BLAIR, JAMES, farmer; b. 4 Oct. 1825 in Selkirk, Scotland, son of John Blair and Margaret Armstrong; d. 25 Oct. 1901 in Greenbank, Ont.
James Blair, with his parents, brothers, and sisters, arrived in Upper Canada at Windsor Harbour (Whitby) in 1836 and went five miles north to the large and prosperous farm of his mother’s brother, where they became a part of his establishment. As soon as it was permissible, at age 14, James went to work as a hand for John Starr, a neighbour in concession 6 of Whitby Township and he remained there for nine years. In 1848 he married Starr’s daughter Sarah and purchased a nearby farm for £375, a combination of his savings and a gift from his father. Here his children were born – a daughter and three sons survived infancy – and he farmed in the manner of the average subsistence farmer.
Blair owned 50 acres. In 1861, 60 per cent of the farms in Ontario County were under 100. He cultivated 41 acres; the county average that year was 55. He kept three pigs, for household consumption. Butter and beef from his seven cattle provided food and a little income. His team of two horses was just sufficient for working his land. Like nearly every other farmer in the county, he relied on wheat for the cash to buy the things the farm did not produce. Eventually the soil began to show the effects of single cropping. In 1871, a year of abundant harvests, Blair’s was 20 per cent below that of 10 years before, although he had one-third more land in grain. His winter wheat returned half what he had received earlier, and his spring wheat gave him 9 bushels an acre in place of the 23 of 1861. Not only was the soil in need of renewal, but by increasing the acreage in grain to make up for that fact, he no longer had enough pasture or hay. In addition, he had children to provide for. Although 50 good acres, well managed, could support a family, the pressure for change was there.
In 1877, at the age of 51, Blair sold up, surprisingly with profit, and purchased Belleview Farm, just south of Greenbank in Reach Township. He thereby doubled his workable acreage (more recently cleared than his old farm), increased his pasture, and acquired a sugar bush, a small orchard, and a pond with fish. Belleview also included a large house and two barns. The move, however, made no change in his farming methods. His knowledge and practice had been acquired from early settlers who had taught themselves in forest clearings and when the only market was for grain. There was no immediate, short-term reason to change. Livestock did not offer an attractive alternative because there was no local market for meat and no cheese factory. A prodigious worker, but obstinately old-fashioned, Blair continued, as did his county, to pin faith on grain for a few years longer than was truly justified. By the time he was 70, he was handing operations over to his son James, who began the change to mixed farming. He died at Belleview at 76, a man of his time and place as a farmer and a farmer’s son, reluctant to look to anything but wheat as a source of cash and, in money matters, never really in the clear.
James Blair was of a generation for whom life was bound by the severe seasonal routines of farming and was chary of the risks involved in change. He was, like his father, a member of the Presbyterian Church and of the Liberal party, and like him, faithful but undistinguished in both. He married his employer’s daughter and named his children for family and neighbours. The few things that distinguished him from his contemporaries seem almost accidental: he came to Upper Canada to a prosperous, working farm; he never cleared land; he never filled any of the township positions of fence-viewer, path-master, or pound-keeper. No one is completely average, but James Blair commands notice because he so nearly was.
Durham Land Registry Office (Oshawa, Ont.), Abstract index to deeds, Reach (Scugog) Township, concession 10, lot 13, instrument nos.3133–34; Whitby Township, concession 7, lot 21, instrument no.32532. Durham Surrogate Court (Whitby), Whitby Township, probate of will of John Blair, 1878. NA, RG 31, C1, 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, Whitby Township. Union Cemetery (Oshawa), Burial records. Standard (Port Perry, Ont.), 31 Oct. 1901. Directory, Toronto, 1846/47, 1850/51. W. H. Graham, Greenbank: country matters in 19th century Ontario (Peterborough, Ont., 1988). L. A. Johnson, History of the county of Ontario, 1615–1875 (Whitby, 1973).