Ye Olden Tyme - An Epic 1882 Journey by a Pioneer Storekeeper – Parts 1 and 2

14 January 2020

In this edition of Ye Olden Tyme, J.B. Dobie details his often difficult and perilous journey from Thessalon (then just a small village where he had recently opened the General Store) around the north and east shores of Lake Huron and downto Toronto before the days of railway or roads in Northern Ontario.

In a modern day movie humour was made of a difficult journey home by “planes, trains and automobiles”, but by reading this story you will understand that back in 1882 it was often no laughing matter travelling by cutter sleigh and pony, dog team and sled, stagecoach, and finally by train; and then making the return trip first by train, and then embarking on the first steamship of the season from Owen Sound located on the south shores of Georgian Bay. The entire expedition lasted from April 9 to May 10, a full 31 days with many trials and tribulations.

Many of the names of the North Ontario outposts J.B. travelled to back 140 years ago still subsist as towns, villages or settlements today including Blind River, Serpent River, Little Current, Killarney, and Parry Sound. Guides were available for hire at most settlements and were an essential part of carrying on both normal travel and commerce at that time.

The mail dog-trains were also critical to the settlement of Lake Huron’s north shore and from J.B.’s account it must have been a very risky challenging occupation to run alongside the dogs for many miles in freezing open air and dangerous ice conditions to get the mail safely to its destination.

It is also very interesting to note how helpful settlers were when met by travelers at either the outposts or along the journey – it appears that people back in the day did not hesitate to share or assist others in need of f ood or accommodation.

Another interesting related note about the patent medicine wholesaler Northrop and Lyman who transacted with J.B. Dobie in Toronto on this 1882 trip, is that a very old broken crate that we found near the mill relics at Harris Creek in Day Township, was labeled as being from Lyman Bros., Toronto – although partly rotted, Basswood Lake Outfitters salvaged the end pieces and up-cycled them as wall hangings to sell in the BLO store.

All in all another fascinating tale of early pioneer life and one which will be continued soon on our Blog with Parts 3 and 4 of the story recalled by Mr. Dobie at his Komta Cottage home on Basswood Lake in 1924, forty two years after he had set out on the journey.


Cutter and horse

Ye Olden Tyme

First Installment of Article by J.B. Dobie

Komta Cottage, March 18, 1924

The spring of 1882 was late. I had moved to Thessalon in 1880 and started business there as general merchant. Nathaniel Dyment of Barrie, had a sawmill operating there and settlers were rapidly arriving from different parts of Ontario and laying the boundaries of homes in the fertile valleys along the north shore of Lake Huron, from Sault Ste. Marie to Blind River, and especially in the vicinity of Bruce Mines and Thessalon.

We were then entirely dependent on lake navigation for our supplies, being without any railway communication in winter, and had to lay six month’s stock in the fall, and as goods were running low I was very anxious to get my stock landed in Thessalon on the first boat of the season.

I decided to take a great venture and travel on the ice to Parry Sound and thence across country to Gravenhurst, and by train from there to Toronto. Having in my possession a good Indian pony, I secured the services of a guide then living in Thessalon, a good all-round man who could sail a boat, drive a dog team or horse, cook a good meal or do a hundred other things, who was called Capt. Jas. Murphy.

On the morning of April 9th, with my pony and cutter, gripsack, two buffalo robes and some provisions, a tea can and frying pan. Capt. Jim and I started on our journey at 3:30 AM. The ice was like glass, the air crisp and frosty, and the wind in our favor, and we reached Blind River, 30 miles, before we stopped for breakfast. There we lighted a fire and cooked bacon (long clear) and made coffee, gave our pony oats and water, and after a good meal and a very brief rest for the pony, we hurried along.

By noon-time the heat of the sun had softened the surface of the ice so much it made travelling more difficult for the horse. We were then near an island some distance from Serpent River village, now called Spragge, where we warmed tea and ate a hasty lunch and gave our pony some oats, and after leaving there discovered the ice conditions so bad on the inside channel we decided to go around John Island.

Without thought of supper we pushed along and only at 11:30 that night reached the settlement at Aird Island, known as Spanish River Mills, and secured very good accommodation for the night.

The next morning we found we could not safely follow the lake, owing to the danger from air holes and sunken rocks which cause weak places in the ice. So we decided to follow up the river to what was then called The Bend, where the thriving little town of Massey now stands. This we accomplished on the ice and leaving the river we turned south and followed a trail through the LaCloche Mountains, which led to a Hudson Bay Post, called LaCloche Fur Trading Post situated a few miles above Little Current on the north shore of the channel.

On our way to LaCloche we had to cross a small lake which my guide tested with his axe and found the ice quite safe. The banks around the lake were high and it was a drop of 10 to 12 feet down the very steep bank to the ice, which my pony slid down very successfully, the guide standing at the bottom of the bank ready to catch the bridle and keep the pony from falling. Getting up the bank on the other side was not so easy, but with much hard pushing on our part our pony reached the top and we felt that perhaps our greatest danger was past.

Reaching LaCloche after several upsets and other trifling difficulties, we were graciously received by two gentlemen in charge of the trading post and, while no ladies were visible, a well-cooked meal was set before us and was thankfully disposed. We were certainly treated with great kindness by those two men whose names I cannot recall. I was since told they were both drowned while driving in their cutter after nightfall to Algoma Mills on the ice.

(To Be Continued....)

J.B. Dobie


Second Installment of Article by J.B. Dobie

Komta Cottage, March 27th, 1924

After we left LaCloche we picked our way with great care and with considerable difficulty reached the south shore and followed it down to the village of Little Current, where we spent the night with that famous guide named Humphrey May, who was as much at home on the ice as a farmer on his plot of land. Humphrey Philip Alexander MAY

It was decided that night that my guide Capt. Jim and my pony would start on the return home next day to avoid being held up at Killarney until the first boat arrived. The sun was weakening the ice by day much faster than the frost strengthened it by night, so we retired with new plans, and early on the next day Capt. Jim left for Thessalon and Humphrey May took me to Killarney.

Before reaching Killarney our horse broke through the ice, and I had my first experience, standing as near to the water as possible and holding the bridle to keep the horse’s head upright, while my guide performed the more perilous task of extricating the horse. Fortunately they were both veterans in such experiences, and we soon had the horse and cutter on firm ice again and were on our way to Killarney, which we reached without any further mishap.

There I was accommodated at the home of a man named Lamorandiere, who obtained for me the services of a guide named Octave Lahaye, who owned two fine sleigh dogs named “Blackie” and “Bob” he called them and a good long, light sled, with broad runners suitable for ice travel. I had brought my two buffalo robes along owing to the advice of Capt. Jim Murphy, and a s Mr. Lamorandiere and Mr. Lahaye were both able to outfit me with a fresh supply of provisions for the journey, I arranged with Mr. Lahaye to start at 1:30 AM the following morning; he had to land me at Parry Sound as soon as possible for a fee of $35. Looking back at it now I think it would take that many thousands to tempt me to take that trip, but youth and good health delight in such an adventure and I had not a fear as I sat on the sled with my robes around me, and we launched forth on our journey along the ice, on the north shore of the Georgian Bay, at 1:30 that dark crisp morning.

The dogs ran along at a good, fast rate and the guide running beside them or ahead of them, and sometimes jumping on the sled to ride, kept talking to them to guide them, and it seemed we were fairly flying along the smooth ice. The motion finally made me sleepy, and with my valise for my pillow I slept soundly until awakened by a feeling that I was standing on my head. On looking around I found that my guide had left the ice and had ascended a bluff to light a fire with the limbs of a dead pine which had fallen on the bare surface of the bluff. The dogs had followed him until they reached the bare surface on the incline of the bluff, from which the snow had melted, and there stopped with the front of the sled and my feet pointing skyward.

In attempting to get off the sled I rolled down into the snow and the chilled feeling in my body and limbs is beyond my power to describe, and is only produced by sleeping in the open air on a frosty night with just nearly, but not quite, enough covering. Hot coffee, bacon and bread soon dispelled the chill and all the world looked bright by the time breakfast was over.

I was surprised when the guide told me we had travelled more than 10 miles an hour during the night. I took his word for it and I had to for a lot of other things as well, but he was a good guide.

The dogs were beginning to get sore feet. The suns’ rays penetrated the ice and made little openings in the surface and when frozen at night there are sharp points sticking up which cut the dogs’ feet. The guide made shoes for them having brought buckskin, needles and thread with him for the purpose, and greasing their feet with fat, taken from our frying pan, fixed on their shoes. Both guide and dogs had a rest and sleep under the warm rays of the April sun.

After the rest we moved on down the ice which had softened and made travelling more slow and difficult. We then made supper, and as soon as the frost had tightened up and dried the surface of the ice we proceeded on our way, our speed increasing as the ice became hardy and more glass-like.

After travelling all night, daylight revealed to us companions in travel, three men and a dog train of four dogs and a sled coming towards us and travelling in the same direction.

They turned out to be two mail carriers going from Little Current to Parry Sound and a man named Decator, who had been up on the Manitoulin Island, introducing a new pain remedy called “Arnott’s Arnica Anodyne”, and had done a thriving trade, especially among the Indians, who were very numerous on the Island at that time, and are very fond of anything which causes internal heat. We immediately called him “3 A’s” and that was his name until the end of the journey.

(To Be Continued....)

J.B. Dobie