Growing up in Fredericton in the 1820s and 30s
From the blog at https://johnwood1946.wordpress.com
The following paragraphs were written by William T. Baird, and are from his book Seventy Years of New Brunswick Life; Autobiographical Sketches, Saint John, N.B., 1890.
Baird’s remembrances of moving to Fredericton in 1825, and growing up there over the following fifteen years or so, are varied. There is everything from the sentimental to matters-of-fact to stories that would sound ghastly today. He touches on the great fire of 1825, his father’s teaching career, shipbuilding in Fredericton, military exercises and much more.
William T. Baird, from his book
Growing up in Fredericton in the 1820s and 30s
[William’s father moved to Fredericton in 1825, to take charge of the ‘National School’. William was about six years old at the time.]
The incident of our journey down was the towboat being swept by the current of a high spring freshet under overhanging trees, which brushed from the cabin’s deck the steersman into the seething waters below. I remember, also, our stopping for a night at Colonel Ketchum’s, a little above Woodstock, where we were kindly treated.
Again in Fredericton, my father at once resumed his former work of teaching.
The buildings, occupied as a residence and school-room, were situated opposite Wilmot’s alley, just above the present stone barracks, and formed two sides of a square. We spent part of one year in this place and then removed our residence to a large two-story building, owned by a Mr. Wells, on King Street, near the jail, occupying the half of an upper flat.
Before all our effects were removed, however, there occurred the great fire of 1825, which in the month of October, destroyed the greater part of the town of Fredericton; also the forest and many dwellings on the Miramichi River, where several lives were lost.
The school being in session and the flames nearing the building, the school was dismissed. A large dictionary was given me to carry, and as I leached the street — now filled with smoke, burning cinders and retreating people — and crossed to the opposite side, I saw a horse coming down furiously; he was attached to a cart on which was some bedding in flames. I ran into an alley leading into the yard of the Yerxa House, the horse took the same course. Having run the length of the alley, in turning the corner the left wheel came in contact with the building, swinging the shafts and horse suddenly round over a cellarway, down the seeps of which I had retreated to the door, which was closed. Suspended above me was the horse, but I was soon relieved from the perilous position by the arrival of the men in charge.
The school was re-opened in the Market House, second flat, directly opposite to Taylor’s Alley on Queen Street. The other half of the flat, easterly, was the “Court Room,” in which the Bible Society and other public meetings were held.
Many residents of Fredericton, who have since become solid men and women, often refer to their early training in the “Old Market House.”
My father also taught a night school, where, to keep me out of mischief, I was frequently taken, and where I dozed away many a restless hour on the desks or benches. At the top of the stairway leading to the school-room, on the outside of the building, was a platform enclosed by balusters; where some of the latter were wanting, young children indulged in the dangerous amusement of passing through and along on the outside. My brother, John D., was the victim. One of the balusters giving way, he fell to the ground, breaking his leg, but from which he soon perfectly recovered.
Just above the Market House, and almost darkening the windows, were several large ships in course of building by merchants in Fredericton.
The site of the brick dwelling and garden owned by the late Judge Saunders was at that time a shipyard, and the sons of the builders or contractors — Dows & Hoopers — schoolmates.
My father, having purchased a comfortable one story house on King street, above the range of the fire and just below the residence of Dr. Somerville, we removed thereto, where, on a first flat, with garden attached, we enjoyed many comforts hitherto unknown. I now, when in Fredericton, pause to look upon this unpretentious building, with which are connected so many associations of the long ago.
After a few years’ residence! on King Street, my father rented from the Church Corporation of Fredericton an acre of land extending from Brunswick to George St., then the rearmost street in the town, on which latter he proceeded to erect a commodious two-story building, with barn, etc. These buildings are yet standing, in fair condition, a little above and opposite to St. Ann’s Church.
A National School building having been erected on King Street, a little above the Parliament buildings, with ample accommodation, and separate apartments for an African school, the school was removed thereto from the Market House. In this building a room had also been prepared for the books of the Fredericton library, of which my father was the librarian. I was frequently asked by lady and gentlemen subscribers to add to the catalogues, in a good round hand, the titles of new books received. I remember a kindly old gentleman, Judge Bliss, giving me for this service a silver half dollar.
Our removal to Fredericton was one of the great events of my life. Almost uninterrupted attendance at school, with free access to an excellent library, presented rare opportunities for study or recreation, and to these early advantages I owe the development of the powers which God had given me, the position and much of the happiness I have enjoyed in the world.
After being settled in our new home on George Street, there was a systematic arrangement of time for employment or recreation. Assisted by my father, the short afternoons from four o’clock were fully occupied during the winter in keeping the house supplied with fuel, frequently hard wood logs, or birch timber, cut with a cross-cut saw. Surrounding the table after supper, lessons invariably took precedence; after which, sketching with water colors—many of which we were taught to make,— or reading, often aloud, occupied the time till nine o’clock, when we retired. At early dawn, books were drawn from under the pillow, and in winter, with hands rolled up in the blankets, held before the eyes, to refresh the studies of the previous evening.
A cow, pig and poultry also occupied the time, so that little was left for outside amusement.
The enjoyment of a half hour’s skate was intense. The river Nashwaaksis and “Government Pond,” so called, afforded fine fields of ice, and good skaters were not wanting as models in this graceful and healthful exercise. Of these I would name Hon. J.A. Beckwith, Captain Hansard, Stephen Miller and Beverly Robinson.
On one occasion, a smaller boy and I were skating on the river; we had found a space of smooth, black ice unmarked. Presently, the first of the above-mentioned gentlemen entered, and seizing the smaller boy, held him out at arms’ length, and made some almost perfect curves on the outside backward and forward. Seeming to read my mind, as I looked on wonderingly, he said to me, “Sonny, can you do that?” I said, “No, sir.” Then said he, “You must try; there’s an upper part to everything.”
The words were truly fitly spoken, and have been to me “as apples of gold in pictures of silver.” The poise of mind and body I have found many times necessary to the accomplishment of what I considered great and good. If the highest and best objects of our pursuit are not always attained, we should at least be found struggling in the path of duty. The Hon. J.A.B. set a good example in many ways to the youth of Fredericton as a lover of athletic sports.
I have had many faithful dogs in my life, to which I became warmly attached. When about twelve years old, I had a large black and tan Newfoundlander, which was well harnessed and trained to draw me, anywhere guided, on a sled. He was a powerful animal and would draw very heavy loads, and often hauled my brother and I to school, returning with as many boys as could pile on the sled. I enjoyed many merry and exciting rides after the brave and faithful “Danger.”
Some half a mile back from our house, on the race-course and near the edge of the woods, carcasses of dead animals from the town were deposited. Dogs of all sorts and sizes would gather about these, and many a frosty morning, sitting on my sled, have I guided “Danger” for a chase. He understood the thing better than I; his tactics were good. As we approached near — the dogs being intently engaged — in a crouching and stealthy manner and taking advantage of cover, he drew slowly on, nearer and nearer, until with a dash and a yelp he struck terror into the hearts of the feasting canines. As they broke for the town the largest dog was selected; previous experience gave fleetness to their motions, and for a half mile or more the pace was terrific. As a rule the dogs were more scared than hurt, but the chase sometimes ended in disaster to sled and harness.
Early morning trips were also made to the woods on the crust, for pea sticks to be used in the garden in summer, selected from the tops of birch trees recently cut.
In the summer time an acre of ground, under cultivation as field or garden, occupied our time morning and evening. Duty being always the first consideration, then amusement.
For an hour’s fishing in the morning, I have left home at early dawn, walked two miles to the second creek below Fredericton, caught a good basketful of smelt, and returned in time for school.
On wet days during the summer large flocks of English plover could be heard whistling as they circled around the open space or ran over the green sward of the race-course, directly in front of our residence. Thus tempted, I took my father’s gun, which was loaded, and made my debut by bagging a few of these fine birds. From this time forth shooting and field sports became a passion, and in after years many mornings in summer have I disturbed the nighthawks on the streets of Fredericton on my way to the hills.
For my mother’s amusement, when engaged with her needle, I read to her Washington Irving, Marryatt’s writings, Doctor Syntax, etc.
I became deeply interested in the Memoirs of John Shipp, which aroused an inspiriting and military ardour, an effect produced also in others with whom I have conversed.
The provincial law at that time required but three days’ military training in each year. Previous to the muster, the officers of companies met just opposite our residence for drill.
Being tall for my age, I was frequently selected to fill a blank in the rear rank — the initiatory step in the service of my country.
The veteran commander of the militia was Lieutenant Colonel Minchin, who had served in the royal artillery.
The knowledge obtained in battalion drill was very superficial, the volunteer companies only being supplied with arms.
The Royal African Corps, about 50 strong, was the centre of attraction, as it possessed a band. Captain M, of Douglas, with a nondescript uniform, was the commander. George Lawrence, late big drummer in the 104th Regiment (colored), was the drill instructor, and the half forgotten words of command, Africanized, afforded much amusement on parade.
Fronting on George Street was a large open space, which extended from our residence downward to the Scotch Kirk. Its circuit was nearly a mile, near the centre of which the exhibition building of later days was erected. The open space above referred to was the race-course of those early days, where many races were hotly contested. The most notable horses were the “Rattler,” the “Mark’s Horse” (beating the “Cannon Ball” in a three mile race), “Silk Stockings,” “Gipsy” and others.
It was also the scene of many brilliant “field days” and inspections of the “regulars” stationed in Fredericton. In the march home, plucky young urchins dared to grab from the aprons of the grim, bear skinned pioneers a handful of cartridges gathered upon the field. Here, too, was the annual training and the preparatory drill of troop or company.
With all the improvements and modern appliances in the militia force of the present day, the conduct of our volunteers in field movements is no advance upon the practical and heroic of former times.
It was no uncommon thing to see a troop of cavalry in uniform galloping over the parade ground, and by cut and parry, eliciting applause; or sweeping down upon a battalion in square, through fire and smoke, re-form, with blood flowing from their horses from bayonet pricks received in the charge. On one occasion I saw more than one horse on its haunches, and another fall completely over backward upon its rider. Again, a charge was made upon a square, into which the artillerymen ran at the last moment. A trooper, dismounting, seized a drag rope and remounted, upon which a non-commissioned officer (Brannen) rushed out, administering from his rifle, at close quarters to the horse’s tail, a depilatory powder, to the great astonishment of its rider and the amusement of the crowd.
At the rear of the race-course was an elevated earthwork called the “battery,” into which many bullets from the old flint rifles entered in friendly contest. The crack shots of those days were L.A. Wilmot, George White, John Davis and others.
The presence of regular troops in the garrison at Fredericton, their personal neatness and precision in movement had much to do in framing the tastes and habits of our young men; but the miasma of immorality, floating from a thousand idle men and poisoning the atmosphere, makes questionable any advantages derived from their presence.