Image: The Breeder’s Gazette, 1892

Thistle Ha’ first entered livestock in the Ontario late-summer agricultural fair in 1838. In 1879 this show was permanently located in Toronto and renamed the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE). Thistle Ha’ did not enter the show every year – family members were busy buying livestock overseas, or exhibitions were cancelled in wartime. However, Thistle Ha’ livestock appeared at these provincial shows for a span of over 110 years until the CNE turned away from its agricultural roots to focus on attracting the urban crowd in the 1950s.

As told by: Hugh Miller
Quotation from: Past Years in Pickering by Rev. William R. Wood. Published by William Briggs, Toronto, 1911.

Rev. Wood’s book describes the privations and hardships experienced by pioneers attempting to live at the edge of civilization:

… roads were often simply paths blazed through the woods…horses were few and the farmer who was advanced far enough to own a team was often requested to loan or hire them to his neighbors to bring loads from a distance. Many a bag of seed-potatoes and grain and provisions was borne in those days on the settlers’ backs through the forest path from points as far distant as Whitby and Toronto. Soon little “clearances” surrounded the little log dwellings of the settlers, and season by season they widened till at length clearance joined clearance…

John Miller is known to have carried on his back from Thistle Ha’ a 50 lb. [23 kg.] sack of wheat to be ground into bread flour at the nearest mill in Markham Township, about 8 miles [13 km] distant.

He also faced the daunting task of clearing enough crop land to become comfortably self-sufficient in food for his family and livestock. Until then, there was anxiety each year to get the spring garden planted and producing as early as possible, when food supplies were at their lowest. One spring the family was in such dire need for food that the cattle were turned out into the bush, and watched closely to see which plants the cattle ate. These plants were then harvested for the family to eat. The seed potatoes also had to be dug up and eaten before they sprouted.

The Millers had faced this hardship before. It is said that in Scotland the family used to buy pigs with large heads, since when they sold the carcass, the head was the only part they could keep for themselves to eat.

As told by: Hugh Miller

The first of the family to emigrate to Canada was George Miller, who left Scotland in 1832, settling on Lot 16, Concession 9, Markham Township in York County. He called his property Riggfoot farm, after one of the local estates in the old country. His neighbours called him “Laird o’ Riggfoot”; he was known in the family as “Uncle Geordie”.

Like the rest of the Millers to follow, he was a pioneer in Canadian agriculture. His 1880 obituary [writer and newspaper unknown] notes that he was “the first of our agriculturalists who introduced the sowing of turnips in drills, and … among the first to import live stock from Great Britain.” His first known importation was a dozen Leicester sheep [a dual purpose breed, known particularly for its fine wool], and a pair of Yorkshire pigs [a brand new breed that debuted at the 1831 Royal Windsor Show]. It is said that Uncle Geordie was the first importer of Yorkshire pigs to Canada. His nephew, John Miller, accompanied the animals, sailing from Scotland on April 12th, arriving at Riggfoot farm on June 1st, 1835.

Neighbours held George Miller in high esteem for his hospitality and kindness, but he was also known as a blunt Scot who would not tolerate nonsense. His obituary describes him as “one of those men who are wont to call things by their true names, yet withal kind and affable, hospitable and generous”.

One of the few stories about Uncle Geordie to survive was about the time he was showing sheep at the New York State Fair. A bold stranger was caught yanking a tuft of wool from the back of one of the Miller prize-winning Cotswold sheep. The man was immediately shocked by the pain of having a handful of whiskers jerked from his beard by an angry Uncle Geordie, who scolded the man that wool, like hair, had roots deep in the skin; and sheep, like men, had feelings.

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