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Amusements and Social Life of the Pioneers

As soon as the pioneer settler arrived in Canada he was introduced to the 'bee', a type of community cooperation that aided in the raising of his log house, logging the trees from his land, and harvesting his

crops. All of this was accomplished with as much zest and relish as only those who are alone too much can show when they gather.

As time passed conditions became less severe and women sat in sewing bees, pumpkin slicing, and apple paring and still later there were house warmings, singing school, and spelling bees, as well as

'sparkin' bees and other bees at which no work was done.

At first these bees were known for their hard drinking and brutality but there was a gradual improvement in bees and other gatherings. As bush farms were cleared the contact with religion and education relieved the hardship and isolation of first settlement. The bee was still a bee, but the amusement that accompanied it was less crude although every opportunity for kissin', courtin', and sparkin' continued to be found.

Sparkin' is a lost word now, but was a very important pastime. If a marrying-man paid a visit to a neighbour who had on eligible daughter, and as the evening wore on the lady wanted to carry the

friendship further, when the family retired they would leave the daughter in charge. The happy couple would sit talking by the fire or romancing all night. If the swain wanted to spend the night with his girl the father would clamp in a plank between them in the bed. The laws were very strict about gallants who did not wish to marry when such sparkin' brought on the imperative to do so! Heavy damages and long prison terms were the alternative to marriage.

Dancing was enjoyed by the majority, but there were still many who shunned it as an instrument of the devil. Methodists and Presbyterians particularly opposed it and some Catholic Priests prohibited their flock from dancing as well. Whether it took place in a barn or in the 'ballroom' of a tavern it was a night of the highest fun, with even the old members of the family finally feeling the urge to join in and test their old muscles.

The fiddle scraped and the caller-off droned his tones while all the dogs lay around and beads of condensation formed on the roof beams.

Every town had at least one expert in calling a tune, and everyone had their own version of the lyrics. Those old pieces had been brought from Scotland and Ireland and just hearing them again over a wee drop brought tears to many an eye: To these calls would be added the banging of pots, the playing of the fiddle, a Jews Harp, zither, a paper covered comb and fire poker and tongs. Noise was the thing and lots of movement! “Ladies in the centre, Gents take a walk", echoed until the early morning, and then everyone broke up to head back to tho heavy work of the bush farmer and backwoodsman.

In the more rural gatherings time was spent with horseplay and boxing between individuals, or sometimes even rival groups. A particularly nasty little practice was called 'gouging'. It was just what it seemed to be; when you got your opponent down you got a firm grip of his long hair close to the head and poked his eyes out. Fortunately contests became more sporting and less brutal, but while the old savage sporting lasted it sometimes involved a whole township in animosity. Football, cricket, lacrosse, baseball and other group games gradually developed along with tobogganing, snow-shoeing and skating if you were near a pond or river. Civilization overcame the age of violence.

Many settlers took a great delight in the fine hunting that was available. Two or three contests were held to rid the settlement of bears, squirrels, crows, and while these contests were going on the women provided hearty meals. When the score was tallied the losers paid for the banquet and the hoe-down in the largest tavern. Regattas and canoe races were not a modern innovation for they were highly enjoyed by the settlers here in Portage on Crescent Lake. Large open spaces in the slough begged for canoe races and by 1900 Portage had a boat regatta and scores of private boat houses lined the bridge.

It is a common story that the old settlers seldomly smiled. The truth is that those people lived in great isolation and worked under continuous deprivation and hardship. The weather seemed unremittingly cruel in it's efforts to undo their work. A crop failure did not mean government subsidy or an insurance pay out, but likely a winter of scant pickings, like boiling bark or shooting squirrels. Often a new settlers heart sank as he and his family first entered the dull and cheerless forest, and some, especially women, never recovered from the difficulties which beset them in this isolation. For this reason neighborliness was so important and so entwined were families near to each other that most of the marriages that did occur did so back and forth between those two families.

All classes, male and female smoked. Old woman pulled away on their clay or corn cob pipe. My Great Grandmother, Mrs. James O'Neil when she lived on Dufferin Avenue at the turn of the century relaxed with her pipe.

By 1880 drunkenness was common and an escape because whiskey was cheap and there were many outlets, little stills, stores, inns, hotels and 'low dram shops'. Excessive drinking was found not only at weddings but also at funerals.

Winter was the great seasons for visiting for it was only then that travel was easy. People thought nothing about making a one hundred mile journey to visit friends by sleigh, particularly if they had passed the period of clearing their land. As well, winter was a time for marketing produce and obtaining supplies. Among winter sports, curling had been introduced from Scotland and carrioling, as sleighing was called was a sure way to have a great time wrapped in fur robes with metal cans of hot coals at your feet. This was an age when all men had a fur coat, fur hat with ear flaps,fur gauntlets and a heavy pair of lined boots.

'Shivaree' was held when a second marriage occurred after the death of a partner. It wasn‘t long before this custom with it's loud bell ringing and shenanigans became known to all weddings and turned them into riotous affairs.

One of the greatest joys a tiny community had was it's local band. Everyone loved a parade and the local band would have been in demand far the Orange Day Parade, fireman’s activities and even just serenades from an improvised band-shell. Many were so fond of their band that when it broke up the members couldn't stand to remain in the area. Portage Council footed the bill for band instruments for the boys in the fire-hall so they could wile away the time between fires. Portage had some interesting stories about the fierce competition between city bands.

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