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Mud, Mud, Beautiful Mud

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By Pat Mestern
February 21, 2004 

Mud is universal and kids have an affinity for it. There’s nothing that attracts a small tyke like oozing, black soupy Mud. Bog holes are like magnets. They demand exploration. I speak from experience.

Mud has always been with us. Canada was known for its five seasons - Spring, Mud - Summer, Autumn and Winter. It was the bain of early life in Upper Canada. Each spring for a period of time, trails and what roads were laid, were impassible due to muddy conditions. Settlers wrote prolifically about the mud they encountered; “a mile of mud that sucked the wagon in”, one fellow penned describing an area in West Garafraxa.

Area villages had their fair share of mud. Clara Young writes about Fergus streets that she didn’t venture forth during mud season as having to navigate spongy village streets meant that she’d have to hike her skirt above modesty levels, and she was not about to do that.
Board sidewalks were an attempt to placate the ladies who wanted to keep those skirts clean and swinging at ankle length. Although a board sidewalk had been laid in front of the shops on St. Andrew but women still had to negotiate all those muddy side streets before they reached the board walk. In the 1890's several local store keepers lamented the fact that due to muddy conditions, and depending on the weather, March and early April were their worst months for profit as the womenfolk didn’t shop.

After concrete sidewalks were laid, conditions improved a bit in area villages but not around the countryside. Concession roads were still muddy soups, full of huge frost boils, in the early spring. Frost boils were those miseries that boiled up when the frost came out of the ground, a situation that was compounded by spring rains. Go down any gravel byway today during spring warm-up and you’ll encounter the occasional frost boil.

When automobiles came along, some farmers saw muddy roads in a different light. A big mud hole was a prescription to make money for one canny fellow on the fifth line of Eramosa. He lived near a patch of concession road that ran through a swamp which proved its nettle each spring. There was always a car to pull out of the mud with Dobbin and Jane, his team of Clydesdales. The bigger the car the more he asked for the job. His thinking was, he said that if the people owned a big car they had money and could afford to pay him well. When he applied for a loan at a local bank he listed among his assets, “mud patch that brung in good coin”.

Belsyde Avenue was one of those interesting spring byways. Each spring, mud would ooze from huge boils in the road. And each spring, I’d be tempted to challenge the wonders of nature. Standing in the middle of the road I’d first push a stick into the soft ooze of a big boil just to see how deep it was. Of course, the boil was deep enough that the stick disappeared. The stick would be followed by stones of varying sizes. They too disappeared and were followed by a rubber-booted foot. Think about it. Could I resist the temptation? Invariably the boot would sink into the boil with the foot inside.

As mud oozed into the boot I’d quickly sit on the road, an action that stopped the entire child from being sucked into the hole. I’d remove my foot and pull as hard as I could. For the most part, the hole reluctantly disgorged the boot. I’d try to dump or pour the mud out, put the boot on and wander along to the next hole for another spot of fun.

Once, despite the pullings of both myself and Stewart McTavish Sr., the hole refused to let go the boot. Mr. McTavish was checking for mail while I was checking a huge frost boil just in front of his gate. Mr. McTavish had no pity. He said that I was foolish enough to lose my rubber boot in the frost boil, so I could be clever enough to find my way home with one foot shod in boot and the other bare. My sock had been swallowed with the boot. He said that like as not some “Chinaman” would find my boot when he was plowing his field on the other side of the world. Having said that, Mr. McTavish promised to keep an eye on the hole for the return of the boot, as might happen when the earth heaves in a frost but the errant footwear never reappeared.

Rubber boots were not expensive but father and mother were not money pits. Even though they admitted to playing in frost boils when they were young, they refused to buy me another pair. The ultimate punishment for losing the boot was no further exploration of muddy roads unless I wanted to do so in bare feet. The idea was tempting. When I told my best friend what happened to my rubber boot, she went out to give the hole a try too and lost one of hers. Three cents and some hard candy got me her remaining boot. Now I had a pair. That they were both for the left foot didn’t matter too much to a seven year old child.

One spring during the late 1940's it rained for days at a time. I remember nothing but dark skies and pouring rain. I remember mother crossing each rainy day off on the calendar and saying “well, it’s not forty days yet, but we’re getting there”. Our gardens below Tower Street hill, beside and behind 525 and 505 Tower Street S, had been plowed the previous autumn. During these particular miserable rainy days they turned into slurry pits. We’re talking quick-mud here! Water lay on soil that was so saturated it couldn’t absorb more.

Easter vacation fell during this rainy period and our country cousin came for a visit so there were five children in the house for the week. In exasperation, mother told us to dress warmly and go explore the greenhouse and barn for awhile. Being young once, you know what kids are like. After a thorough exploration of the buildings we were off to see the mess in the gardens. I’d never seen anything like it. Water had turned both gardens into brown bodies of sucking, soft ooze.

Of course there was nothing to do but tempt fate. Cousin and I stepped into the garden and promptly began to sink. We were up to our knees and sinking FAST. Sis ran for the house to get mother who ran for Grandmother. I can see both now - rubber boots, house dresses and huge aprons running toward us. They stood at the side of the garden looking us over then each adult reached for a child, and each child grabbed a hand - quickly. We were now up to our thighs.

Mother and grandmother pulled with all their might. We didn’t move. They pulled harder and we didn’t budge. They tugged harder and we began to move albeit slowly. They yanked and we both came free, making a sucking sound as we did. We fell onto our bottoms that promptly began to sink in the mud. We were dragged to the edge of the garden and set on our feet. The four of us were covered from head to foot with mud. Grandmother made the mistake of pushing hair out of her face with a muddy hand, and covered her glasses with slurry. Our rubber boots and socks, stayed in the mud, never to be seen again, even after numerous plowings in future years.

Mother and grandmother were not amused. I ended up in grandmother’s tub where I got hot tongue and a good scrubbing. Cousin ended up in mother’s tub where I imagine she got the same thing.

Ah, but playing in mud does have its rewards, albeit small ones. The family’s favourite fishing spot was, well I won’t tell you because it was a secret spot. Fishing was good and one never divulges their good fishing grounds. Close by on high ground there was a spring that ran clear and cold out of the ground. Anyone who fished the spot knew about the spring, and of course the deer and other wild animals that came to drink did too. One lazy Sunday afternoon, I wasn’t so interested in fishing with the family as digging in the mud near the spring. I’d even brought a small hand trowel along because I thought it would be fun to dig a bigger channel for the water to run from spring toward the river.

While digging I came across one coin then another and another. Dad cleaned them off the best he could and said that they were c1850's British coins. He helped me dig around in the mud but we found nothing else except an arrowhead and a small piece of copper with numbers on it. There was so little of the copper left that dad couldn’t tell for sure what it was but he thought it was a piece of a surveying apparatus. As the site was well above the flood line, the coins had lain undisturbed for more than one hundred years. I like to think that someone stooped to drink from the spring and a few coins dropped from his pocket. Could the arrowhead have come from a wounded animal? I have no idea how long dad kept the piece of copper trying to find an answer to its origins.



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