The Lost Years: John Muir in Canada, 1864-66

by Ken Haigh

The year is 1864.  It is late May or early June and we are standing in the midst of a vast tamarack and cedar swamp somewhere in southern Ontario, possibly on the southern edge of Simcoe County or the Holland Marsh.  Any moment now a young man will emerge from the tangled forest and wade through the bog towards us.  He has been travelling all day, following a rough compass course; he is hungry, caked with mud, and tired. Now as the sun begins to set he contemplates the possibility that he may have to spend the night in this morass and wonders if he might construct a sort of nest in the trees such as the Indians in the flooded forests of the Orinoco.  He does not suspect it, but he is about to have an encounter that will change his life. (Later in life he would write that only one other meeting had the same impact and that was his meeting with Ralph Waldo Emerson). I will let him describe this encounter in his own words:

But when the sun was getting low and everything seemed most bewildering and discouraging, I found the beautiful Calypso on the mossy bank of a stream, growing not in the ground but on a bed of yellow mosses in which its small white bulb had found a soft nest and from which its one leaf and flower sprung. The flower was white and made the impression of the utmost simple purity like a snowflower.  No other bloom was near it, for the bog a short distance below the surface was still frozen, and the water was ice cold.  It seemed the most spiritual of all the flower people I had ever met.  I sat down beside it and fairly cried for joy.

Odd that a flower should so affect the young man–even a flower as beautiful and rare as the Calypso orchid, the so-called hider of the north.  But this is no ordinary young man.  True at 25, he doesn’t look like much. He is short and wiry, with a thick black beard and unkempt hair. His woollen pants and coat are torn; his shirt is patched and frayed.  His boots seem to be more mud than leather.  Over his shoulder is slung a rubberized bag which contains seemingly nothing of practical value–a loaf of bread, a packet of tea, and some oats–and the tools of his trade: plant presses.  What is he doing in this great forest? Not hunting or trapping or surveying land, but botanizing.  It is a curious hobby, and is regarded sceptically by the few lonely settlers the young man meets in his wanderings.  Indeed, at one point, he will be arrested as a deserter from the British Army and will be at pains to prove he is, in fact, an American citizen. The young man’s name is John Muir.

In the years to come, Muir’s fame as an environmentalist will spread.  He will become the father of the American National Parks system, his writings (still in print) will encourage Americans to see the wilderness not as something to be conquered or exploited, but as something to be preserved and cherished.  He will lobby tirelessly to preserve wilderness lands, particularly Yosemite, which will become most closely identified with him.  He will found the Sierra Club, to promote his values. As the years pass, Muir societies will form in those places most closely associated with him–California, Wisconsin, Alaska, Scotland, and most recently, Meaford, Ontario, Canada–to preserve the memory of the man and his message. But that is all in the future.  In 1864, he is just a confused young man, who, having recently escaped the rigours of a frontier homestead in northern Wisconsin and a dour, zealously religious father, is using his new-found freedom to chart his course for the future.  A short stint at the University of Wisconsin opened his mind to the new and controversial theories of men such as Charles Darwin and Louis Agassiz, a world away from the teachings of his fundamentalist upbringing.

John Muir’s biographers largely overlook his Canadian sojourn.  This may be due to lack of information. Very little is known of Muir’s life in Canada, a curious anomaly in an otherwise carefully documented life.  Muir made his own life a vehicle for his ideas, and his readers feel that they know him well.  His Memoirs of My Boyhood and Youth describe his early life, from his birth in Scotland until he leaves the University of Wisconsin in 1863.  At the time of his death he was preparing his diaries for publication in A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, which picks up his story in Illinois in 1867.  The years between 1863 and 1867 are a bit blank. Frederic Bade, Muir’s literary executor and first biographer, had to fill this gap with a few surviving letters, the memoirs of two of Muir’s Canadian acquaintances and, rather ingeniously, by following the dates and locations recorded on Muir’s surviving botanical specimens.  In 1997, however, the discovery of five letters in the small Meaford Museum became the catalyst for a renewed interest in John Muir’s Canadian years and the formation of the Canadian Friends of John Muir.

Why did Muir come to Canada?  Muir never discloses his reasons, but most of his biographers agree that it was to avoid the draft in the Union Army in that terrible, final year of the Civil War. Muir never made a secret that he abhorred war, and as a member of the nonconformist sect, the Disciples of Christ, pacifism would have come as naturally to him, as it did to the Quakers.  Muir’s younger brother Dan was already in Canada, and this was probably another incentive to go. Muir left Wisconsin on March 1, 1864, lonely and confused.   He wrote to his friend Emily Pelton, “I feel like Milton’s Adam and Eve: ‘The world was all before them, where to choose their place of rest.'”  Muir spent the next eight months wandering about southern Ontario in search of botanical specimens.  His wanderings were prodigious; in one three-week period he covered more than three hundred miles through swamp and wilderness. In October he came to a halt in Meaford at the invitation of his brother Dan.  Dan had made the acquaintance of the Trout Family, who owned a sawmill and woodenware factory near Meaford, and the Trouts offered the Muir brothers employment.  This suited John, who was low on funds and needed a place to hole-up over the winter. The Trouts were also members of the Disciples of Christ Church and, by Muir’s own account, very agreeable companions.  William Trout and his partner, Charles Jay, owned the mill, but they were frequently joined by other members of the Trout Family: a younger brother, Peter, who worked in the mill, and two sisters, Mary and Harriet.  They were young–William, at 30, was the oldest of the gang–and there was a good deal of tomfoolery, but there was also a good deal of earnest discussion about religion and the natural world.  As William Trout remembered, with John Muir around, “Our log house in the mill hollow might modestly claim the same dignity as a university.”

Muir was hard-working and inventive.  His clockwork, self-rising bed had already made him famous in Wisconsin.  William was so impressed with Muir’s technical skill that he offered him a contract: If Muir could double the output of the mill, the partners would split the profits with him. At this time, the mill was producing hay rakes and broom handles. Through a series of pioneering time-and-motion studies and by adapting and re-organizing the existing machinery, Muir succeeded in his goal. The factory was soon working at double speed, and by February 1866, all of the broom handles and half of the hay rakes were completed. Then on February 21, disaster struck.  The mill burned to the ground, destroying all of their labour.  There was no insurance. Trout and Jay were wiped out.  They owed Muir $300, but he cut the amount to $200, took what cash they could give him, and accepted the balance in an IOU. With no possibility of further employment and the Civil War over, Muir decided to return to the United States.  Muir never held his misfortune against the Trouts and continued a friendly correspondence for many years.  Five of those letters are now preserved in the Meaford Museum.  Years later, on the eve of Muir’s marriage, the Trouts were finally able to redeem the IOU as a wedding present.

I asked Scott Cameron, of the Canadian Friends of John Muir, whether the two years Muir spent in Canada were significant.  He believes they were.  In Canada, Cameron felt, Muir had his “epiphany.” Muir was able to blend his religious training with his new-found knowledge of the natural world, and out of this came the environmental awareness that would later guide his life. And Muir wasn’t particularly impressed with Canadians, Cameron noted wryly.  The Civil War had driven up the price of grain, and homesteaders around Meaford were clearing land just as fast as they could to cash in on the bonanza.  There was no effort to use the felled trees, which were just piled and burned. Cameron said at one point in 1865, there were so many fires burning that Meaford was blanketed with smoke for a whole month.  Muir wrote, “So many acres chopped is their motto, so they grub away amid the smoke of magnificent forest trees, black as demons.”  One of the newly discovered letters also hints at a romantic attachment between Muir and Harriet Trout, though it may not have been a reciprocal attachment, as Muir seems to be letting “Hetty” down gently.
The Canadian Friends have sponsored several Muir weekends, which have included hikes to Trout Hollow, lectures by visiting Muir scholars, and even an archaeological dig in 1999 at the ruins of the Trout Mill.

Today, Meaford is not the same frontier town that Muir would have known.  It is still small and pleasant, but its streets are paved, not the rutted mud tracks Muir would have trod. The harbour, which would have been full of commercial shipping in Muir’s day, is now the home of pleasure yachts and a few fishing tugs. The meeting hall for the Disciples of Christ has been turned into a restaurant called the Back Street Cafe, but the bustling downtown core, with its late nineteenth-century commercial facades and impressive opera house, still has an old-fashioned feel about it. Apple growing and tourism have become the dominant industries of the area, but in an interesting twist of fate, the owner of the town’s surviving sawmill (Stanley Knight Ltd–they mill hardwood flooring today, not broom handles) owns the forest property in which Muir lived and worked. Mr. Knight, who is actively involved in promoting the Muir legacy, has given permission for a hiking trail to pass through Trout Hollow.

If you go to the center of town and park your car at Beautiful Joe Park, you can follow the Trout Hollow Trail along the banks of the Bighead River, upstream, to the wooded valley that was once John Muir’s home.  There is no plaque or monument, but if you look closely, you can still see the remains of the mill race which ran beneath the factory floor–the factory that John Muir’s genius transformed.

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