Farmers & Winter in 19th Century Ontario

by John C. Carter

In some quarters, winter in rural 19th century Ontario was often considered as a period of inactivity. In the 1859 British American Guide Book, the editor mused that; “Amongst too many Canadian farmers, 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.”  Was this depiction accurate? This article will investigate period historical documents*, which portray various aspects of winter and farmers throughout this period. After reading it, you can make your own decision about the veracity of the statement made above.

Daily Activities: 
Todmorden Mills, U.C. brewer and farmer William Helliwell, mixed his tasks with his chosen avocations. Some of his diary entries for December 1830 reflect this; December 8, 1838. “The weather was glomey and thretned snow which began to fall about one o’clock fast and continued till bed time still snowing…We finished pumping up this evening [making beer] and at half past seven the thermometer stood at 24 degrees indeed this is the first winter day that we have had this Season. December 9, 1830. “This day in York but there is not sufficient snow to make good slaying.” December 11, 1830. “Saterday Morning  I drove the teams to York and took six barrels of beer down to the wharf to go to the head of the lake for W.J. Skinner.” December 18, 1830. “Saterday Morning made its appearance with the ground wight with Snow being covered about half inch deep. I drove the team to York this day twice and found the road froze so that it bore the wagon quite well. I took a good deal of beer this day and the last time I fetched 23 bushels and 16 lbs. of wheat from Mr. Wm. Smiths barn at the Don Bridge.” December 22, 1830.  “Wednesday Morning drow the Slay to York and brote a load of barley back after dinner I went again to town and took out some beer and fetched another load of barley back after I came home I was filling half barrels with water as we discharged our Sellar Man this day in consequence of his refusing to turn the grind stone.”

Woodpile in winter

David B. Schneider, the 20 year old son of Joseph Schneider, an early settler and farmer in Berlin (now Kitchener), chronicled his life in the winter of 1860/61. An example of this follows; “ Jan. 13th. Hauled logs. In evening went to spelling school in Colleses school house.  Jan. 14th Hauled logs, at noon got my harness fixed, then went to singing school in Bridgeport Jan. 23. In school Sunday.  Feb 5th. Was at meeting, then home. Some visitors from the twenty. Isaac H. Moyer, his brother Abraham and his sister Magdalena and Elizabeth Moyers, there all night, then to Old Groves and Tilman Moyers, then back to William Moyers. Left them all there. Came home at 11 O’clock. We brought T. Smith’s top sleigh. Feb. 14th. Was at Waterloo Fair. Saw the folks from the Twenty there. Rode with them home. They went to Beetzners. Levi Bricker took them down. Sunday Feb. 26th. Was down at Mose Schneiders, stopped all night. Mar. 5th. In School until noon, then I brought my books along home. In after noon was at a funeral. John Blanchard was buried. Mar. 6th. Hauled sap buckets out in the bush and went to Elias Schneiders and fetched wheat. 1861 Sunday, Jan. 13th. At home until noon, then took a cutter ride to Breslau, Bridgeport and Waterloo. I Shoemaker was with me. Jan.14th. Hauled wood, 3 loads. Bricker brought his boy here to get his foot cut by Dr. Bowlby so that hindered me one load. Sun. Jan. 20th. At a funeral, one of S. Shantz children was buried at Eby’s meeting house in the afternoon. At home in the evening. Jan. 25th. 20 youngsters here. Joseph Grob, Jacob High and Mary High, her sister Catherine and Magdalena Seven pifer. Feb. 7th. Helped make a grave for one of the Shantz’children, froze my ears, it was stormy. Feb. 21st. Hauled 3 loads for Thorn and one cord to Furner Tailer. Feb. 22nd. Was rollings logs in the bush with oxen, then went into the mill. Sun. Feb. 24th. Was to Cressmans at Meeting, for dinner to Clemens, then to Hellers met with a wedding Daniel Bowman to Sara Schneider. Feb. 25th. Peddled brooms for I Moyer Conestoga, St. Jacobs, Heidelberg, St. Clements, Hawkesville then home. Feb. 28th. Took a load of pork down to Preston for Potter & Crozi $2.25 each above 4500 lbs.”

“Cutting ice at Lake Huron” Photo Credit:  Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre: A961.018.003

Winter Works:
Joseph Abbott wrote in his published work The Emigrant to North America, of one of the positive aspects of the winter of 1843; “As to the snow; its depth and long continuance on the ground, are such a convenience and benefit to the farmer, that he is anxious for its coming, and sorry when it leaves him; it also acts as manure and pulverizes the land, superseding in a great measure the necessity of fallowing.”

The December 1845 edition of the British American Cultivator, in the “Work for the Month Column,” editor W.G. Edmundson described some winter farm labours expected for that month; “The winter is now fairly commenced, and the frugal farmer will loose 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 than if exposed to the chilling blasts of wind, snow, and sleet which are invariable concomitants of a Canadian winter. Provender, especially hay and oats, are a much shorter crop than the farmers of this country are in the habit of harvesting, and it therefore behoves all to deal out their winter’s stock with the greatest possible degree of economy. True economy in wintering stock upon a short allowance of food, will be found in giving extra attention to the comfort of the animals, in regular feeding, and in preparing food so that they will be induced to eat it without waste. The latter particular may be performed by employing a straw cutter, which will pay for itself in a single season…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 of possible, and make every necessary preparation to erect a few hundred rods of post and board fence each year, until the whole farm becomes enclosed with a permanent fence…The labor to be performed on the farm during this month and the other winter months, principally consists in marketing what was produced in the summer; and therefore any little advice that we may have to give our readers, in this article, in addition to the foregoing, will have a more direct reference to the theory of husbandry than to its practical details.”

Horse-drawn cutter Photo Credit:  Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre: A992.022.0382, J.H. Scougall

“Winter,” published in The Canadian Agriculturist (February, 1854), provided practical advice to farmers; “The wintering of stock is a very important matter to the farmer; and more especially now, that from them he derives much of his wealth. Wheat as an article of produce has not been for the last few years at all remunerative; and the intelligent farmer seeing this, has turned his attention to another object, viz., raising stock; such being the case, how necessary is it that all kinds of stock should be cared for now, when no longer able to provide for themselves; their stables should be tight and warm, humanity as well as economy points this out as absolutely necessary; when thus protected they keep their flesh on a less quantity of food. Cattle, especially, are often cruelly treated by exposure, when a simple shed could be made with a few boards, that would answer every purpose. They should not only receive hay or straw, but water, regularly. There should be a pump in every farm-yard.” He also had advice about wintering hogs and sheep, and concluded that if these measures were taken that all this stock; “Will repay him well for his cure.” 

Farmers’ winter occupations were expanded upon in the 1859 British American Guide Book; “The new settler’s avocations during the winter months are generally confined to taking care of his cattle and chopping, – that is, felling and cutting up the trees ready for burning in the spring. The underbrush should be cleared off before the snow falls. The family, when industrious, find their time fully employed in spinning, and other female occupations; and, when it is considered that in the newest settlements almost every convenience or luxury must be made at home, or dispensed with, by poor settlers, it may easily be imagined that the duties of a farmer’s wife and grown-up daughters are numerous and increasing-for in proportion to their industry and abilities will be their domestic comfort and happiness.” In the Canada Farmer of December 1, 1868, the editor noted that winter “affords little respite,” for the farmer. Work on “country improvements” during December, included caring for new land, thinning of forest, building of walls, removal of rocks, cutting of brambles and waste growth, spreading of leached ashes on fields, and the cutting and hauling of wood. Indoor work included “clearing up” barns and stables, making racks, gates, rollers, drags and other articles needed in the spring. During long evenings, reading, attending farmer’s clubs, making social visits and indulging in home recreation were all encouraged. The article concluded by stating that; “There is no reason why winter should be either a dull or an idle time.”  Other winter activities included sawing ice, filling ice-houses and hunting.

Winter, Kincardine, ON  Photo Credit: Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre: A992.022.0401, J.H. Scougall

Travel in Winter:
In Emigration, an 1834 volume of letters from emigrants now settled in Upper Canada, one observer recorded that, during good weather, travel was common; “At these time the public roads are crowded with sleighs, and the farmer conveying his produce to markets, the wood-cutter hauling wood, the quack doctor, the merchant driving for pleasure, and the jogging traveller, all meet the eye in varying succession.”  Another positive comment was made in 1858 by British author John Tallis. He commented on sleighing; “On a bright winter’s day we can imagine no prettier sight that the whole turnout, with its blood horses, ringing bells, fair ladies wrapped in furs, and dashing fur-wrapped driver careening across the snow or the sounding ice of a frozen river.”

Recreation in Winter:
Recreation during the winter months came in many forms and featured various activities. In his journal, Thomas Need described one episode of his life in the winter of 1836 while living on a farmstead near Peterborough, U.C.; “I mounted my sleigh, and drove along the new road, to assist at a ball given by the bachelors of the district at Peterboro. ‘A ball in the Bush!’ I think I hear my fair partners of former days exclaim; but let me assure them that the bachelors of our district are not at all to be despised, and that the ‘rank and fashion’ of the neighbourhood comprised nearly 200 persons.”

In Chambers’s Information for the People (1842), an important form of seasonal recreation in Upper Canada was explained; “Visiting is in active play between friends, neighbours and relatives; regular city and town balls and irregular pic-nic country parties (where each guest brings his dish), are quite the rage; and, after dining, dancing and supping, and dancing again, the wintry morning dawn is often ushered in while the festive glee is yet at its height.” 

An 1840 sketch of Todmorden Mills farmer and brewer William Helliwell, by Rochester artist J. DaLee. Helliwell kept diaries for many years which described his life. Credit: Bill Helliwell, Cheticamp, Nova Scotia

In the Farmer’s Advocate of January 1875, J.W. Mills of Bosanquet, explained how he and his neighbours spent winter evenings; “The pleasure of winter evenings is mostly connected with friendly gatherings, and the delightful interchange of interest and sympathy. Though it is very desirable that something useful and worth having should be got out of the winter evenings, it must not be forgotten that enjoyment may be gained as well…About half a dozen or more of us would manage to meet on a particular night once a week, at each other’s houses, when we made a rule of wearing our ordinary dresses, and the refreshments provided were limited to sandwiches and cake, with a glass of wine or something. We would break up our meeting at a stated hour. We would have all sorts of amusements to suit the various tastes, such as music, dancing, games, discussions, recitations, charades, reading and spelling. We constantly varied the programme of the evening…Altogether, we had some very interesting and beneficial evenings, and we are eagerly looking forward to a repetition of them… Now, I hope some of your young readers will inaugurate the new year by uniting in circles and spending the long winter evenings in this amusing and instructive manner.”         

In 1844, American author H.S. Tanner wrote in his The Travellers’ Hand Book, that; “The length and severity of a Canadian winter is a heavy drawback on the country, and lays the farmer under serious difficulty and privations not experienced in countries where the climate is milder.” A hidden meaning in this message however, as Tanner was promoting settlement in Ohio!

The Reverend G.W. Warr in the 1847 emigrants guide entitled Canada As It Is, took a different stance. He suggested that in 1844 in Canada, it was an “open winter” not dissimilar to an ordinary winter in Scotland. He viewed sleighing as “a delightful mode of travelling,” and reported that farmers were not idle, as winter was a time for cleaning, chopping, drawing home fire-wood, sending logs to saw mills, taking produce to market, and attending to livestock.” Warr lived in Oakville, and favoured immigration to Upper Canada.

Frederick Widder, Commissioner of the Canada Company, noted that a farmer’s winter avocations generally consisted of taking care of cattle and felling and cutting up of trees for firewood. In his Information for Intending Emigrants (1854), he wrote; “But no prudent man ought to calculate on being doing anything in the open field after the middle of November or much before the first day of April.” With that said, he concluded on a negative note, saying 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.”

John Dougall in his 1860 Canadian Farmer’s Almanac, penned closing comments about winter and farmers. He wrote; “A sensible farmer will employ the comparative leisure of the winter season in useful and profitable undertakings. His time is highly occupied in the manufactories of those fertilizing materials, the product of the stables and stock-yards. He will look to the continued fertility of his land, and will therefore have well-considered and thoroughly-applied plans for the feeding as well as the cropping of his soil. His thoughts will be directed to procuring, as far as possible, the necessary supplies of manure upon the farm…He will find that labour here is time and money saved.”  

These selected accounts give only a brief, chronological snapshot of winters and farmers in 19th century Ontario, but they do provide some insight into a farmer’s winter tasks. Visit your local library, archive or community museum to find more about the history of winter in your community. 

*Period journals consulted include; The British American Cultivator, The Canada Farmer, The Canadian Agricultural Journal, The Canadian Agriculturist, The Farmer & Mechanic, The Farmer’s Advocate, and Scientific American. Electronic sites to visit to find much of the information contained in this article as well as copies of originals are Canadiana online, and HathiTrust Digital Library. Many of the originals can be found at the Toronto Reference Library.

Dr. John C. Carter is a Research Associate, School of History and Classics, University of Tasmania. Please share with him any local accounts of farming in winter in Ontario that you have or are aware of. He can be contacted at

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