When A Boom Goes Bust
(Photo: Restored 1853 Grey County cabin located at Moreston Heritage Village in Owen Sound. Courtesy of Grey Roots Museum & Archives.)
When adult males of British heritage were granted 50-acre parcels of rich farmland along Garafraxa Road in the 1850s, they quickly put down roots, building homes, clearing woodlands, growing commercial crops, and establishing communities in the previously under-populated region that stretches from Guelph to Owen Sound. Many of the communities birthed during that time continue to flourish to this day.
So why, having attained the comfort and prosperity they'd been seeking during long years of toil and hardship, would so many of those early Garafraxa Road settlers be willing to sell their land in the early 1870s and relocate to unproven rural acreages that had only recently been made available for non-indigenous settlement in a limited number of areas on Manitoulin Island?
Part of the reason had to do with the economy. An economic boom in the mid-1860s helped drive the prosperity of the Garafraxa Road communities. The construction of Garafraxa Road and others just like it meant that crops grown by these early farmers could be transported to southern markets with relative ease. The continued expansion of rail systems in southern Ontario further improved access to those markets. So these settlers, who had initially been granted their land, were often able to afford to purchase additional acreages that had been set aside for them for nominal fees. They prospered and so did their communities. Schools were built. Grist mills and lumber mills were established. Merchants set up shops. Things could not be going better.
And then a severe economic depression took hold of North America in the early 1870s. Suddenly farmers who had been thriving during the economic boom were struggling to get decent prices for their crops. The southern markets that had been so good to them up to that point were now battering them. And while they were suffering financially, they couldn't help but notice that a lumbering boom in northern Ontario had resulted in produce markets opening up east of Georgian Bay and north of Lake Huron. In addition, ports around Georgian Bay had been improved, making it much easier for crops grown on Manitoulin Island to make it to those northern markets. Major roads were also starting to spring up on the island connecting rural farming communities with Little Current, Manitowaning, and the lumbering town of Michael's Bay. This boded well for island-grown crops being able to find lucrative markets.
All these things were noticed by the suddenly cash-strapped Garafraxa Road settlers whose property values had continued to increase during the economic downturn thanks in large part to an ever expanding number of settlers looking to purchase farmland and a lack of available farmland for them to purchase. It was beginning to look like the best way for the Garafraxa Road settlers to assure their future prosperity would be to sell their valuable southern Ontario properties and buy relatively inexpensive farmland on Manitoulin Island. The decision by the government to allow settlers to make instalment payments on up to a maximum of 400 acres of land meant that many families could afford to sink their money into large properties they could pay for over time. It seemed like a great deal.
The only real problem was that the Manitoulin properties being sold as prime agricultural land often weren't and the government knew this. Early surveyors had been pessimistic about the island's agricultural potential due to alternately drought-prone or swampy geography and extensive damage caused by contemporary and historical fires. Much of Manitoulin's farmland would not have been considered prime agricultural land by today’s standards. Arable and marginal land made up less than 35% of the ceded territory and was not typically found in continuous stretches. Instead it was haphazardly mixed in with thin-soiled and sub-marginal land.
So the prosperous farmers of Garafraxa Road who took a chance on being able to continue their prosperity by purchasing land on Manitoulin Island often found themselves neck deep in financial hardship. While northern markets now existed for their crops, many settlers were having significant difficulties growing grains and/or produce in sufficient quantities to profit from that access. As a result, many of those early Manitoulin Island settlers would ultimately not be able to keep up with the instalment payments and would have to sell off part or all of their property in order to pay off their debts.