Neighbourliness has always been a part of Ontario’s rich agricultural heritage.
Much of what we view in the rural landscape today was once created by neighbours working together to clear fields, raise barns and harvest crops at events known as bees.
People worked together on a neighbour’s farm like bees in a hive and the beneficiary was expected to contribute a day’s work later to those who had participated. Essential for creating farms in Ontario in the 1800s, bees were part of harvest operations as late as the 1960s. Many people today still remember the threshers coming, the noisy lumbering machine in the farmyard and the dinner table groaning with food.
In pioneer days, calling a bee was a strategy for survival and success as most families didn’t have the combined strength or range of skills necessary to create a farm out of the forest on their own and hired help was expensive. Farm diaries show that the bee was a convenient way to redistribute labour among families who had a surplus of youthful workers and those who did not, and to condense labour when necessary.
Loading straw to feed the threshing machine in Wellington County, c. 1900. (Ph 7436, Wellington County Museum and Archives)
One called on neighbours and their teams of oxen to help drag and hoist the heavy logs into piles to burn when making fields, or lift logs when building houses and barns. With combined strength – and some whiskey – 20 men could clear five acres in a day. Sixteen strong men working in unison to the “heave ho” of their leader could raise a log house, and 12 women could quilt a bed covering in an afternoon.
By the 1870s, log barns were being replaced with the big frame barns we now sadly see disintegrating. The raising of a frame barn was a big event, anticipated by the community and often written up in the local newspaper. These raisings required 60 to 140 men to lift the bents. It was impossible to return a day’s work to each person who helped, so the hostess provided a sumptuous feast of choice meat, garden vegetables and pies galore, often followed by competitive games and a dance in the new barn.
Harvest time – when work demands reached a fevered pitch – was another occasion for calling a bee. Bees were held to mow hay, thresh grains, pull flax and fill silos. New machinery – such as a steam thresher, hay press, corn chopper or power saw – might be owned by one farmer who took his equipment around to other neighbouring farms, one at a time, where the men would gather to help. Some tasks were so mind-numbing and time-consuming that it was more pleasant to gather whole families – especially children of marriageable age – to shell peas, husk corn or peel apples. These events were enlivened by kissing and courting games. For example, if you could cut off an apple peel in one piece then throw it over your shoulder, the letter-shape it made on the floor predicted the name of the person you’d marry.
Unusual bees were also held. In the countryside near Hamilton, snaking bees were held in the 1830s to rid the fields of rattle snakes. We must also not forget the manuring bee, the rag rug bee or the wallpapering bee. Bees were held in cases of emergency and misfortune, too. If a family’s barn was struck with lightning or a farmer broke his leg and could not harvest his potatoes, neighbours would assemble and set things right. In the days before insurance companies, it was reassuring to know that you were part of a beeing network and had favours to call on if you were in trouble.
Though neighbours no longer rely on each other to the same extent, rural life is still infused with the spirit of the old-time work bees. People understand that neighbours are a resource, that they can share equipment, swap skills or pool labour and thereby reduce their expenses or cushion hard times. They gain pleasure from working together to improve community facilities and find security in knowing their neighbours well enough to ask for assistance. Stories of work bees abound in local history books and museums, providing communities with a sense of their rural heritage and lessons in social sustainability that still have resonance today.