John Miller/Thistle Ha’

Hugh Miller often showed Thistle Ha’ visitors a fancy, well-worn cane given to his grandfather, and told its story below. The cane was destroyed in the house fire at Thistle Ha’ in 1985.
As told by: Hugh Miller

A local widow came to Thistle Ha’ and asked John Miller for help. Her son had just been convicted of murder, and was sentenced to hang. She explained that two men and her fifteen-year-old son had broken into a farmer’s house in the middle of the night, looking for liquor. The farmer had come downstairs to investigate the noise, and in the ensuing struggle, the farmer was struck and killed.

She felt her son’s penalty was too severe: he was a youth who had become influenced by bad men since her husband’s death, he was a bystander during the fight at the farmhouse, and the family couldn’t afford to pay for an adequate defense at his trial. John Miller said he would see what he could do.


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.

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