Remembrances of 19th & 20th Century Winters

By John C. Carter


In the Winter  2019 edition of the Wayback Times, I introduced some remembrances of winter in 19th century Ontario to readers. Such recollections have been written by many individuals and authors for various reasons. This article will showcase a number more of these from 19th and 20th century Ontario.  These reflections, covering one hundred years of our history (beginning in 1827 and ending in the 1920’s), are included in separate sections which coincide with the purpose that original authors and chroniclers wrote them for.  

For Fun and Amusement:

Sir James Alexander wrote in his 1849 work L’Acadie, of what he and other military personnel stationed at Fort Henry did for fun and amusements when not carrying out military tasks. He wrote that; “To make a break in the winter, we had one or two pic-nics and country parties; one of the former was to Fisk’s Inn, on Collin’s Bay, six miles from Kingston. We sleighed there, partook of a well-ordered repast then, we danced to music of two or three violins, and sleighed home.”

Augusta Coulter mixed pleasurable winter activities with her studies at the Ottawa Normal School. The excitement of the toboggan run was recorded in her March 3, 1888 diary entry; “This afternoon about half past two we set out for the Oshkosh toboggan slide…There was presented an animated scene. There are two slides side by side but when we got there only one was ready. We were very much afraid to go down but were at last persuaded. Miss both went first of our crow and I next. Miss Halliday soon followed. But the sensations one has on going down!!!  Oh! Language fails to convey the idea of them in the slightest degree!! First there is the feeling of ‘you can’t help yourself’ as you are pushed off. Then as you shoot down the steepest part you feel as if your last moment had come and you hold your breath…The slide is said to be a quarter of a mile long and it takes 21 seconds to go down it.”

French author and lecturer Max O’Rell, made a visit to Toronto on February 9, 1890. His informative, yet slightly rakish comments follow; “English-looking too are the rosy faces of the Toronto ladies whom I passed in my drive. How charming they are with the peach-like bloom that their out-door exercise gives them!  I should like to be able to describe, as it deserves, the sight of these pretty Canadian women in their sleighs, as the horses fly along with the bells merrily jingling, the coachman in his curly black dogskin and huge busby on his head. Furs float over the back of the sleigh, and in it, muffled up to the chin in sumptuous skins and also capped in furs, sits the radiant, lovely Canadienne, the milk and roses of her complexion enhanced by the proximity of the dark furs. As they skim past over the white snow, under a glorious sun-lit blue sky, I can call to mind no prettier sight.” 

Curling proved to be a winter pastime that many sports-minded Ontario citizens participated in. An account published in the March 11, 1902 Brockville Evening Recorder, reported on this popular sport; “If you see a man walking around sadly and slowly, as if he had been in a railroad wreck, he is invariably a curler getting over his first night’s playing. The curlers are making things lively at the Old Granite Rink. All day long and far into the night cries of ‘scoop’er up,’ ‘Out turn,’ ‘In turn’ etc, may be heard ringing in the clear frosty air in the vicinity of James and Garden Streets.”

An 1885 photo mechanic lithograph of Miss Canada, presented with the Christmas edition of the Globe.(author’s collection) 

Outdoor sports enthusiasts were not to be denied winter fun. School teacher Ruby Baker McQuestern wrote from Ottawa to her brother Calvin in Toronto. Her February 9, 1903 letter, spoke of two seasonal sports that she enjoyed; “About the snowshoes, I’d like ever so much to go and I was wondering if I could think of anyone to go out with us. The people I used to go out with are away. None of the teachers have snow shoes except Mrs. Ross and hers are almost no good…the boys have snow shoes if Jean would get a pair. I’ll see if you can bring your snow shoes without too much trouble to do it-it is good of you to think of it-I’d love a tramp. And go to the hockey match too.”

Outside of major urban areas, various forms of winter recreation were also practised. In Aylmer, Ontario, Eugene Hill noted some of these activities in his 1910 diary;  “January 1 – It is warmer today and good sleighing but not very much snow first time and there are a lot of young people skating this afternoon. January 3 – It snowed some last night and it is colder to day and good sleighing.”

Dog pulling two children in sleigh on Princes St  (Kincardine)Photo credit:  Bruce County Online Collectioms A992.022.1187

For Learning:

James Bryce Brown wrote in his 1844 publication Views of Canada and the Colonist, that in London, U.C.; “During the winter evenings, the inhabitants are enlivened by lectures upon scientific and general topics, delivered by ordinary and honorary members resident in the town and neighbourhood.” 

Walter Eales, a Toronto resident who believed that Mechanic’s Institutes could “enlighten and civilize members of the working class,” recommended reading as being an appropriate and useful winter activity. In his 1851 publication entitled A Lecture on the Benefits to be Derived From Mechanic’s Institutes, he wrote that a working man should; “…take a History (or some moral work) from the library home to his family, and read, those long winter evenings by the cheerful fire, where his wife and offspring can listen to the truths which are the foundation of morality, virtue and knowledge.”

Similarly, American author Robert B. Thomas suggested the following in the January 1860 “Farmer’s Calendar,” found in The Old Farmer’s Almanac; “The earth indeed may be frozen, but, by reading and reflection, the gems of mental progress may be planted at the season that will yield abundant harvests. Well-conducted newspapers and useful books will aid all to acquire knowledge that will be constantly beneficial.”   

In the November 15, 1905 issue of School & Home, educator John Dearborn noted that it was the time of the year for students to observe signs of winter. He posed the following questions for students to answer; 

“Dwelling- Houses. How are our dwelling-houses prepared for winter? What is done with the stoves and furnaces at this time of the year? What preparations for winter do some families make in regard to fuel? What are ‘storm-windows’ ? When are they put on? How do they keep the house warmer?”

Work and Play. What differences do you observe in the work of farmers in winter compared with their work in summer? Does winter make any difference in the kind of work done indoors? As winter comes on how do children suit their games to the season? Do grown-up people spend their holidays in the same way in the winter that they do in summer?”

Dearborn also asked questions about clothing, food, domestic animals, birds, wild animals and insects and worms. To his young readers, he suggested that they use their eyes and to think rightly about what they observed, and to find out the answers to the questions posed by themselves, through inquiry learning.

Teacher William Lycette wrote of his experiences in the 1920’s in Fort Frances; “Winters were long and severe. I remember one morning the thermometer registered at 57 degrees below zero. I had a little more than a mile to go to school and even though I was dressed in wool underwear, heavy mackinaw breeches, Scotch wool socks and mittens, wool shirt, wind breaker, wool toque and scarf and felt boots with overshoes…I turned and faced the sun a couple of times to rub the front of my legs and thighs that were becoming numb. In the bush it wasn’t so bad but the wind in the clearing increased the chill factor.” 

For New Arrivals:

The early Lake Erie pioneer and land agent, Thomas Talbot, provided practical advice to prospective emigrants in Evidence on the Subject of Emigration (London, 1833). From his personal observations, Talbot said of winter; “The climate of Upper Canada is considerably milder than that of the lower province, and the winter shorter in the same proportion. In both these respects, it improves as you proceed to the west-ward; so much so, that although the frost generally sets in in November…it rarely commences on the shores of Lake Erie before Christmas, when it usually disappears between the 25th of March and 1st of April…From York on Lake Ontario upwards, neither black cattle nor sheep require housing during the winter; and the new settler, with the addition of a small quantity of straw, can keep his stock on the tender branches of trees felled by him in clearing his land, until the return of spring.”    

Talbot may have had ulterior motives of selling land to new settlers, but the advice he provided would be useful to newcomers settling along the north shore of Lake Erie in the Talbot Settlement.

Joseph Neilsen, in his 1837 book entitled Observations Upon Emigration to Upper Canada added that; “This season of the year affords great facilities to the inhabitants of the country. The sleighing enables the farmer to transport his produce to market, and perform journeys to a distance with greater ease and facility, than could be otherwise done. The two to three months sleighing which we generally expect during each year, is hoped by all, and is dreaded by more, and seldom continues longer than is necessary for the business of the country. It is, moreover, a season in which pleasure and business combine-a season of universal hilarity and health.”   

In an 1855 guide book entitled Information for Intending Emigrants of All Classes to Upper Canada, author Frederick Widder suggested that; “The winter is a season of idleness and enjoyment, a great portion of it being spent in amusement and visiting, to the manifest neglect of their farms and impoverishment of themselves and families.” Did these thoughts prompt emigrants to make the move to Upper Canada, or were they a deterrent to do so? 

Coloured chrome lithograph of girl packing snowball, H.Hallett & Co, 1879. (author’s collection) 

An 1883 government publication which was written to encourage European immigrants to come to Ontario, described winter in the following curious manner. In a somewhat ingenious tone, it said; “Everywhere, however, the season is bright, bracing, and pleasant. Sometimes the sky is cloudless for days and weeks together. The occasional extremely cold periods rarely last more than three days, and are almost invariably dry, bright and calm. The cold is not felt to nearly the extent that people in a more moister climate would imagine, and a walk of half a mile bare-handed, even with the mercury below zero, causes no unpleasant feeling of cold. In fact, the temperature seems no colder than twenty degrees above zero generally does in Britain.” One wonders how many immigrants were actually induced to move to Ontario after reading this pronouncement!

In 1892, William Tavner, the Crown Land Agent located in Sault Ste. Marie, wrote similar thoughts; “In winter the cold is not severe, nor is the weather in the winter changeable as in the Old country. The days in winter are clear, cold yet sunny, bright days. With the exception of perhaps three or four days at the most, all winter it is a pleasure to be outside-working, walking, or driving.”

In Opportunities in Ontario, 1910 (Toronto: Heaton Agency, 1910), a publication written for and sanctioned by the provincial government, a selection about agricultural lands and the advantages for settlers in Northern Ontario was included. It concluded that; “In winter, money can be earned in the lumber, mining, or construction camps. A settler can sell logs off his own land which will pay well for the labour of clearing his farm.”

Coloured chrome lithograph “Winter Pets,” H. Hallett & Co., 1879(author’s collection

 For Work:

North York surveyor David Gibson described his winter work. In a May 27, 1827 letter to his friend David Young, he wrote; “But there is considerable time spent in travelling from one place to another when Surveying for the Government…I continued Surveying until the middle of January when the snow was two feet deep and commenced again in the middle of March the Spring and fall is the best time for Surveying. In winter the snow retards us.”

Trooper Samuel Williams of the St. Thomas Cavalry described interactions between loyalist soldiers and Patriot Army forces, at the Battle of Pelee Island. As a participant on March3, 1838, he recorded that; “As we proceeded we saw the sleighs retreat, and the soldiers were strung out in a line across the ice, like fence posts. The enemy were approaching them at a quick march…They approached Captain Brown’s force in solid column, and then spread out in a line about the same length as that of the British infantry… The infantry charged with fixed bayonets at that moment in the face of heavy fire from the enemy. When the infantry were within about six rods of the enemy, the latter retreated in disorder, running like wild turkeys every way.” 

 A circa 1900 Christmas card of children participating in a snowball fight. (author’s collection)

In the December 1845 edition of the British American Cultivator, some of the work farmers would carry out preparing for and during winter was identified; “A twelve months’ stock of firewood should not only be prepared before the close of the month, but a quantity of logs should be made ready for drawing to the neighbouring saw mill. Every farmer who cultivates his own land should attend to this particular if possible, and make every necessary preparation to erect a few hundred rods of post and board fence each year.” In addition it was stated in the article, that; “The winter is now fairly commenced, and the frugal farmer will lose no time in having his outhouses snugly repaired to protect his stock from the extreme cold. If animals are provided with comfortable quarters, they will require much less food to carry them through the winter.” Certainly this was sound advice for all engaged in agricultural pursuits and provided good ideas for the novice farmer!

Businessman and farmer William Clark Jr. ran a prosperous enterprise in Scarborough Township. Between 1855 and 1888, he recorded the consistent arduous work which was required to be successful. His weekly entry for January, 1870 is a typical example; “Jan. 9 –Sabbath Mr. Fletcher snow, Jan. 10 – Hauling logs for firewood took a cord of wood to Church from Hugh’s, Jan. 11 – Preparing to make up pond at Leys helping kill pigs. Hauling logs for firewood. At S. Rennie’s auditing school accounts looks like a storm Raining, Jan, 12 – Threshing peas At school meeting, Jan. 13 – Threshing peas cleaned up 46 Bushels snow storm hard frost, Jan. 14 – Hauled a load of brush quit for cold turning carrots fixing cattle, Jan. 15 – Threshing peas spreading straw rain.”    Mr. Clark was obviously a very busy man.

Enoch Gibbons and two other men on the jigger at Turners(clearing the railways)Photo Credit: Bruce County Online Collections A2017.064.002

A common winter vocation was ice cutting. Blocks of ice would be cut from local rivers and ponds to be used to refrigerate perishables. In his diary, Aylmer, Ontario mill owner Eugene B. Hill mentioned this task on several occasions; “Jan. 10, 1918 – Commenced cutting ice to day it is about 16 inches thick, Jan.11 – Still cutting ice which is the finest I ever cut, Feb. 3, 1924 – This has been an exceedingly warm winter up to the present time the ice pond is only six inches thick. The Carter boys are cutting for the farmers around here.”

For Travel:

In the Algoma Quarterly of December 1, 1874, aspects of winter in Bracebridge, Gravenhurst and Draper were discussed; “In these backwoods’ settlements the coming of winter is hailed with pleasure; then there is an end to the ploughing one’s buggy wheels through the deep mud, or sticking in holes, or bumping over a corduroy road; all is smooth and white, and the sleigh bells jingle.” In addition, it was pointed out that buffalo robes kept out the cold, farmers took their grain to the grist mill, lumber merchants hauled heavy timber to the saw mills, and friends visit friends.

The Right Reverend F.D. Fauquier, Bishop of Algoma, described trials and tribulations of winter travel to administer to his flock in 1877. In making a visit to Bruce Mines, St. Joseph Island and Stobie’s Iron Mine, Fauquier noted that; “These missionary journeys are often long and intensely cold in winter, and are fraught with more or less danger, yet the hearty appreciation of the Church services, and the large congregations, and the warm genuine welcome accorded the missionary greatly out weigh all personal inconvenience.” He added the following about a March 9 journey to Bruce Mines and St. Joseph Island, noting the conditions experienced during this trip; “I encountered a most severe snow-storm, with almost blinding drift, which caused me very nearly to lose my way on the ice, which owing to the previous mild weather was none the strongest, (for I got two of the horse’s feet through) and so blocked the roads that it was night before I reached Stobie’s mine…Next morning I pushed on to Portlock Harbour, and from thence across the ice to Bruce Mines,” These details of Fauquier’s perilous adventure, were recorded in the Algoma Missionary News & Shingwauk Journal (July 1, 1877).

Newly arrived emigrant Ada Florence Kinton, described with delight a winter journey between Gravenhurst and Huntsville in February of 1883. She said; “”I had my first sleigh-drive. I suppose I shall never forget it. The horses frisked and skipped along like kittens, and their long tails and manes, waved about so prettily. And, oh! The ‘tintinnabulation of the bells,’ and the snow and the forest and the quiet midnight.”

In a letter to the editor published in the February 11, 1904 edition of the Leisure Hour, settler Samuel Seaton also wrote about winter travel in Muskoka. He noted that; “I have spent three winters in Canada…In the December of 1896, about the 15th, I drove a sledge over Muskoka Lake with two horses, and I have seen two horses in a sledge, and sometimes four, cross the lake before Christmas frequently. I have seen four horses often driven in large sleighs, but two are more common.”

In the June 1904 issue of the same British magazine, Mr. E.G. Muntz added; “It is exceedingly exceptional that the secondary lakes, such as Simcoe, Muskoka, Nipissing, freeze before the end of the year. The great lakes never freeze over. I do not remember in all the thirteen years I passed on the shores of Simcoe and Muskoka that they were frozen over before Christmas, and I would never have attempted to drive a team on them till very much later. Snow falling on the new ice acts as a blanket and prevents or makes very slow any further freezing.” 

An 1930s coloured card of stylized men downhill skiing.(author’s collection) 

City streets were the topic of Hartley Trussler’s recollections of a North Bay winter of the past. He wrote; “I can remember before we had snow loaders and trucks to remove the snow banks pile[d] up so high you couldn’t see over them. And away back in the early 1920’s only a few of the streets were plowed at all. There were no cars running and the horses gradually packed the snow down and made fairly good pathways on the main travelled streets.”

Advertisement for the 1921 Ottawa Winter fair. (author’s collection).


Numerous remembrances of past winters in Ontario exist. Many more have yet to be discovered. You are encouraged to share family memories/recollections with your local archives or museum, and to research and write articles about winter based on primary information, which can be published by historical societies and heritage groups in your area. 


The author would like to thank Deb Sturdevant, archivist of the Bruce County Archives in Southampton, as well as staff from the Aylmer & District Museum, the Scarborough Archives, Gibson House Museum, Whitehern, the St. Catharines Museum, Upper Canada Village, and the Fort Frances Museum. Their invaluable input in preparing this article is much appreciated. Kind thanks to Adrian King for his assistance with photography.

Dr. John Carter is the Peninsula Director for the Bruce County Historical Society, and a Research Associate at the University of Tasmanian.  He can be contacted at

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