MATHESON, JOHN, farmer; b. 29 Jan. 1838 at Big Bras d’Or, N.S., son of Hugh Matheson and Margaret McKenzie; m. first c. 1864 Sarah Fraser in Kincardine Township, Upper Canada, and they had one daughter; m. there secondly 7 Jan. 1869 Margaret McLennan, and they had two daughters and seven sons; d. there 29 July 1922.
Born on Cape Breton Island, John Matheson was the eldest of nine children of Scots Presbyterian parents. His father, a native of Assynt, Scotland, came to the Maritimes as part of the Highland diaspora; his mother was from Millbrook, near Pictou, N.S. Likely discouraged by poor soil and famine conditions on the Island, the Mathesons emigrated in 1852 to the recently surveyed Kincardine Township on the Bruce peninsula, part of the last settlement frontier in southern Upper Canada. John helped his family make a farm out of its thick, primeval forest – cutting trees, removing stumps, planting early crops, and erecting a home and outbuildings. The Mathesons survived the drought of 1858 and the resultant hunger of 1859, and John’s father took out the crown deed on the farm in 1861.
In the following year John struck out on his own, purchasing a 50-acre property a mile to the southeast. He married a neighbour, Sarah Fraser, but she died in 1865, likely after childbirth; their daughter survived to be raised by John’s parents. There is no record of his response to this tragedy. He forged on with his settlement duties, assisted by his brother Donald, who was working an adjacent lot. Having proved up, John married Margaret McLennan of nearby Ashfield Township in 1869.
After John expanded his farm by 25 acres in 1871, it remained stable for the next quarter-century. Life, however, was transformed by the arrival of nine children between 1869 and 1885. With the help of his family, he ran a mixed operation that was typical of the middling farms in his neighbourhood, producing crops such as peas, oats, and spring and fall wheat; a few head of cattle, sheep, and hogs for sale and home consumption; milk for butter and, in the 1890s, for the local cheese factory; root crops for the stock; wood from his wood lot; and vegetables, apples, and maple syrup. By diversifying, the Mathesons insulated themselves against failure in any area while providing food for a comfortable subsistence, even in the agricultural depression of the 1890s and the local drought in mid decade. Despite these difficult conditions, the family’s reliance on its own labour meant that it was able to add a stone foundation to the barn in 1893 and brick the house the following year.
John Matheson negotiated a daring expansion in the early summer of 1896. Concluding that his family was “falling behind every day” – he had had only $2.50 in the house at the beginning of the year – he decided to purchase the neighbouring parcel of 50 acres that he had been working on shares, in the hope that the gains from additional crops would more than compensate for the interest on the parcel’s mortgage. The gamble succeeded: a banner growing season and better-fed cows brought increased revenue from the cheese factory and a crop of grain and peas that literally spilled out of the barn. By the turn of the century the farm had moved ahead of its middling rank, with over 20 cattle and about a dozen hogs. Coming on the cusp of improved agricultural conditions in Ontario, the acquisition of 1896 had set the stage for further expansions that allowed for more improvements (a new barn and well, and the plastering of the house), prosperity for the rest of John’s life, and the placement of two sons on the land. His hard work and business sense might make his success seem like a classic triumph of yeoman individualism. In fact, it was marked by a careful negotiation of responsibilities and rewards among the family. John’s long days in his fields, barn, and wood lot depended entirely on Margaret’s raising of their children, tending of the garden, and shrewd management of the household, and on the help of his sons and daughters, even after the non-inheriting children had begun to set out on their own.
The key to the latter group’s participation was education. Perhaps motivated by a Scots Presbyterian faith in the value of schooling, John, himself a reader of books and newspapers, ensured that his children all graduated from high school. Further, the five non-inheriting boys received university educations that facilitated their economic independence: two became Presbyterian ministers, one was an actuary, and two taught in universities. One daughter trained at the conservatory in London, Ont., and gave piano lessons before her marriage; the other became a nurse after a failed engagement and would care for her parents until their deaths.
The cash-poor Mathesons managed this remarkable feat by having the children stage their departures so that, at any given time, a few boys and at least one girl were on hand to help at home. All the boys but one, whose negligence was criticized by his siblings, returned on summer holidays to assist with repairs and the harvest. The farm thus received the labour required to produce a pleasant standard of living for those who stayed and the resources needed to support the careers of the migrants. John fostered his children’s interest by corresponding and consulting with them about farm operations and major projects. Once established, they sent money home or to younger siblings. Contrary to bleak contemporary and historical accounts of the “rural depopulation” of Ontario, the Matheson children remained integrated into the life and economy of the home farm long after their initial departures.
Ethnic and religious ties also bound the family together. They lived in what was, by 1901, the largest “Scotch block” in the province, a region that extended from Point Clark to Southampton along Lake Huron and back into Bruce and northern Huron counties. The Mathesons attended Gaelic services at the local Presbyterian church, where John was an elder; he and Margaret encouraged their children’s engagement as ministers, members of church assemblies, and active churchgoers. By insisting that he be addressed in Gaelic at home, John raised them to be bilingual Scots who sought out Gaelic-speaking communities elsewhere in Ontario and Manitoba. One son became a noted Gaelic linguist, another was a founding member of the Kincardine pipe band. John thus helped to perpetuate a distinctive Scottish culture in Canada well into the 20th century.
A wonderful photograph of John in 1901 shows him with the strong upper body and arthritic hands of an ageing farmer, and the white beard of a patriarch, seated beside Margaret and surrounded by their entire family, the last time that everyone was together. Slowed by rheumatism and dizziness in his sixties and seventies, he gradually handed over farm operations to his son Charles, informally at the start of the century and then through a sale of property in 1919, two years after Margaret’s death. Appropriately, when he died, he left his possessions and control of Charles’s mortgage to his daughter Grace, who had cared for him. It was a final act of reciprocity in a life marked by such acts.
AO, D 217, Kincardine Township, assessment rolls, 1880, 1885, 1890, 1894, 1899; collectors’ rolls, 1895; RG 1-57-1-5: 439; RG 22-358, no.6844; RG 61-3-1, Kincardine Township, concession 6, lots 8 and 9; concession 7, lot 8 and western half of lot 9; concession 9, lot 3; RG 80-8-0-861, no.8515. UCC-C, 3260. Adam Crerar, “Ties that bind: farming, agrarian ideals, and life in Ontario, 1890–1930” (PHD thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1999). Chad Gaffield, “Children, schooling, and family reproduction in nineteenth-century Ontario,” CHR, 72 (1991): 157–91. Murdock Matheson, Looking backward over my fifty years in Saskatchewan (n.p., 1960). Norman Robertson, The history of the county of Bruce . . . , ed. N. R. Shaw (Toronto, 1906); continued by Norman McLeod, The history of the county of Bruce . . . 1907–1968 . . . (Owen Sound, Ont., 1969). Toil, tears & triumph: a history of Kincardine Township, ed. W. H. Fletcher (Kincardine, Ont., 1990). W. R. Young, “Conscription, rural depopulation, and the farmers of Ontario, 1917–19,” CHR, 53 (1972): 289–320.