One night, after watching one of my favourite Christmas movies, “A Christmas Carol” based on the novel by Charles Dickens, I incredibly wanted to plunge into the long-gone, so fabulous, atmosphere. When there was no electricity and auto, antibiotics and pesticides, Internet and digital technologies… Next day I went to Black Creek Pioneer Village. Luckily, I didn’t need the magic machine that could transfer me back in time; I simply took a TTC bus that brought me to the Steeles and Jane intersection in Toronto.
Black Creek Pioneer Village is an authentically re-created 1860′s Ontario country village; the place where life goes on the way it was over 150 years ago. Here, in 1816, Daniel and Elizabeth Stong, a young married couple, cleared the land and build their first home – a small 3-room log house with a large stone fireplace and a smoke house. Since then, those two structures have been sitting on their original locations for 200 years. They are the oldest buildings in the Village and the 11th and 12th of the oldest surviving structures in Metro Toronto Area. Daniel Stong constructed them with his own hands and I really appreciated his building skills. A smoke house, piggery and a large grain barn were added over the years. When you look at all these buildings you cannot help feeling great respect to the man, to his vision and confidence in the future.
Pigs were important livestock that were easy to raise and provided meat that was stored well salted or smoked. Meat was butchered and after soaking in brine for 6-8 weeks, pork was hung on hooks in the smoke of a slow burning fire of wood or corn cobs burning in a huge iron kettle.
I imagine myself living the simple life of the early pioneers, having their joys and hardships, and working hard for survival …
As the family became more prosperous they were able to build the Second House in 1832, which is a fine two-story home with its brick fireplace, bake oven, clapboard siding and plenty of space for their six sons, two daughters and the occasional visitor or hired hand. Stong’s grown daughters slept on the second floor and the only way out of the house was through a squeaky stairs to their parent’s bedroom, so no one could escape unnoticed. Fiancés for the girls were chosen by their father who never asked the girls’ opinions. It was not because he didn’t love them; it was just the normal way of arranging their marriages.
… Today smoke still curls from the Stong’s home chimney and when you open the door you are welcome with freshly baked bread.
Burwick House (c.1844)
Burwick House is an extremely fine example of rural Georgian architecture with an imposing facade. The building was constructed with mortise and tendon framing covered with clapboard, the interiors were finished with lath and plaster.
The House gives us a glimpse of the life of a country gentleman. The father would have been a lawyer, for instance, or a successful merchant. He might be in his forties and had a wife perhaps ten years younger. They would have three or four children and would likely have a few more but not all would survive. The family had their own substantial stable and coach shed with a regular wagon and visiting carriage. A home like this would have a live-in servant, perhaps a 19 year-old girl recently emigrated from Ireland with her parents.
Doctor’s House (c.1830)
The village doctor lived a little bit more modest than a gentleman, but still had a comfortable home.
The veranda of Doctor’s elegant house is a welcome entrance to the timber frame home with wood sheathing and stucco finish. The house was originally a farm house designed to accommodate two generations of the family at once. With two front doors, completely separate upstairs and doors to close off each wing, two families could live separately in the same home. This design made the house ideal for the village doctor. With one section of the house used as living quarters, the other section served as the doctor’s office and waiting room. The large medical herb garden surrounding the house enabled the doctor to produce remedies to supplement his commercial medicines.
A doctor would travel many miles out into the country to help people who were too sick to come into the village. A village was blessed if the doctor lived in it. It brought a sense of security and permanence to a small community like Black Creek. But when you see the tools that the doctor would have used to treat various ailments, you decide which was worse, the disease or the cure.
Preparing food for the Christmas season took months in making. It began in harvest time when the best root vegetables were set aside. By late October the housewife would already be busy making cakes, puddings, and crocks of minced meat for her pies and tarts.
A plum pudding was a must for Christmas celebrations and many households had their own recipe for it. Essentially the recipe brought together different kinds of dry fruit, eggs and suet, and what traditionally were expensive or luxurious ingredients, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger that are so important in developing its distinctive rich aroma. The mixture had to be moistened with brandy, whiskey or rum. The pudding was aged for months; the high alcohol content of the pudding prevented it from spoiling during this time. Despite the name “plum pudding,” the pudding contains no actual plums due to the pre-Victorian use of the word “plums” as a term for raisins.
Christmas baking began in the weeks leading up to the great feast.
A fowl from the barnyard would be chosen, perhaps a goose, duck, chicken or turkey, and stuffing was prepared from stale bread, onions, and herbs from the housewife’s garden.
When the family and friends sat down to their Christmas feast, the menu would include bread, butter, cakes, boiled fowl, pork, mashed potatoes, cream and sugar, cheese, stewed red currant, a pork pie, a mince pie, as well as home-cured ham, applesauce made from their own orchard, and plum pudding that had been liberally doused with brandy and set afire.
Parlour games were popular entertainment for young and old: Blind Man’s Bluff, Hide the Slipper, Snapdragon, Twenty Questions and card games, such as whist and euchre. Horse-drawn wagon rides, walking together, carolling, story-telling, and indoor dancing gave people a lot of joy.
It took months to prepare gifts for family members for Christmas day. Hand-made and home-made pin holders, taper boxes, tea cozies, pen wipers, blotting books, cigar cases, pin cushions, dolls, and wooden toys such as spinning tops, the climbing bear and wooden Jacob’s ladders were popular presents. Children usually received only one gift and they treasured that gift.
Doors and doorways, windows and mantels, pictures and mirrors were decorated with evergreens with red ribbons, paper chains, berries, and paper roses. Parishioners filled the Church with garlands and storekeepers used boughs and wreaths to bring a seasonal feeling to their premises – and hopefully entice buyers to make Christmas purchases.
Like many new immigrants, the villagers probably compromised somewhat on their Christmas traditions that they had back home. In Canada, especially in rural areas, keeping those customs was not always possible if the traditional ingredients could not be obtained. So pioneers did what creative people have always done throughout history. They improvised – with food and with Christmas decorations, using what was readily available.
Christmas celebrations were family traditions, rather than religious ones. Many of the seasonal customs we have today were beginning to take shape, such as Christmas trees, Santa Claus, gift giving, Christmas dinner, and even Christmas cards. People went to church, enjoyed walks together, had joyful horse and wagon rides, played parlour games, and ate a lot of food. It was also a time for weddings with many couples saying “I do” on Christmas day.
Black Creek’s costumed interpreters bring Victorian Christmas traditions to life, including games, treats, daily customs, crafts, food, and more.
Black Creek Pioneer Village is great at any time of year, but it is at its best in December when the buildings are beautifully decorated for Christmas. Green-and-red wreaths, kissing bows and Christmas trees… At this magical time of the year, the historic Village lit by the soft glow of lanterns, lamps, candles and roaring fires.
More about Black Creek Pioneer Village
Black Creek Pioneer Village is a Toronto open-air museum, which takes history out of the books and brings it to life. It depicts life as it was in rural Upper Canada before 1867. The pioneer village consists of over 40 genuine homes, workshops and community and farm buildings, many of which are among the oldest and historically significant in the GTA. Most of them were relocated to the Village from their original sites in southern Ontario. Houses have been carefully restored and fully furnished to recapture their original ambiance. Historic interpreters and craftsmen dressed in period costume demonstrate how villagers lived, worked and played. The tranquil setting, rural landscapes, heritage gardens and period farm animal breeds make Black Creek the unique place where history comes alive. It was opened in 1960 and is operated by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority.
Black Creek Pioneer Village has everything that was essential for the rural life in mid 19th century: a water-powered grist mill, general store, blacksmith’s shop, cider mill, harness shop and saddler, post office, fire house, boot and shoe shop, tinsmith shop, carriage works, hotel, church, printing office, town hall, schoolhouse, Masonic Lodge, and a cemetery. Here, they bake bread, publish a newspaper, grow vegetables, raise animals, produce yard goods, coverlets and colourful rag rugs, make cider, brooms and toys.
Tinsmith Shop and Masonic Lodge
By the mid 19th-century, tin plate was cheap and plentiful and a skilled tinsmith could produce a variety of useful and inexpensive house wares. Upstairs is a typical early Ontario Masonic Lodge, restored and furnished by the Freemasons of Ontario.
Laskay Emporium & Post Office
The general store and post office that Mr. Joseph Baldwin built in 1845 served customers well into the 20th century. The frame structure has a ‘boom town’ front, with a long slope roofed veranda. In the Post Office you can buy authentic village postcards and stamps and send mail with the official Black Creek post mark.
Half-Way House Inn
This Georgian, two storey building originally served as a resting place for stage coach passengers making the trip between Dunbarton, Pickering and Toronto.
This five-storey stone structure was built in 1842. Today it’s the only operating stone mill in Toronto.
Dominion Carriage Works
The building housed a thriving business where wagons, carriages, and sleights were built and repaired.
Having spent four hours in Black Creek, I got into the holiday spirit by stepping back in time; enjoyed the sights, smells and sounds of a Victorian Christmas; took a million pictures and forgot all my problems. Leaving the Village, I was carrying in my heart a warm feeling of peace and expectation of a miracle. I’ve always had these sentimental feelings associated with the season. In our age of smartphones and gift cards, this comes a lot closer to the way many people would like to enjoy the holiday.
In this extraordinary time of winter holidays, may something magical happen to you, like in a fairy tale.