| Jul 17, 2008

Feature Article - July 17, 2008

Back toHome

Feature Article - July 17, 2008 What is Rural Life? Part 1

This is the first article in our summer seriesabout the idea of “rural” as it applies to our region. To kick off the series, we talked to Gray Merriam.

by Jeff Green

Gray Merriam lives just north of Arden at the foot of Kennebec Lake, at the headwaters of the Salmon River, which drains into the Bay of Quinte at Shannonville.

With his wife Aileen, Gray has been a full-time resident since he retired from Carleton University in 1997.

During his distinguished academic career, he was one of a group of people who developed the concept of landscape ecology, and he ran the first landscape ecology laboratory in Canada.

Broadly speaking, landscape ecology looks at ecological systems from a wider perspective. Instead of looking only at trees, it looks at the forest. Instead of looking only at lakes, it looks at watersheds.

Gray was also the chair of the Department of Biology at Carleton. Since 1997, he has been active locally, putting his background into practice. He was the founder of the Friends of the Salmon River and has been very active with the Frontenac Stewardship Council, of which he is the current chair.

We started our conversation by talking about the history of Frontenac County and the former Kennebec Township, in terms of the impact of the landscape on the lives of the people who have settled there in the past 150 years.

Gray Merriam looks at Frontenac County as two distinct geological regions: the fractured Limestone region to the south, and the Canadian Shield region to the north. The pattern of settlement in the north was set up as a mirror of what had been successful in the south, but things didn’t quite work out as planned.

“Settlers were brought into what they thought was going to be a very profitable area. They dumped people off in the fall and they had to survive until spring. A government scout put a shovel in the ground and it looked pretty good. He might not even have been aware that there is no dirt north of Verona,” Merriam said about the land granting programs of the late 19th Century in the area that came to be known as North Frontenac in the 1970s - what is now Central and North Frontenac, as well as Bedford District and parts of Portland District in South Frontenac.

This geological reality had an impact on the way Frontenac County communities developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when agriculture was the mainstay of the rural economy.

In the book “The Salmon River Watershed – Jewel of Eastern Ontario”, census figures are quoted to demonstrate how difficult scratching out a living by farming on the Canadian Shield can be.

“The 1861 Census showed just under 2,000 people in the Frontenac townships within the Salmon River Watershed (Kennebec, Olden, and Oso) of whom 70% called themselves farmers. They meant subsistence farmers: less than 2863 hectares (7,000 acres) were farmed in these townships and over 12,441 hectares (70,000 acres) were ‘wooden and wildland’. By 1961 the total population of the three townships was only 1545 and only 10% to 50% of the occupied land was being farmed, mostly as pasture. In the L&A townships of Kaladar and Anglesea, just over 1200 watershed residents were cultivating only 594 hectres - (1467 acres) of cropland in 1861. By 1901 the population had dropped to 1,000 and it stood at less than 1,300 in 1961. Here too, little of the occupied land was being farmed – less than 30%”

Another factor was logging.

“People were given the logging rights to entire townships and more. The greatest local example, certainly in Kennebec and Lennox and Addington, was the Rathburn family.”

Hugo Burghardt Rathburn and his son Edward logged the Salmon and Napanee valleys and all of the Depot Lake area. Although most of their timber was floated down to be milled in Deseronto, they also fed three mills in Arden.

At one point the Rathburns employed 5,000 people in their expansive enterprises. Among these was a 2,800 acre farm near Hungry Lake, north of Kennebec Lake.

But the kind of farming that a lumbering company would have engaged in, and the subsistence farming of the settlers, would have been completely different.

“There is a great difference in how a farmer relates to their land and the way a lumber company would have related to the land. Farmers had to learn how to farm the land. Other groups were paying no attention to the land itself; they were all about taking resources off the land, and once the resources were gone, they left.”

But they did not leave the land as they had found it.

“In 1932 Clint Barnett painted a view across the Kennebec Lake bridge,” Gray Merriam recalls, “and it provides a example of the landscape impacts of logging. In the painting, the hills were entirely grass covered. Where there were big, bald grassy hills then, is now all forest. But the forest there now is not the same as the forest that was removed when the land was cleared. It probably also moved some soil from high to low ground.”

The logging in this region virtually eliminated the Red Pine, which was abundant at one time.

In addition to logging, mining was also important, and in some cases the location of mines determined the location of railway lines. One railline that went through Tichborne was sited especially to bring out the feldspar.

The use of the region for recreational purposes has developed as the mining, logging, and farming has waned, and this has led to what is now the major economic engine for much of Frontenac County: seasonal residences.

“In the 1920s when people started to arrive by train from Toronto and build cottages, it introduced a whole new land use. Their way of looking at the land was entirely different, looking at the land as a recreational resouce raher than as something that they would make a living from. This kind of land use is dependent on good quality water in the rivers and in the lakes, as fishing was something that brought them there. A different set of attitudes began to develop, and it has spread since then,” said Gray Merriam.

In recent years, the local poltical landscape has changed. Provincial regulations have put a focus on water quality, the provincial policy statement has had an effect on lot sizes and setbacks on lakes, and lake associations have been developing lake plans.

“Over the past 15 years, these concerns have been brought front and centre to municipal councils, and the makeup of councils has changed as well,” Merriam said, “with retirees who have moved to the area, often living on water, taking on more of a role.”

Looking to the future Merriam thinks it is time for innovation.

“Our future will be determined by how we use our resources, just as it always has. Toronto is expected to grow by 4 million people in the next 20 years. Where are those people going to go to get away from the city, when they decide to retire?”

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4

Support local
independant journalism by becoming a patron of the Frontenac News.