Farming the Unfarmable


By the second half of the 19th century, the settlement of Manitoulin Island by non-indigenous homesteaders had become inevitable. There were precious few affordable acreages left in southern Ontario by the late 1850s, a circumstance that led to a tidal wave of land speculation that pushed northward through Ontario until most of the arable land on the Bruce peninsula had fallen into private hands. Manitoulin Island was a natural extension of that northward push and in the fall of 1864, surveys began in five townships with the goal of opening up the southern part of the island to non-indigenous settlement by the summer of 1866. And yet there had long been warning signs that those early homesteaders would face significant challenges trying to establish agricultural communities on the island.

A report produced in the 1830s warned that while Manitoulin possessed a reasonable climate for farming thanks to mild winters with moderate snowfall and a growing season that was long enough to produce a wide variety of agricultural crops, it also noted that the island was burdened with substandard soil that would present a challenge to anyone attempting to grow crops. Manitoulin, it seemed, was an landmass made up almost entirely of rock and swamp. Only about one-sixth of its total area was considered cultivatable and even then only marginally. In many places the soil was a stone filled mixture of clay, sand and gravel. That's not to say there was no fertile soil, but it came in the form of the muck that filled the island's many swamps and bogs. Only in rare pockets did the soil extend down to what would be considered a cultivatable depth.

An 1862 report backed up the earlier one while adding that there was a distressing lack of rivers and creeks on the island due to the underlying limestone wicking the water out of what little soil there was, resulting in drought conditions that would significantly curtail crop yields. Even so, the report's authors felt that Manitoulin could potentially support a farming population of about 11,000 at a "tolerable" level. But that was if you didn't factor in the impact of the historical fires that had torn across a significant portion of Manitoulin Island, some of which had burned so hot they had permanently damaged the soil's structure and destroyed its fertility. It would take many years of planting nitrogen-fixing legumes and plowing them into the stiff, unyielding soil in an attempt to build up enough nutrients and organic bulk before farmers would be able to grow a wide range of cereal crops.

Not that anyone told the homesteaders about the fire damage, the poor quality soils or the limestone-induced drought conditions. They had to find out the hard way that the maple ridges that seemed so appealing were stony, droughty, and infertile. Those that could farmed in the fertile muck of the swampy, cedar-infested lowlands instead.

Manitoulin lumber baron R.A. Lyon, who had established a thriving timber concern around which the community of Michael's Bay sprang up, purchased whatever measly surpluses of grain, hay and livestock those early settlers could produce and employed them along with their teams of horses or oxen in his winter logging camps, something that put some much needed money in the homesteaders pockets while supplying Lyon with a cheap source of labour.

While agriculture would rein as the dominant economic driver on Manitoulin throughout the 1870s, it was clear to everyone that it was ultimately not a sustainable occupation and by the 1880s many of those early settlers had switched to earning their livings by exploiting the island's natural resources instead.

Based on the real-life 1877 killings of William and Charles Bryan by their neighbours, 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 prosperity in this rugged wilderness community. Learn more.