"Tuesday January 2nd 1872 Mary Priscilla Ryder, nee Swackhammer aged 29 years. She leaves her husband James Ryder, well respected blacksmith and carriage maker and five young children. She also leaves to mourn, her parents Jacob and Mary Swackhammer, among the first to settle this area, as well as many extended family. Her affliction was borne with Christian fortitude, and her end was peace."
Frances awoke with a start. She knew where she was…the same place she had been for the last two years but something had changed. As she held the covers tightly wrapped around her, she exhaled softly and watched as her breath vaporized in the air. She thought of where she might be if things were different. But they weren’t. This was her reality. Her lot in life as her mother would have put it. She had just had her twenty-first birthday not five days ago. Dreams of a husband and family, her own family, seemed so out of reach.
The nearby window framed a cerulean sky. The sort of blue that lets one know the temperature outside is frigid. In the kitchen, next to her room she could hear her uncle stoking the stove in preparation for another day.
“Frances. Best get up and wake the children. They’ll be late to school.”
“I’m awake Uncle James. Just give me a moment.”
It was then that it dawned on her what was so different about this day. Yesterday they had buried her aunt. Life was about to change.
Frances had been living with her Aunt Priscilla and Uncle James since June of 1870. She had been sent here when her Aunt had lost a child at birth and was weakened by the ordeal. Hannah, Frances mother, and Priscilla’s oldest sister had sent her eldest daughter Frances to help with the five young children from Priscilla’s thirteen-year marriage to James. Priscilla had been seventeen when she married James, six years her senior and now before she had even turned thirty-one she was gone.
Her uncle was a well-respected man in the community. He provided well for his wife and family with his bustling blacksmith and carriage making shop.
“Frances. Time’s a wasting.”
She swung her legs over the side of the bed and reached to the floor to recover her stockings lying in a puddle next to the night table. They felt cold and damp as she pulled them up and fastened them with her garters. She then slipped her feet into her worn slippers and pulled her dressing gown over her nightclothes. Pulling the bedding up and straightening the pillows, then turning to glance in the mirror by the washstand she paused. Wisps of strawberry blonde hair enveloped her face, which she quickly flattened back as best she could into the waves gathered in a long braid that hung halfway down her back. She took hold of the plait unwound it, and with her hairbrush she gathered it all together and wound it up into a bun, fastening it with the whalebone hairpins as she did every morning.
There was a thin film of ice on the water in the pitcher next to the washstand that cracked as she poured the water into the bowl.
She splashed some on her face to remove the sleep from her eyes, and dried her hands and face on the towel. Taking her dressing gown from the hook on the back of the door, she pulled it over her nightdress and walked quickly to the bedroom door.
The door creaked as she opened it and blast of warm air from the kitchen greeted her to another day.
She called up the stairwell to rouse the children. Then she put a pot of water on the woodstove. Once boiling she added the oats. By the time the children were dressed and downstairs the porridge would be ready to eat. She also put the kettle on for tea for herself and her Uncle James, and as usual went back to her room to dress.
Billie was the first one down. He was dressed but his hair was unkempt and his shirt half tucked in. James William or “Billy” as he was known had just turned ten not two weeks ago. Billy was a scrapper. Rough around the edges. Frances suspected this was only to hide his sensitive side.
Martha, the eldest at twelve, was next to arrive descending the stairs four year old Jacob Henry in arms, followed by her two younger sisters, Emma Jane, eight and Mary Augusta six.
Martha was a quiet girl, who did well at school and helped Frances with the younger children and chores in the house. She was actually the same age as Nelson, one of Frances younger brothers.
Martha would turn thirteen in just a couple of weeks. Frances wondered why had the Lord chosen to take her mother at such a vulnerable age?
“Children; gather up your school books and put your lunches on top of them, then sit come to the table for your breakfast. If you do it quickly I will have time to tell you a short story before you leave.”
“Stories are for babies,” said Billy with a gruff tone to his voice.
In an unruffled tone Frances said, “Well then, since you are so grown up, you can go out and feed the chickens as soon as you finish your breakfast” said Frances.
Billy let out a groan under his breath but said nothing. He had not managed to upset Frances, which was his ultimate goal. Not only that but he had now created a job for himself. Billy sat in silence and finished his oatmeal, got up from the table and stormed out the door.
Frances had meant to read a scripture from her bible that dealt with loss but instead she thought she would save that for when Billie was there so instead she picked a story about a farmer with a beautiful pear tree who had two sons, one kind and generous and the other who was lazy and spiteful. Each was sent to visit the king with a bag of fruit as a gift and on the way met an old hag at the side of the road.
The children laughed when the one son was punished for his spiteful ways when dealing with the hag. His fruit had been turned into dirt when he arrived in front of the king. Then they cheered and giggled when told that the good son had been rewarded for his kind treatment of the witch. His pears had been transformed to solid gold when he presented them it to the king. For his reward he was able to marry the king’s daughter.
When the children had left the house for school and she was alone with just Jacob, the house took on a quiet air and she realized that instead of rushing to help Priscilla she only had the little one to take care of from now on.
Shortly after the children left, her Mother arrived. She was not expecting a visit and was surprised to see her father and Uncle James enter the kitchen immediately after her mother.
“We are to have a family meeting,” her Mother said. “Sit down Frances and listen to what is to be said.”
Frances brought the teapot, which had already been prepared for her Uncle James and set it on the table. She then went to the cupboard and took out two extra cups and saucers for her parents, then came to the table and poured the tea.
“Be sat, Frances,” her mother said briskly.
She sat down and looked at the serious faces that met her gaze as she looked around the table.
“Your Father and I have already spoken with James about what should be done when Priscilla passed. That time has come.”
“It would no longer be proper for you to stay here with the children now that your Uncle is a single man.”
“We have taken the decision that I will move into the house for the next few months to help with the children. During that time you will prepare yourself for your marriage to James at which point you will take over the entire household and I will return home to your father.”
Frances sat stone-faced, unfazed by the statement. In her heart she had known the possible outcome of her move to her Uncle’s house. There was always a glimmer of hope that things might have turned out differently, but that was naïve of her to think that.
“Frances. Did you hear what has been said?”
“And what say you to this?” asked Hannah.
Frances looked at her uncle to see what his expression might be before she replied. “Uncle James is a fine man and treats me well. I have grown to love the children as if they were my own, even Billy, who sometimes makes it difficult. Uncle James is a good provider and a kind man. I shall not be unhappy here.”
James sat to her left, head somewhat bent and nodded in affirmation.
“You are a wise girl, who takes things in stride,” her mother replied. Then in the same breath she said, “George. Fetch my things and bring them to Frances room we will share the same bedroom until after the wedding.”
The next few months were difficult. Frances room was a small space off the kitchen housing only a small dresser, washstand and a three-quarter bed. She had grown used to a space of her own, which was now being invaded by her mother. She did however appreciate the help she received in return with regard to the daily running of the household and supposed that it was a fair trade.
"Vol 21, Page 126 - James RYDER, 35, blacksmith, widower, Trafalgar, Acton Ontario, s/o Henry & Mary RYDER, married Frances MARTIN, 23, township of Erin, same d/o George & Hannah MARTIN, witn; Duncan CLARK and Annie CLARK both of Stewartown, 23 Jul 1872 at Stewartown."
The wedding was simple and went without incident. Frances wore a periwinkle blue dress with a small floral pattern. It had an overskirt that draped to an apron in the front. The fashion of 1872 saw that skirts were narrower than in previous years. Her flounced underskirt and full petticoats caused the hem of the dress to flare. The overskirt was gathered up at each side to reveal the underskirt, fastened by two rosettes. The back of the dress revealed the latest in fashion; a whale-bone bustle. The skirt flowed into a small train. White lacey cuffs finished off the sleeves. Quite often the necklines of dresses of 1870’s were similar to the sleeves and bore a lot of lace but the neckline of Frances’ dress was scooped and plain and set off a lovely gold locket she had received from James as a wedding gift. .
She carried a bouquet of white carnations, bells of Ireland and a few sprigs of baby’s breath. Her strawberry blonde hair was tied up in ribbons, small tendrils escaping and enveloping her face. Frances had never felt prettier.
James wore his dark Sunday suit, a frock coat with a white shirt, stiffly starched and wide collared, and a narrow black cravat. Even though the day was warm he sported a Putnam silk vest. His dark hair was cut short and oiled flat. He, like many other men of the day wore a full dense beard and moustache.
The groomsman and matron of honor were married friends, Duncan and Annie Clark. James’ six-year-old daughter, Mary Augusta served as the flower girl.
The little church on Swackhammer hill was well attended for the wedding. Many of the guests were family on both sides. James and Frances had very large families and many had married into each others family making them relatives on both sides. The church itself was well adorned with flowers similar to those carried by the bride.
Family and friends were invited back to Frances parents’ home for a picnic, prepared by the ladies of the Swackhammer Church and served on the lawn. Freshly baked bread, salads and jellied chicken were the order of the day. Homemade pies finished off the meal. The guests were plentiful as Frances’ father was the Reeve of Erin, the nearby town.
The newlyweds left around four o’clock and Frances’ parents George and Hannah kept the children with them to let James and Frances spend their first night alone together as man and wife.
It was not until she entered the house that Frances realized her role in this house was about to change for good. She was now the wife of Mr. James Ryder, blacksmith and carriage maker. As she climbed the stairs to what would be her new room she was swept over with thoughts and fears of what was to come.
James followed and once in the bedroom that had once been James and her aunt Priscilla’s he looked almost shyly at her and told her to undress while he went down to tend to something. She was so nervous she hardly remembered what he had said. She slowly undressed and put on the cotton nightgown with lace trim that was part of her trousseau. When James returned she was sitting on the bed hands folded in her lap not knowing what to do next.
James removed his clothing and climbed into the bed. He was awkward when dealing with such matters. He and Prissie had been childhood sweethearts and things had just happened as things do.
“Are you going to sit there all night Frances? Climb in next to me. I promise to be gentle.”
“Yes unc.. er I mean James.”
The children were returned to them the following day and things were pretty much back to the way they had been except now Frances slept upstairs in fathers’ room. No mention of this was ever made by the children. Frances could only presume, that they had been instructed by either their father, or her mother, that it was not to be discussed.
After the wedding was a difficult transformation for Frances. It took until December of that year before she was able to call James by his name comfortably rather than Uncle, as it was her habit. She supposed it was when she realized she was with child.
A pic-nic under the auspices of the Congregational Denomination, Acton, will be held in Mr. P.S. Armstrong’s grove, on Wednesday, 6th of September for the purpose of raising funds for purchasing a site for the erection of a church in Acton.” Acton Free Press (Acton, ON), 24th Aug 1876, p.3
The spring of 1876 brought change to the community. Several of the families were at odds with the Pasteur of their local church. Led by James Ryder, four other families split their ties with Churchill Congregational Church to form their own church in Acton. The process would be a long one and not without hardship.
Frances by this time had two children from her marriage with James, Thomas born in 1873 and Hannah in 1875. Before the year would end she would be with child once more. This time it would be another boy, Frederick.
During the last four years she and James had come to love one another, not as she thought, in a romantic sense, but more familiar. The same way she imagined her parent’s relationship. Kind, and caring, but never sensual. She shared many interests with James and they sometimes laughed as they had when he was still her uncle, and she a child, but for the most part life was serious and there was little time for frivolous matters. Between cooking, cleaning and caring for a husband and seven children there was not much free time.
James business was prospering and he was able to provide well for his family. Frances was content to take care of the children and visit with family and neighbors.
In the fall of “76” a picnic was held at Peter Armstrong’s farm on the banks of the river near his apple grove. The purpose of the picnic was to raise funds for the church. The organizing women’s group planned games for the children in which to participate. Mr. Armstrong provided apples for an apple bob. While the women took care of the children’s games, the men in charge discussed church business. The ladies group also prepared sandwiches and pies to feed the hungry crowd.
There was an excellent turnout and the event was a great success. The congregation had raised enough money by this time to break ground for the new building.
By July of 1877 the Acton Methodist church, a beautiful red brick building, was opened and had cost the parishioners eight thousand dollars to complete. Reverend Ives of New York, who had preached the year before at the opening of the Methodist Church on Mill Street, was invited to preach with the objective of raising the total cost through pledges. He worked hard since he preached for five hours before the full amount was met. Things were looking good for the community and with a congregation of thirty-two adults each with an average of four children things were looking as if God had willed it. James family alone consisted of him, Frances and their almost eight children. Frances would be with child again by the end of the year.
The breach with the Congregationalist Church was not all roses however. During the heat of the split a few enemies were made, some within James and Frances own families. In a community where many were related by blood or marriage, or both, made for some difficult encounters in the following year. So much so, that in 1879 when fire destroyed James shop and residence it was considered suspicious. No one was charged with the crime and the family feeling less than safe decided to move west to Petrolia.
Without James to lead the flock no new members were found and pledges were not met. Dr. McCullough, who held the mortgage, foreclosed and the church was offered for sale in 1881. It was sold to the Catholic congregation and became St. Joseph’s Church.
Raising the Barn
“Victim of a fatal accident Thursday, leaves a wife and 4 young children to mourn.” Acton Free Press (Acton, ON), 19th Dec 1878, p.3
The summer of 1878 was a busy one. Frances had become quite close with one of James’ younger sisters, Mary Jane. She was close to Frances in age and also married to Frances second cousin on her mother’s side. James and his first wife Priscilla had been the witnesses at their wedding in 1868. Mary Jane’s husband Danford, was from a well established family in the area and had recently purchased a small farm not far from Acton.
Mary Jane already had four children ages seven to fourteen. Frances had three of her own and another due in September, as well as the five from James’ first marriage. The women often got together and while some of the older children watched the younger ones, they made preserves and things that would be kept over the long cold winters, when fresh food was scarce. Both women were from farm families and were familiar with the routine.
The summer turned out to be a good one and crops from the farm were abundant. The fall was warm and dry and it allowed the farmers to get a second cut of hay to store for the animals over the winter. Mary Jane’s husband Danford, enlisted in a few neighbors to help raise a new barn in which to store the excess crop and a stable for the horses.
It was early December and there was still no snow on the ground, although there had been several hard frosts and time was of the essence if the barn was to be built this year. Danford had cleared the area to be built on, and the logs had been sawn, stripped of their bark and brought to the site. It was common at that time for neighbors to help one another when it came to raising a barn or building a homestead.
On Thursday morning of December 12th all the men gathered at the Swackhammer farm to help with the barn raising. The women of these men came along as well to help prepare a substantial noon meal for the hungry workers. Frances was there to help with the preparations, as Mary Jane was only a month away from giving birth to her fifth child. James could not be there as he had his shop to attend to.
The women were in the house when one of the men let out a yell from the yard. “Danford has been struck. Send someone for the doctor.”
Frances grabbed her coat and hopped in the buggy. The ride to Dr. McCullough’s was short and they returned within the hour. When they arrived there was a solemn look on most faces and Mary Jane was weeping.
Apparently Danford had been struck on the back of the head by one of the logs they were raising. He never gained consciousness. Dr. McCullough confirmed the death and the body was removed from the scene. That night Frances and James took Mary Jane’s children to their home while she went to be with her mother who was a widow herself, living with her youngest son Hiram.
The following week news appeared on page three of the Acton Free Press,
"On Monday last, Mr. Danford Swackhammer, of lot 32, con. 4, Esquesing, was, with the assistance of some of his neighbors, engaged in building a log stable, on his premises. While engaged in doing this, a most dreadful and fatal accident occurred. It seems that one end of a log had been hoisted to its position and those present were engaged in raising the other end when by some means, the log slipped, and in falling struck Mr. Swackhammer on the back of the head, killing him instantly. When it was seen that the log was falling the workmen all ran out of the way, with the exception of Mr. S., who fell down, thus receiving the log on his head. He never moved or spoke after being struck. Arthur Smyth son of Mr. Wm. Smyth, of Erin, who was present also narrowly escaped being struck by the same log. Mr. Swackhammer was largely related and well known in this vicinity, and his death will be regreted by many. He leaves a wife and four children to mourn his sudden death."
More stories to come...