Posts Tagged ‘Murder and Mahem’

The Way We Were

Early Days 1930s to mid-50s

In the time of the 1930s Depression, Farmer Wakeford’s most lucrative crop on Washburn Island was the sale of 50-ft lakefront lots. On weekends British immigrants drove along bone-rattling Mariposa Township’s washboard roads to trade industrial Toronto for cottage country. By crossing a narrow dusty strip of causeway threading the shallow gray waters of the north end of Lake Scugog, cottagers anticipated the promise of fresh air, warm breezes and a change from work-day routines.

Before building simple cottage structures, they lived rough – sleeping in tents, used outdoor privies, conducted water-witching (dousing) to find well water, and lit the night with oil lamps – minor inconveniences compared to carefree roaming, wind-up gramophones on the beach and swimming contests to a tiny resort town, Caesarea. They built rowboats, or bought them from Eaton’s catalog and rowed to prime fishing spots that dotted the reedy shoreline.

The island was a summer playground for four generations of my family. Our story weaves a tale of cautious interdependence between land-loving farmers and sea-loving Brits. Old-timers whispered about a murder on the island and hinted at Indian wars, exaggerations that seemed true from the number of arrowheads picked out of the topsoil. Little stores opened, vegetable sellers appeared, newspapers delivered and electricity fueled lights and appliances.

Most of my family was working class, British immigrants steeped in Empire. They melded with their hosts, cautious hardworking farmers of rural Canada. Those innocent times were altered for my family by a tragic accident in ’57.  Our loss was a watershed event for us.

The regional geography and climate are typical four-seasons Southern Ontario; snowy winters, spring rains, hot summers, and cool colourful autumns. In wintertime, the three farming families living on the island traversed narrow icy roads that wound around snow banked fields and frozen woodlots. Winter was a quiet time for farmers before the spring invasion of summer-folk, two social groups dependent on each other. The farmers sold us their land and their vegetables. They delivered our newspapers and chopped down our trees for us. We bought their lakefront lots and their produce. We bought their eggs and their chickens. We swapped stories and argued politics and sniggered at each other’s differences. Island revelations were incremental, tedious at times, but lasting.

Map Photo

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Murder and Mayhem on Washburn Island

The following excerpt about a murder on Washburn Island from a History of Kleinburg site:

John Stegmann’s death was tragic, unexpected and bizarre, precipitated by a strange series of events which began in 1803 when a white trader named John Sharpe killed a Mississauga Indian named Whistling Duck on Washburn Island, Lake Scugog, about 25 miles north of Oshawa. A year passed and the white man was not brought to justice. This so enraged Whistling Duck’s brother that he shot Sharpe dead. Then, when the Indian band was camped on Toronto Island, the murderer, under the influence of liquor, boasted about his crime, and was apprehended and charged. The court-appointed lawyer, however, argued that the trial could not be held in York since the crime took place in Newcastle district. Stegmann was brought in to survey the exact location of Washburn Island and a change of venue to Presque Isle was ordered. And so, on Sunday, October 7, 1804, a distinguished company boarded the government schooner, Speedy, for Presque Isle. The passenger list included the judge, the Solicitor General of Ontario, the accused’s lawyer (also a member of the legislature), a law student, an Indian interpreter, the prisoner himself and Stegmann. The following day the schooner was within hailing distance of its destination when a gale sprang up and drove the ship out of the harbour. In the terrible storm that followed the vessel sank with all hands. And John Stegmann at the age of 50 and at the height of his career, was dead.

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