Farming 19th Century Style

Heavy horse team pulling hay wagon

I had to learn a lot of things about life in the late 19th century in order to get into the mindset of the real-life people who populate The Haweaters. But the one thing I didn't have to learn was how land was farmed in those long ago days before tractors had been invented, industrializing the landscape and becoming so ubiquitous it's hard now to imagine a rural landscape in which those roaring metal beasts don't churn away all day and most of the night during the harvests.

The reason I didn't have to learn how to farm the old way was because I had the good fortune to have a neighbour named Stewart who was born in the late 1920s and had been farming with heavy horses from the time he was a small boy. His father had never mechanized the family farm, and my neighbour had seen nothing in his many decades of continuing the family's agricultural tradition that could convince him that farming with a tractor was in any way superior to what he could do with a team of well trained horses.

At the time I met him well into the 21st century, Stewart had a team of Percherons. The dominant horse was a "dappled grey" name Bud and his remarkably tolerant junior partner was a "black" named Bud. Together they had cut many hundreds of acres of hay, raked it into rows to dry, then bailed it into hefty rectangles that Stewart's farmhands -- usually boys from neighbouring farms -- would then hand-bomb onto carts while the horses patiently waited.

As a result of watching Bud and Ted working the fields, as well as hearing the stories involving those two legendary horses and the many who came before them, I learned much about a way of life that every day threatens to become extinct. The first -- and arguably most important -- thing I learned is that horses can do as much work as any tractor possibly could and do so in virtual silence. Horses also have much more pleasant personalities than the machinery that replaced them.

Sadly, Stewart died a few years after I met him and the tradition of heavy horse farming that he long ago mastered was not passed on to the next generation, something he had resigned himself to. And yet he made sure that his way of life would live on in his stories, which makes it fitting that it also made it into mine.


Based on the real-life 1877 killings of two members of one family by two members of another, The Haweaters brings to life some of Manitoulin’s earliest European settlers as they struggle against nature, poverty, and each other in a collective quest to leave their dubious pasts behind them and attain the prosperity they know they deserve in this rugged wilderness community. Learn more.