Down on the Farm
with Stephen Leacock
by Guylaine Spencer
Stephen Leacock (1869-1944), author
of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, was one of the
best-known Canadian writers of all time. Apart from his legacy
of more than twenty-five books of humour, we have his house
in Orillia and the annual literary prize, the Leacock Medal
Like many funny men,
however, Leacock was a complex figure. His autobiography,
The Boy I Left Behind Me, reveals struggles his family
faced after buying a farm near Lake Simcoe in 1876.
Father tries again
Like many other immigrants of the
19th century, Stephens father, Peter, came to Canada
to make a go as a farmer. His family had made
its money by importing Madeira wine, and for two generations
no one workedthey just lived off their dwindling assets.
To prevent further leakage, Grandfather Thomas adopted the
then-popular British tradition of buying cheap land in the
colonies, and sending younger sons out to make their fortunes.
Peter Leacock had already failed
twice at farming in Natal, South Africa, and Kansas, USA.
Canada was another chanceperhaps his lastso early
in 1876, he made his way reluctantly to a farm in Georgina
Once settled, Peter sent for his
wife, Agnes, and their six children. Stephen, six- years-old
at the time, recalled the thrilling steamship trip from Liverpool
to Montreal, and the ride by river steamer to Toronto. The
group then took the train to Newmarket, where Peter met them
with two wagons. The journey north through sand, log roads
and swamp proceeded at a pace of 4 or 5 miles an hour.
The old farm
The family home was set in rolling
farmland that, about 40 years earlier, had been wilderness,
but settlers and lumber companies had made their mark. The
summer the Leacocks arrived, a great forest fire destroyed
the last of the primeval trees.
The property was about four miles
south of Lake Simcoe, near the hamlet of Egypt. It came with
a cookhouse, farm buildings and a cedar log house covered
in clapboard. When Peter added a new section to the house,
he used frame lumber without logs, which made it so cold the
water in pitchers froze overnight regularly.
The fireplace was built with stone
from the field and no firebrick, so the mortar dried out.
It was constantly setting the house on fire.
For light, the Leacocks used candles.
Coal lamps were unknown in England at the time, so family
members were afraid to trust them.
The 100 acres consisted of wheat,
hay, pasture, a few sheep, cows, pigs and hens, and a vegetable
garden. The only saleable crop was wheat, but low prices and
low yields resulted in zero profits every year but one.
Society, circa 1870s
To those accustomed to English village
life, the isolation of the countryside was nearly unbearable.
Transportation was the biggest barrier. The horse-drawn carriage
moved slowly; even short trips were rare treats. There was
no communal inter-city transit until the train came to Sutton
Occasionally the Leacocks travelled
to Sutton, the nearest town, to celebrate the only summer
holiday of the time, May 24th, or to see regional cricket
matchescricket then being the game of rural
Ontario. The local school sometimes hosted speeches, fiddle
music, and the odd literary recital. There were Sunday trips
to the Lakeshore Church where the children swam and played
in Lake Simcoe after service.
Isolation was compounded by social
attitudes. According to Agnes, only one area family was of
the proper class to provide fit company for her children.
For companionship, the family had
to rely on each other or the hired helpthe hired man,
his wife, a girl, an old woman.... But the help never ate
with the family, and their status, according to Stephen, was
as low as it would have been in class-conscious England.
At first the children attended a
one-room schoolhouse where they learned reading, spelling,
writing, arithmetic, and geography. But the school was far
away, and in rough weather travel was impossible.
Stephens mother made a stab
at home-schooling. Teaching proved frustrating, however, and
Agnes was just about to give up when an impoverished college
student came along, looking for work as a private tutor. He
was promptly hired.
The farm fails
In his discussion of why the family
farm failed, Stephen explained that neither his father nor
the hired man knew anything about farming and that his father
was inconsistent, sometimes working hard on the farm, and
at other times lapsing into bouts of laziness and drinking.
But the writer also acknowledged the late 1870s were hard
times for most Ontario farmers.
By 1881, with debts mounting, Peter
answered the call to go west, young man. His younger
brother was getting rich, at least on paper. At this time,
the Northwest was being opened and people were making fortunes
in speculation. Agnes and the children stayed behind.
By 1886, after the collapse of the
land boom, Peter was back, broke as usual. His drinking grew
steadily worse and with it, his violent temper. Although Stephens
autobiography brushes over this episode, other family members
have described a harrowing night when Stephen drove his father
to the railway station in Sutton and threatened to kill him
if he ever returned. Peter never came back.
Agnes eventually abandoned the farm,
debts unpaid. The buildings are gone, and although the land
is under cultivation today, no one lives on the property.
After working for years to earn
tuition, Stephen attended university and established himself
as a professor and a writer. He returned to the region and
built a summer home in Orillia. Although he ran a hobby farm
of sorts, he wisely never tried to make it pay. Perhaps he
learned at least one lesson from his hapless father.
This is an original story,
first published in The Country Connection Magazine,
Issue 51, Spring 2006. Copyright Guylaine
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