This is a great story of a young boy growing up near Owen Sound, Ontario around the time just before the American Civil War, undertaking to be ambitious in starting to chart his way in life. Fortunately the deception he experienced in this “fish story” did not sway him from pursuing and living a life of honesty and integrity as a pioneer store-keeper for nearly 60 years in Bruce Mines and Thessalon.
J.B. Dobie’s claim that “he would rather lose by overconfidence in his fellow man, than lose confidence in his fellow man” was a credo he lived by and you can surmise from this edition of Ye Olden Tyme that he was a generous contributor to the growth of this pioneer community in the early days.
YE OLDEN TYME
By J.B. Dobie
To Editor of Algoma Advocate,
Komta Cottage, Basswood Lake, December 1925.
More than sixty years ago when I was a small boy, living on a farm nine miles from Owen Sound in the early 1860’s, many times I had to cross a stream which ran through my father’s farm. My two brothers (older than I) often went in bathing with me there, and one Sunday afternoon, while we were on the bank of the stream, my brother Alex noticed some fish which seemed quite large. Catching a grasshopper and throwing it onto the surface of the stream, a beautiful speckled trout jumped out of the water while capturing the hopper.
We then got some thread and a bent pin which we arranged on a pole, and baited the pin with a grasshopper and very quickly caught a trout which soon got away, but before his release was brought near enough for us to get a good look at him and he was a big fellow. We discreetly waited a few days before mentioning it to father, as we did not want him to know we had been fishing on Sunday. He was very strong on Sabbath observance.
When we told him about the fish he was very much interested, and although a penny was a lot of money in those days, he gave us enough to buy some hooks and a cheap line and we begged enough ‘tea lead’ from the store-keeper to make sinkers , and then the fun began.
There was possibly never a better trout stream in Canada and we had been bathing in it for years before we knew of the value it contained. We were soon catching more fish than we could eat and my mother suggested that the village store-keeper might buy some, so I asked him and he was delighted and he offered me 12 ½ c per pound. We called it a York Shilling in those days, and to a boy of ten it was a heap of money!
I used to get up early and catch fish, taking the biggest ones in a basket on the way to school, would sell them to the store-keeper and not only buy groceries for my mother but also clothing for myself. We could not buy read- to-wear clothing in those days, but we could buy cloth and take it to the tailor’s. In my case my mother was the tailor, and how she ever found time to make my clothes with all the other work she had to do on the farm, is still one of the unsolved mysteries.
Very often on my fishing excursions I would catch some real big ones. At one special place we called “Two Rivers” we used to catch them sixteen and seventeen inches long – big red fellows with undershot jaws, that put up a big fight before being captured. As my idea of weights and measures was not well developed at that time and as we had no scale, I just took for granted that the storekeeper was right when he would weigh one of those big fellows and say “Good boy Jim, it weighs a pound and a half.”
One evening when I took home the mail on my way home from school and the Owen Sound paper was being perused, there was an account of a trout being caught in the Pottawatamie River, at Owen Sound that weighed four pounds. In fact due to its size, it was on exhibition in Parker’s Drug Store window. As the next day was Saturday, I got my mother’s permission to go to Owen Sound to see that fish. It was only nine miles and the walking was good, and I set out early and, being barefooted, I ran along that nine miles with visions of a speckled trout nearly three times as big as I had ever caught.
When I reached the Drugstore, I got a shock. The trout was there alright, and it weighed four pounds alright, but I had sold that store-keeper several trout just as big and quite a number nearly as big, and according to him none of them weighed more than one and a half pounds.
I just leaned up against the store window, and although I was hot and tired and hungry, and I had stone bruises on my feet , and nicks between my toes where the beaver meadow grass cut them as I fished along the river bank, my only thought was the smiling way in which he said “it weighs a pound and a half”, as he cheated me out of two bits. What I had supposed was a smile must have been a grin and I was too young and green to notice it.
Poor fellow, I was told that he became quite wealthy and one day while boasting of wealth he said, “I defy God Himself to make me a poor man.” He had the idea that too many have, that riches consists of money and at the very time he was making such a vain boast, he did not recognize that he was wretched and miserable. The man who has a family and loved ones to love him and be loved, even without a dollar, is richer than a man like that even if he had the wealth of Henry Ford.
This first lesson of mine in high finance has come to my mind thousands of times and led me to do a lot of thinking. I do not suppose for a moment that the merchant referred to above did all of his business along the same lines, in fact, I am sure he did not. He carried on a large business for many years and seemed to have the confidence of the people sufficiently to enable him to amass a competence, and I have no doubt he assisted many a struggling settler and helped him by carrying him through that trying times that every settler meets on a bush farm. In that way he had assisted in the progress and advancement of that particular locality and in laying the foundations of prosperity it enjoys today.
I remember a settler who came to Algoma nearly fifty years ago and settled on a bush farm, a good farm too. His money was soon all spent building a little cabin, etc., for his family and he required credit to help him along. He told me one day that he was raised on a farm and became possessor of it at his father’s death. After a few years of successful farming, he sold out and bought a store and became a merchant. Within three years he had given so much credit all of his capital was in the hands of his customers. He was out of goods , had no money to buy more, was sued by a creditor and forced into bankruptcy. With a few dollars that he collected from his debtors he came to Algoma to start afresh on a farm.
He told me that when he was a farmer he thought all store-keepers were scoundrels, then when he became a store-keeper he soon began to think that all farmers were scoundrels and when he had failed as a merchant all the people to whom he had given credit called him a scoundrel, so I suppose he began to think that he was the only honest man in the world.
The trouble was, his viewpoint was wrong. I have done business in Algoma for 56 years and during that time I have said thousands of times, “I would rather lose by overconfidence in my fellow man than lose confidence in my fellow man.” I sold during those years, more than $60,000 worth of goods for which I never received a dollar and never will, but that does not mean that all who owed me were dishonest. It is true that some men disappeared between two days, and some were deliberate in false pretenses, and some told hard luck stories ‘till their accounts were outlawed, but the bulk of them were honest. They were simply unable to carry out their promise, although their intentions were good. Some of the men who by whom I lost the most were as honest men as ever lived, but used bad judgment and were unable to keep the promises they made in good faith.
As I look back over 56 years of buying a selling in Algoma and my mind travels over the large area in which I did business, I recall with the kindest of thoughts the many who have passed on, and the greater number who are still active citizens in every walk of life. Thinking of these people, I have no hesitancy in saying that our great community in this part of Algoma, be they farmers, merchants, artisans, laborers, or professional men, will measure up in integrity and honesty of purpose, will stand with any community on the continent of America.