Canada’s Deep South
On lush Pelee Island you’re surrounded by pheasants, soybeans and history—and you’re as far south as California
Took Bride From Shawnees
THERE is a Canadian island farther south than part of California and farther south than all of France, including the sun-splashed Riviera. It is Pelee Island, 10 miles off Ontario’s coast at the west end of Lake Erie.
Being superlatively south is just one of Pelee’s distinctions. It is the most mechanized farm area in North America. Every one of its 201 farms has a car, tractor and truck, and there are 31 combines. The islanders boast it’s all paid for—spot cash. They would also like the record to include their claim that there are no tax arrears, no one is on relief and no one is in jail. It should be mentioned there is no jail.
Pelee, largest island of the eight-isle chain, is a converted marsh nine by five miles, or about 11,000 acres, 84% of which are cultivated. This is interlaced by 60 miles of good road and 13 miles of drainage canals, slightly narrower than those of Venice and serving the same purpose. It has 600 inhabitants.
The island is one of the few places in Canada producing pedigreed seed corn, and queen bees of Italian ancestry and amazing fertility.
More than 80% of the land crop is soybeans, urgently needed in stock food and shortening, while the water harvest of fish was never more prolific. I took a morning run with trap netters, and we boxed 4,860 pounds with two lifts and were finished in time for lunch. Lunch, to my dismay, was fried chicken instead of fish.
If you examine the economic history of Pelee on a graph it has as many ups and downs as a buzz saw. There have been boom times and disaster in muskrats, lumber, corn, tobacco, onions and grapes; steady income from fish, spurts of prosperous ballyhoo from pheasants, brief but hopeful flurries in oil, and currently great wealth from soybeans.
A GOOD place to start the history of Canada’s banana belt is Ireland’s County Down, where Alexander McCormick looked westward to the new world at the age of 21.
McCormick decided to try his hand at the fur trade in the colonies, and after a period of instruction in Philadelphia he was sent on a trading mission across the Allegheny Mountains in the direction of what’s now Detroit. That was in 1771, and McCormick was taken prisoner by a band of Wyandots (Indians, not chickens) before he’d completed his first mission.
He lived with these Indians a few years, married a squaw who bore him a son, and was later sent by the braves to act as their agent in the sale of furs to British and French traders.
On one of these trips McCormick came across a rival band of Shawnees who had a white girl among them. She was Elizebeth Turner who’d been kidnapped from a maple syrup camp near Pittsburgh three years before. Since McCormick’s squaw had died, he now started an energetic courtship of the white girl and eventually, after a fight with the Shawnees, eloped with her.
They were married in Detroit, in May, 1783. He was then 40, she was 21. By the time they got back toward Philadelphia, the Revolutionary War had been fought, the Declaration of Independence signed, and McCormick branded a loyalist. He was chased out of the United States and given a royal grant of 200 shore acres on the
north coast of Lake Erie, near the present city of Windsor.
There he cleared the bushland, and there, without medical help, Elizebeth bore him eight children. The first of these, William, was carried by his pioneer mother, on horseback, from Colchester Township, Ont., to Pittsburgh, where the proud mother reported that she had returned from the Indian wilds with a man-child who would some day make his mark on public affairs.
This turns out to have been accurate prophecy, because William McCormick bought Pelee Island for $500, was its first white settler, became a member of the Parliament of Upper Canada, and later divided the land among his 11 children.
When the McCormicks first settled on Pelee they found the centre of the island was marsh, filled with potential wealth . . . oak and cedar trees, muskrat, deer, elk, coons, and, oddly enough, wild pigs. The swine had been turned loose by an earlier group of Indian and half-breed settlers.
William had a brief flurry of excitement during the rebellion of 1837, when he was branded a “loyalist son of a loyalist father” and chased to the mainland by Americans who invaded this British territory across the ice from northern Ohio; His log buildings were not burned, however, and are still in use.
William McCormick died a few years later, but the mother of his 11 children lived on the island 50 years—until she was within 36 days of her 100th birthday.
Part of those 50 years were spent in an unsuccessful fight with timber raiders and fur poachers. When William’s estate came to be settled there was a challenge on the legality of his title to the island, which was claimed by the Crown and by a group of
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Indians. It took 27 years to establish that McCormick did in truth own the place. During those years the finest timber was cut and floated to the American shore, while a ruthless slaughter of the muskrats saw as many as 9,000 pelts taken in a season.
McCormick’s heirs, who still operate one of the three stores on the island, never collected a dime from the fur and timber raiders, and both sources of wealth disappeared forever.
Probably the most important thing that ever happened to Pelee was when Dr. John Scudder, a Cincinnati doctor, came over from the nearby Ohio shore about 1863 to shoot a few mallards and hook a few bass. Attracted by the richness of the soil, he bought 4,000 acres—mainly marshland—and started to dig ditches around the edges.
That made him Pelee’s drainage pioneer, and without drainage much of Pelee would still be a marsh today.
The entire island is an average of two inches (some parts of it eight feet!) below the water level of Lake Erie, and the crude beginning made by Dr. Scudder has grown to municipal enterprise—four large pumps draining moisture back into Lake Erie. In addition to the pumps and canals, dikes keep the water out in some places, and every farm is underlaid with drainage tiles. Noah Arno, the present reeve, told me he personally had laid more than 2,000,000 drainage tiles.
Scudder’s original draining crews had trouble with snakes, some of them poisonous, which infested the marsh. Most of the snakes have gone with the wild pigs and the raccoons. Those left are no more numerous or dangerous than those you find in other parts of Ontario.
Following Dr. Scudder’s drainage, one of the first industries to go into the marshlands was grape growing. This was started in 1866 and by 1890 was the island’s principal crop. By that time Pelee wines were coveted by epicures throughout this continent, and some were exported. They won several international awards, and were said to be as delicate in bouquet as the best from France.
But this enterprise sickened and died on the vine of low prices. Today a few grapes are sent out of the island, but the vaults and cellars echo with a hollow sound, and the Government liquor store carries the sign: “No Native Wine.” Most of the Germans brought in to work the vineyards and the wine presses now sleep beneath heavy stones in the Scudder cemetery.
War Booms Beans
Pelee Island reached its height in population in 1919, with 1,054 people. At that time the average farm was 50 acres, and much of this was in Burley tobacco. In addition the farmer had enough vegetables for himself and family for the year, all the fish he could eat at his front door, and enough odds and ends of fruit and stock to make life easy, if a bit monotonous. Tobacco was the cash crop, fish was a diversion, and the rest was mill-run farming.
Beginning about 1919 tobacco prices began to slip, and with the slow but steady decline the young fellows left the island. They had to go if they wanted an education, or a bit of fan, because to this day there is no high
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Canada's Deep South
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school giving matriculation, no dance, fair, courthouse, or other place of entertainment or education. There is a twice-a-week movie, but no hydro power to run the projector, so you can imagine what you get.
Tobacco prices dropped so steadily that by 1925 10 cents a pound was the top, and islanders couldn’t raise it for that. The following year tobacco touched eight cents.
Among these islanders smacked by the falling tobacco prices was Ernest Clutter, an educated and travelled farmer with an inquisitive turn of mind. He began to experiment in types of crop never profitably grown in Canada. Clutter did fairly well with peanuts, but the soil, being heavy instead of sandy, clung to the nuts, so that peanut harvesters couldn’t easily shake them loose. Then came sweet potatoes. They gave excellent yields, but heavy equipment cost, including kilns, was needed. Even cotton was tried and brought to harvest. This, however, takes a minimum of 140 days, and Pelee couldn’t be counted on to provide enough sunshine.
Clutter one day picked up a travel folder about the Philippines, and found stories about two types of Oriental beans—soy and mung. The soy were said to be rich in vegetable oils, while the mung beans were sprouted and used as a food rich in vitamins. Sometimes you get both in chop suey. Clutter tried a few acres of each, and from the beginning had great harvests of both.
That was 1926, but the surge toward soybeans as a mass crop didn’t begin until more than 10 years later. By 1938 the Pelee crop of soybeans was
but 5,000 bushels, averaging less than two dollars a bushel. Then came a request, by Canada’s oils and fats controller, for more production. The crop leaped ahead until in 1945 it was 130,000 bushels at an average price of $2.04, the beans marketed by the farmers themselves through a cooperative.
Spring rains were so great this year that the pumps couldn’t cope with the fall, and the fields were quagmires. This year’s estimate is about 92,000 bushels, worth about $200,000.
Four and Twenty Birds
Shortly before Clutter thought to experiment with soybeans, and thus regain riches for the islanders, a councillor named James E. Quick thought the place might be a natural haven for English pheasants. He approached the reeve of that day, Frank Barnes, to see if he couldn’t beg, borrow or buy a few birds, and the reeve wrote to the Ontario game and fisheries department about it.
Since pheasants have brought Pelee island more ballyhoo and hullabaloo than any other 10 causes combined, it might be well to let Barnes tell the story.
“I got a letter from those fellows in Toronto, saying they didn’t give or sell pheasants to people to pen up on their farms,” he told me. “I wrote back and said this was an island, a big island, with 60 miles of roads and the warmest climate in the whole of Canada. I said we had no foxes, no hunters and no other enemies for pheasants and we ought to have a few just to look at.
“After a year of letter writing those fellows in Toronto said all right, we could have some pheasants, and they’d be sent. Only they never were sent. Another year came and went. No
pheasants. We wrote some more; but no pheasants. Then another year came and went. No pheasants.
“I think that brings me up to 1926, the same year Ernie put his beans in the ground. I was on the north dock one day when a game warden’s boat came in from Ohio. We’re just four miles from Ohio waters here, and the game minister or secretary was looking over our fishing layout.
“I told the fellow we’d been trying to get a few pheasants, and he said, sort of casual-like, that he’d send us a few. About a month later one of the fishermen told me there was a box down on the dock with pheasants in. There were 24 very small birds in a box. I’d never seen a pheasant before and these looked awful small and weak, but I took ’em around and let eight go at each of three different places.
“That’s about the last I saw or heard of pheasants until 1929. Then a couple of fellows came to see me, raising Old Ned. They said these pheasants had multiplied so much they were ruining their corn and tomatoes and they were just about set to ruin everything. One chap even wanted to sue me.
“After that the multiplication went on faster than ever. Some of the fellows used to carry rifles on their tractors and keep popping those pheasants off, and I heard tell of kids going up and down the hedgerows in spring breaking the eggs. Still they multiplied. Sometimes in winter we had organized hunts just among the islanders. There was nothing else to kill them off. No traffic, no foxes, no hawks.
“Some time in the early thirties . . . I was off the council then so I forget the actual date . . . we organized a hunt to which outsiders were invited. To our surprise 1,000 men eagerly paid three dollars each to shoot. There was $3,000 off our taxes and board money for every farm wife on the island.”
The Pelee pheasant shoots since have become internationally famous. Pheasant hunts reached their peak in 1936. That fall I was one of 1,314 hunters who paid $5 to Pelee township and $1 (for Canadians) or $15 (for Americans) to the province to hunt.
That year the island’s total tax bill was about $24,000, and we hunters, in one day, made a direct contribution of $6,570 toward paying it off. But it cost us more than that—$10 a day to sleep, another $10 a day for a car we didn’t need and didn’t use. We had to get to and from the mainland dock in our own cars and then pay steamer fare to and from the island.
It was too much, to |pay for a few birds, so the next year fewer license were issued to give the hunter a break. Even so, from 1936 until now, 20 to 25% of all Pelee Island taxes have been paid out of the annual two-day shoot, and instead of killing off the birds to get rid of them, precautions have been taken to protect them.
Until only a few years ago, anybody who wanted a pheasant for lunch went out and shot one. His cost was a bullet. Now he pays a $50 fine if caught. Nobody dares break a pheasant egg. There is a bounty of $25 on any fox shot on the island, and one imprudent beast did stray over from the mainland on last winter’s ice. They got him. The daily bag on the annual hunt was long since cut from five to three, while the special license went up from $3 to $5, but the number of persons trying to hunt Pelee pheasants grows higher year by year.
Up to the first of July this year more than 800 hunters had sent more than $5,000 to Township Clerk Harold Beard, asking for licenses for this year’s shoot. About half these were Americans, who sent along their $20— five for Pelee, $15 to Ontario.
But many may be rejected, because the same wet spring which caused a 30% loss in the soybean crop has reduced the pheasants to the lowest level in many a year.
The big shoots proved to the islanders they needed a tourist bureau to help strangers find accommodation. They formed one last year headed by Ernie Callow, a friendly Englishman, and Olive Stewart, an energetic islander.
Pelee is a fisherman’s paradise.
Black, rock and silver bass abound. There are some perch, enormous catfish, if you happen to like catfish, fiveand six-pound pickerel, sturgeon up to 212 pounds and occasional lake trout.
There are thousands of cottontail rabbits, and farmers get neither excited nor irritated at the sound of gunfire.
One advantage of any island is isolation, and recently the Ontario Agricultural College at Guelph has started raising pedigreed queen bees on Pelee. The greatest distance any bee has been known to fly for nectar Is seven miles. Since Pelee is 10 miles from any shore, it’s a good breeding spot. At the suggestion of Harry White, M.P., Clanworth, and Ervin Hogarth, Tara, Ont. Canada’s bee king, two bee yards were set up on the Island.
In the spring of 1944 10 full colonies plus four small or partly developed colonies were taken to the Island from Guelph.
The colonies were divided, about eight miles apart, and one promptly set up a record. This colony produced
450 pounds of No. 1 clover honey in its first season. Last year Arthur Bushell, a student working for Ontario Agricultural College, brought 60 full colonies to the island.
A goal of 900 queens a month was set for this season, and this goal has easily been reached. The colonies are run for the Ontario Agricultural College by Bushell and Carmen Ciphery, and the queens, with 10 attendant workers to feed them, are shipped by air to every part of Ontario and occasionally farther east.
The new queens are fed on a secret candy which is said to have a tonic quality unknown in any other bee food. These queens, the first commercially raised for and in the Canadian climate, have already been sought by apiarists as far away as the Gold Coast, Madagascar, the Falkland Islands and Russia, but the Ontario demand has not yet been met and gets priority.
American commercial seed men are also doing a similar job on hybrid corn. There again isolation is imperative, so that the thoroughbred corn doesn’t get tangled up with maverick stock. Corn borer is unknown on Pelee Island, and seed experts make daily inspections in the growing fields, hoping that something super in early maturing corn may develop.
Another recent Pelee development started last year when William Fronizer, an American, bought 225 acres in the northeast tip of the island with the idea of establishing a goose and muskrat breeding ground. He turned 200 breeder rats loose in his marsh and attracted 1,200 Canada geese on their way to the Jack Miner sanctuary, which is at Kingsville, 17 miles north on the mainland.
Fronizer also offers tourists fishing so abundant as to make you drool, but so far he’s had no time to see whether or not the muskrats will actually make a comeback. He knows of the bank rolls lost by many an ambitious breeder who tried to raise rats in semicaptivity, and blames it all on overpopulation. Fronizer thinks it should be a cinch to raise nine muskrats each year to the acre, and at present prices that should be a jack pot. As for the geese and ducks which stop at his food-filled marshes, Fronizer isn’t kidding anybody. He’s not running a sanctuary, but a hunting and shooting club.
Soil experts make frequent inspection Î on Pelee. Although delighted with the natural fertility of the marshy ground, they never cease to warn that that rich land will one day beworthlessunless fertilized. This is not being done today. There is little natural fertilizer on the island and chemical substances aren’t used to any extent.
Want an Island?
If your idea of fun is an uninhabited island in Canada’s deep south, the Pelee eight-island group is your dish. Of the group, East Sister and North Harbor, respectively 30 and five acres, are owned by Mrs. M. M. Moffatt. Hen Island’s eight acres belong to the Quinnebog Fishing Club, while Middle Sister’s 10 acres are in the hands of James Quimby.
Middle Island, which is four miles south of Pelee, is the extreme southern tip of all Canada and is about miles south of the northern border of California. The actual final inch of Canada is owned, appropriately enough, by the Crown because it supports an abandoned lighthouse.
Balance of Middle’s 49 acres stands in the name of Joe Roscoe, Toledo.
H. E. (Buster) Williams, a swarthily handsome Pelee Islander, ran this place
as a fishing club for Roscoe and his friends until he got tired quarrelling over the question of fishing through the ice—forbidden by Ontario laws— and quit. Middle Island is now abandoned and has become a basking ground for indolent snakes.
The other two islands in Pelee Township, Big Chicken and Little Chicken, are yours for the asking. They run a couple of acres each, are surrounded by fish, have never been assessed, and belong to the Crown.
For purposes of administration these eight islands are grouped together as the Township of Pelee in the County of Essex, but their only county tax is $140 for the administration of justice. This is a distinct overcharge,! because no island case has been before the Ontario courts in the memory of the oldest resident.
The town gendarme, Charlie McNeil, is a Cockney who got to Pelee by the unlikely route of Baluchistan and the Khyber Pass. He gets $25 a year, a house and a hat for being cop, but he’s never yet had a case. Charlie gets a bit extra as the Pelee Everything. He’s harbor master, license inspector, poundkeeper, traffic chief, lifesaver, truant officer, coal controller, opium inspector, dogcatcher and everything else you can name. He came close to a court case once when, as a result of a feud, one native took a pot shot at another. He missed and was told he shouldn’t do such things. In chagrin this citizen shot himself, but, like a sensible islander, he did this on the mainland, causing no trouble to Charlie.
Opposite Charlie lives the island’s medical health officer, a native of British Guiana, Dr. Edward Wellesley Reece. He graduated from Queen’s in 1919 and returned to his South American homeland until 1942. At that time, on a visit to Windsor, he was offered the Pelee post and took it, partly because this was Canada’s most southerly point. Dr. Reece, big and deep-voiced, has never lost a patient. He advises first-time mothers to have their babies on the mainland, but has personally delivered 25 little islanders. He also does minor surgery.
Transport is a costly and thorny problem, but it improves. A steamer from Sandusky to Kingsville and Leamington calls at the island in each direction each day, and there’s a freighter when coal arrives or beans depart. Hundreds of small craft drop in.
Most urgent need right now is hydroelectric power and a fish wharf. With the waters teeming with fish it’s almost impossible to buy one. There are no retailers with so much as a minnow to offer. Actual consumption of fish on the island is far below the Ontario average.
Thirty islanders have their own power plants, but the cry grows louder for hydro.
Summer storms of great fury sometimes sweep the flatlands, and roads are often snow-blocked in winter, but spring comes early and the summers are iong and lazy.
If you ever go there, you’ll find 600 easy-going homesters who feel that their island is the finest place on earth. This won’t be a gag, and it won’t be the tom-tom beat of the Chamber of Commerce, because there is no Chamber of Commerce. The folks just happen to like their Canadian Riviera where a lot of things have come and gone, leaving a residue of optimistic realism; realism which says here is good earth, and where there is good earth crops will grow and prosper.