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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 for Humour.

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, Stephen’s 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 worked—they 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 chance—perhaps his last—so early in 1876, he made his way reluctantly to a farm in Georgina Township.

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 in 1879.

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 matches—cricket 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 help—the 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.

Stephen’s 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 Stephen’s 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 Spencer.



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