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April 24, 2004
To tell James Walker’s story we have to quote George Skene who along with James Duguid, Andrew Grant and Walker traveled together from Quebec to Fergus. The Skene and Duguid families were traveling with bachelors Grant and Walker. We pick up the story on the dock in Hamilton.
Skene writes, and I include his spelling mistakes - On our arrival in Hamilton at the head of Lake Ontario between 8 and 9 in the morning, the first thing to set about was brakefast, we having got our luggage into a storehouse at the wharf - the town being about a mile off. We went and started a fire at the edge of the lake. Fuel is plenty in almost every place here; soon gets the kettle to a boil and seating ourselves in the warehouse, for there was no other house near, gets all very comfortably brakefasted. J. Duguid, James Walker, Andrew Grant and me starts for the town, leaving the wives and children until we should see and get some housing. We ranged this prosperous place till mid afternoon before we got any place, but at last we gets two rooms for a month for $6. A waggon is next procured and my companions starts along with her to the wharf while I stopt, making the way clear at the house.
After gathering supplies for a trip and leaving the women folk in Hamilton the men travel to Guelph. Again quoting Skene - arrived in this township - Nichol, that night, and for 12 to 20 miles on the road we observed great orchards of apples almost in every settlement, which makes that fruit to abound thereabouts, I may say even more than the potatoes, for while in Hamilton, Andrew Grant went for ½ bushel of the latter which cost 1/6 but he brought with him more apples greater than he had of potatoes. The men purchased land in and around Little Falls/Fergus before returning to Hamilton for their luggage and families.
Through Skene’s October 28, 1835 correspondence we quote again that - James Walker stopt with me until the beginning of July when I joined him in rearing a house and bakehouse in Fergus until the last three weeks, two of which I was assisting at the dressing of the flour mill stones when on Wednesday last we had the first grown wheat in Fergus properly made into flour by Fergus mill and baked into biscuits by our own Fergus baker, J. Walker. I led to the mill with bagpipes - as I did the founding of the Church and when the millwrights gave her water, I at the same time gave wind to the tune of the Dusty Miller to, I must say, what would have been a splendid company of about 110, in the old country, the female part especially, all mostly Scotch and not above a score of them above 18 months in this country. Altho J.W. made out to give them biscuits on that day it will be 10 or 12 days yet before he be in full operation.
James Walker was born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. His brother was the noted agriculturalist Robert Walker of Portlethen, Kincardinshire. It was at his brother’s estate that James learned about herbs and medicinal remedies.
Walker was a gentle, compassionate man who was well suited to be a druggist. How he learned the baking trade remains a mystery. Why he chose to open a bakery in a settlement that boasted only fourteen homes and one tavern/inn is also an interesting question. Perhaps he was astute enough to realize that most of the women in the village were from privileged circumstances and for the most part, were not used to doing their own baking.
James Walker’s home was located on the east side of Provost Lane above St. Patrick Street. His outdoor bake oven was situated behind the log house beside an ever flowing artesian spring. According to Rev. Bell, Walker’s baking included oatcakes, scones and loaves of bread. His risings came from yeast obtained at a Guelph brewery. When Walker’s yeast died, he would walk to Guelph to replenish his stock, carrying the active product home in a crock which he tucked under his frock coat. As James was a kindly man, he never refused a request for food. During the winter of 1836-37 after crops had failed during the year that had no summer, James freely gave of flour and bread until he had none himself. According to Reverend Patrick Bell, who did an excellent sketch of Walker’s bake oven, the man hid behind his locked door and wept that he could no longer assist people and that they would go hungry.
John MacPhail wrote that while baking was Walker’s main occupation, he also dispensed herbs and medicines and spent a good deal of time identifying the medicinal qualities of various plants native to Southern Ontario. He dried them in his oven after the day’s baking had been done. Walker roamed area fields and woods with Reverend Patrick Bell who documented native species of trees and plants in his journals and sketchbooks.
James had a great sense of humour and was completely honest in all his dealings. He was a founder of the St. Andrew Society and served as President several times. Walker wrote a number of patriotic and nationalistic songs and sang them in a beautiful tenor voice. He was accompanied by John McPhail who was an excellent violin player. His most popular song was ‘Nobody No’ which dealt with a longing for the auld country and how settlers really felt the loss of family and tradition when they immigrated to Canada.
Walker nearly died before he reached full potential. During the 1837 Rebellion, James took his place in the front lines on the Niagara Peninsula. While there he contracted pneumonia. His friends brought him back to Fergus where he was nursed back to health by Dr. Mutch and the Skenes. Byerly writes that 'Mr. Walker, though than over fifty joined the old company of Fergus volunteers and marched off with them on the memorable Sunday morning as cheerfully as the youngest man in the ranks. He went with the Company to York, and on the 29th of December to the frontier. He picked up some pieces of the wreck of the "Caroline", having gone down to the ferryman's house to see the Falls, had a pot of potatoes boiled with the fuel furnished by said fragments. Having done sentry duty four times in one night at Captain Usher’s house, he caught cold, which was not a apparently dangerous till he got home where it took told of his lungs and brought him close to the grave.
James Walker married Catharine Keith from Bon-Accord. They had seven children; four dying in infancy. Of the three that survived, James was a manufacturing chemist in New York City. John was in the leather goods business in Michigan and William, a machinist, worked at the first Beatty Bros. plant for twenty years.
James Walker never returned to Scotland. He died in his eightieth year in Fergus on Friday, October 12, 1866. He injured himself in a fall probably as the result of a paralytic stroke and passed away shortly thereafter. He is one of the last settlers to be buried in the Auld Kirkyard at St. Andrews Presbyterian church on the hill.
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