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Martin Letters

Historical Society of the Gatineau: Up the Gatineau! Vol. 20

(There is a total of about 90 pages of Martin letters that exist. Anyone interested in obtaining them can contact Tim Ahles for more information.)

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James Martin's Letters -- His Work in Low and Maniwaki
edited by Carol Martin

The John Martin family emigrated to Low, Quebec from Ireland in the 1840s. Here they operated a farm and raised five children: James, William, John Jr., Ellie and Mary. William left the Gatineau area for the United States (Minnesota) when he was in his 20s, and this gave rise to correspondence between the family remaining in Canada and William's family.

Recently a collection of letters written between 1867 and 1910 by James and other members of the family to William and his wife Catherine came to the attention of the Society. What follows is a series of extracts from James' letters, and five extracts from those of John Sr., and Ellie.

JAMES: [August 16, 1867] I was very busy here this haying. I began to hay about four weeks since and I had to cut over twenty acres of it myself, except a few days I got from the neighbours, and I had over three acres of fall wheat to cut also. The wheat and hay are in the barn now so you see that I had to work hard and constantly to get that done and now Spring wheat, peas, barley and some oats are ripe but I suppose I will get through with all in good season.

ELLIE: [TO WILLIAM'S WIFE] [March 31, 1869] We have not seen James since November last, he is since that time in the employ of Hamilton Brothers as a clerk. He is a hundred miles from here in a place called the Ignace [probably on the Ignace River, north-west of Maniwaki] 70 miles north of Victoria. Of course he will be home as usual next summer.

The winter has been in this locality, uncommonly long and unpleasant. Last summer was too dry for crops and consequently they were an almost total loss. Wheat alone was a good crop. Oats except in new land, potatoes, hay etc. were wretched. Then to help the matter winter set in unusually early and severe. Hay and straw being very scarce but few people could keep much stock and even after selling their cattle folks around here are straitened enough for fodder. We will have enough of feed ourselves for our stock, viz. one cow, yoke of oxen, two horses and some sheep, which we have reason to be grateful for when we hear of horses, cows and other animals drying on all sides in want of the essential of fodder. The weather continued as severe as in mid-winter until Good Friday when it changed to a soft spring, the snow is dreadful deep here. Fences that are six feet high have been covered with the frozen element until there is no indication of their whereabouts, and its depth in Lowe is nothing to what it is in other parts of the county. ...Canada!

ELLIE: [July 7, 1869] James is away yet, but we expect him home in a couple of week from now, he is some kind of foreman on one of the

Hamilton farms. [February 12, 1872] Times are keeping dull here, wages are very low. James and his team have been idle so to speak all winter. In fact most of the neighbours have had to remain at home, wages being so low. Potatoes were a very light crop here last summer. Oats were light with us.

JAMES: [October 7, 1872] And ...I will let you know how I have occupied my time these four years. In January '68 I chanced to see an advertisement in an Ottawa paper which described the conditions to be observed by anyone applying for a situation in the Civil Service of the Crown, also mentioning the branches which the candidate should be proficient in order to entitle him to a certificate from the board of examiners.

I imagined I'd have no difficulty in passing the board or obtaining the situation when passed so I brushed up my accomplishments and on the 11th March presented myself to the board. There were 11 other young men present for the same purpose -- and after the examination was ended I was in possession of a certificate far superior to either of the others but I found I should have influence to obtain the situation.

I applied to A. Wright but he did nothing for me and then my father gave the certificate to Mr. Dole to show Hon. J. Hamilton to see what he could do. He could not get me a place so Mr. Dole promised me a permanent employment in the concern.

Accordingly about 1st November he sent for me and after some delay I was sent up to the Ignace, one of the lumbering depots some 60 miles north of the Lines and a lively place.

The previous summer having been very dry, the crops were almost a total loss and I was disgusted with farming and resolved to find an easier and surer mode of making a living. We had a good stock that fall but had to part with all except the mare, a colt, the oxen, one cow and a calf. I sold the colt to C. Conners for $16 which he says now is worth $160.

I commenced my new life at the Ignace and succeeded in meriting the approval of Mr. Dole and Mr. Robinson. There was an agent there named D. O'Donnel, of course he wanted to dictate a little to me although he had very little learning. His wife and sister were there and another girl. In the spring of 1869 I was promoted to be foreman of the farm here although I was very reluctant to accept that charge. I went to Ottawa the 15th July and settled. Of course I expected large wages but Mr. Dole informed me that clerks always began at $12 per [month] and continued so for 2 years. However in consideration of my success as a farmer he gave me $13 per [month] until spring and $16 from that time. For the ensuing years I was to get 18$. I stopped at home for three weeks. They had a good crop this year. I sowed some fall wheat before going to the Ignace and it did very well - it produced about 15 barrels flour.

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I went up again in August and remained until the 20th June following and then finding they were not increasing my wages fast enough I left them much to the regrets of Mr. Dole. This year another dry year and there was scarcely any crop sown and that little was miserable so I was convinced that I should either give up the farm or stick to it. I chose the latter -- at least for a while. I could earn a good living as bookkeeper. I was offered 25$ a month ... I may try it yet.

...After I came home in 1870 ...I set to work and sowed 3 bushels of fall wheat and stumped and ploughed the field back of the barn also a piece of land in the back place. In the winter I went at logs and put out 270 amounting to about 150$. I had a man three weeks which was all the expense I was at.

In the spring of '71 I put in a fair crop which did pretty well and last winter after doing the chores I hired with a cedar concern who operated near Cuddy's - wages 20$ per month for scaling. Last spring I put in a fair crop -- the fall previous I sowed 5 bushels of it, the rest of the crop is pretty fair. This fall I again sowed 5 bushels fall wheat across the road from the house and I expect to stump and plough the remained of that field this fall. We have the old oxen yet and also Fly with two colts. We sold another for 72$ the fall of 1869 which wet to Farrel for debt.

JOHN, SR.: [March 31, 1873] I have given up school teaching...and James had to remain at home to provide fire wood and do the other chores, so we have no means of paying store bills but the price of what oats we could spare which was trifling. So we must be more economical when I have no longer any school money to draw. [May 10, 1873] We have sold the old mare and a two year old colt, also the old oxen and other things which we could not very well spare in order to get a span of horses with their fittings. Horses are very dear here now, a good span, say 6 or 7 years old would cost from $300 to $400 and a set of double harness costs $30 to $40. The team we have got now are about third rate but they are gentle and kind to work, and very quiet in every way.

JAMES: [June 23, 1873] A week ago we received a severe visitation in the form of a hail storm. We had about 24 acres of good meadow all of which is cut out by the roots. ... At the lowest calculation 150$ will not cover our damages. There were only a few who sustained damage by the hail...[named] and a few out at the river. All others escaped. For those that were unfortunate enough to meet it the prospect is gloomy but there is no use fretting.

[January 6, 1874] Times are extremely dull this winter. Wages which have ben steadily on the increase these past four years are now lower than ever; as for instance, men can now be had for $9 per month who would laugh incredulously last season if offered $20. Horse teams which were quoted last winter from 8 to 10 shillings are now from 3/9 to 5.

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[June 29, 1874] Last winter was the dullest experienced on the Gatineau and it was very difficult to obtain any work for horses or men. I succeeded in obtaining work about half time for our horses drawing loading. It was also a very singular winter in a physical sense. The snow went clean away no less than three times. It came the 1st November so we had to feed all our stock from that time until the tenth of May.

And we had only about one fourth of a crop of hay on account of the hail last summer. However although we had a pretty fair stock -- 3 horses and 9 head cattle besides some 20 sheep -- we only had to buy one ton of hay and even that we could have dispensed with. The past spring was very late and the frost remained in the ground until the middle of May so that crops in general are very backward while the hay crop is almost a failure being killed with the late frost in the spring.

[July 13, 1882] The spring has been very cold and is followed by a cold wet summer. It was expected sometime since that there would be no hay but it has improved lately and there will probably be from one third to one half a crop. Grain on the high land in this neighbourhood looks well but on low or flat fields has been hurt considerably by the wet.

[June 6, 1884] The weather last summer was wet and somewhat cold until haying. I had about 30 tons of hay, 400 bus. oats, 60 bus. wheat and 200 bus. potatoes last year. I made logs last winter on our land and put out about $300 worth, principally spruce. We had to drive the logs to the Gatineau river.

The weather here now has been pretty dry the last three weeks. We had heavy frost the last days of May, altogether the prospects for crops, especially hay, is not very encouraging. I am seriously contemplating the giving up of farming. I have been striving for some time past to enter the Civil Service of the Government, but had not much prospects of success until lately. I passed the board of examiners some seventeen years since, but a new act was passed and a new board appointed lately and their examinations were more difficult then the old one.

[May 15, 1885] I wrote to you about a year since and I then informed you that I was expecting a government situation. After a good deal of waiting I got one at last. It is not a very fat one but the work is not very arduous and the salary is $600 a year. I am Indian Agent at Maniwaki "River Desert" to look after some Indians who have settled on a Reserve set apart for them by the Government in 1853 or 1854. I am up here since April 3. ...I will probably move my family here in the fall and rent the farm to some of the neighbours. My mother lives with us yet.

Crops done pretty fair last year in Low except hay which with me was only 1/2 of previous years' yield. Last winter was very cold, and this spring is very backward. At this date scarcely any sowing had been done. I have a man hired at home to put in my crop this year.