Perhaps the poem best known for capturing the spirit of the early settlers is Tom Devine's "On The Opeongo Line." Tom Devine lived in Renfrew. He was a cousin of Reverend Frank and Reverend Isaiah French, well known clergymen of the Opeongo area.
The starting point for the Opeongo Line was Farrell's Landing at Castleford, slightly north-west of Renfrew. Tom Devine's speaker is a teamster who transported people and provisions in an era when the quest for white pine ensured settlers who lived along the access routes to the timber limits a ready market for their farm produce and implements.
Devine's teamster, in the ancient role of praiser of times past (laudator temporis acti), captures in verse the rural virtues and the occasional excesses of the spirited pioneers. Of the nineteen verses, the first verse and the last are the most often quoted.
Note the business-like tone mixed with yearning nostalgia, macho pride, and dismissive indignation at the "softer" descendants, as the speaker reviews the late 1800's and the early 1900's, a time when he drove horses for a living, along the Ottawa and Opeongo Road. The stanzas with five lines have an added moralizing comment that expresses either the speaker's regret or his denigration.
On The Opeongo Line On the Opeongo Line I drove a span of bays One Summer, once upon a time for Hoolihan and Hayes. The road was rough; the hours long; the pay, scarcely a wage; The stopping places, none too good; but work was then the rage. How time has slithered nonchalantly to another page! On the Opeongo Line I walked beside the load As, pulling hard, the team went up the winding mountain road; "Whoa, lads," I cried, from time to time, with kindliest intent And wedged a stone behind a wheel, so steep was the ascent. On the Opeongo Line I used to light a match By scratching my anatomy adjacent to a patch; Then, weatherwise, I'd face the breeze that somehow always lurks In handy places at such time, to give the flame "the works." They turn the trick by lighter now - when the contraption "perks." On the Opeongo Line when shantymen were dry, On hands and knees they drank their fill from spring or brook hard by And got up feeling fine and fit to keep on mowing hay Or cradling grain or picking stones until the Judgment Day. They boil the water nowadays to steam the pep away. On the Opeongo Line the tongue of man was prone To wander off in broguish mood down bypaths all its own; The rules of English grammar it treated with disdain, As well became its ancestry - an ancient Celtic strain, Now, fore and aft, slang rules the roost, pert as a weather vane. On the Opeongo Line they trotted out Shank's mare To go from anywhere at all and back to anywhere; A mile or ten, or twenty-five, to them was just a walk, To make in less time if they could, and that without a balk. On the Opeongo Line, not so much for the news As for the editorials, profane, profound, profuse, Men took the party organ and read it by the clock; For editors were then indeed, bellwethers in the flock. The news now comes by radio, as does the poppycock. On the Opeongo Line the drinker drowned his grog Behind closed doors and tight-drawn blinds and chewed cloves to befog The "sleezy," "sniffy" nose that whiffs the embryo of glee A mile away and labels it rank insobriety. On the Opeongo Line the song of long ago Was the come-all-ye setting for the fate of young Munroe; It never lacked an audience; it filled the tender eye; It caused the old maid's heart to heave the next thing to a sigh. Now jazz attempts to harmonize the discords of the sty. On the Opeongo Line the parish priest was boss, And for a project, by and large, was never at a loss. He put the women in their place; the men, he stood on ear; He taught the growing girls and boys the wrath of God to fear. On the Opeongo Line the fiddle's merry ring Across the moonlit clearance meant a square dance in full swing, A truth of which the countryside was wholly unaware, Though lass and lad for miles around were no place else but there. On the Opeongo Line men wore boots greased with lard, A white stiff-bosomed shirt, without a collar, soft or hard, A black suit with black hat, to match, when in their Sunday best; Yet so attired, held themselves no better than the rest. On the Opeongo Line around election time, Outstanding gents, from Bark Lake down, considered it no crime To keep the tens and twenties if they gave the two's away, That Grit and Tory sent along to limber up the fray. The buckoes now keep everything and not a cent they pay. On the Opeongo Line the folks at Fergus Lea Played forty-five and euchre, too, with artful strategy; The same was true of Dacre, yet often time the packs, Were held together by the spots, so worn were the backs. It's contract bridge they play today, and the quacks outnumber cracks. On the Opeongo Line Ted Casey fought Ned Stack, From Kerr's to Kitts's at Barry's Bay, and almost halfway back, By then, they both were tired out and took a breathing spell; "Shake on it, Ned," said Ted. Said Ned, "Hurrah for Brudenell." Today they exercise at golf, which is, perhaps, as well. On the Opeongo Line when Blue Mick Kelly died, Dan Burke asked Katie Dolan at the wake to be his bride, But Katie, in true Shamrock style, refused to be heart-bound Till she had time to look Dan up and find out what she found. They dash up to the altar now and later look around. On the Opeongo Line the loon called from the Lake; The ducks flew low above the reeds; the trout leaped high to take The daring fly that came its way; the oat fields drew the deer; The partridge drummed along the road for all the world to hear. Now must the squirrel crack a nut, with paw cupped to an ear. On the Opeongo Line, that Nature might defy The hand of man to match her art, she wrought in earth and sky A perfect setting for Lake Clear, whose crystal waters spread In island-dotted splendour where Plaunt's Mountain rears its head. On the Opeongo Line, O Sun, make bright the day; O Moon, in cloudless luster light the night along the way; Now that the bays are dead and gone and grim old age is mine, A Phantom team and teamster start from Renfrew, rain or shine - Aye, dreaming I go teaming on the Opeongo Line.
It is hard to imagine the driver of a CanPar or a Purolator truck expressing in verse the virtues and fond remembrances of his or her years delivering parcels or important letters. Contact with people whom a person knows by name and place and reputation and deed inspires expression in an art form whether song, writing, oral tale, or painting.
Devine's teamster loved his work, cared for his animals, enjoyed politics, "grog", and dancing. He admired tough men mowing hay or cradling grain, fun-loving youths who went square-dancing, females cautious about marriage; he respected rigid clergy; he enjoyed forty-five and euchre. He disdained those who no longer lived such rigours as his, nor drank pure spring water. Like the English Romantic writers, his glimpses of enduring natural beauty in particular moments such as his view of Lake Clear were intimations of immortality which he extends to his memories and the "phantom teamster's" dreamlike haunting of his favourite route. The iambic septameter moves along with energy, although it strains for couplet or tercet rhyme as an emotional teamster might falter in his search for right words. The varied trochaic repetition of the first line of each stanza refocuses the speaker's energy.
Living through experiences and then replaying them in memory are the benefits of being a senior. Such telling helps descendants know their roots and serves as a starting point for naming people and places, as well as providing grist for the folk tales which shape an identity.