Our History, People
Living with Deep Roots: The Story of Gwen Davis and Her Family Farm in Rural Ontario
Curated by Jessica Lukawiecki
Storyteller: Gwen Davis
October 8, 2021
Gwen Davis, 93 years old and born in the region of Bancroft, Ontario, talks to me by phone from the same farmhouse that her and her husband bought more than 60 years ago. There are few in the town of 3,881 people who hold such rich history and perspective on the region, but Gwen – born January 21, 1928, farmer, mother of three, wife to the late Don Davis – has seen how much the town has changed over the course of a century.
It is a region with a long history of human settlement. In 1823, the Crown purchased nearly two million acres of land from the Chippewa and Mississauga First Nations. It is within these lands, along a tract of the York River, that the town of Bancroft first emerged as a settlement – initially drawing in fur traders and lumber harvesters in the mid 1800’s, and later farmers who received free one-hundred-acre parcels in exchange for working the land. The settlement held many different names in these early years – York Mills, York River and York Branch – but was officially incorporated as “Bancroft” in 1904, after the maiden name of one of the early Senators of the region.
Gwen’s living memory of the region goes back to the mid 1900’s. Born in New Carlow, just north of the town of Bancroft, Gwen was raised in a family with ten children. Gwen’s father worked the farm in the summer and the bush in the winter, while her mother was busy at home raising children. As a young child she had hoped to become a teacher – she remembers that she “used to help the teacher with the smaller grades, because we had just the one room with eight grades, for one young teacher.” But without a high school in the area, she left school after grade nine and started working for her neighbours for ten dollars a week. These were long days spent hard at work for someone so young – Gwen did housework, cleaning, washing, ironing and washing dishes – and when she wasn’t busy with housework, she was busy running her own little store in town.
Later in her adolescence, she followed in the footsteps of many in the region and went to work in the counting factories in Wellington, Ontario – planting, peeling and counting tomatoes and peas. Reflecting on leaving home, she recalls the experience being at times lonely, but she “learned to meet people out there, because there were a lot of other girls and boys from this big area here.” It was while working in the factories that she met Don, the factory-owner’s nephew and her soon-to-be husband, when she was nineteen years old. The two got married in 1948, and returned to the Bancroft region several years later when Don got a job working in the mines for 90 cents an hour. By 1956, the couple had saved up enough money to buy their farmhouse and 100 acres – which at the time was sold to them for $1,800.
Over the years, the farm grew, both in terms of acreage – at one point owning 500 acres in the region – and in terms of livestock – Capon’s, (castrated male chickens), sheep and cows. “Don and I raised 3,000 capon’s out there,” Gwen says. “They said we had the biggest flock of capon’s in Ontario at that point.” Gwen and Don also gave birth to three children – Glen (1951), Fred (1958) and Wendy (1970). Gwen’s voice gets softer as she tells me how Glen died at the age of nine years old, on December 28, 1960 from a brain clot to the brain. Her other children, Fred and Wendy, each live nearby and own parts of the family farm, although Gwen has a life lease on the house that her and Don bought together more than 60 years ago.
Reflecting on life on the farm, Gwen remembers the hard work involved in milking the cows, making butter, bread and cream, keeping a vegetable garden, selling eggs, making pickles and canning fruit, picking wild berries, doing work on the house – all skills she passed on to her children. When they first moved to the farm, there was no water, hydro or telephone – so water had to be carried from up the hill, even in the winter. “We got by on 90 cents an hour,” she says, “but we saved… I’m telling you, we saved money, every cent we could.”
It wasn’t all hard work though – Gwen recalls the community coming together many times throughout the year, at Christmas concerts and school dances. In the winter, she reminisces on the days when entire families would gather up on the hills on moonlit nights, carried over on horse drawn sleighs, children and adults alike riding bobsleighs down the hill, across the bridge and past the little store on the corner.
Much has changed from the Bancroft that Gwen knew in the mid-1900’s – the town has grown substantially and was recently named the best place to buy real estate in Canada, and has seen a massive influx of cottagers and folks moving from urban areas. But some things have stayed the same – after Don passed away in 2003, Gwen has continued to live in the house she and her husband bought more than 60 years ago, with the help of government support workers and her two children. And although she is no longer actively farming, Gwen talks about her flower and vegetable garden with pride – something that she still maintains at 93 years old. And the sense of community around her has remained strong – on her 90th birthday, Gwen received 111 birthday cards from people who have known her over the years, and a celebration was held at the United Church nearby.
Reflecting on the town, her house and the farm, she tells me – “I like it here… it’s home. It [feels] really good to say, it’s our own.”