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John of the Main
 

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By Pat Mestern
March 19, 2004

When an elderly area woman showed me a small, grass-woven basket and said that it had been made by John Walker of “Mains” and given to her great, grandmother in Sunday School, I knew that the story of the “Names of Nichol” and John Walker of “Mains” should be told. John Walker was not a wealthy fellow. He was not well known; nor did he carve a place in local political history. He was your average Scottish-born pioneer and does have an interesting story to tell, a story that touches on the nineteenth century history of both Canada and the U.S.A.

To set the stage - those pioneers of Scots background loved to give their properties names, as in the old country tradition. Thanks to John Cadenhead who wrote a lot of names on an 1848 map, we can pass a few along to readers. As you read the list, keep in mind that each farm’s name had an “over-home” association for its owner. In Nichol Township: Concession X1: James Moir, “Meadowside - The Meadows”; Geo. Barron’s “Springfield”; Geo. Frazer’s “Frazerfield”; Alex Watt on Auldreddie”; John Keith’s “Irvine Cottage”; J. Findlay at “Tillery”. Concession X11: Geo. Elmslie’s “Irvine Bank”; John A. Davidson’s “Woodburn”; Wm. Gerrie’s “New Mains”. Concession X111: Thomas Mair on “Bellfield”; Peter Brown at “Lower Irvineside”; James Melvine at “Boharm”; John Gerry at “Newtongarry”; Geo. Wilson at “Harvey Cottage”. Concession X1V: A.D. Fordyce “Lescraigie”; David Henderson at “Delachar”; David Smith on “Kingscausie”; Alex Clark on “Woodcot”; Francis Anderson at “Blackford”; James Duguid at “Carreston”; Geo.Skene at “Tifty”. Concession XV: John Valentine at “Glenburnie”; Thos Valentine at “Irvineside”; “Bilburn for Alex Fordyce Jr.’ Geo. Hamilton’s “Bardouie”; David Morris is at “Beechhill”; David B. Ferguson on “Craigielea”. Concession XV1: John & Brebner Cadenhead at “Glenesk”; then Alex Walker at “Mains”, Chas. Allan on “Strathallan”; and “Wm. Buist at “Beechwood”.

One man’s life is entwined with that of Alex Walker’s “Mains”. John Walker, who spent his youth at “Mains” in North Nichol, was born in Scotland c1825 at “The Mains” in the parish of Ellon. He arrived in Nichol with his father and stepmother in 1835 and spent his youth working on the homestead, clearing the land, planting and harvesting crops. Thos. Young wrote that while a young man, John had a magnificent singing voice and could play the violin very well. He also composed poetry and songs and had a crush on Louise Barker, sister to Mary Barker, wife of Thos. Young.

Not a robust, healthy fellow and rather small in stature, John eventually gave up farm work, learned the trade of making shoes and worked for a number of years in Salem at Sem Wissler’s shoemaking business. During his tenure in Salem, John made an effort to walk to the home-place each Sunday, a distance of approximately five miles. Arthur Walker Wright, author of Pioneer Days in Nichol pub.1924, remembers that “Uncle Johnnie” brought sweets, picture books and other gifts for the children of the household.

Unfortunately John Walker developed a penchant for the bottle. His favourite drinking companion was George Clephane, the remittance man. George Clephane also had a crush on Louise Barker whom he’d met in 1842, on a ship while coming to Canada. Both John Walker and George Clephane were prone to drunken stupors that had a devastating effect of their lives and the lives of those around them. Louise Barker wouldn’t have anything to do with either of them. After Clephane’s death, and in an effort to break away from bad company and “the habit”, John left Nichol Township for the United States. Little is known about this period of his life but we do know that he eventually found employment in Cincinnati. While in the U.S., John never quit “the bottle” and in one of his drunken fits in 1861 in his mid- thirties, he signed on with the Union Forces after which he ended up in hospital from an attack of “delirium tremors”. While in hospital, he was persuaded to convert to the Methodist church and made a vow to mend his ways.

As John had enlisted, it was his duty to serve in the Civil War. He saw action as a private in Sherman’s army at the battle of Chattanooga. He participated in the March to the Sea and taking of Atlanta, Georgia. His fiddle was part of his kit and he entertained whenever possible, playing several times for Sherman. John was wounded three times but never seriously enough to be sent home. During his time in the Union Army, he kept in touch with his family in Nichol Township. Several of the parcels that he sent home contained small grass-woven baskets for the womenfolk, a craft he learned while on the march through the Carolinas.

After his discharge, John came back to “Mains” in Upper Nichol Township for a period of rest. He eventually obtained work in Fergus at the shoemaking business of William Murray. Murray first ran a shoemaker’s shop on the south side of the Grand River before moving to the north side on the south corner of St. Andrew and Tower Streets - now the site of Melville United Church. In 1877, Murray built a substantial commercial structure on St. Andrew Street and expanded into harness and saddlery.

John Walker was the first to admit that working in Fergus with its seven or eight taverns was not an easy thing to do. He said that he could not pass the door of a bar-room or tavern without being tempted to enter, to have a drink. He could never eat a meal in a tavern where the smell of liquor was heavy in the air. Earnestly, John devoted his time to the Methodist church, a building that stood on the north corner of St. George and Maiden Lane - now the site of the James McQueen Public School. He taught Sunday School and gave little grass trinket boxes as presents to his charges. The grass for those baskets was gathered on the Beaver Meadow west of St. David Street, now Victoria Woods subdivision. Contrary to church teachings about the evils of music and the dance, John played his fiddle at many an area soiree. He wrote that his fiddle was his lifeline to sanity throughout the Civil War. John said that he saw so much death, he realized that life had a tenuous future. He always did little acts of kindness for friends and neighbours; never put himself first. He lived from hand to mouth. As long as he had a crust of bread to eat and his fiddle to play, he was happy.

Eventually John had health problems related to his early drinking habits. He suffered greatly from dyspepsia and was eventually persuaded to take a little home-made beer to relieve the pain. One drink and John fell off the waggon. Quickly he fell into a spiral of drunkenness that he couldn’t surmount. John spent his last days with him brother James in West Garafraxa.

According to Thos. Young who befriended John while he was sweet on Louise Barker, and remained his friend until John’s death, one of the man’s last requests was that the song he’d written during the 1840's - “The Names of Nichol” - be sung at his Wake. This song included the given names of most of the farms in the township. Thos. Young wrote that although he’d heard the song many times, regrettably he’d not written the words down for posterity. Neither apparently had John Walker for no one could find the words to the song, nor could they play the music so John’s wish could not be fulfilled. Someone who had lived at Living Springs, West Garafraxa when John died, told grandmother that John’s fiddle was buried with him to give him “comfort in the afterlife”. I’m not sure where John Walker was laid to rest. His “home” church was Wesleyan Methodist in Fergus. So if you hear fiddle music in a cemetery in West Garafraxa or Fergus . . . .

Would you like to know where “Mains” is located? The property owned by Henneberg’s - Fergus Gardens, R.R. #1, Highway #6, where you pick those luscious strawberries each spring, is the original homestead of the Walker family. Of course “Mains” was named after the farm “The Mains” in the parish of Ellon, Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

 

 

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