a free grant of land on what is the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe-Ojibway, Chippewa, and Algonquin peoples. The Dixons claimed their 200 acres (lots 19 and 20, concession 10) in Macaulay Township near Bracebridge, after a rascally Crown agent had led them in circles through trackless bush, pretending it was all fresh ground surveyed for agriculture.

A family photo of the Dixons
William Dixon (1816-1909) with daughter Ellen, her husband Harry Teece, and their six children: Back Row: Maria Winnifred, Ernest Front Row: Annie, Edwin, William Harold c. [1914/1915].

“The land here was rough, rolling, stony, considerable brush, which required backbreaking labour to wrestle even a modest living from it,” told Rose, while Ellen said, “Father thought it to be the ideal location. He had never experienced the cost of clearing a farm out of the forest.”

Maria and her daughters stayed in Falkenburg, one of the first settlements along the Muskoka Road, while William and sons Harry and Ted built a crude shelter on their lot. They hobbled together pine rafters and ridge poles, balsam brush flooring, and large slabs of bark shingles. They hung a curtain in the doorframe, and, there being no window glass, they fastened white cotton over an open space.

A black and white photo of a train station on the left and train tracks on the right.
Train Station in Falkenburg, Ontario, c. 1886.

Once complete, the family and furniture had to be rafted down the Muskoka River, skirted around swamps and plodded across rock ridges. The near impenetrable bush was home to bears and wolves, and readied for possible predators, William and Harry made every trip from Falkenburg carrying both chattel and shotgun. They slept on fir boughs in a smaller branch-covered abode while the rest of the family lived in the bark shelter.

A man, who lost his cow and then his bearings, turned up at the Dixon’s to ask for a night’s lodging. Ellen recalled:

“The next day, when this man called at our neigbour’s he said, ‘Ain’t those folks fixed up nice. I wondered where we all could sleep as I couldn’t see a bed anywhere, but they have it all curtained off into three bedrooms."

Tree after tree, stone after stone, they cleared their land in the dense forest. During the winter days, the boys sawed logs and hewed them square; in the evenings, they cut wood shingles. By the spring they were ready to build a log home of comfortable size for their family and furnishings.

“Some of the English furniture I can remember” wrote Ellen’s niece, “was two bedsteads with spool designed rungs, a what-not cupboard, a plate-glass mirror set in a deep frame, several small upholstered rocking chairs, a small carved table and a music box . . . [R]olls of wallpaper they brought from England and, after being stored for 35 years, Aunt Nellie [Ellen] used it to paper her living room in 1905.”

What they didn’t bring had to be made. With a handsaw, William turned logs into tabletop boards and poles into legs; beds were made the same way. The women cooked in an iron pot over hot coals. The men shot partridge and rabbits. Vegetables had to be bought until they could grow their own crop. Alice often told of her 10-mile walks to Bracebridge carrying pints of butter and returning at night tired but happy with her groceries and other wares.

When Alice was 18, a school was built within walking distance and the men blazed a trail so she wouldn’t get lost. Ellen, who was 10 years younger and unfit for the distance, was instructed by her brothers.

A black in white family photo of the four Dixon siblings.
Dixon siblings, left to right: Edwin “Ted” (1856-1935), Henry “Harry” (1853-1945), Alice (1858-1949), Ellen (1869-1963)

Once the family was passably comfortable, the older siblings went to work to help things along. The boys learned logging and became expert axemen. Emma took a job in Toronto and her earnings helped the Dixon’s buy their first cow. Soon, they had a second one, a yoke of oxen, pigs, poultry, and a grain crop. Alice used to tell how the grain, when ripe, was cut with a reaping hook and when cured, thrashed by hand. Additional money came from a lumberman who paid a deposit for the privilege of taking the Dixon’s standing pine within two years, but never returned for the timber. In the meantime, they learned to make syrup from the maple trees growing in abundance on their land.

“That, like everything else, had to be prepared for and caused considerable work to start with. It was a nasty, cold, wet job altogether, as the snow was always deep.” said Ellen.

A black and white headshot of Ellen Dixon
Ellen Dixon, 1890

First, they cut down trees to make sap troughs. Next came the spigots. In the spring, they drove these foot-long pieces of wood into holes in the trees that they bore with an auger. They collected sap morning and evening and poured it into sheet iron boiling receptacles. William reduced the sap by half over a fire and transferred it with a long-handled dipper into a cast iron pot where it was reduced by half again and emptied into pails.

Maria then strained the syrup into ordinary pots and beat in an egg to filter out foreign matter. A small piece of pork fat attached to a hanging string checked the danger of it pouring over. The syrup was boiled down until a drop turned solid in cold water. Milk pans were greased, filled with hot syrup, and set in a cupboard to harden into maple sugar.

The Dixons enjoyed the splendours of nature. The girls became experts in handling their pine log canoe, paddling to cows pastured across the lake for the morning and evening milking. They would go to out-of-the-way places to bathe, picnic, or explore for wild fruit. Other times, they’d hike for pleasure.

They continued to farm, making a clearing sufficient to get their land deed. In 1881, rumours of wide-open fertile prairies enticed William, Harry, and several neighbours to head west. By 1885, the Dixons were homesteading in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan.

This history of homesteading contrasts with the modern-day Muskoka that I saw when I returned to the district in 1989. Who knew that thousands of settlers once filled and farmed the stony land I regarded as a summer holiday destination, and that I descended from this pioneer stock? I’m grateful that Ellen and Rose captured this time in Ontario and shared their spirit of resilience and optimism.

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