Making Charcoal in Pits Once Town Attraction
Carleton Place Canadian, 28 February, 1963
By Howard Morton Brown
Some tales of Mississippi lumbering and timber driving and of life in Carleton Place at the height of its sawmill days will be recalled in this and following installments of the Canadians old time views.
Written by James Sidney Annable and published in the Ottawa Citizen about twenty-five years ago, they tell of shanty and river life and of boyhood pranks and adventures of the eighteen eighties. Sid Annable, born in 1871, was a younger son of John Sidney Annable of Carleton Place. He left Carleton Place in his youth, returning only as a visitor, but kept up his interest in the activities of this town until his death in 1959 in Toronto.
His story retold this week is of scenes around the charcoal pits operated in Carleton Place by Alex. Hunter.
Alexander Hunter, father of the late Fred Hunter, was a blacksmith and axe maker of great skill. He came here from Lanark village at the age of 36 to do the smith work in connection with the Boyd Caldwell and Sons sawmill when it was being built in 1869. For many years he carried on his trade on Mill street. He died here by drowning in December 1910.
This is Sid Annable’s story:
“In 1881 and 1882 charcoal was made by Sandy Hunter, a blacksmith in Carleton Place, first for his own use in his blacksmith shop to shrink the wagon tires on the wood felloes of the large six foot wheels of the dump carts used by the Boyd Caldwell and Peter McLaren lumber firms. His sons Alex and Lorenzo Hunter followed in their father’s footsteps and continued this enterprise from a commercial standpoint for some time.
Charcoal formerly was made in large quantities by cutting down trees and piling the logs in pyramids or moulds, covering them with earth and sod and restricting the draught of air so as to keep the logs from burning completely to ashes. This required much labor and it was necessary to watch the pits night and day. Just as soon as the earth and sod would dry out and the smoke and gas show forth through the moulds, the men would place boards with cleats on the pits so they could cover up the air holes with wet earth and green sod.
Alex Hunter contracted with the Caldwell firm to take all the sawmill refuse, slabs and ‘buttons’, and he disposed of them to the people in the village. The heavy or thick slabs he piled up on the banks of the Mississippi until he had enough for their charcoal pits. These pits were formed by cutting long elm saplings, eight inches at the butt, three inches at the top and eighteen feet long. With these they built a frame in tent formation, leaving a door opening at earth end so the watchers could see if there was any daylight showing through them.
Inside this green framework they piled the slabs on their end and placed the ends called buttons against the standing slabs. They continually placed the green wet pine and hemlock until the thickness of the pits would be form eight to twelve feet. Those moulds, as I remember them, were one hundred feet long.
When the wood was all in formation, earth was piled over, about twelve inches thick, then grass sod was cut in squares and laid on top of the clay. The ends of the pits would be in conformity with the sides. This resembled the igloo the Eskimos live in around the Arctic Circle. When the pits were completed the fire was started from many places, all from the undersides of the pits. Great care was exercised in watching the fires so they would burn simultaneously.
The village folk were on hand every night to watch. Many potato roasts and roasted ears of corn were enjoyed by the young set, night after night, until the pits were ready to be drawn and the charcoal cooled off. Old time dances with Dick Willis performing on the fiddle gave the young folk much merriment.
Old Paul Lavallee, the proprietor of the Mississippi Hotel, often amused himself with other old cronies – Pat Gavin, Tom Nagle, Jim Nolan, Tom Buckeye Lynch, Pat Tucker, Bill Patterson, Alex Wilson, and my dad – who listened to the Little Napoleon tell his stories while they watched the men climb up and down, plugging the air holes as the fire burst through the sod.
Thousands of bushels of the shining black blocks and logs were ready to be sold. Blacksmiths from the surrounding towns – Smiths Falls, Perth, Almonte and Ottawa – were on hand to purchase the salt bags holding two bushels each, which were sold for fifty cents each on the cash and carry basis.
Sandy Hunter, with a mustache like the handlebars of the bicycle of today, was in his usual good humor, taking in the cash as long as there were customers in sight. The balance of the pit products was stored in the old barn where his son Alex Hunter had his livery stable, at the rear of the old Metcafe property (between Bridge and Water Streets).
His son Alex Hunter had a large livery stable in the village with many horses known by such names as Swayback Charlie, Black Rat-tail, and Old Buckskin. He made the horses work night and day, drawing wood in the daytime and human freight at night. He was the same tall, sandy-haired horseman who owned and drove Little Vic at the ice meets in Ottawa with Nellie Sharper. Later he operated the former Metcalfe House, which he bought from Joe Wilson. He owned a hotel in Ottawa afterwards, on George Street down on the market square, the Grand Central Hotel.