The Barrs: Out of the Wilderness

by Mary Ducharme  (October 2020)

William married Margaret Graham, on September 18, 1839. Margaret and William had a large family of three sons and four daughters, and their family grew with marriages of their children to many of the other pioneer families of Covey Hill and the village of Hemmingford. By 1851, the census shows four William Barrs and several John Barrs.

John Barr became a major participant in municipal life, especially the establishment of the new township of Havelock and his role on municipal and school boards. He married Susanna McConnell in 1832, and they were the parents of seven sons and three daughters. He lived on Covey Hill until his death in 1873.

Following are portions of the first person account by William of his early years on Covey Hill. He had purchased Lot 66, 2nd Range from John Scriver. It was a backwoods wilderness later known as Clelland’s Corners not far from the home of his sister Margaret.

“The road had been straightened before the year we came and the pieces across the swamps were newly cross-wayed. I set to work to make potash to pay out for my land. Potash was then high, $25 to $30 per bbl. It was fearful cutting the trees in summer, and I often had to take a drink from the brook every few cuts. The land was finely covered with Maple and Elm, but where there had been much, it was plundered and burned in heaps.

“An American named Goodsill had put up a shanty and cleared a bit. When taking up house, I had everything but a stove and I went to old Mr. Horn to see if he would lend me $20 to buy one. On telling my errand, he said a man often lost his money and his friends by lending, but he said he would trust me. That winter I lumbered with Hosmer Corbin, who came in 1835, (from Champlain) and when the lumber was sold in the spring, (to John Scriver) I went to repay Horn but he would take nothing for its use, and on my pressing he said ‘Weel, weel, gie me a day in hairst,’ and so I did a day’s shearing for him.

“Corbin brought 50 pigs with him and turned them into the woods to live on the beechnuts, and they came out fat. I went half and half with Corbin in putting up a small sawmill on the creek which paid us both well, we selling the lumber mostly to Col.Scriver. In ‘38 Corbin left me, and built his mill at English River, the same year Scriver put up his tannery. I bought a yoke of oxen from Scriver. I was a grand hand with oxen, and took them through the woods with the first load of boards for it.”

There are further accounts of life in the 1830’s and 40’s as told by Barr descendants. Matilda Churchill Kearns remembers her mother commenting that they had no hinges on the door to their shanty. Wolves prowled nightly — keeping her mother fearfully awake. (It opens the question of how many of Hosmer Corbin’s pigs survived the winter!)

Margaret died in 1878, and William died in 1887 at the age of 74. William’s daughter Ellen wrote an account of her parent’s high regard among his neighbours: “He was known as Captain William, and he and his wife Margaret were probably the most widely known couple in Hemmingford, especially on account of their candid and friendly disposition towards all with whom they came in contact.” Following the example of his brother John, he served many years in the Municipal Council; he was on the School Board; and he was an elder of the Presbyterian Church.

William’s story is in the 1888 book by Robert Sellar The History of the County of Huntingdon.

The Biographical Sketch of Alexander P. Barr and his descendants 1720 to 1914 is a genealogy and anecdotal history from Barr descendants, compiled by Lieut. Co. James Barr in 1914. The Huntingdon Gleaner on November 14, 1941 printed William’s eye witness account as a Hemmingford Volunteer at Odeltown in 1837 when the ‘rebels’ were driven across the border. He was appointed lieutenant in Captain McFee’s Company of Militia on November 25, 1859.

NEXT ISSUE: William’s eye witness account of the Battle of Odeltown.