Ye Olden Tyme - An Epic 1882 Journey by a Pioneer Storekeeper – Parts 3 and 4

3 February 2020

As noted a couple of weeks ago in the first editions of this journey, we are now posting the conclusion of the compelling story in Parts 3 and 4. These editions, originally published in the Algoma Advocate in March and April of 1924 detail the end of the adventure down to Toronto and the return trip loaded with much needed supplies to Thessalon Village in the spring of 1882. Ultimately the month long tale did not end upon J.B.’s arrival home as the next trip north by the steamer which brought him home from Owen Sound, resulted about two weeks later in the demise of the impressive Great Lakes ship the “Manitoulin”.

You will want to ensure that you read the post of Parts 1 and 2 first to get the proper context for the completion of the journey.


Ye Olden Tyme

Third Installment of Article by J.B. Dobie

Komta Cottage, Basswood Lake, April 3rd, 1924

The mail in winter at that time was carried by dog trains on the ice from Sault Ste. Marie to Parry Sound and distributed at points on the way, such as Garden River, St. Joseph’s Island, Bruce Mines, Thessalon, Blind River, Serpent River, and points on Manitoulin Island. Two carriers with dog train would leave the Sault on the same day that two others, similarly equipped would leave Parry Sound.

They would meet at Little Current and exchange mails, the post-master there sorting and exchanging for deliveries on the return trip. After a brief rest each party returned to their starting point, making the trip with wonderful speed. The dog team or train was usually made up of four to six dogs, sometimes eight, if travelling was very heavy and depending also on the weight of the mail. The men generally ran one ahead and the other behind the dog train.

We all had breakfast together, after which we continued down the shore till we reached a barge called the “Isaac May” which had been driven ashore in the fall while en-route to Byng Inlet. Two men were in charge and they treated us very kindly.

We had a meal on board and I was furnished with writing material, and I wrote a letter to my family, as we expected to meet the last winter mail of the season going up that night. I was also given a good bed in the cabin, and had a sleep which was more comfortable than sleeping on the dog sled.

At four o’clock the next morning the other mail carriers were seen travelling west about a mile further out on the ice, and as I was very anxious to send my letter I started out to intercept them, my guide and dogs going along and Mr. Decator also going with us. He was carrying a pole of light weight, about 12 feet long, which he carried all the way from Manitoulin Island just in case he would drop through the ice. He had taken quite good naturedly all the jokes about the pole, in which I had joined.

We had not proceeded very far on the ice towards the up-going mail train and I was still running beside the sled, Mr. Decator a little distance behind, when I dropped through the ice. Being near the sled, I grabbed one of the stakes as I sank and pulled sled and dogs into the water. The guide was further from the sled than I, on the opposite side, and immediately proceeded to save the dogs.

Mr. Decator lay flat on the ice and shoved the end of the pole towards me, and releasing my hold of the sled I grabbed the pole with both hands and was, with some difficulty dragged on to good ice. The guide succeeded in getting the dogs and sled out, and by the time we were all safe on firm ice the other carriers headed towards us, having noticed that we were in trouble.

A rousing fire was built on shore and with the internal heat from a dose of Decator’s A.A.A. and the heat from the fire, I was able to change my clothes on top of a bare bluff on a cold frosty April morning in God’s great outdoors, without any discomfort, which was followed by a feeling of exhilaration that made me forget all the previous troubles of the journey and proceed with caution towards Shawinagan.

One of the carriers kept always some distance ahead testing the ice with his axe and pointing out which way to go. When we reached the bay at Shawinagan we found the ice had melted along the shore, leaving a space 10 or 12 feet wide, so that we could not land.

We presently saw an Indian fishing through the ice and our guides said we could land where the Indian had come on the ice. As we approached the fisherman he was lying on the ice with his head over a hole in the ice, a spear handle in his right hand and a blanket over his head. With his other hand he manipulated a string with an artificial minnow attached, and when the trout darted after the minnow he speared it and brought it to the surface.

He had one trout, about 5 pounds, lying on the ice. Not seeing or noticing our approach, one of the guides gave him a kick with his moccasined foot. The blanket was hastily thrown aside and he turned toward us with a grin I will never forget. His hair was fully seven or eight inches long, uncombed and very thick and he had

the largest mouth and longest teeth I had ever seen on a human being. But he proved to be a good-natured gentle fellow. We were just out of food so he sold us the fish for 25 cents (the same kind were selling at 10 cents or 3 for 25 cents at home when I left, so we did not buy it too cheap) and he kindly piloted us safely to shore.

We found on landing that we could not buy any food, so we made a fire, cooked our fish with a few scraps we had left from our last meal and then hurried off to the Indian village, called “The Garden” which we were told was six miles away.

(To Be Continued)

J. B. Dobie

Final Installment of Article by J.B. Dobie

Komta Cottage, Basswood Lake, April 17, 1924

On reaching Parry Sound I found an old friend Alex Crichton, for whom I had worked in my boyhood in his store in Owen Sound. He was now keeping store in Parry Sound and with him I left my buffalo robes, to be shipped home by boat.

As the roads for stage travel were becoming very bad I hired a conveyance to take me several miles on my way that night in order that I could catch a stage leaving early for Bracebridge. We had a long, tiresome drive the next day and reached Bracebridge quite late in the evening and the following morning reached Gravenhurst and took the train to Barrie, and I spent a few hours with Nathaniel Dyment (the owner of the sawmill company at Thessalon) . He was much surprised to see me and I remember his first question was: “Did you come by Coldwater?” (referring to the settlement north of Barrie). And I, thinking I was being clever, replied: “Yes mostly frozen water.”

After a few pleasant hours with Mr. Dyment over business of mutual interest, I proceeded on the next train to Toronto arriving there at 8:15 PM on the evening of the 16th, having spent eight full days on the journey.

I was tired and my face and hands were as brown as an Indian, from exposure to the snow, wind and frost, but a shave, hair-cut, bath and a long night’s rest at the Walker House (a preeminent hotel then), made me feel like one who has renewed his youth, and my only regret was that I could not let my family know of my safe arrival.

Next day being Sunday, I went to hear Rev. Dr. Potts twice. (for some insight into why J.B. would twice visit the church to hear Dr. Potts you should note this excerpt we discovered from his biography – it appears that his fire and brimstone approach was rather compelling “Dr. Potts rarely takes a leading part in lectures or meetings of Conference, but prefers to thoroughly identify himself with his ministerial work. Gifted with no ordinary power of eloquence, possessing a tongue as it were the pen of a ready writer, with a complete mastery over the subject he handles, and a splendid voice in his delivery of it, Dr. Potts is unsurpassed in the pulpit, and rivets the attention of his hearers. Of a commanding presence, having the advantages of a superior intellect and an equally poised mind, and possessed with great physical strength, Dr. Potts is never weary in well-doing. Ever ready to assist by his counsel those who are trying to lead a Christian life, he fearlessly denounces in no measured language of condemnation and warning, those who are walking in the ways of wickedness and vice.”)

On Monday, the 18th, I began to hustle around the wholesale houses and spent a few days buying goods. I bought groceries from Smith & Keighley and Fitch, Eby and Thwaite; dry goods from Bryce, McMurrich & Co.; hardware and crockery from Wm. Thomson & Co.; boots and shoes from Cooper and Smith; clothing from Wm. Lailey & Co.; patent medicines from Northrop & Lyman; and jewelry and sundries from Robt. Wilkes.

When my purchases were completed in Toronto, I had an all-day trip to Owen Sound, where I visited my boyhood home while waiting for the sailing of the first boat. While there I made large purchases from my life-long friend James McLaughlan. When the steamer Manitoulin was ready to sail in charge of Capt. P.M. Campbell, with Charles Cameron and John Long of Collingwood on-board, I left Owen Sound, and after days of delay caused by ice and fog, we reached Thessalon on May 10, 1882.

As we approached the dock at Thessalon a man shouted: “Have you any flour on board?”, I said : “Yes, 50 barrels.” He said “There is not a pound of flour in Thessalon, and we have lived on tea and suckers for a week.”

When our firm’s portion of the cargo was unloaded, we immediately began to deliver a barrel of flour to every house in the village, for although they had not been subsisting on suckers and tea, every pound of every food had been sold from the store and the householders who had the most shared with those who had the least.

The letter which I had written to my wife and family on board the Isaac May somewhere near Byng Inlet, reached Thessalon on the same boat which I travelled home.

Some of the goods I bought were not sent on the second trip of the Manitoulin and were burned in the ill-fated ship in Manitouwaning Bay without any insurance (read the graphic and tragic story of the disaster on this link ), but as 8 or 9 precious lives were lost on this sad occasion, we mourned the loss of those unfortunate passengers and gave little thought to the goods which could soon be replaced. Such were some of the difficulties under which pioneer merchants conducted business in those early days in this North Country.

J.B. Dobie