Muir and Meaford

It was disbelief when I saw the abandoned historic plaque in the Epping Lookout that stated that John Muir had lived in my valley – here in Ontario Canada – during the 1800’s. I never knew that! But with some sleuthing in museums and old textbooks I did find that it was a totally true but just an unknown fact to most people. Also too I discovered that most people in Canada had no idea who John Muir was. With the Civil War raging in the south, the Scottish born young man of 26 was sent north from the family farm in Wisconsin to live in Meaford and work at a sawmill for the two years from 1864 to 1866. Apparently he was totally at home with the Scottish Trout Family and formed lasting friendships during his time in the Canadian wilderness. Not only was he becoming hugely aware of the destruction of the forests at the time but he was also an incredible inventor and managed to double the production of the mill in one year. But in the winter of 1866 during a fierce winter storm the mill burned down with the whole year’s production of rake and shovel handles that had been stored in the attic. The Civil War was over and Muir returned penniless to the USA to work in Indiana.

A photo of Robert Burcher and the Muir Plaque he restored

The Restored Muir Plaque

In the summer of 1997 several of Muir’s letters sent to the Trout Family from Indiana were donated to the local museum. They didn’t know in fact who John Muir was! Because of my work in getting the plaque restored the letters came to my attention. I was able to by that time give a sketchy outline of the life of Muir and his time in Canada. The museum created an organization that eventually became The Canadian Friends of John Muir. Local naturalists and environmentalists got on board and it became a cause célèbre. In the summer of 1998 a major event was held to promote the John Muir “Discovery”. As part of the celebration two experts on Muir came from Western Canada to be the “talking heads” of the day.

The event started with a morning hike into Trout Hollow where the remnants of the dam still existed and what appeared to be the foundation of the mill. Connie Simmons (one of the experts) who was doing her PhD on Muir decided that she wanted to find the actual cabin site where Muir would have lived at the time. As an avocational archaeologist and also a Muir devotee I volunteered to help. Using one of the letters that Muir had sent to Meaford, Connie was able to read about the night the mill burned down “that from the cabin they could see the flames reflected across the mill pond”. Using that clue we worked our way upstream and when we got to what seemed to be an appropriate location I happened to notice a pottery shard – blue and white English pottery style in the debris from a groundhog hole. It seemed to be of the right vintage so we felt satisfied that we might have actually found the cabin site. Later in the day at the formal presentation the leader of the group announced that in fact a pottery shard had been found that very morning and that we might have found the long lost cabin site. What we didn’t know was that the Head of Archaeology from the Royal Ontario Museum was in the audience and he came forward and agreed that we did have an artifact. The next day we took him back to the site and he did find a treasure trove of ancient household artifacts such as spoons, bricks, more pottery shards and square headed nails.

The land owner who has family roots in the area going back to the 1800’s knew who Muir was and in fact carried a quote from Muir in his wallet. He was so impressed with what we had found that he sponsored an archaeological dig for the summer of 1999.

With a hired professional team and multiple volunteers we spent two weeks working the site; both the mill location and the cabin site. After finding the household artifacts one of the members of the group casting around a little further in the woods found what appeared to be chimney mortar. This eventually was proven to be the fireplace. Using a sketch that Muir had done during his time we were able to estimate the size of the cabin and sure enough found evidence of the log foundation for the cabin.

This was all exposed during a second annual hike sponsored by the Canadian Friends. But during the time of the dig many archaeologists showed up from around the province to give their input to the site. Over the 131 years river erosion had eaten away half of the earthen dam and whatever roads entered the site. There were many conflicting ideas on how the mill would have worked (undershot / overshot / in the flow etc.) Also where would the road accesses have been? What has really happened with the erosion and undergrowth during all these years?

This was a satisfying time for all; many artifacts, lots of camaraderie and a great amount of learning about Muir. In fact some of the thinkers in the group started to formulate opinions that Muir’s fundamental values and a sense of the need to save wilderness areas actually started here in this valley outside of Meaford Ontario.

To cap it all off after all was said and done, during the lead up to the Millienium change and all the hooferall about Y2K, the local Township was installing a generator to run their communication system on New Year’s eve when the world was supposed to grind to a halt. During the process the builders set their Works Department building on fire and it burnt to the ground – the biggest disaster caused by Y2K in our neighbourhood! In the ensuing redistribution of staff to reclaimed storerooms as temporary offices a map dating to 1858 of Trout Hollow was found. There was our answer, in all of its perfection, the layout of the site as Muir would have lived it. Almost exactly as we had figured out through the years of research and the weeks of digging. Now if all archaeology could have an ending like that!  Hey kids just flip to the back of your textbook and double check your answers!

As of today you can see the artifacts and display at the Meaford Museum and take a hike into Trout Hollow starting from a park on the river in Meaford called Beautiful Joe Park. A wonderful valley and hollow that is now nicely overgrown with just some ruins of later industrial activity still lurking in the woods.

Robert Burcher

This entry was posted in News. Bookmark the permalink.