This all started with the premise that much of the leadership of colonial Canada came from Scotland, and that our present Canadian culture draws much from our Scottish roots. The real Canadian culture, not the touchy-feely silliness promoted by our over-educated intellectual leadership.

Building on that, I put together a history of the Dryden district/ Wabigoon valley in a series of columns which ran in the Observer in 2015/16.

I have trimmed them up a bit, and put them together to present their story here as a narrative.

Not a detailed history, but it puts some perspective on how our community became what it is.


Mel Fisher,

Dryden Ontario

February, 2016



It has been argued that the Roman Empire survives to this day, being what is termed ‘the Western World’, carried forward by the various popes, then by the British, and now by the USA (the US president is the ‘emperor’). The following is by way of explanation of this idea.

For many centuries, starting in Roman and even biblical times, Nobility held sway by owning the land, usually under a grant from a king, sanctioned by an emperor or at least the pope, and of course paying a tax or a tribute to the higher authority. As kingdoms became more prosperous, more babies were born, and more lived to grow up. Britain being an island, there was no more land to be parcelled out, and surplus nobility were sent off to manage the colonies.  No doubt this influx of educated people accustomed to leadership positions contributed to the wealth of the colonies and the empire, creating an upward spiral in population and prosperity.  The lack of significant wars during the nineteenth century only magnified these trends.

The great sailing ships that allowed Europe to explore and dominate the whole world were built on a large, hockey-stick shaped timber carved from the trunk and the largest root of a single tree- this formed the keel and bow, the ship’s foundation. The ‘great oaks of England’ were the best trees for this purpose, and their superior ships along with their exported leaders helps account for this tiny island’s huge role in the world’s history.

The colonies which became Canada seem to have been a favoured destination for the surplus sons of Scotland – the ruling class of all the colonies which became Canada seems to have had a disproportionate percentage of Scots. In fact, it can be argued that Canada’s national culture is very much drawn from that of Scotland; certainly there was a definite Scottish presence among the fathers of Confederation.

A number of these Scots, including John A MacDonald; Oliver Mowat; John Dryden, and Alexander Skene played key roles in our Dryden district ever being created, and this is the story.



Donald Creighton, long-serving professor of history, has written several books about Sir John A. MacDonald and is generally regarded as his biographer. The following is based on Professor Creighton’s writings.

Oliver Mowat (Liberal) and John MacDonald (Conservative) lawyered together before Confederation, knew each other well, and respected each other in spite of great differences in personality and style. While MacDonald was a flamboyant, charismatic politician’s politician, Mowat was a careful, thorough lawyers’ lawyer.

For some decades after confederation, MacDonald emerged as the dominant figure in the federal government, and Mowat as the dominant figure in Ontario. MacDonald’s vision of Canada was modeled on the British system, strong local and national government, the provinces being merely branches of the federal government, sort of super-counties.  Mowat leaned toward the American system, with the provinces independent governments in their own right, with authority independent of the federal government, really states rather than provinces.

MacDonald’s vision would have many small, weak provinces, and a strong federal government, while Mowat was determined to obtain as much power and clout for Ontario and the provinces as he could. This determination was reinforced when the decision was made that the CPR would terminate at Montreal, not Toronto; he saw this as Ontario falling under the control of French Canada once again.

He personally spearheaded several law suits all the way to the ultimate authority in the British Empire, the Privy Council in London, and won these cases, with the result that our provinces really are more accurately ‘states’ – independent governments, as he envisioned, rather than ‘provinces’ or divisions of a central government as MacDonald wished.

A major dispute arose out of Mowat’s territorial ambitions, wanting to make Ontario as big as he could. This was a political desire, but it was also a resource grab – the great white pine forest which extended in patches across what is now northern Ontario was hugely valuable, far beyond what most of us would imagine today, and gold was being discovered in several places, not least our own Gold Rock.  CPR scouts reported vast areas of potential farmland, millions of acres, our own Wabigoon valley being part of that.

MacDonald saw this as more important than even a quarrel over resources. If Ontario was successful in securing a territory very much larger than the Maritime Provinces, we would have an unbalanced federation which would be difficult to govern.  He would have to counter Ontario by allowing Quebec to annex similar large chunks of real estate, making the problem even more severe.

Ontario’s boundaries were fairly well fixed by a number of decisions and treaties at the time of Confederation, being generally the area presently divided into counties, which end about at Parry Sound. A case could be made that all the land which drained into the northern side of the great lakes was also Ontario’s, but this was by no means an assured thing, and Mowat’s ambitions extended far beyond this quite narrow strip along the shores of lakes Huron and Superior.  In fact his greatest triumph was in securing our part of the world for Ontario.





An important part of the battle between Ontario Liberal Premier Oliver Mowat, and Conservative Prime Minister John A MacDonald, came down to a dispute over whether our part of the world would be part of Ontario, or of Manitoba.

The Kenora Library has a copy of a thesis dissertation by Ina Elizabeth Hutchison which provides a great deal of detail as to how this story unfolds, and would be of great interest to anyone seriously interested in this bit of history. She points out and even emphasizes that this dispute was about partisan politics, Liberal vs Conservative; about personal animosity between these two men, about resource dollars, and competing visions as to how Canada should be structured.  It had little to do with what was best for the coveted land or its inhabitants, present or future.

This part of the world was clearly part of the territory granted to the Hudson’s’ Bay Company back in the 1600’s, as the waters here — Lac Des Milles Lac (Upsala), Rainy Lake, Lake of the Woods, Lac Seul and the land between them, all drain into Hudson’s Bay, and that was the definition of the HBC grant.  Additionally, this territory, the drainage basin for the Winnipeg River, was part of the grant by Hudson’s Bay Company to Lord Selkirk for his settlement, which became Manitoba.

In its early years, the US concocted a scheme to move all the aboriginal peoples in the eastern US into a new ‘Indian Territory’ (now the state of Oklahoma). After Canada’s Confederation, there was discussion around doing something similar in our part of Canada. (We imitate all things American, all the while claiming to be superior).  Under this scheme, our part of the world would have been ‘Indian Territory’, and development here was delayed while this discussion played out.  Otherwise our land might have been developed right along with and as part of Manitoba, before the great Mowat/MacDonald battle even started, and Canada’s history and geography greatly different.

Over the many decades since the Hudson’s Bay Company was formed, a number of treaties which affect our boundaries were signed between Great Britain, France, and the new United States.  These were large, international agreements, generally based on very incomplete mapping, with little attention to details such as local boundary specifics in unpopulated areas.  These treaties greatly confused boundary issues in our largely unmapped territory. The MacDonald/Mowat battle raged around the fine points of these treaties, ignoring the larger fact of our local history as part of the HBC territory and the Selkirk grant.

As in previous Mowat battles, this dispute went all the way to the British Privy Council, where Mowat, well prepared, and armed with misleading maps and ‘facts’, was able to demolish the Canadian lawyer who was so ill-prepared he did not even recognize Mowat’s stretchers. As a result, against all logic and sense and history, our entire district became part of Ontario.


Quoting directly from Donald Creighton’s book “John A Macdonald – the Old Chieftain, published in 1955, page 384,  “to include the territory between Lake Superior and the Lake of the Woods in Ontario meant handing it over to the jurisdiction of a distant imperial power in Toronto. After Mowat’s day, Toronto regarded it as little more than a political melon, slices of which were periodically handed around among friends.  It would have been more easily and probably more honestly administered from Winnipeg, which is its urban center.”

Smugly arrogant Ontario sees itself as much superior to the western provinces. Perhaps because our first settlers were from Ontario, and our professional class generally has Ontario roots, we in the northwest share that prejudice, even though many of us have western roots.  We are quite chauvinistic about it, Kenora folks especially refer disparagingly to ‘Tobans’.  For this reason the notion that we are properly part of Manitoba would not have been popular at all even a few years ago.  However, many ‘Tobans’ have moved into our part of  Ontario, especially to Kenora, and our local economy has been so battered in recent years that the Mayors of both Fort Frances and Kenora have come out in favour of looking into seceding from Ontario and joining Manitoba.




The battle between Manitoba and Ontario for our area played out most dramatically at what is now Kenora, and the Kenora public library has a collection of documents about those times, including the thesis project mentioned previously. The following is based on these documents.

There was a ‘shack and tent’ village of perhaps 800 people in the Kenora area, generally pretty rustic types, prospectors, trappers, traders, and ‘end-of-the-road’ entrepreneurs, dreamers, misfits, and after the CPR went through, railroaders.  Alcohol was rampant, and indeed at some stages the battle seemed to be more about which province would get to collect licence fees from the taverns at Kenora than any more substantive issues.  The scene played out through the 1880’s like a soap opera, as Manitoba and Ontario would send in police to enforce their laws, even arresting one another on at least one occasion.

I think I found one reference which claimed that the British Privy Council decision was not directly in favour of Ontario, but directed that a referendum be held among the residents of the territory in question, and that would decide which province we would belong to. In addition to the village at Kenora, there was a small settlement at Fort Frances, and a smattering of railroaders, prospectors and so on scattered across the land, however, these were too scattered and small in number to be worth the trouble of canvassing them.  There were probably as many aboriginal people then as now, but they were not allowed to vote.

So it came down to a campaign in the Kenora area, and the story goes that Ontario sent in a carload of campaign booze, but Canada only sent in half a carload, and as a result Ontario won. However, when I went to check this reference, I could find no such tale, and neither Hutchison nor Creighton mentions a referendum, so perhaps I dreamed this, it makes a good story, anyway.

As a result of Ontario’s winning our part of the world, Quebec and the western provinces became a whole lot bigger than was envisioned at least by John MacDonald, father of Confederation. We ended up with an unbalanced federation, with such absurdities as one province out of ten containing one third of the nation’s population, and another smaller in area and population than a small city.  We have unequal representation across the land, ‘equalization payments’ between provinces, an impossible-to-amend constitution, a useless senate, all arising out of this ‘unbalanced federation’.   I would suggest even the ‘two nations’ concept and French nationalism arise in part out of this decision.

So, our little district played a very big part in how Canada turned out today. Indeed, a Contrarian might say that all of Canada’s weaknesses arise out of Mowat’s successful land grab for our area, which of course puts John Dryden and his legacy, Dryden and district, at the root of all Canada’s problems.  Maybe that’s why the Establishment seems determined to make us disappear!



More on Ontario premier Mowat’s fight to claim our area when Canada was being formed. A previous installment claimed that was in part a resource grab, and so perhaps we ought to talk a bit about resources.  Let’s start by speculating as to why the CPR is where it is, as relates to resources.

First, white pine. White pine wood is straight-grained, dimensionally stable, soft, non-slivering, and most important, the most suitable wood for millwork.  Millwork is wood, planed into special shapes such as mouldings, baseboards, trim around doors, and so on.  A hundred and thirty years ago, white pine was so prized for this kind of work that a large log might fetch the equivalent of the price of a new car today.  Good white pine trees are old, several hundred years old, so once cut they are gone.

Much of central North America was once covered with white pine, however, by the 1880’s most of it was gone in the US and old Ontario. However, there were large stands of white pine scattered all across the southern fringe of what is now northern Ontario.  It was the dominant species in the Rainy River district including Quetico; around Lake of the Woods and Lac Des Mille Lacs; and south of Eagle and Wabigoon Lakes.  In fact one of the court cases which determined some of our destiny was a dispute in the 1880’s as to whether Ontario or Canada would get the royalties on white pine to be cut around Butler Lake and floated across Lake Wabigoon to the CPR.  More on this later.

There is a bay of the Lake of the Woods, and a bay of the Winnipeg River below a falls out of Lake of the Woods, on either side of a narrow strip of rock at what is now Keewatin. This provided an excellent industrial opportunity in the days of water wheels as the main industrial power source.  By merely punching a hole thru that rock ridge, water from the lake could flow through a waterwheel to the river far below on the other side of the ridge, thereby powering a factory.  The CPR was built along that rock ridge, and a number of plants were built on this amazing industrial site, the most famous being the Five Roses Flour Mill, which ran for something over 80 years.

The CPR scouts reported ‘millions of acres’ of arable land in our district, including the Rainy River valley and our own Wabigoon River valley, along with the great sand flats around Ignace and Upsala. In the 1870’s, when the CPR was being planned, North America was still in the settlement mode and land which could support settlers was important.  One of any railroad’s objectives was to foster development along its right of way as much as possible, to provide local rail traffic and make track maintenance easier.

No doubt these considerations, – stay closer to the great white pine forests; Lake of the Woods as a water transport route; take advantage of water power opportunities; and run through land which could be farmed, were a factor in the CPR being where it is.

So these are some of the resources being battled over. There was at least some knowledge of gold and other minerals in the north, and timber other than white pine.  Fish, fur and wildlife were all no doubt also factors fueling the war for our area.





The CPR through our district was built primarily in the 1870’s, with the last spike being driven at Feist Lake (between here and Kenora) in 1882. Considering that detailed planning did not start until the 1870’s, and considering the lack of any detailed mapping to work from, it is really quite remarkable that the scouts sent out to find a route were able to map a reasonable route, much less construction actually be carried out, in such a short time, less than 12 years.  As an aside, just the environmental studies for such a project could easily take that long today, if indeed they could be done at all, witness Keystone XL.

The railway was divided into divisions, ours being from Fort William to Winnipeg, and subdivisions, we are in the ‘Ignace Subdivision’. The division points would be Ignace and Kenora; these would be railway towns, with a concentration of maintenance employees and actual train crews. Ignace was a town long before there was a Dryden There was also a railway presence at the midpoint of each subdivision, ours being Eagle River, also a small crew of maintenance workers at each section, these being (in our area) Oxdrift, Barclay, Dinorwic (then known as Wabigoon, just to confuse things).  The remains of what was Barclay in the CPR scheme can be seen between the road and the tracks, where Islandvue Road runs parallel to the track for a bit.  This location would have been chosen mainly on a basis of dividing up the track mileage evenly.  A number of new stations were added over the years, including Dryden, and some of these section villages have since disappeared.

The little old wood-burning steamers used in the 1880’s did not carry a lot of water or wood, so facilities to pick up wood and water were needed at regular intervals. The small stream intended to supply water at Barclay proved entirely inadequate (those scouts couldn’t be expected to get everything exactly right), and within a few years a water pump was put in below the bridge over the Wabigoon river, pumping water up into a tank beside the track.  This tank was just east of the bridge on the north side of the track.  This location became known as ‘Barclay Tank’, and eventually morphed into the Dryden we know today.

The coming of the CPR made prospecting a whole lot easier, and by 1890 there were active mine-sites all across our area, a little gold rush, (which ended when the Klondike became famous, our guys all went west, sort of like now). Goldrock was for a time the largest town in the area, reaching 800 people at its peak in 1902.  Dryden library has a number of excellent books on Gold Rock history.  It was written up some decades ago in the book ‘Ghost Towns of Ontario’.  The book described it as the largest and best-preserved ghost town in the province, and the most deserving of being made into a park – Ontario’s response to that was to bulldoze it flat.





The final chapter in the McDonald versus Mowat saga was played out in the Saint Catherine’s Milling Company case. A contract was made back in the 1880’s between the St. Catherine’s Milling Company (let’s just call it ‘the company’) and the federal government, under which the company would harvest white pine logs in the area around Butler lake (across lake Wabigoon from the present village of Wabigoon).  These logs would be floated across the lake, to be loaded on the railway at Wabigoon.  At that time, there was no whistle stop there at all, and what is now known as Dinorwic was called Wabigoon (just one of those things that confuse our history).  That location was desirable as the CPR tracks were right beside the lake, with quite deep water adjacent to the track, so it made an excellent point for trans-shipment from water to rail.  I do not know if any logs were actually shipped, but no doubt this case and concept had something to do with the village of Wabigoon being created a decade later to serve the mines at Gold Rock.

Ontario was of course outraged at the feds making such a deal, as they considered that white pine to be theirs. Remember white pine was rare in the world, and hugely valuable, in fact it has been argued that the golden towers of Toronto were built on royalties on northern white pine.  Predictably, the matter was argued for years in the courts.

Even though the British Privy Council had ruled that this was indeed Ontario, based on treaties between England, France, and the US, and some bad mapping, the federal government pursued this case. Their main argument was: while the treaties between European nations had settled the boundary between the provinces, Treaty 3 with local people was signed in 1870, before that judgement, and it transferred the resources to the local people, and the federal government was the guardian of the local people.  As an aside, Treaty three was signed by the Ojibway, but they were relative newcomers, so they signed on behalf of all the ‘local people’, which incidentally raises the notion that we are all ‘treaty three’.

Eventually the courts also threw this argument out, the feds lost, and this was the final battle in the McDonald-Mowat war over our part of the world. The irony is that this line of reasoning has been and still is being trotted out in many discussions and court cases over aboriginal rights, all across Canada.  So this case, originally a dispute between a Province and Canada, has become an important part of the aboriginal narrative, again, a local issue helps shape Canada.

There is a very good article in the Feb/Mar 1987 issue of The Beaver, Canada’s History Magazine, for those who want more detail. Google ‘The St Catherine’s Milling case’ and you can find enough reading to keep you busy for weeks.





The boundary battle was finally settled by 1889, and we were part of Ontario, and MacDonald’s part in Dryden’s history is done. By then the resettlement idea (Oklahoma style) had been abandoned, and Ontario moved to make settlement possible with what would be lightning speed for any present government.

Hon. John Dryden, Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, was a very successful farmer near Uxbridge, which is very close to present Toronto. His father was a Scottish immigrant, so John is the third Scot in our tale. The official version is that he just happened to be travelling through on the CPR in 1893, and got off where the locomotive was taking on water, at a location known as ‘Barclay Tank’, just east of the Wabigoon River Bridge.

Like all of life, agriculture runs in fads and fashions, and at the end of the 19th century clover was a very fashionable crop.  The story is that John noticed clover growing beside the tracks, presumably from seed dispersed when settlers travelling west took advantage of the location to water their livestock and perhaps clean up the car a bit. In one of those coincidences which can unpredictably change the course of history, clovers grow wonderfully well in our boreal forest acidified clay soil, so that randomly dumped seed would have flourished for John to notice.  Additionally, our cool, dew-laden summer nights mean it sets seed well too (OK, that’s my theory, anyway), so that once established, growing clover seed became the advantage that allowed our homesteaders to succeed and even flourish in the early decades.

Getting back to John noticing clover flourishing beside the tracks at Barclay Tank, he decided to open a ‘demonstration farm’ at that location, and throw the whole district open for homesteading.  The demonstration farm was built in 1894, a demonstration crop was harvested in 1895, and the first settlers arrived in 1896.

Again, that is the official version, a good tale for marketing purposes, and accurate in the broad sense. However, that time frame is way too compressed, and a great deal of work must already have been done by 1893. We really need to do some serious research as to what happened in our area between 1867 and 1893. Note that this was a demonstration farm, to show people that agriculture can succeed here, not an experimental farm to determine whether or how it could succeed.

One might suppose that the first choice for the demonstration farm would have been at Eagle River, already a railway centre and village, or at the section stop at Barclay. We can only speculate as to why it ended up at Barclay Tank instead




So, how did the demonstration farm end up being at Barclay Tank?

No doubt the CPR scouts and government surveyors were aware that there was some very good farm country in Wainwright Township just to the north.   They certainly did know the country, for example, the CPR was originally planned to go north of present highway 17 at Oxdrift and for a distance to the west, indeed, the telegraph line had already been built on that location when the company changed its mind and relocated the route south to its present alignment.  I speculate that somebody in head office decided that looked much better on paper, however, the scouts would have been aware that there were deep, treacherous swamps along that revised route.  The rumour still goes around that there is a locomotive at the bottom of the sinkhole just west of Oxdrift.  The scouts knew what they were doing.

Those old wood-burning locomotives spit sparks as they went, and even before the line was finished in 1882 great fires had started along the railway, destroying the jackpine forest which dominated the area, and we know that much of the land north of Barclay Tank had been burnt off. Whenever I counted the rings on an old ‘first growth’ jackpine stump on my farm in Wainwright Township, it added up to about an 1882 start.  We can picture the scene looking north from Barclay tank being an old burn, pretty much treeless with some brush growing back, sloping gradually down to Swanson’s creek then gradually up again to the cemetery, and a spectacular panorama  That would be a very attractive farmsite, and perhaps Dryden made his decision based on this view.  However, the survey causes one to question this notion as well.

Surveys were done by placing what is called a meridian, a line running due north at intervals across Canada; and base lines, these being surveyed lines of constant latitude, that is horizontal on the map, every 24 miles. In this area, the countryside was split up into townships, generally six miles square, which were in turn divided into concessions, these being strips a mile wide north to south, and six miles or the width of the township, east to west.  The concessions were in turn divided into 12 lots, these being a half mile wide and a mile long, and comprising three hundred and twenty acres.

Van Horne Township was officially surveyed in 1896; that is the date on the plan of survey, and it fits exactly into that meridian and baseline grid, so that its location was not fudged. However, the demonstration farm was located precisely on lot 4, concession 6, Van Horne Township in 1894, two full years before that plan would be registered!  Clearly, a lot of survey work had already been done by 1894.  It would seem the decision as to where to locate the demonstration farm was made much sooner than the official version.  Perhaps the site had been selected from the scout’s knowledge, subject to the minister’s final approval.  Again, we do not have much information as to what happened here between 1867 and 1893, and we can only guess why Barclay Tank, not Barclay or Oxdrift or Eagle River.





By the end of 1895, the demonstration farm was in place, complete with a rather large farmhouse and a barn, and a first crop had been harvested. A. E. Annis was in residence as Farm Manager and Provincial Land Agent, and the province and the CPR had done some advertising.  The first real settlers arrived in 1896, and the hardships they encountered have already been documented elsewhere.

Remember that in April 1896, there were no roads and no bridges, other than the CPR bridge over the Wabigoon, and there was no town.   John Crerar in his memoirs recorded that there was a ‘bunkhouse’ about where the Swanson block is, and that was the only building other than the demonstration farm, but there is no record of who owned and ran the ‘bunkhouse’, or if it was abandoned, or who collected the rent.  The earliest settlers actually stayed at the farmhouse or rented sleeping space in the bunkhouse until the snow was gone. Barclay Tank had been a stop on the Steamboat run from Wabigoon (waterfront CPR access point) to MacLeod’s creek (west arm of Lake Wabigoon, water access point to the gold fields being explored then).  One supposes the bunkhouse was built to accommodate folks transferring from train to steamboat and back.  Exactly where the steamboat dock was is a subject of debate among local history buffs; I believe it was not far to the south on the east side of the river.

Development was administered by several branches of the provincial government over the next 5 decades until it came under the administration of the new Department of Lands and Forests, which later morphed into the Ministry of Natural Resources. Old-timers will recall that Lands and Forests worked out of a building at King and Casimir for many decades, until it burned down, I think in the 70’s.  Old-timers might also recall that the office was dominated by Maggie Launder, an elderly lady who was an amazing asset with a total grip on everything that happened.

Back in the 90’s, Dale Morton of MNR and I for the town were appointed by our respective employers to a committee working on a project which eventually resulted in creation of Laura Howe Marsh. Perhaps because of that acquaintanceship, one day a couple of gentlemen from MNR appeared in my office, carrying some very old and shabby books.  Housecleaning was going on at their Government building digs, and they had run across a pile of documents which had been salvaged after the above-noted fire.  These were heading for the dump as being of no more interest to the ministry, and they had high-graded out these few items as being of possible interest to the town.

I examined these before turning them over to the Museum, and discovered that one of them appeared to be the very log book that A. E. Annis, our first land agent, had used to record on which property he had located which settler. The Lands Titles Office only records properties once Title has actually been established, which can be years after the homestead is first claimed, so that this is irreplaceable history, serendipitously found, and I am sure the Museum still guards it as one of their most valuable artifacts.  It is a bound volume, preprinted with lines and headings not specifically intended for this purpose.  Most of the entries are in one person’s hand, I suppose that of A. E. Annis himself. (Everything was hand written in those days).  Some of the lots noted in 1896 were not in fact occupied until 1897, and there is at least one reference which indicates that lots cold be ‘reserved’ before the homesteader even came up here.  As in everything, the more answers you find, the more questions arise.





Alexander Skene, another Scottish immigrant, was a neighbour and friend of John Dryden in their Uxbridge, Ontario, home, and in summer of 1896, came here to inspect our farm possibilities on behalf of the province.  He must have liked what he saw; the old record book indicates he claimed 320 acres in Wainwright Township, and his son William another 240 acres nearby, on June 9, 1896. In addition, the records show 640 acres claimed on Sept 8, in Van Horne township, this being across the west arm of Wabigoon lake in the area now known as Parkers Point.

This is the only incidence of more than 320 acres recorded in one person’s name, however, there is also a reference to a deal with the province that he would bring a sawmill to Dryden and a logging concession would be granted to him, so that is explained. Nevertheless there is a tale that producing lumber was delayed because the provincial timber inspector from Kenora turned up and claimed the logs floated across from Parkers Point belonged to somebody else; governments were no more competent then than now.

Incidentally in more recent times a homestead was 160 acres. A recently discovered Department of Agriculture document says the maximum homestead was 240 acres in 1998.  Incidentally also, those original homesteaders were charged 50 cents an acre, $160 for 320 acres, to be paid before title would actually be granted.  That is more than you might think; $160 would have been half a year’s wages for a carpenter.  In later times the price was reduced to zero, presumably in an effort to make homesteading more attractive.  However, like most things governments do, both these moves – reducing the size, then making it free, while well-meaning were actually counterproductive.  They reduced the value of existing homesteads to the improvements only, land worth nothing, and that took away from any investment value in a homestead.  While the more successful of these first settlers came with some capital, this meant that future settlers would generally arrive more or less penniless.  In 1915 our local Agricultural Rep made an impassioned argument that we were in trouble not for our natural attributes, but for lack of capital.  The stigma remains, banks will not lend a penny to buy agricultural land here.

Back to Alexander. He and his large family arrived to stay in 1897, with his portable sawmill and shingle mill, and set up shop just north of what is now known as ‘Skene’s Landing’, west of the present Riverview Lodge.  Some of the area along the river behind the Lodge appears to be fill; probably sawdust and perhaps slabs from the sawmill.

The little island in the river just north of there was created in the 50’s when the paper company dredged a boat channel through a point sticking out into the river from the east side. Some of us remember the east shore of the river being wall to wall boathouses from Duke Street for quite a ways south, so there needed to be boat access.  The mill could then use the whole of the natural river for rafting logs, and the island would serve as an anchor for their boom.

In pioneer times, this was the last point of land sticking out into the river on the east side, before the rapids which started about where Duke St is now. Skene’s sawmill was located on the upstream side of that point, where logs floated down from the lake could be kept corralled.  He operated the mill for a period, and sometime before 1900 moved to the farm in Wainwright Township.





If we were to make a generality about success or failure of homesteading in our boreal forest clay, it would be that the ones who succeeded were those who came with some capital so they could get equipped, and some grown sons so they could dig out those jackpine stumps and get some land into production. Alexander Skene was one such individual, and his farm was very successful, even a showplace, by the time he retired. His farm extended from McDonald Road to Coates Road on the west side of highway 601, the Richan Road.

Alexander named his farm ‘Cairnbrogie’, after a farm in Scotland where he had worked, and presumably liked the name. He donated the land for the local school, which also became known as ‘Cairnbrogie’, and Russell Morton has written an excellent history of that school, called ‘Cairnbrogie School – Tales of a Northern Township’.

Now a farmer, Skene sold his sawmill and shingle mill to the Coates family, his neighbours in Wainwright, who operated it for some years at their farm location. They later sold it to the Prouty family, also neighbours in Wainwright.  I was a small boy when an antique-y-looking shingle mill – built on a heavy cast iron frame as was the custom in the 19th century– showed up on the F.T. Brignall farm, probably before 1950, I think the plan was to re-shingle their very large, very high barn roof.  That plan did not materialize; by then galvanized steel was the preferred barn roofing material, and anyway our local cedar is not very good for making shingles.  A couple of years later, on advice from Brignall’s, my dad acquired an equally antique portable sawmill, set up to run off an old car engine rather than the original steam engine, from somewhere in Wainwright Township.  He used it to produce lumber for our new house and barn, but after a time abandoned making lumber in favour of an expanded beef cattle business.   I do not know what happened to the antique shingle mill or saw mill, – perhaps these were the original Skene equipment, perhaps not.

There were of course many settlers, all with a story to tell, and many were of Scottish descent. Alexander’s nephew Robert Skene was among the first settlers in Eton Township and established one of the first ‘century farms’ (in the same family’s hands for 100 years) in our district.  John Crerar (another Scot) was among the first settlers, and his memoirs are an important source of local history.  I believe Annis, the first land agent, was also of Scottish descent.

So we could go on and on, but I have chosen to end this series on the influence of prominent Scots in our early political history with Alexander Skene. His was a family with Scottish roots, representing what was needed to succeed in building a home and a community in this bit of boreal forest, and he was in some way John Dryden’s right-hand man, so that seems appropriate.  So, McDonald, Mowat, Dryden, and Skene, Scots in our history.

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