Dobrzensky shares hardships, contributions of pioneer women
By Sue Tiffin
May 2, 2017
Just before she took to the stage, Leopoldina Dobrzensky said, “when you speak, you should always wear colour.”
But the audience at the CFUW open meeting on April 20 hung on every word she spoke, and not just because of her elegant red suit.
Dobrzensky, the author of Fragments of a Dream: Pioneering in Dysart Township and Haliburton Village elicited gasps and knowing giggles from the crowd of mostly women gathered at Fleming College, as she brought history to life with her storytelling.
“Each group of settlers played a part in the social and cultural development of the Highlands, and helped to maintain responsible government,” Dobrzensky told the group. “Pioneer women were an important group. Alone, or in partnership with their husbands, they accomplished incredible feats of endurance and resourcefulness.”
In those early days, women had few rights, but much responsibility as they cared for large families and were managers of the homestead when husbands were away at lumber camps. They suffered domestic abuse, lived far from their extended families and died young due to improper medical care.
“Today we can hardly imagine their state of mind,” said Dobrzensky.
Despite the hardships, women prevailed to contribute through work, raise hard-working families and bring community together through organized social occasions.
In the 1860s, newcomers to the area lived in the wilderness, and Haliburton was called “the backwoods” for its distance from the nearest railway station.
In addition to their normal household routines, Dobrzensky said the women of that time learned a bevy of skills, including soap and candle making, preserving, spinning, weaving, rug hooking, knitting and quilting.
“As well, they were expected to milk cows, churn butter, help husbands in the field and teach children,” she said.
Most settlers here were educated, and 16-year-old Aline Geegan was the first teacher.
“She knew the basics of the Three R’s, which was all that was required,” said Dobrzensky.
Isabella Menzies Gould was an ancestor of many families living in Haliburton today, including the Caseys. She immigrated to Canada from Scotland as a young girl, married at 18 and arrived in this area in 1864. She and her husband had a shanty on a farm located at what is now Gould’s Crossing Road, off of Gelert Road near Old Donald Road. Dobrzensky explained that road was then called Haliburton Road South, and connected the Bobcaygeon Colonization Road with Haliburton.
“To sell eggs and butter, Mrs. Gould walked to Minden, on this rough road, a 40-mile round trip, several times a week,” she said. “Today, part of it is just an impassable trail.”
A log structure the Goulds and their neighbours built after their shanty burnt down is still lived in today.
The audience quickly exhaled when they heard Gould had had 12 children, including one in the field as she was working.
Isabella Urie Bain was an ancestor to many local families including the Burks. She and her husband Henry sailed to Canada in 1870 with their six children, because Henry had predicted a mining boom.
“He was right, of course, except that his timing was off by about one generation,” said Dobrzensky.
The Bains regularly visited St. George’s Anglican church with what became a family of 13 kids.
“She never relaxed her exacting standards,” said Dobrzensky.
“That meant changing for supper into good clothes and eating at a properly set table, complete with a white tablecloth, napkins and silverware.”
Besides surprised reactions to life with large families and bustling workloads, the audience at the CFUW meeting were shocked to hear stories Dobrzensky told of what she called “efficient” women.
Mary Anne Mitchell Sleep would not only walk on the railroad tracks to Kinmount from Haliburton, but did so while “simultaneously clicking her knitting needles.”
“Even less time was wasted by a Mrs. Gibson,” said Dobrzensky. “Who is said to have rocked the cradle with one foot, while churning butter with the other and using her hands to knit sweaters and socks for her family.”
Dobrzensky also touched on some of the heartbreak of the time, including when Eliza Freeman died alongside one of her twin boys during childbirth because the midwife was ill and unable to attend.
“The other one survived because neighbour Margaret Quarry, an Irish immigrant, carried him on her back through the dense bush on the night his mother died, and cared for him at her home together with her 11 children.”
Dobrzensky compared the pioneers to women in the county today, praising the volunteer efforts and generosity of modern day Haliburton County residents.
“On the mysterious rocky hills, the memory of pioneer women, the unsung heroes, lives on.”
The CFUW will meet again on May 11 at Red Umbrella Inn for a luncheon and card game fundraiser that helps provide a bursary for an HHSS student and donation to the Fleming College Scholarship Fund. For more information, call 705-447-2402.