History: Griffith & Matawatchan
Please find the following historical stories:
- A look back on Griffith and Matawatchan - By Bill Graham, Editor
- Early memories of Matawatchan - By Audrey Copeland
This is the story of two townships, which have been closely linked for many years. Before the political organization of this part of Eastern Ontario there were many small settlements, which were isolated communities of people trying to eke out a living from a stony landscape.
The first settlers in the area were shanty men. They were the loggers who worked the Madawaska River and decided to settle their families along the river. Settlement was located mainly near the river and they were predominately French from what was then Lower Canada (Quebec). Around 1850 there were already some settlers-MacDonalds, Wilsons and McLellans -in what is now the Village of Matawatchan.
In the 1850s a number of events conspired to open up the area to settlers. In 1852 the government passed the Public Lands Act, which made it lawful to give genuine agricultural settlers free grants of land along public roads in newly surveyed townships. It is interesting to note that while the Crown gave the land, it retained the rights to the pine trees. To administer these grants Mr. T.P. French was appointed Crown Land Agent in 1852. He dispensed his largess from Mount St. Patrick and was said to be overly generous in his description of the land being granted. This might explain why family names that existed in a community in one census year no longer exist in that community in the next census year, ten years later. Many were probably disillusioned by their granted land and moved on. Happening at this same time was the development of settlement roads, which were critically important for bringing settlers into the area.
Early Matawatchan in winter
Griffith Township was the first to be politically organized. In 1858, Griffith Township was established as a township and joined Grattan, Algoma and Sebastopol as a united township. Around the same time (1866) Renfrew County split from the United Counties of Lanark and Renfrew to become a county on its own. The township of Griffith at that time had three communities: Griffith, Balvenie and Khartum. Griffith is named for Sir Thomas Griffith who served in the Crimea War, including the Battle of Balaclava. Many of the first officials (especially Post Masters) in the area were ex-military officers who had received land grants from the Crown in recognition of their military service. This probably explains the unlikely names given to some of the villages and postal stations; including Balaclava and Khartum.
It is an interesting footnote that Crown Land Agent T.P. French became the first reeve of Griffith Township in the mid-1860s.
It is unclear when Griffith Township separated from Grattan, Algoma and Sebastopol to become a township on its own, but we do know that in 1871 the Township of Matawatchan, which was a union of several sparsely populated settlements, joined Griffith as a united township.
The Township of Matawatchan had two communities; the Village of Matawatchan and Camel Chute. Camel Chute was originally named Campbell Chute after a local logger, but when surveyors arrived and asked residents the name of the place the local brogue was misheard as Camel. Matawatchan is an Indian name (probably Algonquin) and in some records it's spelled as 'Mataouschie'. Some believe it means "running through rushes", but Indian Affairs says it means "first settlement." Some current long-time residents think the name should be translated as "hidden village." It suggests that there may have been an Aboriginal settlement here before the Europeans arrived.
While Griffith was primarily Irish and French in the early days, the population of the geographic township of Matawatchan was primarily Scots and French. Local memory says that the first settler in the Village of Matawatchan was a MacDonald, but soon after there were Wilsons, MacPhersons, McLellans, Hutsons and many others. Many of the French families are still here but their names have become anglicized over the years. The LeClaire family were very early settlers and they are still prominent in the area.
Early Matawatchan: General Store and cheese factory in the foreground
With the shanty men and the early farmers a population developed and with it a small service industry to serve that population. There were blacksmiths, cheese makers, store owners, carpenters and even two dress makers and a weaver are identified in the 1891 Census for the Village of Matawatchan. It was a local economy where, for example, any milk remaining after a settler's cow had provided milk and butter for the family would be turned over to a local cheese maker who would provide cheese for a little cash back to the family. It was very much a barter economy. This type of transaction happened for many commodities and it happened throughout Renfrew County.
The Townships of Griffith and Matawatchan were very isolated for much of their history. It was not until the mid-1930s that there was a modern road to Dacre through to Renfrew with the building of Highway 41. It was not until then that a concrete bridge over the Madawaska replaced one made of wood. Before then most of Matawatchan's supplies came from Perth via the Lanark and Calabogie Roads. Supplies for Griffith probably came via Denbigh and the Addington Road. Depending on the merchant involved both communities may have been supplied by both these routes. Who now can say?
Traveling beyond their immediate community happened seldom for residents. Local Matawatchan residents Annie Thomson and Olive Parks (nee Thompson), who are sisters now in their 90s; report that they first visited Renfrew for the Renfrew Fair, when they were in their teens. It was a two-day trip by wagon with a night spent at a 'stopping place' in Dacre. Former Griffith residents Eric and Irene Boeltge reported that: "Travelling by rough wagon roads was quite difficult in earlier times and it usually took two days to travel to Eganville, which we travel today in not much less than an hour! At Tooey's Lake, there was a large stove and always wood, where a traveler could stop to have their lunch. Coming back from Eganville in the evening, travelers sometimes stopped about three miles this side of Eganville and stayed the night. In the morning they could resume their journey and arrive back in Griffith in the afternoon."
Often residents would travel with the mail, which would arrive about once weekly. It was an antiquated form of hitch hiking. Mail was often the only form of communication outside of the immediate community. Post Office locations and postmasters were significant in these times.
Many of the historical highlights of this area are connected to communication with the outside world. According to Alvie Strong the first telephone arrived in Matawatchan in the 1920s though not everyone had one. Calls could only be made in Matawatchan or as far as Griffith, according to Bill Thomson, but you had to shout. In addition, in those days you had to buy your own telephone and supply some telephone poles. The first car arrived in the 1920s but it was years before it was a common means of transportation. The arrival of Highway 41 in the mid-1930s was significant for this area and finally in the mid-1950s hydro arrived here.
Today residents have communications and access to the world outside the community, but it is still an isolated area. However, today that might be more a blessing than a curse.
Let's for the moment place ourselves in the mid-1920s, without hydro electricity and without motorized machinery or vehicles, living in the isolated village of Matawatchan; Olive and Annie's world in their young teens. Life was centered on family, farm and the immediate community on which all of their survival, social and spiritual needs, depended. Each person had a role within the family and within the community. Family members ate all their meals together (except for lunches at school), worked together for the common good, and played together. There was closeness and purposefulness to all that they did. Olive states that it was a lot of work, but it wasn't a hardship. They had a lot of fun.
The Matawatchan community consisted of 20 to 25 families. These families supported the same general store, which remains at its original location today. They supported a one room school house and a cheese factory both southeast of the store on the other side of the road. To the west of the store across the street was Eli Troke's place and Billy Smith's hall (where many social activities occurred). The protestant church was at the present St. Andrew's church's location. Eli Troke is mentioned as he owned a team of small black horses that he made available for any one in the village who needed emergency transportation to see the doctor in Denbigh. He also provided a place for some of the student's horses that were used for transportation to school. For example, the MacPherson children lived more than 3 miles away down a logging road off Matawatchan Rd. The Thompson children, who lived at the far end of Hudson Lake Road just had one and a half miles to walk to school, barefoot mind you, until the frost came, to save on the wear on their shoes.
Billie, Bob and Walter Ferguson in front of Matawatchan General Store.
Speaking of school, most children started at about the age of 7 years. The classes were divided into five groups rather than grades: Primary, First, Second, Third and Fourth Class. There were entrance exams to write to get into high school in either Denbigh or Renfrew when the 4th class was completed at the age of 14 or 15. Many students couldn't afford nor had the inclination to leave home to board in either of these towns, so their formal education came to a close and there was much need for their help with the chores at home.
Activities of daily life were very much dictated by the seasons and what Mother Nature could provide within her cycles. And as we examine more closely this way of life, it becomes amazingly evident how interdependent and inter connected the domesticated animals and their owners were in their every day lives.
Most families had their own team of horses for ploughing, hauling logs out of the bush, pulling the sleighs / wagons for going to church, school or social function, for hauling ice from the lakes for the year's supply for their ice boxes, carrying the gathered sap through the maple bush, and carrying filled milk jugs to the cheese factory.
Raising cattle was a main source of outside income, since the farmers were fairly self sufficient. The cows would calve in the spring and graze all summer and in the fall the calves that would not be kept would be sold to a cattle buyer that came around once a year. There were the 14 milking cows that supplied the Thompson family's needs with the extra going to the cheese factory. This money would go toward buying what they didn't produce, like flour, sugar, tea, shoes and some clothing, although most was made at home. The Thompson family had 25 sheep for wool that was sheared in the spring when it would be washed and dried. Then it would be teased, carded and spun into thread, usually in the winter months by the women. There were pigs, chickens and turkeys as well. Most of the livestock that was needed to supply the table for the winter were killed in November. The pork would be cured and salted, stored in barrels, the beef hanging, then frozen as it became frigid outside. Annie pointed out that having unexpected extra company at mealtime was never a problem as there was always plenty of food available to share.
In general, the men did all the barn and outside work that related to looking after the animals and maintenance of the buildings, fences and tools. The children would pitch in with feeding the smaller livestock, milking the cows, and washing the milk pails and cans twice a day. The men, with the help of the boys would maintain the fires and look after boiling the sap for the maple syrup. In the fall and winter the men would gather and cut the firewood.
The mother was the leader of the household, running the home, looking after the children, preparing meals, keeping the wood stove going, looking after the laundry and making bread twice weekly. The daughters would wash the clothes on Saturdays. The late summer and fall brought the harvest where again the outside chores were relegated to the males doing the haying and the women would be busy with indoor activities like canning and drying the fruits and vegetables from the garden. Various chores like churning the butter, the daily filling of the oil lamps and cleaning their globes and bringing in the firewood were shared. In the summer, the children cleaned away the Burdock, purple weeds and wild mustard from around the buildings and especially in the grain fields where the wild mustard could ruin the crop.
In the early spring, when the sap began to run, the children came home from school and helped with the gathering of the sap from the pails on each tree (300 in the Thompson's case). The sap was poured into large barrels on the sleigh pulled by the horses. It was quite the job and sometimes they needed to go around twice a day when the sap was really flowing. Any extra maple syrup was sold for 50 cents a gallon!
Just before the yearly Matawatchan picnic, the girls would make the trip to Rose Hill to pick wild strawberries, enough to sell and earn the 50-cent 1 admission to the picnic. They got 25 cents for each 10-pound honey pail they filled. Then there was the picking to supply the family's store of jam and preserves for the winter. The raspberry picking came next and included PUM taking the boat on Hudson Lake to the Narrows, where they would leave the shore and find their way up the hills to the raspberry bushes. Later in the summer, would be time for the blueberry picking in the mountains in Griffith, which would be a full day's activity with picking and travel. Those picking excursions created fond memories for the Thompson sisters.
The July 1st picnic was a highlight for the community where each family would bring homemade breads, cookies and special treats to share, all spread out on outdoor tables. In those days, Heman Towns would cook the beef, part of the traditional meal that is still served at the picnic to this day. Annie remembers when Charlie Strong would offer the children a ride in his truck for 10 cents and also remembers that she couldn't afford it the next year as he'd put the price up to 15 cents a ride!
Life was different back then. Closer to the earth and all it has to offer. As teenager Annie and Olive would have needed two days if they wanted to travel to Renfrew. As seniors they can travel to anywhere in the world in less time. However, it is in Matawatchan where they spend most of their time. It is the place where they still find the fun in their lives.