In late November and early December of 1986 I wrote two newspaper articles on the early church in L’Amable, and the role of a saddlebag preacher, Joseph Gander. Since then one of Gander’s great granddaughters has written to say that the pioneer missionary left a diary in the Archives of Ontario.
There was a certain mystery to this Rev. Gander. So I went to the Toronto archives hoping to find an eye-witness report on the early days of Bancroft and other North Hastings communities. I wasn’t disappointed. In the big archives building on College Street, a helpful clerk handed me a box with three large diaries complete with a short explanation by the Anglican Church. The diaries were log-books of the first missionary to this area, with stories of the pioneers and their battle to survive in North Hastings.
The diaries begin in 1856 when Gander was a Catechist (teacher of the scriptures) in Rawdon Township. Joseph Gander had been a schoolmaster in England, before settling on a small farm in Victoria District.
In 1851 he started as a missionary for the Colonial Church Society of the Anglican Church. During the 1850s he conducted services in seven places in Rawdon, five places in Marmora Township, and one in Seymour Township. He was a missionary to the pioneer bush camps and farmers, although he was not an ordained minister. Gander had no authority to baptize children, although he was constantly asked to do so.
By 1861, Gander, helped by his son Jabez, wanted to expand his missionary work further north to the backwoods of Hastings County.
His diary notes: “But my wife dreads going further back for the black flies and mosquitoes are very troublesome in the unsettled parts . . . but (they) have not been my greatest troubles. One thing has greatly grieved me and that is, that the Church is preached in many places instead of ‘Christ’ “.
About 1864 Gander moved to “The Ridge”—a pioneer area in Wollaston and Lake Townships. While holding services in that area he travelled north as far as Paudash Lake, and over to L’Amable (then called Robinson’s Mills) and Bancroft (then called York Branch).
Gander and his sons sometimes travelled by canoe, but usually by horse. Where there was a road, such as the Hastings Road, they took horse and wagon.
Travelling the unmarked bush could be frightening. In September Gander and sons “set off in search of our own camp the boys made last fall”.
“We were sometimes afraid that we should not find it. The foliage made the underbrush very thick. Found the camp just as it was getting dark . . . had we not found it, it might have been the death of some of us . . .” he wrote.
Winter could be even worse. One March he “broke both the hind and fore board of the sleigh . . .”
Then the horses broke through the ice: “Oh what a dreadful state we were in, the horses down wallowing in the water and mud, and the sleigh with the load broken through the ice, and myself almost in the Slough of Despond . . .”
Gander relates tales of people freezing to death, lost in the snow drifts. And of course there were always the bugs: “The mosquitoes and black flies are very troublesome this time . . . Oh that the Almighty could “call us away from flesh and sense” and fix our minds on Divine things!”
In October of 1867 Gander set off for York Branch (Bancroft) by the Hastings Road.
He was driving 13 sheep, and sold three lambs along the way. One particular sheep was lost and found three times in the bush. Gander had dinner at Mr. Cleak’s and held divine service at Mr. George’s house. The diary notes the service “was not so well attended . . . Oh for help from on high!”
Gander was already planning to move to York Branch. He purchased land from Haskell Sweet for $250, a property which is near Freymond’s lumber mill on Highway 62 South, with a creek that is still called Gander’s creek.
While travelling back and forth from York Branch to the Ridge, Gander would deliver services and look for converts in the lumber camps. Just before Christmas 1867 he “Held Divine Service at Mr. Polmiteer’s lumber shanty. To my grief some of the men were very careless; instead of sitting up, they lay in their births. Some of these poor fellows did not appear to believe they have a soul”.
That these lumbermen worked six days a week from dark to dark does not seem a reasonable explanation to the missionary for their “carelessness” on Sunday, their only chance to rest.
During this period Gander’s most successful mission was at Robinson’s Mills (old L’Amable). William Robinson built the first mill in North Hastings in the early 1860s and around it old L’Amable became better developed than Bancroft in those days. Well-attended services were held at Robinson’s school house.
In February of 1868 Gander moved his family, including his wife Sarah Wood and four sons, to York Branch. So Bancroft became the base of operations while Gander and his boys travelled and explored from Cardiff Township to Belleville.
The diary shows Gander as a man who seldom stayed home. In part this diary was a record of the performance of his duties as a missionary. The society sent his 100 pounds per year in quarterly installments—and Gander could show how hard he worked for it.